Nostalgia, the Classics, and the Intimations Ode: Wordsworth's Forgotten Education

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Between 1819 and 1824 Wordsworth undertook a translation of Virgil's Aeneid, which eventually included Books 1 to 3 nearly complete and only two further, unconnected passages: a brief fragment (six lines in English) from Book 4, and a more substantial section (forty-six lines) from the eighth book. Wordsworth left no indication why he singled out the last passage for translation. It contains the scene, well-known though scarcely crucial to the plot of the Aeneid, in which King Evander gives Aeneas a tour of his rustic settlement on what will later be the site of Rome.

   To the Tarpeian Rock their way they hold
   And to the Capitol now bright with gold,--
   In those far-distant times a spot forlorn
   With bramble choked and rough with savage thorn ...
   Conversing thus their onward course they bent
   To poor Evander's humble tenement;
   Herds range the Roman Forum; in the street
   Of proud Carinae bellowing herds they meet.... (1)

W. Warde Fowler, in his monograph on Book 8, Aeneas at the Site of Rome, calls this passage "a fine stroke which must have delighted the Romans of [Virgil's] own day." (2) Yet its appeal to Wordsworth is less obvious. One might think that, logically, the description of these rustic precursors to the glories of Rome would delight especially, or only, those who were familiar with the Capitol, the Forum, and the Carinae in all their glory. But to think thus is to misunderstand the workings of nostalgia. I would define nostalgia as an affection or desire, not for what one remembers, but for what one feels one has forgotten. (3) No detailed reconstruction of the Roman Forum could give the modern reader so intimate a sense of familiarity with it as Virgil's deconstruction. Virgil suggests the grandeur only by negating it ("Herds range the Roman Forum"), relying upon the reader's knowledge to provide the necessary contrasting image. Hence the modern reader actually derives more from this passage than would a Roman with first-hand knowledge of the places mentioned. Familiarity with the great monuments of ancient Rome is so implicitly ascribed to the reader that we unconsciously assume it, and although we could not therefore draw an accurate map of the Forum, knowledge of it comes to seem rather like something forgotten than like something never known.

There is nothing logical, of course, in the feeling of having forgotten something one never really knew, but the nostalgic appeal of this scene from Virgil does not depend on logic. Coleridge (whom Keats memorably accused of being "incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge") might have questioned Wordsworth's apparent preference for this passage, just as he criticized a remarkably similar instance of paradoxical nostalgia, the Intimations Ode. In chapter 22 of Biographia Literaria, which enumerates some "characteristic defects of Wordsworth's poetry," Coleridge aims his final and bitterest attack against the passage of the Ode which apostrophizes a young boy as "Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!" because the child, according to Wordsworth, still remembers his pre-natal state. Coleridge objects that a memory which never enters the consciousness is no memory: "Children at this age give us no such information of themselves; and at what time were we dipt in the Lethe, which has produced such utter oblivion of a state so godlike? ... But if this be too wild and exorbitant to be suspected as having been the poet's meaning; if these mysterious gifts, faculties, and operations, are not accompanied with consciousness; who else is conscious of them? or how can it be called the child, if it be no part of the child's conscious being?" (4)

Coleridge's objections are certainly rational: the Ode is in many ways logically untenable. Wordsworth admitted that he did "not profess to give a literal representation of the state of the affections and of the moral being in childhood"; the child's recollection of pre-existence, then, is not to be taken literally. …