Unlike Samson, whose strength returns with his hair and whose blindness, though indignity and infirmity, is not absolute impotence, Wordsworth’s lack of visionary powers seems to the poet in the Intimations Ode to be a total loss. It takes little effort to read Wordsworth’s “Ode” as his response to Milton’s Samson Agonistes, as much in its premises as in its verbal texture: Samson, whose capacity for righteous martial glory, depends on not only his strength but his vision, is reduced to “blind activity,” from which he wrecks his final vengeance on his foes; Wordsworth, lacking his visionary powers, is reduced to what me thought “blind activity” or else “passive receptivity,” in contrast to the visionary activity or active receptivity he once knew. But whereas Samson allows himself to serve, one last time, as instrument for God’s will, in an act of raging defiance that proves the worth of the strength that remains, Wordsworth, in the “Ode,” turns in another direction, one that contrasts with Milton’s Samson in much the way that the genre of the ode contrasts with the genre of the drama: Milton’s form is a vehicle for action (whether it is shown or not), whereas Wordsworth’s is vehicle for praise, for harmony, and for wonder. But the mental power that Wordsworth exercises in the Ode is very much analogous to the bodily power that Samson enacts at the end of the drama, even if the ends are to be set in stark contrast.
Lacking his former visionary powers, Wordsworth finds compensation:
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
But what, exactly, is this strength? What remains behind? It is not, I think, a diminished sympathy, a sort of second-best sense of the wonder of the world. Instead, the poem not only describes, but performs and realizes the strength that it proclaims: it is the capacity for reconciliation, which is, not a mental act per se, but a mental power that takes determinate shape in these lines, in their rhythm, in their movement. It is not just described by the poetry; it is the poetry itself, and so exemplary of the sort of thing that a poem can do, as Samson’s violence is not. The final destruction of the Philistines is set beyond the limits of the text because of the ancient conventions; but Milton’s drama justifies the convention by suggesting that Samson’s strength is fundamentally not verbal, not oratorical, or rhetorical. He is suited for action, and for an action that is public. It may be accompanied by words, but words alone are not synonymous with it. Written for the page and not the stage, Samson Agonistes becomes, for Milton, an opportunity to test and set the limits to language as action; whatever their co-dependency, the two remain distinct, action sometimes being required, without words.
For Wordsworth, though, whose strength is a receptive activity, a power of receiving the world into his consciousness, language is, though not sufficient for living, sufficient for the exercise of the powers that matter most to him. He had thought, before the Ode itself, that those powers were exclusively visionary; now, in the Ode, he discovers (and the Ode is the discovery itself, a ship running aground in the fog) that the powers are also the capacity to reconcile and forgive.
In effect, Wordsworth has chosen what Milton’s Samson cannot when Dalila approaches him:
though sight be lost,
Life yet hath many solaces, enjoyed
Where other senses want not their delights
At home in leisure and domestic ease,
Exempt from many a care and chance to which
Eyesight exposes daily men abroad.
The word “abroad” might have stuck in Wordsworth’s thought, bringing him to France; a biographical fiction of Wordsworth reading Milton’s lines might picture him picturing both Dorothy and Annette in the figure speaking here, the one associated with domesticity, the other associated with a lost life elsewhere, in a nation and for a cause in which he once believed. Wordsworth’s reconciliation with his lost powers comes not only when he can reconcile with both possibilities, but when he can recognize such a willingness to reconcile as a power in itself.
That recognition of reconciliation as a power is the poem itself; it is not a representation of reconciliation, not recognition of what has already taken place, but is the power of reconciliation and recognition of the power at once. In much the same way, Samson’s final performance for the Philistines is not, as it is intended by his enemies to be, a contained and staged dramatization of strength, but becomes, in the dramatization, a revelation of strength. The theatrical performance (the “drama”) is also genuine action as Gaza is destroyed; Wordsworth’s performance (the ode) is also a genuine action as reconciliation is effected.