Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
From low to high doth dissolution climb,
- The famous economist John Maynard Keynes once said: in the long run, we’re all dead. This poem begins with a similar statement, which basically says there is no escape from the ravages of time.
- "Dissolution" means "to end" or "terminate." It’s similar to a word you probably remember from your high school chemistry textbook: dissolve. Time wears away at people and things like water wears at a cube of salt you dissolve in glass.
- "Dissolution" is a pretty quiet, low-key word, and the image of dissolution "climbing" makes this action seem stealthy and suspenseful. Wordsworth could have used any number of other, more dramatic words, like "corrosion," "extinction," or – every poet’s favorite – "death." But there’s something about "dissolution" that sounds ominous: maybe it’s that the meaning is just ambiguous enough to give us the jitters. What does he mean? Will this eventually happen to me?!
- "Doth" is an old-timey word for "does."
- What about "from low to high"? It’s another uncertain phrase; we’re not sure what the speaker is talking about. The metaphor of a "climb" most directly suggests a hill or mountain, but that wouldn’t make too much sense here.
- "From low to high" could mean many things. For example, it could refer to social status, as in rich people have more protection against dissolution than the "low" classes, but they cannot escape it in the end.
- "From low to high" could also refer to the effects of age and time on the body. The "lower" faculties are often the first to go, while the "higher" faculties like reason are often the last.
- Finally, "from low to high" could depict the motion of the sun throughout the day. The sun is a symbol of time, and this poem is about time.
And sink from high to low, along a scale
Of awful notes, whose concord shall not fail;
- We now know that death or dissolution can "climb," but did you know it can "sink," too? It can go up and down: amazing.
- Wordsworth provides a more specific hint as to what we’re going up and down on: a musical scale. You know, do re mi fa…and so on.
- You might think of a grisly old skeleton hand (death!) playing notes on a piano, first up into the high registers, and then back down again to those bass notes. Bravo!
- The point so far seems to be: dissolution is everywhere. All around us, things are coming to an end, and you can’t escape it.
- Because dissolution is usually such a sad and traumatic event, the speaker calls its musical notes "awful." But at least they are not out of tune.
- Wordsworth was a serious nature lover, and he would never accuse nature of playing the wrong notes, figuratively speaking.
- Nature doesn’t make mistakes, and the "concord," or harmony, between the notes is as dependable as clockwork. This isn’t some untrained novice banging on the keyboard; it’s a seasoned professional.
A musical but melancholy chime,
- The idea that even "dissolution" can be musical is important to the poem. If this poem were written in the early twentieth century, say, after World War I, the poet might be arguing that nature has no music, that’s it’s just a bunch of meaningless chaos.
- Put another way, you could contrast Wordsworth’s view with the viewpoint of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who argued that life was "sound and fury, signifying nothing."
- Well, Wordsworth thinks that the natural process of death and change is not simply meaningless: it has its own music. But, as someone who has to eventually "face the music" (pun!), Wordsworth admits that this particular song is really, really sad, or "melancholy."
- He describes the music as a "chime," as if he were hearing church bells.
Which they can hear who meddle not with crime,
Nor avarice, nor over-anxious care.
- Well, now we know why Macbeth only heard "sound and fury": he has "meddled" in all these things!
- Wordsworth is being awfully vague and cryptic in these lines. But we think he means that you have to be an upright and sincere person in order to hear the bittersweet music of "dissolution." Criminals and greedy ("avaricious") people cannot hear the music because they are so consumed with their own interests. Similarly, "over-anxious" people are too wrapped up in their problems to see what’s going on around them.
- Generally speaking, what all of these people share is self-centeredness. Their noisy personal soundtrack drowns out the "melancholy" music of natural changes.
Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear
The longest date do melt like frosty rime,
- Truth! Beauty! Death! Music! Folks, this poem is Romantic with a capital "R."
- Basically, these lines say that old things disappear and die, but their essential truth never dies.
- Old things "melt" like frost. ("Rime" is a little-used word for frost). There might be a subtle joke in this image, because old people – those of us who "bear the longest date" – often have white or "frosty" hair. The association between old age and frostiness, believe it or not, goes way back in English poetry.
- (Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a famous poem called "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" – essentially the same joke.)
- Wordsworth was an idealist, which means that he believed in a form of "Truth" that transcended the changing forms of nature. The music of "dissolution" is one form of this truth, we think.
- It is the processes of nature that manifest truth, and not just the things we see around us, which change and disappear all the time.
- Notice that this is the second time that he has stated that something does not "fail." This guy really hates failure.