William Wordsworth 1798
“Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” is a meditation upon memory, youth, nature, and human love. It first appeared in a 1798 collection by Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge called Lyrical Ballads.
The speaker(who is also Wordsworth) revisits a place in the English countryside a few miles upstream from the ruin of Tintern Abbey. He delights in the vista of hedge-rows, fields, and wooded landscape. He considers that, although he has not seen the landscape in five years, its forms have sustained him and may even have influenced him to perform acts “Of kindness and of love.” He then hopes that his present experience will have a similar effect, sustaining and influencing him in future years. He considers that his appreciation for nature five years earlier was not what it is now, and yet assures himself that he is still “a lover of the meadows and the woods.” Finally, he assures his sister that a similar memory of the landscape will sustain her and bind her spirit with his own.
Wordsworth was born in 1770 in Cockermouth, Cumberland, England, the second son of a prominent local aristocrat. Both of his parents died while he was young—his mother in 1778, and his father late in 1783. After his father’s death Wordsworth
and his three brothers were enrolled at a boarding school in Hawkeshead, and their sister Dorothy was sent to live with cousins in Halifax. In the rural surroundings of Hawkeshead, situated in the beautiful Lake District, Wordsworth developed a keen appreciation of nature that would inform much of his later writing. He was provided a formal education, and he early demonstrated a talent for poetic composition. Wordsworth began study at St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1787. Graduating in 1791, but restless and without definite career plans, he lived for a short time in London and Wales and then traveled to France. The French Revolution was in its third year, and, although he previously had shown little interest in politics, he quickly came to embrace the ideals of the Revolution. During his stay in France he fell in love with a French woman, Annette Vallon, and with her fathered a child, Anne-Caroline. Too poor to marry and forced by the outbreak of civil war to flee France, Wordsworth reluctantly returned alone to England in 1793.
Although troubled with feelings of despondency over the degenerating course of the Revolution and fears for the safety of Annette and his daughter, Wordsworth eventually settled with his sister at Racedown in 1795. A small legacy from a friend helped him to focus entirely on writing; living modestly but contentedly, he now spent much of his time reading contemporary European literature and writing verse. An important factor in Wordsworth’s success was Dorothy’s lifelong devotion: she encouraged his efforts at composition and looked after the details of their daily life. The most significant event of Wordsworth’s literary apprenticeship occurred in 1797 when he met the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The two had corresponded for several years, and when Coleridge came to visit Wordsworth at Racedown, their rapport and mutual admiration were immediate. The Wordsworths soon moved to Nether Stowey in order to be near Coleridge. In the intellectually stimulating environment he and Coleridge created there, Wordsworth embarked on a period of remarkable creativity. Coleridge’s influence on Wordsworth during this time was immense, and his astute critiques gave the young poet direction and fostered his artistic growth. Coleridge strove particularly to encourage Wordsworth’s development as a visionary thinker capable of writing philosophical poetry. To that end, he introduced him to the writings of the philosopher David Hartley, whose theories had a profound effect on Wordsworth’s poetry.
In 1802 Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson. By this time, the revolutionary and experimental fervor of his youth had been tempered. He condemned French imperialism in the period after the Revolution, and his English nationalism became more pronounced. The pantheism of his early nature poetry, too, gave way to orthodox religious sentiment in the later works. When Wordsworth accepted a post as distributor of stamps for Westmorland county, a political appointment that ensured his continued prosperity, his transformation seemed complete. Such admirers as Percy Bysshe Shelley, who formerly had respected Wordsworth as a reformer of poetic diction, now regarded him with scorn and a sense of betrayal. Coleridge grew estranged from Wordsworth after 1810. Wordsworth continued to write in his later years; having become a highly respected literary figure during the 1830s, he was awarded honorary degrees from the University of Durham and Oxford University, and in 1843 he won the distinction of being named Poet Laureate. After receiving a government pension in 1842, he retired to Rydal. One of England’s best-loved poets in his day, Wordsworth died in 1850. His greatest work, The Prelude, was published shortly after his death.
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.— Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion, and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
’Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit’ s cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’ s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ’ mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration:— feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’ s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burden of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:— that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft—
In darkness and amid the many shapes
Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart—
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!
And now, with gleams of half extinguished
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’ er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.— I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colors and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, nor any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.— That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,— both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
If I were not thus taught, should I the more
Suffer my genial spirits to decay:
For thou art with me here upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear Sister! and this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; ’ tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind mat is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’ er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith that all which we behold
Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain-winds be free
To blow against thee: and, in after years,
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations! Nor, perchance—
If I should be where I no more can hear
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these
Of past existence— wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together; and that I, so long
A worshipper of Nature, hither came
Unwearied in that service: rather say
With warmer love— oh! with far deeper zeal
Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!
The rephrasings of the passage of time—first five years, then five summers, then five winters—makes the reader feel its length. Sense impressions begin almost immediately: first, the sound of water, for which the speaker imagines a deep and hidden origin; second, the sight of the cliffs, which also make the speaker imagine a place secluded and hidden.
This line suggests the power of the poetic mind with a pun on the word “repose”—meaning to rest, but also to “pose again.”
In these lines we see the effect of the poet’s imagination. All is unified: the plots of ground lose themselves in the landscape, all vegetation is the same shade of green, the hedge-rows(which would normally separate the plots) are grown wild and so no longer divide the parcels of land, and wreaths of smoke connect the earth to the sky. For Wordsworth, the good poet frames, interprets, and unifies the landscape as he or she frames, interprets, and unifies all experience. And all these images demonstrate the unified results of the imagination of the poet.
The poem’s title is of some significance. Tintern Abbey is a ruin of an abbey—a monastery or a convent. The fact that the Abbey is a ruin, a place unfit for habitation, implies a question: where does the spiritual person live now? The speaker, seeing the wreaths of smoke, imagines that there are “vagrant dwellers” and “hermits” making their homes in the woods. It is they who are the spiritual people of the present time, and they have learned to dwell in the woods. This perception depends on the poet’s active imagination: with only the smoke as a clue, he deduces the presence of these people and imagines particulars of their lives.
In the second verse stanza the speaker asserts that what he now sees and imagines have, for the five intervening years, sustained him. They are not memories; rather they are memories which have provided pleasant sensations even after the memories themselves are gone. They are, one might say, memories of memories. It is a subtle influence—but no less important for its subtlety. Since in these lines the poet speaks about things without common names, he must make his way as he goes; his language is careful and precise. The memories of memories influence his acts of kindness and love—acts that are themselves “unremembered.” Ultimately, the world’s good seems held together by forces almost too subtle to be called “forces.” Notice that the vocabulary here borrows from religion—“blessed,” “corporeal,” “soul.” The speaker, perhaps only half-realizing it, is replacing the religion of the Abbey with a religion of the natural world.
In line 36 he acknowledges that he gained from these memories of memories an experience of the sublime, that state that allows him to transcend everyday existence. Notice that Wordsworth’s description of this experience is made of a series of phrases which suspend resolution. He begins by trying to define a “mood.” Because such a definition is so difficult, the sentence itself is not completed for fourteen and one-half lines. This state also allows perception to turn inward; the world seems to fall away, breath and heartbeat are suspended, and one becomes “a living soul.”
This eye is Wordsworth’s term for the self-reflective mind, the mind which is contemplative and literally reflect back on itself. Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud” has similar themes and uses a similar image of an “inward eye.”
The speaker begins to doubt, and stops himself. Again, we are in the territory of a religious meditation. Wordsworth remembers again that he has experienced this memory of a memory often, but for the first time he locates the source of his inspiration in a single aspect of the landscape: the River Wye. He calls it a “wanderer thro’ the woods” and so implies that like the “vagrant dwellers” and the “hermit” it has no permanent place. Like them as well, it seems to have become an abode of spirituality.
The speaker meditates now on his present state of mind, a mixture of memories and vague sadness. Again there appears an understanding of the operation of memory. The speaker imagines that as the experience five years past provided spiritual sustenance in the years succeeding it, so the present experience will provide spiritual sustenance in the future.
The speaker considers that he is different than he was five years earlier. In those days his feeling for the woods was “coarser.” His nature was more animal-like—based on emotion rather than thought.
The speaker acknowledges that he does not regret the passing of that time because its passionate emotions have given way to more thoughtful sensations. In line 104 he describes a spirituality within himself in much the same language he used, in the first verse paragraph, to describe the sound of the waters. Implicitly, he suggests that his spirituality participates in the sound of the waters.
The speaker expresses the belief that the mind “half-creates” the world. He finds proof of this in the apparent changes in the landscape that have occurred since his last visit—changes he knows to be(and to have been) projections of his own mind; things that remain unchanged are what he perceives.
He concludes his thought with a kind of proclamation and affirmation: he is still a lover of nature. In fact, nature has become everything a religion is—even a moral guide. Significantly, nature, as a new religion and as a replacement for the Abbey, is not stationary. Like the river and perhaps represented by the river, it is “A motion and a spirit.” In these lines Wordsworth describes the kind of maturation described by Augustine and countless saints: a youth of indiscretion, a conversion, and finally, a deep and lasting spirituality.
In the final verse paragraph the speaker—as Wordsworth—turns his attention to his sister—Dorothy—who is with him in the present moment. He hears in her a sensibility like he knew in himself five years earlier and sees his “former pleasures” in her “wild eyes.” For a moment he regrets the passing of his youthful passions and seems to ask that he be allowed to see(in her eyes) his younger self.
Here the suggestion of religion becomes explicit: the religion of the natural world is supplied a prayer. The effect of nature on memory, thought, and behavior(which the speaker began to appreciate in the first verse paragraph) is recounted and wished upon Dorothy. More religious terms appear: he and his sister have a “faith” that nature is full of “blessings.” Wordsworth shifts his subject from the natural world to the self, as that which conveys the natural world, specifically through his powers as a poet whose mind unifies experience, as suggested in the first verse paragraph. As he hopes his sister’s enduring memory of him on this day will sustain her, so will his memory of her sustain him.
The poet implies that the human mind is, like the river, both powerful and fluid. As the poem concludes, this mind becomes a new religion to replace
Topics for Further Study
- Contrast the images Wordsworth presents in the first stanza with his youthful recollections of the same place in Stanza 4. How do the details reflect the change five years has made on the speaker? In each instance, which particular words help illuminate the observer’s state of mind?
- In the last stanza, Wordsworth turns to the person he is addressing, his sister Dorothy. Observing her, he says, he can “catch/ the language of [his] former heart?” What precisely does he mean by this? What role does she play in the imaginative experience of the poem? Why will “these steep woods and lofty cliffs” be “more dear” to him because of her presence?
- Think of a way you have changed in the past five years, and write a two-page story in which you revisit a place from your past. Consider how details from the place itself might symbolize or express the precise nature of the change. How has your perception of the place been transformed by time and by growth?
that represented by the ruined Abbey. That the poet wrote these lines “above” the Abbey literally means that he wrote them upstream from the Abbey. But they are also “above” the Abbey in that, like the River Wye and like memory, they supersede or replace the Abbey as a dwelling place for the spirit.
Change and Transformation
As the poem’s subtitle and first line tell the reader, Wordsworth wrote “Tintern Abbey” upon his return to the locale after a five-year absence. The place retains the endearing natural quality he remembers from his first visit, but now, as a more experienced observer, he notes there is a special harmony between man and nature that represents its own kind of beauty. This recognition is evident in the first stanza, in which the poet combines both man-made and natural images from the scene, often in the same line. Thus, we see the “sportive wood run wild” (nature) and “these pastoral farms” (man), “groves” (man) and “copses” (nature), and “wreathes of smoke” (man) “from among the trees” (nature). These juxtapositions are in contrast with the poet’s recollection of his first visit, when his attention was drawn not by man’s intercourse with the land but rather by nature purely: “Wherever nature led me.” Throughout much of the third stanza, we see the more youthful, “remembered” poet’s individual interaction with nature—with the hills, mountains, streams, rocks and woods. Devoid of reflection, the younger man came to nature as if compelled by an “appetite” or “passion”; the call was “coarser” and more “animal,” but it was also “haunted” by some nameless “dread.” The experience of that first visit was intense, characterized by “aching joys” and “dizzy raptures,” but inarticulable. To the returning adult, those feelings “are no more,” but they are replaced by a more “sober pleasure”—the pleasure of wisdom, the ability to make sense of and give form to the youthful passions that time has diminished. Through such wisdom, the hauntedness is eased: it has been named and understood, and allows a person to come to nature seeking “the thing he loves” rather than “flying from something he dreads.”
It is clear the speaker has been through much in the intervening years. During the difficult span of time—“the length of five long winters”—he has experienced solitude both in “lonely rooms” and ’ “mid the din of towns and cities.” He has learned life cannot be one unbroken state of “dizzy raptures”; if it were, after all, such moments would not seem exceptional and would not be called raptures. Instead, he had become acquainted with the “dreary intercourse of daily life,” its “weariness” and “fever,” the loss and pain, the “heavy and weary weight of all this unintelligible world.” But at the same time he has discovered the crux of his own Romantic sensibility. In the state of youth—in which “all [is] in all,” and a person is therefore un-separated from nature—articulation of experience is not required. One simply “lives.” In a less-innocent state, however, one understands that those “dizzy raptures,” the pinnacles of the youthful soul’s existence, are “food” for the adult soul. They are the moments the “spirit turn[s] to” for light and meaning. Once articulated by the mature mind, they reveal a deeper “power of joy” and allow one to “see into the life of things,” revealing a harmonious relationship between man’s spirit and the spirit of natural world.
Nature and Its Meaning
But what precisely is the “harmony” between man and nature the poet has come to recognize? If “thoughtless youth” has vanished in place of “other gifts”—the gifts of thought and a more encompassing perspective—what do these gifts allow him to perceive in Tintern that he could not before? In the second half of the fourth stanza, he names what he has found in terms that seem at first to be elusive: a “presence that disturbs me with joy of elevated thoughts,” “a sense sublime,” a “motion” and a “spirit” that both “impels all thinking things” and “rolls through all things.” Such vague terms might suggest a mystical or religious meaning, but the poet avoids mention of God or any transcendental belief system. Instead, the harmony is perceived “in nature and the language of the sense”—that is, by observation of the world around the poet and his own rational, rather than mystical, attempt to understand it.
But just as it is the challenge of the adult mind to apply sense to a world that seems in some ways unknowable, it was the task of Wordsworth’s age to synthesize the mysterious and the mechanical aspects of the cosmos. Newton’s laws of motion had shown that the movements of the planets and all physical events on earth follow the same principles, the same “motion and spirit.” In this way, the “setting sun,” the ocean, the air, and even “the mind of man” are part of the same “sublime” system: they are harmonious. The mystery of a single moment in nature is universal throughout the cosmos and thus free from the alienating aspect(the “dread”) of the youthful experience, which excludes anything beyond unthought perception—“any interest unborrowed from the eye.” The mystery also becomes understandable, not through youthful rashness but through “the language of the sense, the anchor of my purest thoughts.” To come to terms with the “sense,” however, is not to lose contact with “the life of things” but rather to conceive of it in a new way that conjoins the observer with nature. This is where Wordsworth’s Romantic revolution departs from the scientific philosophy of the preceding century in which the mind was considered a passive entity, a thing apart from that which it contemplated. To Wordsworth, if the mind itself is a product of the same “natural spirit” as the motions of the planets and all other natural things, then the mind not only perceives but also “half create[s]” external reality. It is not passive but active in any given experience. Thus, the poet is “still a lover of the meadows” in a real sense. Thought, if not “dizzy rapture,” has become “the guide” and the “soul of all my moral being.”
Wordsworth defined good poetry as “the spontaneous overflow” of emotion, implying that a good poem must be free of constricting rules of rhyme, verse form, and so on. Although critics debate precisely how spontaneous the act of composition was for Wordsworth, it is clear that his poetry at least aspires to appear spontaneous. Wordsworth also asserted that poetry should consist of “language really used by men.” In keeping with this, the poet cast “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” in blank verse—that is, unrhymed iambic pentameter; the meter of blank verse imitates the rhythms of natural speech.
The poem is divided into verse paragraphs—sets of lines that, like the sentences which compose a prose paragraph, are grouped together because they share a common subject. The repetition of the phrase “and the” has the effect of an incantation, a recitation of a phrase intended to produce an hypnotic effect. There are several instances of alliteration, and several instances of variations in rhythm.
“Tintern Abbey,” published in 1798, is part of the volume (Lyrical Ballads) that represents the beginning of the Romantic movement in England. Like all movements, Romanticism defined itself in contrast with the ideas and methods that preceded it. Stylistically, the new poems of Wordsworth and his friend Coleridge marked a sharp break from the past—a break that most characterized the movement as “revolutionary.” In terms of concepts, however, poems such as “Tintern Abbey” represent not so much a reinvention as a reinterpretation of principles that had received—in Wordsworth’s opinion, at least—lax consideration for too long. It was not what men thought about that concerned Wordsworth; it was the way they thought: rational at the expense of truth, academic at the expense of meaning. If scientific philosophy had woven a vast web of seeming accuracies, it had not, in Wordsworth’s mind, brought men any closer to a
Compare & Contrast
- 1789: The French Revolution begins. The French people rise against the aristocracy and the church, signaling the beginning of the decline of the European monarchical system and inspiring revolutionary thought in other nations.
Today: Though the end of the Cold War diminishes the threat of world-wide ideological revolution, many nations experience civil wars stemming from the vast disparity between the rich and poor.
- 1793: Reacting to French Republicans’ vow to spread the revolution, England declares war. The two nations are destined to remain in nearly continual conflict until Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815.
Today: Great Britain and France, once perennial enemies, are connected physically by the Channel Tunnel. The “Chunnel” runs beneath the body of water England strove for centuries to guard against potential French invasions.
real sense of what it meant to be alive. At the same time, it had removed from relevance the true meanings of the pure-science discoveries it sought to address. So, like many pivotal figures, Wordsworth not only created an age but also helped to end one. Because of this, the body of work that includes “Tintern Abbey” cannot be seen only as starting point: it is also a bridge between two ways of thinking.
The eighteenth century had been a period of adjustment to a rapid series of discoveries in science and nature. In the field of cosmology, for instance, the 1500-year-old belief in a Ptolemeic model of the universe—with the earth at the center of a large number of “spheres” upon which the sun, moon, planets, and stars circled—had been challenged by the Polish astronomer Copernicus, who in 1543 introduced the first modern helio-centric model. The Copernican system was modified in the seventeenth century by Kepler, a German, and advanced by the Italian Galileo, who also discovered the first laws of inertia. In 1687, the physical properties of the universe were made fast by the Englishman Isaac Newton, whose “Principia” established the relationships between force, mass, and acceleration that govern the workings of nature. Most of all, Newtonian mechanics offered the physics necessary to explain a cosmology in which the earth was only one of many planets orbiting the sun and in which man, by extension, no longer occupied any central place in the universe. At the same time, however, Newton had shown that the cosmos possess a beauty and symmetry previously unimaginable. In the Newtonian universe—Newton himself believed—the divine hand could be observed in the motions of the planets, in the simple perfection of such laws as Force equals Mass times Acceleration, which could determine the movement of not only of a planet in the heavens but also of an apple falling from a tree.
Despite Newton’s own mystical interpretation of the system, however, the mechanical universe he introduced had the opposite effect on others. Along with eighteenth century discoveries in chemistry, electricity, and medicine, Newton’s laws made it apparent that observational science—rather the revealed truths of religion or mysticism—would increasingly provide man’s primary outlook on nature. Philosophy itself began to take a more scientific approach. A new rationalism, based on the mechanical world as the ultimate reality, swept the culture, making possible the Industrial Revolution and leading to an explosion in the field of social thought, which sought to make comprehensible a quickly changing culture. Newton’s laws influenced John Locke, who deduced a social theory based on the “contractual rights” of man, and social philosophers including David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, and Edmund Burke used Locke as the departure point for their own writings. In literature and art, neo-classicism was the vogue, and emotional spontaneity yielded to style and form.
All of these cultural elements combined to form what is called the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, a period, particularly at its height, marked by great ideas but also in many ways by staleness and conformity.
Yet in the years just preceding Wordsworth’s career, events had begun to swing attitudes in a different direction. Two revolutions—the American and the French—took Enlightenment ideas as their tenets but extended them in ways that challenged Enlightenment ends. The French revolution in particular, by asserting individual freedoms and a tearing down of the ordered social structure, gave rise to a form of emotionalism that became endearing to later Romantics. The struggle against order—against the ruling classes, and against old forms of culture—captured the imaginations of Englishmen not born into wealth. A new language thus became necessary in poetry. In his preface to a later edition of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth argues for a more commonplace literature, one that celebrates the words and experience of the everyday but that does so in poetic ways. Such an approach, as is evident in “Tintern Abbey,” does not dispense with reason but rather transforms it, allowing the individual’s active dialogue with nature and experience to express his own inner workings.
Nineteenth-century essayist, novelist, and critic Walter H. Pater found in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” Wordsworth’s notion of a kind of life before birth. “Following the soul backwards and forwards on these endless ways,” Pater wrote, “his sense of man’s dim, potential powers became a pledge to him, indeed, of a future life; but carried him back also to that mysterious notion of an earlier state of existence.” Pater noted two other mystical attitudes in Wordsworth’s work. One, evident in much of “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” is the feeling that the world takes its expression from the mind which observes it—a feeling presented alongside the complementary sense that the world may be dismantled by the thought. Another, evident in at least parts of the poem, is the idea that nature possesses an all-pervading spirit, discernible to men and women in moments of heightened sensitivity.
In his book The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry, Harold Bloom suggests that “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” is about Wordsworth’s appreciation for the “reciprocity” or “give-and-take” between nature and the mind of the poet. Bloom compares the relationship to a continuous conversation in which both participants are generous: “the poet loves Nature for its own sake alone, and the presence of Nature give beauty to the poet’s mind, again only for the mind’s sake.” Moreover, because the relation is dynamic and changing, it cannot endure rigorous analysis. Bloom draws attention to what he calls the “nakedness” of Wordsworth’s poetry, by which he means that unlike many earlier works, there is no intermediary between the poet and the world—no myths, no legends, not even the conventions of religion.
Geoffrey H. Hartman, in his book Wordsworth’s Poetry: 1787-1814, finds in Wordsworth’s work the belief that a mind experiencing elemental contact with nature can restore the “social principle”—by which he means feelings of generosity and unselfishness. Hartman detects, however, a conflict in the poetry: although Wordsworth’s sense of the restorative power of nature is greatly consoling, the poet himself often seems to doubt it. Such reservations are evident, Hartman says, in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”: “the voice we hear is full of haltings, of inner falls. It is the voice of a man who has been separated from the hope he affirms and who balances it in the movement against the possibility of further separation.”
Derek Furr is a freelance writer and has taught composition and literature courses at the University of Virginia and at Virginia Commonwealth University. In the following essay, Furr discusses psychological changes over time, the importance of nature in the meaning of life, and Wordsworth’s plea to his sister—and the reader—to remember him.
Imagine yourself five years from now. You’ ve received an invitation to your high school reunion and, feeling a little anxious and nostalgic, you arrive early to walk around your old stomping grounds. You wander into the empty gym, where you played your first varsity ball game; you sit in the back of your old chemistry class, staring at a board that once held puzzling equations; you stroll through a courtyard where you held the hand of someone you thought you couldn’ t live without.
Slowly you recollect how you felt as a teenager, how you saw the world around you—who was important, what made a difference. Doubtless you’ ll carry both fond and troubling memories of high school, and when you return, both will re-surface at the sites where they originated. But when five years have passed, the emotions of your teen years may prove difficult to recover. Revisiting your past, you may be surprised not so much by the changes in your old school—the gym will be in the same spot, the cafeteria will serve the same mysterious foods. Rather, as you recall your former self, walking through that courtyard, holding that hand, you may be struck—with melancholy and wonder—by how much you have changed.
William Wordsworth returned to the Wye valley in July 1798, five years after he had first toured the region with his sister, Dorothy. As he looks at the valley, through the lens of memory, he sees himself—both as he once was, and as he is now. With his “Lines,” Wordsworth attempts to make sense of the changes he has undergone, and, in the process, he offers some interesting insights into the machinery of memory and the Romantic lyric.
The specific setting of Wordsworth’s poem is clearly important to him. Indeed, in the very title of his poem, he announces the time and place of his return visit, and lets us know where he is positioned in the landscape that he describes. He sits in a specific spot, a “few miles above” an abandoned abbey in the valley of the river Wye; thus he has a broad perspective on the landscape he will describe. As he composes the poem(or so he claims), he is reclined “under [a] dark sycamore.” It is mid-July, the day before Bastille day, and three times in the space of two lines Wordsworth asserts that “five years have past” since he last visited. Those were five tumultuous years in European history and in Wordsworth’s life, and it is as though he has longed to return to this spot above Tintern Abbey. He is nostalgic, in a contemplative, reflective mood.
Like the many topographical or landscape poems that preceded “Tintern Abbey” in the 18th century, Wordsworth’s poem goes on to describe the scene in detail, appealing to our eyes and ears—the sound of “rolling” waters, the sublime impressiveness of “steep and lofty cliffs,” and so forth. But note how often Wordsworth repeats the first person pronoun, “I”—“I hear/ these waters,” “I behold,” “repose,” “view,” and “see.” Wordsworth’s description emphasizes his personal engagement or involvement with the landscape; he is concerned with how the vista affects him. Like wise, we should be concerned with how his point of view affects the vista. Critics have often noted—see, for example, Marjorie Levinson’s Wordsworth’s Great Period Poems—that Wordsworth does not depict the Abbey and the valley as it really appeared in 1798. The abbey was ruined and overgrown, and the valley had been scarred by the industrial revolution. To some extent, Wordsworth sees what he wants to see—an idyllic landscape. Looking down on the valley through the lens of memory, much as you might look back on your old school five years from now, he sees a mixture of the present and the past.
With stanza two, it becomes clear that “Tintern Abbey” is not so much about the landscape of the Wye valley in 1798 as it is about the landscape of memory—Wordsworth’s memory. And that landscape is natural and harmonious. During his five years’ absence from the valley, Wordsworth suggests, the tranquil environs of Tintern Abbey have been constantly present with him, in the “beauteous forms” stored in his memory. Notice the contrasts that Wordsworth establishes between civilization and nature, the “din/Of towns and cities” and the “murmur” of the Wye river, the “fretful stir” and “fever of the world” and the peaceful meandering of the “sylvan Wye!” When Wordsworth has been troubled with the ways of the “unintelligible world,” he asserts, remembering nature has not only brought him peace but has also given him insight “into the life of things.” Through an act of memory—specifically, through reflecting upon natural scenes—Wordsworth discovers a spirit that connects all life.
Just as Wordsworth has returned often to the Wye in memory, so he would recur frequently to this theme in his early and middle-period poetry. “Tintern Abbey” purports to record a moment of revelation, when Wordsworth suddenly realized that nature and acts of memory had given him insight into the life of things. But fond memories alone do not lead him to this discovery. Think again about returning to your high school, several years from now. Your school fight song probably won’ t stir you like it once did. You’ ll probably be more responsible, but also have more responsibilities. Wordsworth waxes melancholy as he recalls how enthusiastic and engaged he was with nature on his previous visit to the Wye. Again he sets up a contrast, here between the pure emotion of youth and the rarefied contemplativeness of adulthood. In lines 76 and following, he mourns the loss of that passionate attachment to nature. However, as a “thoughtless youth,” he maintains, he could not
What Do I Read Next?
- William Wordsworth, A Biography: Hunter Davies provides an excellent recent life of Wordsworth with sparse discussion of the works themselves but many colorful anecdotes that illuminate the poet’s character.
- Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy and His System of the World: Though the proofs themselves are hard for the layman to follow, Newton’s prose introduction sheds fascinating light on the man, his ideas, and his conception of their impact.
have seen into the “life of things,” for such a discovery requires thoughtfulness, reflection. Perhaps the most important passage in “Tintern Abbey” occurs at the moment that Wordsworth makes his discovery: “For I have learned/To look on nature, not as in the hour/Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes/The still, sad music of humanity,/Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power/To chasten and subdue.” Wordsworth has lost his youth, has seen five more years of his life pass, has felt the sorrows of others and the “fretful stir” of the world. But becoming acquainted with sorrow and loss has given him the power to sympathize with others and with nature. Note how deliberately the lines are set forth, with measured phrasing and frequent pauses, and how the “music” is carefully qualified. These are “thoughtful” lines, and the spirit that Wordsworth has discovered “impels/All thinking things.”
Up to this point in “Tintern Abbey,” we have watched Wordsworth move from nostalgia for a lost perspective on nature to joy in a new one. Uttered in the present tense, at a specific time and place, “Tintern Abbey” appears to record Wordsworth’s discovery “as it happens.” Robert Langbaum has called such poems a “poetry of experience”; in the Romantic period lyric, Langbaum maintains, the poet always makes a discovery over the course of writing the poem and engaging with his/her subject.
As readers of the poem, we too experience this discovery. In “Tintern Abbey,” there is actually a character who represents us—Wordsworth’s younger sister, Dorothy, who is the “Friend” addressed in the final stanza of the poem. Dorothy’s significance in William Wordsworth’s life and writing cannot be overstated. Their affection for each other was powerful; many have argued that Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems are actually about his sister. Often she plays the classical role of muse in his verse. And many of his poems, most famously “Resolution and Independence,” are lyrical renderings of Dorothy’s journal entries about experiences she and William shared. In the final stanza of “Tintern Abbey,” we learn that Dorothy is with William(at least in spirit) as he speaks this poem, just as we have been. He sees his former self in Dorothy: “in thy voice I catch/The language of my former heart, and read/My former pleasures in the shooting lights/Of thy wild eyes.” Therefore, he advises her to take his discovery to heart, and in lines that echo a spiritual benediction, instructs her to have faith that nature will always provide solace in hard times and fresh insight into the meaning of life.
Curiously, however, the tone of this final stanza shifts from confidence to anxiousness. Wordsworth’s advice that Dorothy not forget “Nature” shifts to a plea that Dorothy(and perhaps we the readers) not forget him. Note the interplay of “remember” and “forget” in the final lines of Wordsworth’s address. Again, memory is an essential concern of “Tintern Abbey.” How we remember the past was a subject of the early stanzas; why we remember it is a question raised by Wordsworth’s desperate plea “Nor wilt thou then forget.” An important reader of Wordsworth, Paul DeMan, has suggested that in the passing of his youthful frivolity and in the “still, sad music of humanity,” Wordsworth has recognized his own mortality. Perhaps the impetus behind Wordsworth’s final address to Dorothy and to us, therefore, is his desire for a kind of immortality. Just as he would carry the “beauteous forms” of the Wye valley with him always and draw on them for comfort, so he would want Dorothy and us to carry his lines in our hearts and minds. How we remember Wordsworth now differs from how Dorothy and her contemporaries saw him in 1798, and how we will think of him five years from now we will surely differ from how we hold him at present. But “Tintern Abbey” has certainly given Wordsworth a kind of immortality, for neither he nor this poem has yet passed from our culture’s memory.
Source: Derek Furr, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
David Kelly is a freelance writer and instructor at Oakton Community College and College of Lake County, as well as the faculty advisor and co-founder of the creative writing periodical of Oak-ton Community College. He is currently writing a novel. In the following essay, Kelly states that neatly categorizing “Tintern Abbey” as a statement on the speaker’s love of nature would result in missing out on Wordworth’s ruminations concerning aging, experience, and contemplation.
The speaker of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” suffers a crisis of faith upon being presented with two different versions of the same reality at once. The first is the reality of a specific physical time and place that the poem tells us he stumbled across on July 7, 1798: the scene that he presents is spoken of as nature, untouched by human will. The second reality is the one that exists in his memory, a scene like that is like the one spread out below him, but changed by his experiences and his ability to transform the original memory with thought. Nature is nature, and exists independently, but the idea of nature can be processed into something greater, even into the idea of God’s existence. The dilemma facing the speaker of this poem is that he can see the value of both forms of reality, and, like a person who bumps into a cow while eating a hamburger, he knows that favoring one over the other is hypocritical(the image of consumption, in fact, plays a key part in the case he makes). Because the reader does not approach the scenic overlook with speaker, finding ourselves there in the first line, and because the poem maintains an even, lofty tone throughout, it is common for readers to look at “Tintern Abbey” as a speech about the speaker’s love of nature. There is a specific setting, though, and there is a conflict, and it takes just a little tolerance and patience to read this piece as a story that is eventually brought to its climax and conclusion.
The poem’s first stanza describes the physical setting for us, but it also establishes a situation: not only is there a place, but a person has returned to the place after five years’ absence, and judging from the exclamation point in the second line, he is excited, maybe even surprised, to be there. Critics have made much of the fact that this first section is about nature, which handily(or maybe unfortunately) leads to the phrase “Return to Nature,” one of the phrases that is used in discussing the Romantic movement that Wordsworth started almost single-handedly, even though it has seldom been meant to imply that someone is literally walking back into a natural setting he has been to before. There is some worth and lots of error in this use of “Return to Nature.” First, he does not “return” in the phrase’s usual sense of immersing oneself in the old life-style, but only walks into it one day. Second, what he encounters is not entirely nature if we take “nature” to mean “untouched by humans,” since the farms and plots and orchards and hedge-rows are all created from human design. Some overly harsh critics have pointed to this as a flaw, as if Wordsworth did not realize that he was tainting his portrait of nature with human things. But Wordsworth never claimed that this section of the poem represents nature, and we can only call it the nature section if we widen our idea of nature to include all things, including homo erectus among them, that are not self-conscious. This would allow room for the hedge-rows, which may well have been planted by people but grew up wildly; the boy in the speaker’s memory, whose “coarser deeds” and “glad animal movements” he later uses to define natural action; and the Hermit, who is given a great deal of attention, being mentioned twice in the last line-and-a-half of the stanza, even though he is never mentioned again. The Hermit—the grown man who fits into nature but not into society—introduces the complication, or plot reversal, at just the point where we would expect to find it if this were a story.
In the next section, the speaker of the poem(who, despite the strong resemblance, is not Wordsworth, in much the same way that the landscape he encounters and the one he remembers are similar but different things) reflects on what a comfort it has been to have a version of this place in his mind. When he is alone, he is able to tap into these “forms,” pulling them out of his mind the way a modern person could pull a photograph out of a purse or pocket or retrieve a computer file. It is the use of the word “forms” that tells us the speaker is aware that it is an abstraction that he is carrying with him from town to town. A strident lover of nature might think it a shame that he has to “settle” for this imitation, but Wordsworth makes a point of mentioning that he gets more from this version than he ever derived from the physical one: these “forms” are responsible for his purity of mind and have prodded him toward “little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love.” This is not the temporary kindness of a person who has rested up with a relaxing nature session, but his mind has actually created goodness and love, synthesized them, using nature’s forms. His mind turns the raw material provided by nature into something like a potion that anesthetizes mind and body, leaving him “a living soul,” able to “see the life of things.” His imitation version of nature, the “unnatural,” intellectual one, turns out to be a more important force for good than the actual version that rests on a few acres of land above Tintern Abbey. The Hermit, who has actual nature at his disposal, sits by the fire for warmth, apparently not quite a living soul himself. If this were the entire story, the cerebral gateway to the soul would clearly be favored over the simple, aesthetically pleasing, physical nature.
The reader only giving this poem casual attention might think the writer is following a loose, impromptu structure, as if all of his attention was put into choosing the right words and images and he paid no attention to how one idea floated into the next. Presenting this as an argument, though, Wordsworth keeps careful control of the balance, never tipping too far to one side without leaning back to the other. As a story, he allows the intellectual form of reality to triumph briefly before its fortunes reverse, allowing actual reality to shine again. This is why it is more effective to let the poem break from the pattern that would seem obvious—having the speaker describe the landscape, then what he used to be, and only then consider how those days effected his later life. Wordsworth instead presents his material as landscape, later life, and then boyhood activity, and the overall effect is that he is able to keep both versions of nature almost equal in their righteousness.
Just when it seems as if the speaker has forgotten the debt that his soul’s enlightenment owes to actual experience, lines 58 through 111 blend intellectual enlightenment with “the sense sublime” that his youthful excitement gave him “[o]f something far more deeply interfused”: an understanding that goes beyond his own soul to the Soul of the entire universe. His intellect has given him the ability to become better in many ways, but now, upon revisiting his leaping and bounding and “dizzying raptures,” he realizes thgat the mind needed more than the forms of nature to build off of, it also needed the experience of oneness with nature in order to know what to build. In this sense, “Tintern Abbey” distinguishes itself from poems that mourn but then accept losing the freedom of childhood: it starts with a sense in the early passage that those glorious days are gone, but in the climax realizes that they are a necessary fuel, that memories alone are liable to use up the “presence” that gives them power. Standing on a bluff and looking down at familiar territory, the speaker realizes that he has found “food / For future years,” which he had not felt the need for until he once had “an appetite” for nature, swallowing forms and color and sound before he knew what to do with them. When he grew older and moved away from this feast of the senses, “other gifts” developed, giving him “abundant recompense.” And so, the speaker is able to comfortably bring together the version of the Wye river valley that he carries with him in his head with the physical version that he had left behind but now faces again. By admitting that experience does not end in youth but is important throughout life, and holding on to the unavoidable truth that the mind will turn experience into thought as one ages, he is able to put both on equal footing in the service of whatever it is “that impels all thinking things, all objects of thought, and rolls through all things.”
So the struggle between youth and age ends in a stalemate, with the poet praising the better points of each, which is sensible and comforting enough but not satisfying to the reader’s hunger for drama, which Wordsworth used to draw her or him into the poem in the first place. As noted earlier, the poem starts, not just with a physical location, but with a situation, but both of these are abandoned in the huge middle stretch while the speaker settles his problem intellectually. In the end, he brings us back to the place and time we started at and he introduces us to a previously unmentioned character, the speaker’s sister. In a mild sense, this gives some sort of justification to his long, self-involved speech, as if the poet realized that the speaker was too caught up in declaring his philosophy and decided, after the fact, to turn it into advice to someone who would soon face the same problem. To this extent, the sister’s role is too little and too late, even a little embarrassing if we take up the title’s invitation to see this as a slice of Wordsworth’s real life and realize that his “wild eyed” sister Dorothy would have been twenty-seven. It makes more sense to look at the sister character as just a representative of youth, a way of bringing to life the characteristics that the speaker uses to define his own youth. With this reading, the sister’s introduction is just where it should be, a way of bringing narrow Youth and diffused Age, subjectivity and objectivity, together for a talk about what they have in common. As it turns out, the common denominator is Nature, both in experience and in contemplation, and Wordsworth’s advice to young and old is that we all had better appreciate it.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
Bloom, Harold, “William Wordsworth,” in his The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry, Anchor Books, 1963.
Hartman, Geoffrey H., Wordsworth’s Poetry: 1787-1814,
Harvard University Press, 1987.
Pater, Walter, “On Wordsworth,” The Fortnightly Review, Vol. XV, No. 88, April 1, 1874.
Ferris writes a lively account of the history of cosmology, including the contributions of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton.
Noyes, Russell, William Wordsworth, Boston: Twayne, 1971.
A biography with close attention to Wordworth’s poems, including “Tintern Abbey.”
Wordsworth, William, Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads, edited by W. J. B. Owen, London: Routledge, 1974.
A primary text of Wordsworth’s famous remarks on the nature and aims of Romantic poetry, with commentary by Owen.