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Tintern Abbey Essay, Research Paper
This poem is written out of the experiences of a walking tour that Wordsworth shared with his sister Dorothy, in June of 1798. The background circumstances are that the two had gone to Bristol to look after the details of publishing the Lyrical Ballads. But they did not stay in the city long; they did not finds its buzz and hum at all compatible with their predispositions, so that after about a week they escaped into that country that Wordsworth had enjoyed seeing about five years before with his college friend, Robert Jones. He and Jones had passed this way after Wordsworth returned from his stay in France. The tour lasted about five days. Wordsworth left the following account of the excursion out of which “Tintern Abbey” came: “We crossed the Severn ferry and walked ten miles further to Tintern Abbey, a very beautiful ruin on the Wye. The next morning we walked along the river through Monmouth to Goodrich Castle, there slept, and returned the next day to Tintern, thence to Chepstow, and from Chepstow back again in a boat to Tintern, where we slept, and thence back in a small vessel to Bristol.”
The ruin of Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire had long been celebrated both for its interest to historians and for its physical beauty. Humphrey Davy, a person famous in science during the days we have made the property of the English Romantics, once commented on how much he was moved by the sight of the Abbey by moonlight. But however important the place was to Wordsworth during the tour, the poem itself is not that much concerned with Tintern Abbey – that is, not concerned in the direct sense of being a celebration of a beautiful place in nature. There is in the background of the poem, of course, that whole tradition of the magnificence of the ruins of past times that had characterized the thought and life of the age of sensibility. But whatever there may be of pathos in the poem for the ruined monuments of past times, the heart of feeling in the poem is centered on something else. Tintern Abbey is little more than a pin to locate that terrain along the Wye River that is the setting of the poem. If one says that the poem is about landscape, it is more about the River itself, and the terrain around it. Wordsworth’s nature description in its customary particularity is at work in lines 4-22, but the natural scenery is important for what he gets out of it, not for itself. And that is a very important distinction for the student to make when he reads this poem and many others poems by Wordsworth that talk about nature. One may pause for a moment and consider seriously just what Wordsworth means by Nature. For most of the time in “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth seems to be discussing this natural scene around Tintern Abbey and telling what it has meant to him and what it can in the future be expected to give.
Meaning Of Nature
But when Wordsworth uses the word Nature, he means more than just rivers, trees, rocks, mountains, crags, lakes, and so on. He means all these things certainly, but more importantly he means a power, a force, a dynamic principle that animates, that molds with plastic might the physical furnishings of the universe. The point then about a man’s placing himself closely in touch with rural places and things is that there man comes most intimately in touch with this power, this force, this vivifying and, too, regulating principle of life; the reason is that rural places and things have been the least interfered with by the corrupting ambitions of man. In this connection, it may be well to repeat the emphasis that one finds throughout Wordsworth’s poetry (the poetry of other Romantics also): Nature is good, the city is evil. Any reading of “Tintern Abbey” should seek to encompass these greater meanings of Nature. Further, any reading should consider seriously also the human side of the matter: if Nature is to mean anything to man, he must be within himself predisposed in some way to the intercourse. Wordsworth says he is. There is in countless places in Wordsworth’s poems an affirmation that Nature and man are exquisitely fitted one to the other. The “presence” that disturbs Wordsworth (in “Tintern Abbey”) not only has its dwelling in “the light of setting suns,” but it dwells also “in the mind of man.”
The discussions of “Tintern Abbey” have in great measure been concerned with what the poem says about Wordsworth’s growth from childhood to manhood. In this regard, “Tintern Abbey” has been considered often as a compressed version of The Prelude and, too, a very valuable introduction to the “Intimations Ode.” Arthur Beatty, author of several studies on Wordsworth, saw in the background of the three stages of growth in “Tintern Abbey” the work of David Hartley, entitled Observations on Man, which was published for the first time in 1749. But in a sense, it might produce the more fruitful reading of “Tintern Abbey” to get away from the influence of The Prelude on the subject of growth, and think, rather, of three different kinds of encounters that the mind of man may have with nature. By avoiding the idea of growth, one can get beyond looking for connections between the stages, that is, how the poet gets from one stage to the other, and be better able, therefore, to realize the particular characteristics of the encounter in its three different dimensions.
In view of the fact that “Tintern Abbey” is about what nature can do for man, what nature can give him in way of inspiration and instruction, not only in the midst of the encounter but later as well when man remembers it, the reader may find it interesting to give more than a passing glance to Wordsworth’s note on the origins of the poem. He gives this account: “I began it upon leaving Tintern, after crossing the Wye, and concluded it just as I was entering Bristol in the evening, after a ramble of four or five days, with my Sister. Not a line of it was altered, and not any part of it written down till I reached Bristol.”
Is this fulfillment of the processes of poetic creation as Wordsworth had talked about them in the 1800 “Preface”? It this “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings . . . [that] takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity”? Does the explanation of how Wordsworth wrote “Tintern Abbey” show the contemplation of the emotion “till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind”? In one sense, yes, in one sense no. From what the poet says about the composition of the poem, it may seem one of the few works that he wrote on the spur of the moment; he said he started composing it when he arrived in Bristol. But, then, the process of poetic creation can be said to have taken place according to Wordsworth’s design as he explained it in the “Preface” in the sense that five years had past since he had been at Tintern Abbey.
The overall form of address in the poem may not seem to identify it as a poem spoken to Dorothy; but, the final verse paragraph gives the impression that the poet had all the time been speaking to Dorothy, his companion on this second tour of the Wye. On this question, a useful distinction may be made between the subject matter of the poem and the tone of the language that carries the subject matter. It might very well be the case that if Wordsworth had used a form of conversational address throughout, he would not have been able to achieve the high level of seriousness and the dignity that characterize the whole. But in what the poem says-its content-Dorothy is the poet’s audience; the subject matter is meant first of all for her. Wordsworth also avoids the perils of informality in a work of such seriousness through using the words to Dorothy as insuppressible exclamations of joy and gratitude.
The poet has returned to the banks of the Wye River after an absence of five years. The period has been longer in emotional terms than it has been as actual calendar time. He views the scene again with all the “beauteous forms” that he has found in his absence to be sources of restoration and inspiration. But, of course, with characteristic discrimination, he chooses only those sounds and sights that serve to put into the reader’s mind not just scenery but what one might call the spirit of scenery, or the essence of scenery. The waters that roll “With a soft inland murmur” match the poet’s imagination that also rolls from internal “mountain-springs.” The cliffs connect earth with sky, but the connection is more internal than the connections of an impressive sight; the poet has “Thoughts of more deep seclusion” than the thought that around him stretches “a wild secluded scene.” The smoke that rises from the cottages on the farms around (the “sportive wood” serves as a boundary between fields in this country) stirs in the poet’s imagination the vision of wandering people or of a hermit sitting alone in his cave. In the area that his eye gathers in, there is both the wild and the tamed. There are unsubdued cliffs, but there are plots of cultivated ground, measured off by hedges. There is sound, but there is movement in silence. Wordsworth is trying through modifying the nouns with this and these to achieve the sense of immediate meeting between mind and nature. The poet’s placement of himself under a “dark sycamore” is not unusual, given the number of sheltered places that Wordsworth uses in his poems for repose and imaginative action.
After locating and giving some description of the external physical scene that provides the natural setting for his meditation, Wordsworth at line twenty-three begins to account of what “The beauteous forms” have meant to him during the five years of absence from the Wye and its environs. He has with his internal eye, “that inward eye / Which is the bliss of solitude” often seen these forms that surround him at Tintern Abbey; he has in his absence not been blind to them (Line 25). In the clattering and clamoring of the city, he has received from them (1) “sensations sweet,” (2) “tranquil restoration,” (3) unidentifiable feelings of pleasure, and (4) a “blessed mood” in which the depressing mystery of life was lightened. The feelings that Wordsworth recalls having had in the five intervening years are emphasized as feelings, not mere thoughts, by his locating them in his blood and heart. The “beauteous forms” of this natural scene around Tintern Abbey were when he saw them five years before actually taken into his being: they were impressed into layers of the poet’s being far below the cognitive level-he definitely wants us to know that! Notice the words that are used in these lines to give expression to the remarkable effect that these natural forms have had in the poet’s “recollection in tranquillity” during his hours “in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din / Of towns and cities”: “sensations,” “blood,” “heart,” “feelings.” The profound reaches of the influence of the “beauteous forms” are evident in the fact that when the poet recalled them in his absence, there were emotional associations that he could not identify. They were involved, inseparably tied in, with “acts / Of kindness and of love” that he had performed in his life. That is, the “beauteous forms” had become so deeply impressed into his being when he saw them before that during his absence he did not so much think about them as feel them. And they had become impressed in his being in such a way that they had merged with associations already there, the best associations from the best former experiences in life-kindness and love. It is like saying that objects and sounds in nature were kindness and love concretized; this kindness and love would blend with the feelings of kindness and love already present within the deep folds of the poet’s inner being. There is a startling statement in these lines that the reader should not miss; the poet is saying that the sights and sounds around Tintern Abbey have been enough during his absence to show him meaning in life when it otherwise would have been absent. They have provided a “blessed mood” in which all the senseless suffering in life, in which all the absurdity of human striving and disappointment has been made endurable. By “the heavy and the weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world” Wordsworth means all the unanswered questions about human life that leave one with blackness. But there is still more to the blessing they have brought. It is not only a matter of relief from suffering; it is also that the imagination has found in them the necessary materials with which to achieve a penetrating vision “into the life of things.” The poet has found in the “beauteous forms” the resources for discovering meaning at the heart of things. Wordsworth is speaking of an active, not a passive experience:
– 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.
This passage should not be read as a version of the mystic’s passive absorption, a state in which all the hindrances of the flesh are left behind through a reduction of human flesh to the most absolute minimum possible. The poet has found a vision “into the life of things” precisely because of the active power of the imagination. The words harmony and joy that Wordsworth uses in line forty-eight are virtually synonyms for imagination. And Wordsworth’s concept of imagination is that it is a power from within that exerts itself on the surrounding world. When Wordsworth in these lines speaks of the suspension of “the motion of our human blood,” and of the body being laid asleep, it is only as a means to the end of becoming “a living soul.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge, close friend and frequent companion of Wordsworth during the time that “Tintern Abbey” was written, often speaks of the imagination in the terms of harmony and joy. Coleridge also thinks of the imagination as an active, shaping power. The “beauteous forms” of the area around Tintern Abbey have provided Wordsworth with the resources for making his life meaningful in times and places when it would have been otherwise meaningless and unbearable.
Wordsworth reaffirms the faith expressed in the foregoing lines, with more exact reference to the River Wye. The belief in the power of nature to nourish and sustain through the molding and shaping spirit of the imagination is so remarkable that it may seem “but a vain belief.” But he knows on re-examination of his experiences that the belief is a true one. He has in the midst of “darkness and … the many shapes / Of joyless delight,” in the midst of “the fretful stir / Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,” turned his inward eye to the “sylvan Wye! … wanderer thro’ the woods….”
But, the poet’s return and present experiences at Tintern Abbey are not only the occasion for remembrance; he realizes as he renews his intercourse with the “beauteous forms” and reflects on their ministry to him in years of absence that he is also finding “life and food / For future years.” This brings him to consider the levels of his experience with nature throughout his life.
Some readers of Wordsworth discuss this part of “Tintern Abbey” as a record of the three principal stages of Wordsworth’s growth as a poet. As suggested earlier, it may be more productive to read them not in the terms of growth, but, rather, in the terms of three different kinds of experience that Wordsworth has discovered in his encounter with nature, remembering nature not to be just scenery, but the things in nature plus the power and spirit that rolls through them. (1) Childhood: (lines 73 & 74) This was the dimension of experience in which the poet was blended with nature; his movements, “glad animal movements,” were the same as nature’s movements – there was a unison of life, perhaps resembling most closely the relationship of the fetus to its mother. This is the dimension of experience when there is no differentiation made between the creature and the external natural order than surrounds him. The relationship with nature in this dimension is very nearly osmotic. (2) Adolescence: (lines 66-72; 75-83) The older child begins to be aware of the natural phenomena with which he has been formerly blended. This is the level of experience with nature at which there begins to be a differentiation between sights and sounds. This would have been the kind of experience that Wordsworth would have had during his visit to the Wye in 1793. There is a reveling in nature: Wordsworth uses such telling description as “aching joys” and “dizzy raptures.” At this time when nature was “all in all,” he “bounded o’er the mountains” “like a roe.” The emotional pitch of this level of experience is very high. Wordsworth speaks of it in the terms of a man fleeing from something feared, of being haunted by a passion, of appetite and feeling, of “aching joys” and “dizzy raptures.” (3) Early Maturity (lines 84-102a) The adult finds nature to provide “other gifts,” which serve as “Abundant recompense” for the level of “thoughtless youth.” He comes to find a Divine Presence behind the perishable phenomena of nature. The adult comes to hear “The still, sad music of humanity . . .,” but perhaps it is only for this reason that he can find “A presence that disturbs … with the joy / Of elevated thoughts. . . .” Only after one has been chastened and subdued with the disappointment and pain of responsibility for oneself and for others is one sensitive to
. . .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.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, the 19th-century English poet, thought these lines among the finest ever written in the English language, particularly for the way they establish the permanent in the transitory. The passage has been often discussed for what it reveals of Wordsworth’s theology.
The connective therefore indicates a causal relationship between the affirmation that the poet has just made about “A presence that disturbs . . . wi h the joy / Of elevated thoughts . . .” and the profession that he comes now to make – that he still loves nature, however much his experience in the present time differs from his former experience. In a different way, at a different level but with no less profundity, Wordsworth’s love for nature continues; he confirms that he is 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….
Furthermore, the experience with nature is still an interchange. For whatever diminishing of emotional intensity there has been in the encounter, the poet’s relationship with “meadows and . . . woods, / And mountains” is still one of active intercourse, is still one of power and inspiration received and power and inspiration given. The imagination is no less active in this new experience than it was before. The world that the poet loves is the world after the imagination has given it a measure of life and meaning that it would not have if left alone unto itself. The poet is not now, as he has not been in any experience with nature, a passive receptacle into which is poured sense data from the outside. He receives the “beauteous forms” as “life and food / For future years, ” but the world of nature that he knows is “all the mighty world / Of eye, and ear, – both what they half create, / And what perceive….” It is very important to recognize that Wordsworth speaks of a receiving and a giving. The imagination is being forcefully imposed on all these natural materials. It is in the poet’s intercourse with nature, in his active imaginative interchange, that he finds “The anchor of [his] purest thoughts, the nurse, / The guide, the guardian of [his] heart, and soul / Of all [his] moral being.” Unless the “power / Of harmony,” “the deep power of joy” were coming from within the poet and meeting the active spirit that rolls through the nature that is external to him, he would not discover the “anchor,” “nurse,” “guide,” “guardian.” These gifts come in the active interpersonal relationship, not in a mere passive reception.
There is through the whole of “Tintern Abbey,” and through these particular lines and the ones that follow in this final verse paragraph, the feeling that Wordsworth is discovering truth as he goes, that the poem itself is an exploration of past and present experience rather than any attempt at stating conclusions already drawn from experiences. The exploratory tone can be felt in this final verse paragraph of the poem. Wordsworth turns now to address his “dearest Friend,” his sister Dorothy. He hears in her voice echoes of what he was in times past: “in thy voice,” he says, “I catch / The language of my former heart. . . .” In her eyes he reads pleasures that were his in years gone by. He asks that he may for a while listen to and see these former times, now renewed for him in his companionship with his sister.
But Dorothy is not only in the poet’s attention (and therefore in the reader’s attention) for what she reveals of the experiences of the poet’s past life; she is also involved in the poet’s future experience, what he prophesies to be the certain blessings of continued intercourse with Nature through coming years. For the heart that loves Nature, for the person who through the strength of imagination creates the necessary conditions for active interchange with the spirit that moves through all things, there will be joy, “quietness and beauty,” and “cheerful faith” in the midst of all the “dreary intercourse of daily life. . .” Remembering that Nature is infinitely more to Wordsworth than rural scenery, remembering that Nature is the external forms of things but the Divine Spirit that moves within them as well, one finds the poet verifying here the marriage between the Spirit and the imagination as an unbreakable relationship. Wordsworth attests “that Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her” in language that is very close in tone to certain Biblical affirmations about the faithfulness of God in His relationship with His creation.
The content, of course, in “Tintern Abbey” and in the Bible is radically different, for Wordsworth is not basing the faithfulness of Nature to man on any kind of historical revelation, at least not historical revelation that has the particularity of the ministry of Jesus Christ. The relationship between Nature and man that continued through “Tintern Abbey” has not the definition of a supreme act of revelation once-and-for-all done. The spirit in Nature continues to meet the imagination of man in equally dynamic encounters. What Wordsworth anticipates finding in relationship with Nature in the future is a continuation of what he has found in the past.
One may discover in the closing lines of the poem a fourth level of experience with Nature, a strengthening of relationship with Nature through a strengthening of personal love between Wordsworth and his sister. Wordsworth is through these lines continuing to address Dorothy, but he also, of course, is addressing the reader. He advises,
let the moon Shine on thee in thy solitary walk; And let the misty mountain-winds be free To blow against thee….
With regard to the furnishing of the memory with “beauteous forms,” given greater life and meaning through the enlivening, modifying power of imagination, the process that is at the heart of the poet’s advice is the same that has informed the poem to this point. The only difference is, as suggested above, that the present interchange between the poet and his sister will make future recollection in tranquillity stronger and richer. In whatever future “solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief” there might be, there will be “healing thoughts / Of tender joy” not only for what the “beauteous forms” of the River Wye are with the force that moves through them, but also for the compounding of these forms and their internal spirit with the present love expressed between two human beings. It is a storing up of the mind with the beauty without and the beauty within and the beauty of the meeting and merging of the two. This is the basis of the poet’s trust expressed in the closing lines:
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 form of a work of literature cannot in an absolute way be separated from the content of the work. But for the sake of clearer explication and evaluation, critics try to work within this distinction. It may be useful here to attempt this distinction. Although Wordsworth was a rebel against the conventions of the poetry of the 18th century, “Tintern Abbey” is written in the tradition of a long meditative poem, a form that had been frequently used by 18th-century writers. The language of “Tintern Abbey” is far from being the language of ordinary conversation, is far from being “a selection of language really used by men.” Wordsworth’s poetic diction in “Tintern Abbey” is skillfully, painstakingly achieved. The words are well-chosen, and he thoughtfully calculates their effect. There is an obvious absence of metaphors and personifications in “Tintern Abbey,” for Wordsworth is in this poem following the demands of the “unmediated vision,” that is, the poet’s confrontation of nature without the intermediate agencies of poetic techniques and language. But this is not to say that “Tintern Abbey” is without easily identified rhetorical techniques.
The poem is written in blank verse, which is a verse form that uses unrhymed iambic pentameter. Wordsworth’s use of this kind of verse form may also be seen to be a part of his reaction against the poetic practices of the 18th-century. A great deal of 18th-century verse was regimented, even stultified, by the heroic couplet, that is iambic pentameter rhyming in pairs. The great emphasis then was on form, and design, and details were subordinated to these ends. Coleridge had made extensive use of blank verse in his Conversation Poems, and he found in it a workable means of expression for the more mysterious, more expansive forms of experience that was the subject matter of his poetry. In this regard it might be worthwhile to recall the fact that 18th-century poetry had also reduced the obscure and the mysterious to a minimum. The more irregular forms of natural scenes were avoided, and the overwhelming preference was for the more manageable forms, forms that could be regulated and confined within the framework of the formal garden. Wordsworth had read Coleridge’s poetry, with its highly individualist, highly subjective expression of the mysterious through the medium of blank verse. Wordsworth admired the great flexibility that characterized Coleridge’s Conversation Poems; he admired the freedom the form gave for the expression of private meditation on the mysterious encounter that goes on between the spirit in nature and the imagination of the poet. Wordsworth was greatly under the influence of the poetic idiom and verse form of Coleridge’s Conversation Poems in the writing of “Tintern Abbey.” The language of “Tintern Abbey” has a prose-like quality. The lines that begin the second verse paragraph,
These beauteous forms, Through a long absence, have not been to me, As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye…
are too poetic to be truly representative of the whole poem. In fact, apart from the word beauteous, it is difficult to find a “poetic” word in the whole poem, at least “poetic” in the sense that the word was used in Wordsworth’s day. One recalls, of course, that Wordsworth wrote in the “Preface” of 1800 that he wished to avoid using the conventional language of poetry. Whatever poetry there is in “Tintern Abbey” comes from some other source than Wordsworth’s use of the standardized poetic diction of his time.
One of the rhetorical techniques that Wordsworth employs in “Tintern Abbey” is repetition; the technique has additional force because it is employed in a simple framework. The following lines may serve the purpose of illustration (italics mine):
Five years have past; five summers, with the length Of five long winters! (lines 1 & 2)
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…. (lines 11-15)
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! (lines 55-57)
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
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