"Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey" by William Wordsworth is of particular interest in that Wordsworth's descriptions of the banks of the River Wye outline his general philosophies on nature.
William Wordsworth returned to the Wye valley in July 1798 with his sister, Dorothy, five years after he had first toured the region. His previous visit had been on a solitary walking tour as a twenty-three-year-old in August 1793. His life had since taken a considerable turn in many important respects – personally, politically and philosophically. As he looks at the valley, through the lens of memory, he sees himself—both as he once was, and as he is now.
The subject of “Tintern Abbey” is memory—specifically, childhood memories of communion with natural beauty. Both generally and specifically, this subject is hugely important in Wordsworth’s work. “Tintern Abbey” is the young Wordsworth’s first great statement of his great theme: that the memory of pure communion with nature in childhood works upon the mind even in adulthood, when access to that pure communion has been lost, and that the maturity of mind present in adulthood offers compensation for the loss of that communion—specifically, the ability to “look on nature” and hear “human music”; that is, to see nature with an eye toward its relationship to human life. In his youth, the poet says, he was thoughtless in his unity with the woods and the river; now, five years since his last viewing of the scene, he is no longer thoughtless, but acutely aware of everything the scene has to offer him.
Even in the present moment, the memory of his past experiences in these surroundings floats over his present view of them, and he feels bittersweet joy in reviving them. He thinks happily, too, that his present experience will provide many happy memories for future years. The speaker acknowledges that he is different now from how he was in those long-ago times, when, as a boy, he “bounded o’er the mountains” and through the streams. In those days, he says, nature made up his whole world: waterfalls, mountains, and woods gave shape to his passions, his appetites, and his love. That time is now past, he says, but he does not mourn it, for though he cannot resume his old relationship with nature, he has been amply compensated by a new set of more mature gifts; for instance, he can now “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 he can now sense the presence of something far more subtle, powerful, and fundamental in the light of the setting suns, the ocean, the air itself, and even in the mind of man; this energy seems to him “a motion and a spirit that impels / All thinking thoughts.... / And rolls through all things.” For that reason, he says, he still loves nature, still loves mountains and pastures and woods, for they anchor his purest thoughts and guard the heart and soul of his “moral being.”
“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. He sets up a contrast, here between the pure emotion of youth and the rarefied contemplativeness of adulthood. As a “thoughtless youth,” he maintains, he could not have seen into the “life of things,” for such a discovery requires thoughtfulness, reflection. Wordsworth has lost his youth, has seen five more years 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. Thus Wordsworth confesses that he is a mature worshiper of nature in his second visit to this beautiful spot.