Tintern Abbey: An Introduction

"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 (he had split with his French lover and their illegitimate daughter, while on a broader note Anglo-French tensions had escalated to such an extent that Britain would declare war later that year). 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 Wye, on the other hand, had remained much the same, affording the poet opportunity for contrast. A large portion of the poem explores the impact of the passing of time, contrasting the obviousness of it in the visitor with its seamlessness in the visited. This theme is emphasized from the start in the line "Five years have passed..." There are two main intertwined themes to consider with the poem: memory and Nature worship.

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.”

The poem opens with the speaker’s declaration that five years have passed since he last visited this location, encountered its tranquil, rustic scenery, and heard the murmuring waters of the river. This is where he starts to describe those impressions, and he starts with what he can hear: the sound of the "mountain-springs." He recites the objects he sees again, and describes their effect upon him: the “steep and lofty cliffs” impress upon him “thoughts of more deep seclusion”. Those cliffs reach from the landscape below and beyond them up to the sky, "connect[ing]" everything he's looking at, so the cliffs help to create a sense of unity to the view he's admiring.  The speaker "reposes," or relaxes in the shade under a "sycamore" and lists all of the specific parts of the view that he remembers from the last trip to the River Wye: the small gardens around the cottages and the groups of fruit trees which, in the distance, look like "tufts" instead of individual trees. Because it's still early in the summer, the fruit isn't ripe yet, so the fruit trees are all the same shade of green as the surrounding clusters ("groves and copses") of wild trees. The "hedge-rows," or planted rows of shrubbery, used to mark property lines or the edge of a field, look like "little lines" (15) from his vantage point. The speaker then points out all the farm houses he can see, and then the little "wreaths of smoke" appearing here and there from the woods. The smoke goes up "in silence." The farms he describes are "pastoral," and imagines that the smoke might rise from “vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,” or from the cave of a hermit in the deep forest.

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. Likewise, we should be concerned with how his point of view affects the visit. Critics have often noted 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, he sees a mixture of the present and the past.

But Wordsworth is not just interested in nature and pretty scenery. He's also interested in memory. He's been to this place before. He describes how his memory of these “beauteous forms” has worked upon him in his absence from them: when he was alone, or in crowded towns and cities, they provided him with “sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart.” The memory of the woods and cottages offered “tranquil restoration” to his mind, and even affected him when he was not aware of the memory, influencing his deeds of kindness and love. He further credits the memory of the scene with offering him access to that mental and spiritual state in which the burden of the world is lightened, in which he becomes a “living soul” with a view into “the life of things.” The speaker then says that his belief that the memory of the woods has affected him so strongly may be “vain”—but if it is, he has still turned to the memory often in times of “fretful stir.”

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.

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 “poetry of experience”. In the Romantic period lyric 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 that 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.

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.

The speaker says that even if he did not feel this way of spiritual awakening, or understand the deeper and greater bondage of nature and humanity; he would still be in good spirits on this day, for he is in the company of his “dear, dear (d) Sister,” who is also his “dear, dear Friend,” and in whose voice and manner he observes his former self, and beholds “what I was once.” He offers a prayer to nature that he might continue to do so for a little while, knowing, as he says, that “Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her,” but leads rather “from joy to joy.” Nature’s power over the mind that seeks her out is such that it renders that mind impervious to “evil tongues,” “rash judgments,” and “the sneers of selfish men,” instilling instead a “cheerful faith” that the world is full of blessings. The speaker then encourages the moon to shine upon his sister, and the wind to blow against her, and he says to her that in later years, when she is sad or fearful, the memory of this experience will help to heal her. And if he himself is dead, she can remember the love with which he worshipped nature. In that case, too, she will remember what the woods meant to the speaker, the way in which, after so many years of absence, they became dearer to him—both for themselves and for the fact that she is in them.

Curiously, however, the tone of this final stanza shifts from confidence to anxiousness.  Wordsworth’s advice that Dorothy does not forget “Nature” shifts to a plea that Dorothy (and perhaps we the readers) does not forget him. There is 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 De Man, 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 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.

The poem has a subtle strain of religious sentiment; though the actual form of the Abbey does not appear in the poem, the idea of the abbey—of a place consecrated to the spirit—suffuses the scene, as though the forest and the fields were themselves the speaker’s abbey. This idea is reinforced by the speaker’s description of the power he feels in the setting sun and in the mind of man, which consciously links the ideas of God, nature, and the human mind.


Last modified: Tuesday, 17 April 2018, 12:48 AM