Analysis of Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey

More properly called Lines: Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, 13 July 1798, this is one of William Wordsworth’s greatest poems, second perhaps only to the Intimations Ode in its influence and power. (In conversation, Wordsworth always called it “Tintern Abbey,” and this natural abbreviation has persisted.) It is the last poem in the 1798 edition of the revolutionary book he wrote with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads. The full title deserves attention since the poem is not a description of Tintern Abbey itself but of the River Wye (in South Wales, where he was on a walking tour with his sister), miles away from that beautiful relic.

The abbey itself was originally built in the 12th century, and its remains date from the 13th; it was abandoned after 1536 when England began its cataclysmic transition to Protestantism, and Henry VIII (and later Elizabeth I) seized, despoiled or destroyed Catholic religious holdings. (William Shakespeare alludes to such ruins in sonnet 73, where he talks of the “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang”). But for the 28-year-old Wordsworth, faith was to be found elsewhere, in the woods, not the abbeys, and faith was not in God but in nature or the spirit of nature. In the poem, Wordsworth knows where the abbey itself is because he is revisiting the banks of the River Wye; however, he is not returning to Catholicism but to an earlier version of his own soul and the worship of Nature that was and continues to be his (l. 153; Wordsworth was to regret this line afterward, and it should not be taken too literally; it is, rather, an indication of what he does not worship at this time, the personal or Christian God).

Wordsworth composed the poem on July 13, 1798, but he did not write it down for another few days, until he and his sister reached Bristol, so the thought that it records is the thought that he actually had on his return to the Wye. He had last been there in August 1793; now he has returned and can measure how much he has changed by how little the natural landscape has. He returns to hear “again / These waters,” to see “these steep and lofty cliffs,” to repose under “this dark sycamore.” More important, perhaps, is that he is returning at “this season,” which is to say that the place is the same and so is the time. The natural world is seasonal and essentially timeless, but human life is time-bound, not seasonal and cyclical but headed toward age and death.

Tintern Abbey, Tintern/Pinterest

The poem is about subjectivity and time—about what time does to subjectivity. The passage of time is felt through the relationship between memory and loss, through the memory of what has been lost. At the least, what has been lost is one’s own earlier self. “Tintern Abbey” is directly influenced by Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” (gracefully alluding to it through the reference to the shining moon at line 135, to which compare the last lines of Frost at Midnight), and by the intense and melancholy reflections on the relationship of memory to present peace that is the heart of Coleridge’s poem. Indeed, the structure of Tintern Abbey is fundamentally the same, ending with Wordsworth blessing his companion, as Coleridge had blessed his son Hartley Coleridge, with the prophetic wish that nature will be, for his sister, as imbued with a sense of spirit and life as it is for him.

The blessing and the wish are wonderful but melancholy; in both poems, they register the fact that such a sense of nature may not go without saying. Nature is felt to be or to contain a “motion and a spirit that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things” (ll. 101–103; compare the opening of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” which begins with an overt allusion to this passage), but the world is half created by the senses and the mind that perceives it; therefore, the spirit of Nature may be a projection of the human mind. Indeed, the famous passage I have just quoted suggests just this (although usually this suggestion is unnoticed), since what the motion or spirit impels is all thinking things and all objects of thought, and if it rolls through all things, that is a motion that occurs in the mind and not necessarily in the world. This, too, is one of Coleridge’s ideas in “Frost at Midnight,” where “the idling spirit” interprets what it sees “By its own moods,” seeking everywhere for a mirror of itself (ll. 20–22).

This is a serious issue for Wordsworth, more so than it was in Coleridge’s poem, since “Tintern Abbey” is the first of Wordsworth’s great crisis lyrics. Like the memory of childhood in the Intimations Ode (begun four years later), the return to the Wye forces Wordsworth to confront the distance between his present and his past self. This should be compared to the passage of The Prelude wherein he describes memory as giving him “two consciousnesses, conscious of myself and of some other Being” (book 2, ll. 32–33). In the intervening five years, he has changed; it is no longer what he calls “the hour of thoughtless youth” (l. 90) but a time of life in which he feels chastened and subdued by the earthly freight of living. When he was a child, nature was everything to him, but now he no longer feels this way—he no longer can feel this way. The very fact that nature reflects the mind means that its actual, unchanging, external physical attributes only determine what it no longer reflects. The place is exactly the same, but his “recognitions [are] dim and faint” (l. 59). Here we should give the word recognitions its full meaning of thinking again. He sees but no longer feels what he once did, and this fills him with “a sad perplexity” (l. 60). The fact that nothing has changed in the landscape measures how all the change he perceives is in himself.

Tintern Abbey tries to think this issue through, and it succeeds in such a way that Woodsworth can come to some resolution of the crisis. The thematic issues we have been considering are presented in an order that allows for this resolution. We can summarize the order this way: The place is just the same as it was, but the poet no longer feels as he did. He now thinks in terms of past and future as well, and so he dares to hope (l. 65), in that anxious and uncertain formulation, for some recompense. That recompense is the recompense of memory. Tintern Abbey no longer fills him with the joy he remembers it as filling him with. But he does remember, even if memory is a muted and attenuated experience, and so he dares to hope for future memories, both of the past and of the present— of the present because he thinks that “in this moment” there is food for future years, but that food is the memory he has now of the past. This is a movement toward further attenuation, however; the future is even further removed from the past, and memory weakens into a second-order memory of memory, since the past is already remote from the present.

Memories of memories are central to romantic melancholy, and also to the dynamic of recovery (see, again, the different levels of memory in Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” and also Wordsworth’s “Lines written in Early Spring,” where he describes that “sweet mood when pleasant thoughts / Bring sad thoughts to the mind” [ll. 3–4]). For while the aching raptures of youth are over, they were also thoughtless. Nature was “all in all” to him then (l. 75), a line in which Wordsworth (as is typical) recalls John Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which God foretells the time when he “shall be All in All” (book 3, l. 341; this is an echo of 1 Corinthians 15:28, but Wordsworth is clearly thinking of Milton—who also puts in a cameo perhaps as the “blind man” of line 24—and not what Milton is echoing). Now, however, Wordsworth is subdued by thought; he looks on nature not “as in the hour of thoughtless youth” but with a far augmented sense of human capacities and human depth. The costs and benefits of this deepened apprehension are the same and can be put simply: The price of thought is giving up thoughtlessness. But that price is an easier one to pay once Wordsworth realizes that it was all thought anyway, that the mind half created what it perceived always. Therefore, the memory of the present will not be an attenuated but an intensified memory as he thinks further on this moment in which he learned to start thinking about thought.

Woodsworth’s sister Dorothy, whom he addresses in the poem’s final movement, represents the gain off setting future loss; she also allows him to carry forward even what has been lost into the present. For now Dorothy, like Hartley Coleridge, is the other consciousness, not lost but there with him, and the future he foretells for her (like the future Samuel Taylor Coleridge foretells for Hartley) is one in which she, too, will become more thoughtful, even as Woodsworth is now. But now both consciousnesses are there, and Dorothy represents both the present’s past and the past’s future, his own earlier raptures and his sense of what she will discover about herself and about him, even as he discovers the same about her, when she thinks back on this time as he has thought on his previous experience of the Wye. The present moment stands, therefore, both for the future and the past, and it links them each to each.

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