Poetry Project IV: “Tintern Abbey”, by William Wordsworth

This is the fourth installment of the occasional poetry series. The analysis is written by Bishop Richard Williamson. The others have been on Hopkins' "God's Grandeur", Shelley's "Ozymandias", and Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn". If you are interested in specifically Catholic poetry by a contemporary author, you might consider picking up Fr. Lawrence Smith's We Call Thee Blessed, a collection of Marian sonnets.

Link to the poem (best to read before/during the critique)

There is a proverb which can be applied again and again to our apostate world of the 20th century: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king”. The proverb applies to a mass of products of “Western culture”, including the noble poem “Tintern Abbey” of William Wordsworth (1770-1850), which is a classic of English literature.

For “Tintern Abbey” is like a manifesto of the worship of Nature. Now to worship Nature is not to keep the First Commandment, which requires of us to worship God. But Nature-worship does at least mean worshipping a creature of God, outside of man, which is much better than for man to be worshipping himself, which is what we see all around us today.. Therefore Wordsworth is a one-eyed king. After a brief sketch of the background of “Tintern Abbey”, let us admire its nobility in order to probe its inadequacy.

THE BACKGROUND
As the poem’s full title tells us, “Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting The Banks Of The Wye During A Tour, July 13, 1798”, the poem dates from the last years of the 18th century, when the French Revolutionaries were raging through Europe. The young Wordsworth was enthused by what seemed to him the Revolution’s overthrow of an old and stale order of things, and he greeted with all his heart the fresh New Order of life and liberty. As he wrote at the time,

“Bliss was it on that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very Heaven.”

To this democratic Revolution in politics corresponded the Romantic Revolution in the arts. Through the same 1790’s Beethoven, born in the same year as Wordsworth, was preparing in his soul a new kind of passionate music which would explode in the 19th century and has been exploding ever since. In Wordsworth’s passionate young soul (see “Tintern”, lines 67-83) was forming a new kind of poetry, in the “real language of men”, first expressed in the “Lyrical Ballads” of 1798, a volume of poems shared with his still younger friend Coleridge (1772-1834), a volume which blazed a trail for Romanticism in English literature.

“Tintern Abbey” was included at the last minute in the volume of “Lyrical Ballads” where it exemplifies Wordsworth’s wish for poetry to be “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…recollected in tranquility” He wrote its 159 lines within a few days of visiting majestic scenery on the border between England and South Wales, a river valley which he had visited five years before (line 1) on a solitary walking tour, but which he was now revisiting with his beloved sister Dorothy (111). Both the contrast between the two visits and the company of his sister play an important part in the poem.

THE NOBILITY

The poem flows evenly from start to finish, being “recollected in tranquility”, but we may divide it for convenience into four main sections: a Setting of the Scene (1-22), a Recollection (22-57), a Reflection which is the heart of the poem (58-111), and a Valediction (111-159).

Setting the scene: The poet presents himself to us resting beneath a tree beside the River Wye in summertime, feeding his soul on the peace and majesty of the riverside scene, undisturbed by the few traces of human beings living nearby.

Recollection: Having been here before, he recalls how much this same scenic beauty has meant to him in the five intervening years: for his heart and mind, a healing gentleness spilling over into gentlemanly behavior; for the depths of his soul, a calm and serenity leading above and beyond the weariness of living into a sense of the harmony at the heart of all things. How often has he come back in his mind to this lovely valley !

Reflection: This nourishment for his soul he devoutly wishes may continue for many a year, because while he may no longer experience the rapturous feelings which the varied and deep delights of Nature inspired within him in his youth, still Nature gives to his more thoughtful maturity a profound sense of the Spirit behind all Nature, that Spirit which directs and watches over the poet’s own soul.

Valediction: By way of extended conclusion, the poet’s thoughts turn to the sister at his side. In her youthful reactions to the beauties of Nature in front of them, he recognizes his own reactions of years ago. He prays that the Nature which formed and protected his own heart will do the same for hers, and that if and when the sufferings and hardships of life close in on her later years, she will remember him and his devotion to Nature and this joint excursion of theirs to the Wye Valley, all the dearer to him now than five years ago for her being with him.

Everything in the poem breathes tranquility. There is no seeking after effect, no rhetoric, no striking images other than the pictures drawn directly from Nature. The language is so plain and easy to understand that it would be prosaic, were it not for the honesty and elevation of the thoughts being expressed. Similarly the even flow of the blank (rhymeless) verse, calm and clean iambic pentameters (te-tum, times five), could be monotonous, were it not for the deep and noble ideas they carry. “Tintern Abbey” shows us why poetry with rhyme and/or rhythm gets written at all – because there are thoughts too elevated to be expressed in humdrum prose alone, and such poetry dies, as it is doing today, only when man’s thoughts are too base to call for any elevation.

Then what are the main ideas of “Tintern Abbey”, so well served by the language and meter ? After setting the scene which so impressed the poet with its lofty cliffs and humble habitations, Wordsworth recalls what inspiration it has given him over the last five years: “sensations sweet” (27), “feelings of pleasure” (30) issuing in “acts of kindness” (34), and above all that “blessed mood” in which the quietened soul sees “into the life of things” (49). How often has his spirit, fretted by the “fever of the world” (53), been able to restore itself by recourse to the river wandering through the woods (56) !

Wordsworth goes on to reflect on another two feelings of his, a perplexity and a trust, but it is to be noted that both are still grounded in objective reality. We are not yet into the nightmare world of the modern arts where the artist is spinning dementedly around in his own subjective void ! The perplexity (65-83) is that the wild youthful raptures of his first visit to the “sylvan Wye” are a thing of the past. Unlike Keats longing over his Grecian Urn for a young love to go on for ever and ever, Wordsworth will not seek to perpetuate those special but fleeting passions which will not recur. His trust and hope then are that the enthralling scenery of the Wye will in a deeper and more thoughtful way sustain his spirit in future years, and here, without mentioning God by name, Wordsworth speaks clearly of Him (96-111) as the “presence… far more deeply interfused” in Nature (96), that moves all minds and things (102) and guards the poet’s own soul (109-111).

Finally the poet prays that the same Nature will nourish his sister also in future years, with a quietness and beauty and lofty thoughts (127) sufficient to ward off all eventual disappointments of life. Let her recall at that time how she has observed here her brother’s “worship of Nature”, and how it has become only more “deep, warm and holy” on his second visit to the Wye (152-155).

THE INADEQUACY

Obviously William is trusting in the love of Nature to look after the welfare of Dorothy’s spirit and soul for the rest of her days. But will it be enough if she is oppressed one day by the full weight of Hamlet’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”? William seems to think it will be, but both his own poem and the subsequent decline of civilisation suggest that his solution to life’s problems is relatively lightweight.

For instance, is the “din of towns and cities” (25) or the “dreary intercourse” of rash judgments, empty greetings, etc.(128-131), or the “heavy and weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world” (40) really the worst that life can do to us ? And is the “best portion of a good man’s life” (33) really no more than “little acts…of kindness and of love” (34) ? Is this not a rather water-colour vision of good and evil ?

As for Nature, it only “perhaps” (31) has a good influence on men’s acts. It may lighten the burden of “all this unintelligible world” (40), but it seems to leave it unintelligible. It may give one to believe that one is seeing “into the life of things” (49), but the possibility is evoked that such a belief is “vain” (50), i.e. an illusion. Finally, what do Nature’s “lofty thoughts” (127) give us beyond a mere “Cheerful faith, that all which we behold / Is full of blessings” (133) ? Would such a faith, to take just a recent example, be enough to sustain a Palestinian driven out of his home and out of his mind by phosphorus bombs? The truth of “Tintern Abbey” is that for those who have eyes to see, God is indeed to be found in Nature, as lines 93 to 102 suggest, without their naming Him by His name. The inadequacy of “Tintern Abbey” is that God is infinitely more, for good or ill (if one rejects Him), than all the beauties of Nature created by Him put together.

In brief, Wordsworth’s love of Nature is relatively good, as far as it goes, but absolutely speaking it is inadequate, as the last two centuries since it was written seem to confirm.

For it is true that we have today in various forms a Green Movement to protect the environment, because of course many of Nature’s beauties are still there, and are still being sought out for their healing effect, especially by city-dwellers. Witness how many of these at the first opportunity on weekends or holidays flee their “lonely rooms” and “din of towns and cities” (25), in the instinctive pursuit of an environment of Nature more natural and congenial to their souls.

But is this Green Movement winning, or must we admit that it is fighting a rearguard action against the all-encroaching suburbs and agro-industialisation for which people in effect clamour? Up and down the Wye Valley now runs the A466, a modern highway being no doubt constantly improved for more and more traffic to move faster and faster through the majestic scenery. For sure, this traffic will include numerous tourists to enjoy that scenery, but if these did not tend to destroy what they enjoy in order to enjoy what they destroy, why would we so often see villages or pieces of countryside or seaside advertised as “unspoiled”, etc.?

In truth, today’s democratic masses want the city-life because, for instance, cows needing constantly to be milked do not allow of holidays. But the more people live in the city, the less taste or inclination they have for the beauties of Nature. Are many that come out into the country today not to be observed bringing their city-din with them, in a variety of electronic machines ? Can they still see beyond their screens, or hear beyond their ear-plugs? Or is not the “dreary intercourse” of cyber-life so zapping their vitality that they are hardly any longer capable of “tranquil restoration” (30) ? No wonder Worsworth’s poetry and nearly all of yesterday’s “English Literature” are at a discount in today’s so-called “universities”!

We come to the motion and spirit that “rolls through all things” (102), and whose noble “presence” (94) in Nature is what most sustains and nourishes the poet, and whose lofty description forms the climax of the poem (94-110). Unquestionably it is to be found in Nature as much as ever. But how many souls today are still able or inclined to recognize this “something far more deeply interfused” (96)? Why does Wordsworth himself hold back from calling it – Him – God ? Yet the reality of this “motion and spirit” is the God who tells us in Scripture that He is a jealous God, and He insists on our worshipping no Nature or any other creature before Him, rather we must adore Him alone, the Creator who far surpasses all created truth, goodness or beauty that we can ever come to love.

So this climax of “Tintern Abbey” is a noble tribute to the “anchor, nurse, guardian and guide” of the poet’s “heart and soul” (109,110), but by worshipping Nature (152) instead of, explicitly, God, did Wordsworth not contribute to rendering that Nature incapable of defending itself against the unnatural onward march of modern “civilisation”? What is Nature without God? Bundles of atoms! What is beauty without God? Mere sentimentality! If God slips, all anchors slip, including Nature!

Then where is the heavyweight solution for today’s problems, heavier by the day? It is close at hand, but ruined!

A few miles downstream from the sycamore tree under which William and Dorothy took their repose (9,10) are to be found in the Wye Valley the noble ruins of the medieval Cistercian abbey from which Wordsworth’s poem took its name, but which it never actually mentions. No doubt the Cistercian monks chose the location of the Wye Valley for the same majesty and beauty for which the poet loved it. Yet will the thought even have crossed Wordsworth’s mind that in the Abbey the old monks knew his “all-impelling motion and spirit” with such a completeness and certainty as to leave no problems of life, death or eternity unsolved?

To rebuild those ruins is what Wordsworth should have been recommending to his beloved sister!

Stephen Heiner

Stephen lives in Paris, France, where he attends Mass celebrated by the clergy of the IMBC. He founded True Restoration in 2006.

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3 Responses

  1. crusader88 says:

    This is a very good commentary. Luckily, I was able to read "Tintern Abbey" in a literature course last semester at Assumption College, which makes it more than a "so-called" university, I suppose.

  2. A beautiful and profound essay. My compliments to Bishop Williamson.

  3. Michael says:

    Wordsworth seems content to swim only on the surface and avoids plumbing the depths of spirituality. He could have gone a step further in his allusion to the "something far more deeply interfused" and gotten to the nub of the matter, to wit, that the spirit he dimly felt in nature could have been vividly apprehended in the meek and lowly righteous ones he trodded amongst upon the soil of that glorious nature of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But he chose not to do so. Instead, he conceived nature in a pantheistic sense and thereby fell short of the mark, and he cannot therefore be included among such greats as Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Dryden, Pope or Byron. I am not saying, though, that he did not have the true poetic sensibility, or that he did not at least AIM at being a poet of the first order. Nor am I suggesting that he was less than fully aware of the ineluctible presence of the ideal element in all things, whether in the lowest and most trivial or the grandest and most extraordinary, or that he was unaware that such an element was an emanation of the divine–whatever "divine" may have meant to him. I believe that his pantheism kept him from disengaging that ideal element from nature, and that, in turn, kept him from expressing it by means of his own creative expression–an expression which is, indeed, the essence of all art.
    And so, Wordsworth contemplates nature quiescently rather than creatively. True enough, he begins with the assumption that the poetic pulse throbs through common everyday life. It is when he sets about expressing the ideal revealed by that life that he fails. What he gives us is an imitation, a mere copy of the form of that everyday life. In other words, he is imitating the expressions of life rather than rendering life's ideal activity. As a result, we see no exterior artistic forms of his intuitions of the ideal.

    Michael Deere