“Lines. Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour. July 13, 1798” (commonly referred to as “Tintern Abbey”) is one of William Wordsworth’s most famous and most thoroughly studied poems. Contemporary reviews of Lyrical Ballads singled out the poem as an example of Wordsworth’s superlative skill as a poet and thinker. Robert Southey wrote that “Tintern Abbey” exhibits Wordsworth’s “superior powers” as a poet (Critical Review 24 (October 1798), qtd. in Gamer and Porter 149) and Charles Burney proclaimed that the poem illustrates
[t]he reflections of no common mind; poetical, beautiful, and philosophical; but somewhat tinctured with gloomy, narrow and unsociable ideas of seclusion from the commerce of the world. (Monthly Review 29 (June 1799), qtd. in Gamer and Porter 161)
Twentieth-century criticism of the poem intensified during the mid-century. Romantic critics in the 1960’s and 1970’s, including Harold Bloom and Geoffrey Hartman, praise “Tintern Abbey” for its portrayal of the transcendental imagination of the individual psyche and unabashedly celebrate the fact that Wordsworth’s “mortal being” was guided by nature. In the 1980’s however, New Historicist critics, moving away from ahistorical formalist readings of the poem, exhibit skepticism about Wordsworth’s construction of selfhood through nature. For example, Jerome McGann writes that the poem’s “method is to replace an image and landscape of contradiction with one dominated by the ‘power / Of harmony’” (Romantic Ideology 86), a method that works to efface the social and political realities that were so disappointing to the poet (including rural poverty and the failure of the French Revolution). Marjorie Levinson agrees, stating that “Wordsworth’s pastoral prospect is a fragile affair, artfully assembled by acts of exclusion” (Great Period 32). According to McGann,
[t]he polemic of Romantic poetry . . . is that it will not be polemical; its doctrine, that it is non-doctrinal; and its ideology, that it transcends ideology. (70)
However, New Historicist criticism such as McGann’s, Levinson’s, John Barrell’s, and Alan Liu’s reveals the “romantic ideology” implicit in Wordsworth’s poem. That is, New Historicism demonstrates that Wordsworth’s poetry intentionally effaces the sociopolitical realities of the poet’s time, even if it attempts to occlude this fact.
New Historicist scholarship has, in turn, been hotly debated and contested (see for example Helen Vendler, “Tintern Abbey: Two Assaults”; Nicholas Roe, The Politics of Nature: Wordsworth and Some Contemporaries; and Thomas Pfau, Wordsworth’s Profession: Form, Class, and Logic of Early Romantic Cultural Production). A particularly astute reading of “Tintern Abbey” that diverges from New Historicist readings like McGann’s and Levinson’s comes from Thomas Pfau (Wordsworth’s Profession). Pfau focuses on the sociocultural motives of Wordsworth’s poetic output and argues that the shift in “Tintern Abbey” “from an objective landscape to the affective transformation wrought in the subject caught up in its contemplation” (114) signals Wordsworth’s desire to create a “bourgeois inwardness” (118). Importantly, Pfau notes that
[s]elf-knowledge brought about by the cadences of the lyric does not amount to an utter evasion of History; rather, it persuades an imagined community of readers into a transferential identification with a deceptively ‘timeless’ condensation of their historical moment. (122)
In other words, Pfau disagrees with New Historicist critics that social and material references are effaced by Wordsworth and instead argues that the poet seeks to displace one paradigm of historical understanding for another. Wordsworth is not trying to evade history but to instead create a “sympathetic community” (123), and one with a specifically bourgeois sensibility.
Another important (and debated) section of Wordsworth’s poem is his turn towards his sister Dorothy Wordsworth in the fifth, and final, stanza of “Tintern Abbey” (ll.113-161). If most of the poem has up to this point focused on past and present, it is with the introduction of his “dear, dear Sister” (123) that the poet looks to a future when Dorothy’s “mind / Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms, / Thy memory be as a dwelling place / For all sweet sounds and harmonies” (141-44). According to the poet, he and his sister will practice a “chearful faith” (135) together in and through Nature. As with most of the poem, critics are split about Wordsworth’s apostrophic address to Dorothy. Some critics view the address negatively, arguing that Wordsworth’s apostrophe is at best “a decidedly feeble gesture towards externality” (Levinson, Wordsworth’s Great Period Poems 38) and at worst exploitative, with David Bromwich going so far as to claim that Wordsworth wrote his poem to control Dorothy’s interpretation of nature because he “was jealous of the strength Dorothy could enjoy without his wisdom”(“The French Revolution and ‘Tintern Abbey’” 22). Other critics read Wordsworth’s turn to Dorothy more positively and emphasize that, in addressing Dorothy, Wordsworth reveals both his love for his sister and appreciation for her own insights on nature which have in turn made him a better poet (see for example Raymond Powell, “Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey and Samson Agonistes” and James Soderholm, “Dorothy Wordsworth’s Return to Tintern Abbey”). For her own part, Dorothy Wordsworth responds enthusiastically to “Tintern Abbey” 35 years after its publication in her poem “Thoughts on My Sick-Bed,” a poem that rehearses many of the key themes of “Tintern Abbey,” including a dedication to the restorative capacities of nature and the power of the mind and imagination to help people (and in this case, Dorothy) to overcome their present struggles.
Although I have focused primarily on the ways in which New Historical readings of “Tintern Abbey” have been established and debated, New Historicism is not the only critical lens through which the poem has been read in recent decades. Indeed, as Eric K. W. Yu writes,
[t]he recent greening of British Romanticism has thrown the problem of social relevance into even sharper relief. If the New Historicist excavation of traumatic history is a longing to fix the meaning of the text in terms of historical specificities even at the cost of sacrificing probable authorial intention, then recent ecocriticism can be seen as a daring move to go beyond the confines of biography, history, and geography in search of some contemporary global, environmental relevance. (Wordsworth Studies and the Ethics of Criticism: The “Tintern Abbey” Debate Revisited 143-44)
Beginning with Jonathan Bate’s groundbreaking Romantic Ecology, Wordsworth’s poetry oeuvre has been read as proto-ecological in its views of nature. Such critics as Bate (Song of the Earth) and James McKusick (Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology) have emphasized the ways in which “Tintern Abbey” celebrates a relationship with nature in which the natural world is neither changed or destroyed by human intervention but rather reverenced and protected. Importantly, such readings move critical discussion away solely from debates about Wordsworth’s political alliances (the poet is seen to transition from a radical to a conservative politics as he ages) and historical engagements, and instead ask readers to consider his ecological commitments. According to Bate, an ecological reading of Wordsworth has a
strong contemporary force in that it brings Romanticism to bear on what are likely to be some of the most pressing political issues of the coming decade: the greenhouse effect and the depletion of the ozone layer, the destruction of the tropical rainforest, acid rain, the pollution of the sea, and, more locally, the concreting of England’s green and pleasant land. (Romantic Ecology 9)
Like many poems in Lyrical Ballads, “Tintern Abbey” focuses on landscape and the regenerative potential of nature (see for example “The Nightingale,” “Expostulation and Reply,” and “The Tables Turned”). The poem’s representation of Nature is complex. For Wordsworth, Nature is not only the external scenery one sees (though that too is important), but also a kind of divine presence that informs an individual’s moral life and feeds his or her soul, what Wordsworth calls a “sense sublime” (97) and “A motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things” (102-4). Throughout the course of “Tintern Abbey,” the poet focuses on the passage(s) of time in order to chart how his evolving relationship to and with Nature has made him the person he is. Indeed, the poem begins with the speaker (in the present) acknowledging that “Five years have passed; five summers, with the length / Of five long winters!” (1-2) since he has visited the banks of the Wye. This observation, in turn, compels the speaker to reflect upon his past relationship with nature. The speaker suggests that, when he was younger, he did not know how to associate properly with Nature. Even as recently as 1793, he was “more like a man / Flying from something that he dreads, than one / Who sought the thing he loved” (72-74). As time advances, however, the speaker no longer is like an “animal” (77) who is “haunted” (79) by Nature and who regards the natural landscape as “An appetite: a feeling and a love, / That had no need of a remoter charm, / By thought supplied, or any interest / Unborrowed from the eye” (82-85). Instead, he learns to appreciate more than just the “sight” of nature and relies on his memory of nature (and here, specifically, the Wye) to overcome difficult periods in his life:
Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration. (24-32)
The speaker’s (memory of his) first visit to the Wye is regenerative, especially “mid the din / Of towns and cities” (this is a theme Wordsworth explores in greater depth in his epic autobiographical poem, The Prelude, not published until after his death in 1850). More than this, though, the poet suggests that a relationship with Nature’s “forms of beauty” can help an individual develop the ability to enter a semi-conscious state of being where
this corporeal frame,
And even the motion of our own blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul.
While with an eye made quiet by power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things. (45-51)
Nature, then, helps the poet develop his poetic imagination and makes him into a kind of philosopher who can “see into the life of things.” Indeed, throughout the poem, Wordsworth emphasizes the active role poets must take in their relationship with nature; for example, in the poem’s first stanza, the poet uses the active form of first-person verbs (i.e.”I hear” (2); “I behold” (5); and “I again repose” (9)) and later, in stanza four, he speaks of the eye and ear and “what they half-create, / And what perceive” (108-9). As such, it is nature as mediated through the mind and the imagination, the speaker suggests, that provides him with “present pleasure,” as well as “life and food / For future years” (66-67). The speaker’s identity and mind is formed through his relationship with the natural world and he tells his readers that he is
well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being. (109-13)
Equally important is the speaker’s desire to share his experiences of, and love for, Nature with others who also worship the natural world (as does the speaker of “The Tables Turned”). This is why, near the end of his poem, Wordsworth apostrophizes his “dear, dear sister” (123) Dorothy. According to Thomas Pfau, Dorothy is integral to Wordsworth’s project to create a “sympathetic community” through nature that will help him displace “the phenomenon of temporality” (128) (indeed, Wordsworth’s attempt to create a “sympathetic community” through nature reminds one of the “little cottage girl” in his poem “We Are Seven”). Wordsworth’s poetic turn to Dorothy also allows the poet to re-emphasize, and relive, the occasion of his spiritual awakening through nature. According to Wordsworth, Dorothy’s “wild ecstasies shall be matured / Into a sober pleasure” (140-41), just as his once were too.
Although Wordsworth does not officially call his poem an ode (a lyrical stanza which has a tripartite structure: strophe, antistrophe, and epode), “Tintern Abbey” reads like one, a point that Wordsworth elaborates upon in his 1800 Note to the poem:
I have not ventured to call this Poem an Ode; but it was written with a hope that in the transitions, and the impassioned music of the versification would be found the principal requisites of that species of composition. (qtd. in Gamer and Porter 289)
The fact that Wordsworth writes an ode to Nature (uncommon prior to the Romantic Age, as odes were traditionally written to celebrate important people or events) illustrates how important the natural world is to him.
The poem is written in blank verse (iambic pentameter), which gives the poem its informal, conversational tone. Thematically and formally, “Tintern Abbey” feels out of place alongside Wordsworth’s other poems in the 1798 volume. Namely, it is not a ballad (though it is lyrical) and it is not “written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure” (Advertisement). Rather, “Tintern Abbey” is the production of a well-educated and socially-conscious poet and, as an autobiographical poem, perhaps one which gives readers greater insight into Wordsworth’s social, political, and psychological motivations for devising and composing the Lyrical Ballads.
“Tintern Abbey” is found on pages 201 to 210 of SFU’s 1798 edition of the Lyrical Ballads. Pages 201 to 208 make up the last eight pages of gathering N, and pages 209 to 210 make up the first two pages of gathering O.
The title is centred and runs over six lines. All the words in the title are capitalized with the words “LINES,” “TINTERN ABBEY,” and “WYE” being typed in a larger font than the rest of the title’s words. The date July 13, 1798 also appears in italics as part of the title. This date is significant as July 13th was the eve of Bastille Day. Bastille Day commemorated the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, an important event in the context of the French Revolution and one that was celebrated by European liberals. Wordsworth’s decision to add a date to his poem perhaps gives readers an indication of the poet’s broader social politics. Following the title is a double rule, which is commonplace throughout the volume.
Although Wordsworth and Coleridge asked their publisher Joseph Cottle to display 18 lines of verse per page, only pages 202 and 210 adhere to this request. Line numbers range from seven to 19 on the remainder of the pages. The poem has a total of five stanzas: stanza one has 24 lines, stanza two has 28 lines, stanza three has nine lines, stanza four has 54 lines, and stanza five has 49 lines. The printer has left 0.9 cm of space between stanzas.
Wordsworth also includes two in-text notes (on lines 4 and 108): the first (on page 201) clarifies that the Wye is not “affected by the tides a few miles above Tintern” and the second (on page 207) refers to Edward Young, a poet best known for his long poem The Complaint: or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality. The footnotes limit the number of poetic lines per page (page 201 has seven and page 207 has 14).
Page Images and Diplomatic Transcription
WRITTEN A FEW MILES ABOVE
ON REVISITING THE BANKS OF THE WYE DURING
July 13, 1798.
Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
*The river is not affected by the tides a few miles above Tintern
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
Though absent long,
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame,
And now, with gleams of half-extinguish’d thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
What then I was. The sounding cataract
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
*This line has a close resemblance to an admirable line of Young, the exact expression of which I cannot recollect.
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
The heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege,
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; Oh! then,