By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The poem commonly known as ‘Tintern Abbey’ actually has a much longer title. When the poem first appeared in Lyrical Ballads (1798) as a last-minute addition, it bore the title ‘Lines Written (or Composed) a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798’.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote the poem after visiting the ruins of the medieval abbey on the England-Wales border, and was so pleased with it he sent it to his publishers, asking it to be included, at the eleventh hour, in the collection of poems he and his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge had written.
You can read ‘Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’ here; what follows might be regarded as some notes towards an analysis of this, one of Wordsworth’s most famous and anthologised poems.
As the full title of Wordsworth’s poem ‘Tintern Abbey’ makes clear, he didn’t write the poem at Tintern Abbey, but ‘a few miles above it’. But even this is not quite true. Wordsworth actually wrote the poem in the bustling city: although he began composing the poem in his head while still in the Wye valley, he wrote it down while sitting in the parlour of his publisher, Joseph Cottle, in Bristol.
As Wordsworth himself later recalled: ‘No poem of mine was composed under circumstances more pleasant for me to remember than this. I began it upon leaving Tintern, after crossing the Wye, and concluded it just as I was entering Bristol in the evening, after a ramble of four or five days, with my Sister. Not a line of it was altered, and not any part of it written down till I reached Bristol.’
Wordsworth ‘wrote’ the poem (i.e. worked on it and then wrote it down) on 11-13 July 1798, almost five years after his previous visit to the Wye (August 1793).
Wherever he wrote it, the result was one of the most celebrated verse meditations on the self, the countryside, and the gathering of wisdom with time to be found in all of English literature. ‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ is a quintessential work of Romanticism.
‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’: summary
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
In summary, the poem sees Wordsworth revisiting the ‘banks of the Wye’, the river that flows through England and Wales, five years after he was last there. In fairly regular blank verse, Wordsworth admires the ‘murmur’ of the water, the greenery of the scene, and the seclusion that such surroundings provide. He imagines the smoke from the local cottages stems from hermits living a simple existence in the caves among the nearby woods.
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, 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:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.
In the poem’s second verse paragraph, Wordsworth tells us that although it’s been five years since he last clapped eyes on this scene, the memories of the beautiful landscape have often returned to him when he has been in busy ‘towns and cities’ or sitting ‘in lonely rooms’.
The scene inspires feelings which the poet connects with small acts of love and kindness, and which can lead to a kind of tranquillity which allows us to ‘see into the life of things’: to understand things in a way we usually cannot.
Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft—
In darkness and amid the many shapes
Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart—
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!
The third verse paragraph sees Wordsworth turn to the wooded area surrounding the banks of the Wye river and address the valley directly, telling it that his thoughts have often wandered to memories of it, his ‘spirit’ finding solace in its memory during the feverish business of living.
And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.
In the fourth paragraph, Wordsworth continues to take in his surroundings, happy at the thought that, as well as deriving pleasure from looking upon the landscape now, he is also storing up new visual memories of the valley, which he will be able to recollect once he has left, and take pleasure from in the future.
Wordsworth then shifts his focus to his past self, reflecting that when he first went among nature like this, he was a carefree boy who went eagerly to nature, rather than going to it because was fleeing from something (i.e. the troubles of the adult world).
However, he resists the urge to become sentimentally nostalgic or to lament his lost youth, because he reasons that he has gained things by becoming older and wiser: back then, he enjoyed nature when in his ‘thoughtless youth’ (‘thoughtless’ carrying a suggestion of ‘uncaring’ as well as ‘unthinking’ or ‘unreflective’), but now it carries deeper significance because he can hear the ‘still, sad music of humanity’ within it.
Almost oxymoronically, Wordsworth tells us that this sad quality ‘disturbs’ him ‘with the joy / Of elevated thoughts’: he is disturbed, but the disturbance is a welcome one, for it leads him to reflect and grow wiser. Wordsworth concludes this verse paragraph by stating that nature is like a parent or guardian to him in this respect, in inspiring him to great thoughts.
If I were not thus taught, should I the more
Suffer my genial spirits to decay:
For thou art with me here upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear Sister! and this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her;
In the poem’s final verse paragraph, Wordsworth addresses his companion with him by the banks of the river Wye: his sister, Dorothy. Because they’re brother and sister and have spent their lives together, looking at Dorothy reminds Wordsworth of the boy he was: she is a short-cut back to his childhood.
Wordsworth goes on to say that Nature – personified as female, as so often in poetry – is full of ‘blessings’, no matter what life may bring. He entreats Dorothy to remember this, and to remember their visit to the Wye valley in the years to come.
‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’: analysis
‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ represented a turning-point in Wordsworth’s career, and in the development of English Romanticism. The features we now most readily associate with Romantic poetry – the lyric focus on the personal thoughts and feelings of the poet, and the way the individual links with his or her natural surroundings – were brought to new heights in this poem.
Here it’s worth remembering the significance of the title of the collection to which ‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ was a last-minute addition: ‘ballads’ are poems which tell a story and have some narrative interest, a quality which ‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ notably lacks.
Many of the other most famous poems from Lyrical Ballads – Wordsworth’s own ‘We Are Seven’, ‘The Idiot Boy’, ‘Simon Lee’, and ‘Anecdote for Fathers’, not to mention Coleridge’s long narrative poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ – are narratives, not meditative lyrics. ‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ was the most notable longer poem in the collection which took as its main focus not story but thought, feeling, memory, and introspection.
Of course, this is not to claim that Wordsworth invented the idea of the meditative lyric. He was building on the work of earlier, pre-Romantic (or perhaps proto-Romantic) poets who wrote about the countryside, such as James Thomson (author of The Seasons) and, most notably, William Cowper. But Wordsworth brought out what was latent in Cowper and Thomson and gave it a new sense of importance and power.
One of the chief differences between earlier eighteenth-century nature poets and Romantics like Wordsworth’s is that earlier poets, especially the Augustans, liked their nature to be orderly: hedgerows should be neat, lines should ideally be straight, and things should be brought under the control of man.
One way in which ‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ might be regarded as a transitional poem between earlier nature poetry of the century and the Romantic movement (which Wordsworth was ushering in with his poem) is in the way nature, in this poem, hovers somewhere between order and chaos: it is not quite tamed, but nor is it completely wild either. Wordsworth may imagine that the smoke billowing up from those cottages is from hermits living entirely separate from society in caves in the hills and woods, but he knows that this is fancy, rather than reality.
Similarly, those very ‘plots of cottage-ground’ – which sound orderly given the presence of the word ‘plots’, suggesting careful planning – ‘lose themselves’ among the surrounding ‘woods and copses’. Indeed, even the ‘hedge-rows’ are ‘hardly hedge-rows’.
And this is perhaps why Wordsworth connects with the landscape here: just as mankind’s work, the ruined abbey, can be viewed just ‘a few miles’ away, so the reminders of the real world of society, building, and living are scattered throughout the wild hills and woods of the countryside. This juxtaposition is what lends the place a particular significance for Wordsworth.
In the last analysis, then, ‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ is a poem that shows Romanticism emerging from earlier poetry, but also becoming something distinctive (and distinct).