Tintern Abbey - Commentary

Title: RW notes that the full title of the poem tells many things: "contemporary readers would have observed that the writer was on a picturesque tour, yet not at the established beauty spot, which was the Abbey itself. They would also have noticed the date, which is the eve of Bastille Day, and been able to place the poem in a literary tradition of poets (Akenside, Warton, Bowles, Coleridge) "revisting" rivers of their youth." Wordsworth was born on 7 April 1770 and was 28 when he wrote this poem. Fig.1 shows the earliest known portrait of him which is dated 1798 and according to Dorothy's Alfoxden journal, William Shuter executed this portrait at Stowey in April and May, 1798.


1-23: Moorman compares 18-20 with a passage in Gilpin's Observations on the River Wye which she suggests William and Dorothy had with them on tour: "Many of the furnaces, on the banks of the river, consume charcoal, which is manufactured on the spot; and the smoke, which is frequently seen issuing from the sides of the hills; and spreading its thin veil over a part of them, beautifully breaks their lines, and unites them with the sky". It is not in fact smoke from a Hermit's cave that Wordsworth is describing but from pollutive charcoal-burning iron-furnaces. Wordsworth, in the picturesque tradition, reharmonises the scene, just as Gilpin does. Fig.2 shows an illustration from Gilpin's book, RW notes however that "it is important to notice that the illustrations are not intended to be accurate. Gilpin's drawing of the abbey shows a much longer and less blockish building than the tourist would see on arrival. To the surprise of some of his early readers, it was a pictureqsue idea, not a topographical representation. True to his principles, Gilpin has carried out on paper the remodelling of the ruin which he tells us he would like to have seen in practise:

A number of gable-ends hurt the eye with their regularity, and disgust it by the vulgarity of their shape. A mallet judiciously used - but who durst use it? - might be of service in fracturing some of them, particularly those of the cross-aisles, which are not only disagreeable in themselves, but confound the perspective.

Fig. 3 shows Turner's watercolour of the scene, fig.4a shows a sketch by Francis Nicholson taken at almost exactly the same time that Wordsworth made his visit to the scene (and taken from almost exactly the same perspective as Turner) and fig.4b shows Nicholson's finished article. Both Turner and Nicholson have made more effort than Gilpin to reharmonise the real aspects of the scene whilst still maintaining a topographical representation, striving to cope with the gables that Gilpin conveniently suppressed.

Wordsworth's approach is closer to Gilpin's in the poem's opening. Gill argues that the poem: "strikingly avoids any localizing detail. It opens with the evocation of a particular place - "These waters", "these steep and lofty cliffs", "These plots of cottage-ground" - but for all it's apparent specifity, the scene remains generalised". The most strikingly absent detail is any mention of the actual ruins themselves. Wordsworth is performing the same deed that Gilpin does in his picturesque view of the Abbey (fig.2) or his picturesque description of smoke-pollution. But rather than keep trying to re-harmonise the "vulgarity" of the scene with his artistic eye, after these first 23 lines, Wordsworth turns his artistic gaze away from his surroundings, focusing on his eye itself as the subject of the poem, not Tintern Abbey or River Wye, and eventually fixing his gaze on the mind of Dorothy, his sister (line 114-end). The surroundings that Wordsworth describes were probably more like fig.5, a painting by Cornelius Varley. David S. Miall performs a detailed examination of where the actual scene Wordsworth describes precisely is, Symonds Yat (fig.6) being one possibility. For more information and some high quality photos of the Abbey itself go to the Welsh Castles website.


35-50: RW notes that "the poet is telling us of powers within the human mind that he cannot himself fully comprehend, but which he feels to be of immense importance" and this statement is echoed in Q.1 and Q.2 but these are reflections upon a past childhood existence in which he did not register the "immense importance" of this power yet obviously felt it. The mature poet of Tintern Abbey is aware (unlike the child) that this loss of bodily awareness is accompanied by a "mystical communion with the life-force of the universe" (JW), "the life of things", a similar communion that is to be found in Coleridge's earlier poem This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison (Q.3) But for Coleridge the life-force is more specifically referred to as the Unitarian God, the one Life, "the Almighty Spirit" with a capital A and S. (a belief in the one God as opposed to the Trinity).

Coleridge's notebook entries (Q.4) show his rather skewed interpretation of Wordsworth's poem in which the perceived notion of the "life of things" (lines 49-50) is self-reflexively the life of the poet itself. The experience Wordsworth is describing however is a reciprocal communion between the poet's mind and the external world, in Bloom's words: "the poet loves Nature for its own sake alone, and the presences of Nature gives beauty to the poet's mind, again only for that mind's sake." Bloom argues that it is "not mysticism, but rather, a state of aesthetic contemplation" when Wordsworth sees into "the life of things" he sees things not for their potential use but for themselves. For Bloom, JW's statement seems to be more descriptive of Coleridge's attitude than Wordsworth's. Bloom may be right in saying that Coleridge's in his "conversation poems [...] allows himself to be distracted from it by theological misgivings and self-abnegation" but this should not deny Wordsworth a mystical communion with the One Life in Tintern Abbey, something more transecendental than any aesthetic experience. The biggest difference between Tintern and the conversation poems before it is that this feeling is "associated with the human capacity to learn from experience" (RW). Coleridge's earlier conversation poems: The Eolian Harp, Frost at Midnight and This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison come as a direct response to the beauty of the objects perceived before him but WW experiences this "serene and blessed mood" away from the aesthetic object itself, via instead, the visual memories that the objects have impressed in his mind. Fig.7 shows Coleridge at around the time when he was writing these early conversation poems.

In Q.5a John Keats (fig.8) expresses his great indebtedness to Tintern Abbey, quoting line 39 and deriving his idea of "human life as a Mansion" (line 141). Fig.9 shows Keats's Poems, 1817, his first publication, inscribed in his own hand "To W Wordsworth with the Author's sincere Reverence." This, plus the further of poems such as Byron's Childe Harold and Shelley's Mont Blanc and Adonais moves RW to write: "It is a moving humbleness in the face of what, for Wordsworth's contemporaries, was the central Romantic poem. To us The Prelude, because of its larger scope, must seem greater still, but only Coleridge and De Quincey knew the work in manuscript, and it was not published until after Wordsworth's death in 1850, Tintern Abbey [...] was the supreme embodiment of the Romantic faith." A year later, Keats writes to his brother and sister-in-law in America (Q.5b) expressing a further development of the thoughts influenced by Tintern Abbey. Keats's concept of the "Soul made from that School and hornbook" echoes lines 108-112 with "nature and the language of the sense" as the "guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul / Of all my moral being."

50-58: Wordsworth discusses how his presentation of solitude differs from Byron's in two letters (Q.6a & Q.6b). Wordsworth argues that his poetic description of solitude comes "fortuitously in the musical succession of preconceived feeling" rather than removed from the location of the feeling as it does in Gillies' use of the epigram. His "enthusiastic admiration of Nature", he says is completely "natural" compared to Byron's "assumed"enthusiasm. The feelings in Tintern Abbey certainly grow organically from the expreience of the poem but whether the growth of these feelings is completely "natural" or not is a more debatable question.

71-73: JW: "Wordsworth recollects the special circumstances of his first visit to the Wye, when he had indeed been fleeing from something that he dreaded. The previous month had been spent on the Isle of Wight, opposite Portsmouth where the Brtish fleet was preparing for war with France. Wordsworth's political sympathies were with the French republicans, and in addition France was the country of Annette Vallon, whom he hoped to marry, and their nine-month-old daughter Caroline, whom because of the war he had never met. He arrived at Tintern in his way from the Isle of Wight to South Wales in a feverish and exhuasted sate of mind, having crossed Salisbury Plain on foot and largely without food."

77-103: The image of the "sounding cataract" in line 77 is an elaborate triple-meaning that closely parallels the three stages of experience that Wordsworth depicts in the poem. The initial meaning is of course the actual cataract, the youthful impression of the waterfall, its impact, the "dizzy raptures" perceived solely through the "eye". But the cataract is also "the 'flood-gates' of heaven, viewed as keeping back the rain" (a now obsolete meaning, see OED) that is witholding the "sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused" (line 96) and that has yielded its gates to Wordworth in the passing of time. Thirdly, the cataract is "an opacity of the crystalline lens of the eye, or of the capsule of the lens, or of both, 'producing more or less impairment of sight, but never complete blindness' " (OED), it is the growing impairment of Wordsworth's sensuality as his eye becomes less perceptive to visual images but his reflective mind reaches more "elevated thoughts".

Within the one word is a movement from the initial sensory perception of an object, the object's potential energy and its release of a "sense sublime" through reflection, but a release that is accompanied by the dimming of the senses that perceived the initial impression through experience. Wordsworth makes it clear that he does not, however "mourn or murmur" for this loss because the heightened experience that follows is "abundant recompense"; more has been gained than lost in the passing of time. JW argues however, using the end of Ode: Intimations of Immortality (as another example, that "in each case, though, the force of poetry has been elegiac (emphasised loss), and his exclamations are none too convincing". JW hints at but does not suggest that the "elegiac" force behind the poem and Wordsworth's repetition of his "exclamations" are a poetic attempt to convince himself of its truth. There would, however, be no need for any self-convincing if WW had no doubts in his belief.


112-160: Wordsworth finally turns to his sister Dorothy who accompanied him in his second visit to the Wye in 1798 but never been there previously and Wordsworth sees in her the figure of himself when he first visited the area. Fig.10 suggests that WW description of Dorothy as having "wild eyes" (line 120 and line 149) is actually based on fact. JW notes that WW prays that "Dorothy may lead a life totally at one with Nature" but WW actually prays for both himself and his sister: "through all the years of this our life", "the mind that is within us", not "you" or "your". JW notes that "Coleridge in Frost at Midnight [Q .8] (the poem which more than any other established the form and genre of Tintern Abbey) had conferred a similar blessing on his infant son Hartley." Lines 112-115 echoe the 23rd psalm (Q.9) but, as PW notes: "comfort comes not from a divinity situated at a distance, but from one's own experience, half-perceiving, half-creating, with the memory of the imagination offering us sweet sounds and harmonies that value and living friends can vigorously give us". Dorothy's new experience not only benefits herself but William as well for the landscape is made "more dear" since Dorothy now treasures it. Wordsworth later confers the same sentiment on his wife, Mary (pictured in fig.11) in a letter written 14 years later. (Q.10) Lines 123-125 Wordsworth echoes Coleridge's lines in This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison (Q.11), both poets emphasising the reciprocity of Nature.

160: Dorothy echoes this last line in a poem of her own written over 30 years later (Q.12), expressing the feelings that William had hoped the experience of the Wye would bestow upon her. Dorothy's memory is not only reciprocal with Nature itself but with her brother William as well. The final conclusion of the poem is one that values reciprocal experience between man, woman and Nature. PW's comparison with Coleridge'sis most apt: "Wordsworth shifts balance to his own more energetic and simpler positon where the positive human heart goes out to the natural world in equal relationship [...] Wordsworth's religious sense, by contrast - and surely in answer to Coleridge's - comes, one might say, almost entirely out of his personal experience, out of he way human beings react throughout their lives in time to places of beauty, to loss and to love of other human beings."

What did you think of this commentary? Do you agree with its reading?