Is there a place you once visited and now, whenever you think of it, a flood of emotions returns? If so, then you can relate to William Wordsworth’s ”Tintern Abbey.
” In this lesson, we’ll examine the famous Romantic poem that’s not really about an abbey at all.
Behind the Poem
If you were wondering what the Romantic poet William Wordsworth was doing on July 13, 1798, I can tell you that he was writing a poem. Where was he? He was traveling on the River Wye. Why was he traveling on the River Wye? Because he had just left Tintern Abbey, and the river was how you got there. Had he been there before? Yes!You can learn all this stuff about that day in Wordsworth’s life without even reading the poem that we’re talking about. All you have to do is read the incredibly descriptive title ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798’.
The title’s often shortened to ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,’ or just ‘Tintern Abbey’ if you want to get right to the point. You don’t have to remember the full title, but it is kind of fun to know that it exists. It’s also kind of fun to think about why he might do that. I don’t really have any thoughts about it, but that’s something you can ponder.
Why would you write a title like that? Just to annoy people and make them have to remember the whole thing?As you now know, Wordsworth (along with his sister Dorothy) was visiting the ancient Welsh abbey in the summer of 1798 – again, we got that date from the title. He had visited it by himself five years earlier, in the August of 1793. Between 1793 and 1798, he thought about it a lot – he thought about that visit and the impact it had on him. It’s like any great trip you might have taken. Maybe Cabo might not be totally the same idea, but the point is that the traveling stays with you even after you’ve left that awesome place. When he returned in 1798, it inspired him to write a poem.
He claimed that he composed this 160-line poem in his head, which, if you’ve ever tried to memorize a poem, is a little nuts (actually, a girl in a class I took on Wordsworth did memorize this whole thing and recited it for us, which was crazy, and I don’t know how she did it). He was so proud of this poem that he wanted to add it on to the end of Lyrical Ballads, which was the collection of poems he had written and published with Samuel Coleridge. The book was already in production, but they did manage to tack it on at the end, so he got his way.
About the Abbey
Just a little background about this scene – let’s talk about the Abbey. Tintern Abbey was the home of the Earl of Grantham – no, that’s Downton Abbey, a different place, even though they both have ‘abbey’ in the title. Tintern Abbey was founded around the 1100s, and its great church was completed in 1301. It’s 700 years ago now, still 500 years before Wordsworth ever visited it, so it was a ruin. It was the home of Cistercian monks who were really into manual labor; they were into agriculture, they were into making delicious beer – monks just love to do this. There are some monks that make awesome jelly.
Monks just like to make cool stuff, and also books and whatnot.The Abbey was doing great for about 400 years, and then in 1536 Henry VIII decided that monasteries were going to go the way of the dinosaur and he disbanded them, and that was kind of the end of it. The thing that is important is that when Wordsworth visited, it had been in ruins for hundreds of years already. It wasn’t like it was a working thing or like it was recently ruined. It was all covered in ivy, but it was otherwise pretty similar to what you’d find if you went and looked at it today.
In 1798, it had just been kind of rediscovered as a bit of a tourist trap of its day. As a fun kind of side note, the Abbey was actually also the setting for an Iron Maiden video, so it kind of inspires lots of people: it’s got monks, it’s got Wordsworth, it’s got heavy metal. It’s a pretty versatile place.
Memories and the Worship of Nature
Let’s get to the poem. It begins with Wordsworth reflecting on the time that’s passed between his first visit and his second visit. He says:Five years have past; five summers, with the lengthOf five long winters!You first notice the use of accessible, ordinary language. He’s not tarting up his speech; he’s going simple and keeping it clear.
It was really important to Wordsworth and his fellow Romantic poets to do this: to make the language not artificially fancy. The poem was written in blank verse, which means that lines don’t have rhymes but they are in iambic pentameter, which is five pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables. There are two main themes to consider with the poem: memory and Nature worship. They’re kind of intertwined, so we’re going to examine them together in the poem.Right from the start we get this emotional connection to his memory. He’s so amazed that it’s been five years that he says it in three different ways: he says ‘years,’ he says ‘summers,’ and he says ‘winters.’ It’s all the same thing – all of those three things mean that five years have passed, but he gives a lot of depth to the time that has passed by naming it in all these different ways.
And then right away we jump right into Nature. He says:and again I hearThese waters, rolling from their mountain-springsWith a soft inland murmur.-Once againDo I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,That on a wild and secluded scene impressThoughts of more deep seclusion; and connectThe landscape with the quiet of the sky.
Since you know he’s visiting the ruins of an abbey, and it’s not a still-functional abbey, it’s easy to understand why the actual Abbey itself is not described in the poem. Instead he’s talking about the beautiful rural landscape in this particular remote corner of Wales. The ruins of the Abbey become the landscape in a way, which is kind of poignant, because it used to be for people, and now it’s for Nature. It’s kind of been reclaimed by the land in a way due to its ruin.
Another poet might have just described his visit to Tintern Abbey and how it was great and looked nice – he would have taken a photo but cameras weren’t invented – and he would’ve just called it a day at that. But Wordsworth is not just interested in nature and pretty scenery. He’s also interested in memory.
He’s been to this place before, and that’s interesting to him. He says:These beauteous forms,Through a long absence, have not been to meAs is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the dinOf towns and cities, I have owed to themIn hours of wearinessIt’s a special place to him, and it had a really profound impact in 1793. In the ensuing five years since then, the memory was strong enough that he took solace in it; it soothed him when he was in a less pleasant place or in a bad mood.Think about that great trip you took, your favorite vacation ever – maybe it was Disney World when you were little and you still believed in magic. When you think about it, you can remember the feeling of being on the rides, the taste of the food – especially if your mom gave in and bought you one of those Mickey-shaped ice cream treats even though they were four dollars, and you begged and begged and you got it, and that great memory of that – it’s all kind of wrapped up in the magic of the place. That memory still sustains you – you look back and it’s this perfect, magical memory. That’s what’s going on with Wordsworth and Tintern Abbey.
You might not feel that way about a ruined abbey. Wordsworth didn’t have Disneyland in his time, so take that for what it is.He goes on to state that he was so altered by his first visit that it caused little, nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and love, so not only does it help him out in times of trouble, it also makes him a better man, he’s basically saying. It makes him do nice things for people. You might be able to say that about Disney World; I’m not sure I can. He expects that the second visit will have the same effect on him – that’s important.
It will change him for the better; it will give him these memories that sustain him in difficult times in the future.The poem goes on and Wordsworth begins to reflect about how he’s changed since his first visit. He says then he bounded o’er the mountains full of youth and vigor and now all its aching joys are now no more, / And all its dizzy raptures. He’s only five years older, but I guess that was a big deal. I guess five years from now I’ll feel pretty; never mind; maybe I won’t feel that old still. But this isn’t just a sad lament about getting old.
He’s learned to appreciate age in new and more mature ways. He says:I have feltA presence that disturbs me with the joyOf elevated thoughtsIt’s kind of like if you went back to Disney World as an adult with your kids. You’d feel a little weird that it’s different and that you’re the one who’s telling them they can’t have the Mickey Mouse ice cream – suddenly you understand why your mom thought it was absurd to buy it – but you’re still happy in the moment because you’re sharing it with somebody new.In Wordsworth’s case he’s sharing this place with Dorothy; you’re sharing it with your kids. He calls her my dearest Friend / My dear, dear Friend as well as his dear, dear Sister – there’s a lot of ‘dears’ there; she’s clearly very, very dear to him.
As the poem winds down, Wordsworth starts to focus more and more on his sister. He says:Therefore let the moonShine on thee in thy solitary walk;And let the misty mountain-winds be freeTo blow against theeThis is part of a kind of prayer he makes to Nature, essentially asking Nature to watch over Dorothy and to provide her with comfort and some of the same solace that’s offered to him by this place. He refers to himself as a worshipper of Nature, again in this vein of prayer, and he’s saying that even if he’s dead, Dorothy should remember how much he loved Nature. So again we have these themes of memory and Nature, only now he’s telling his sister to keep the memory of his love for Nature after his death, so they’re kind of twisting together.I mentioned earlier how the Abbey itself is never described, but here at the end we get this overt prayer. An abbey is sort of a religious place – monks live there, and they’re all into God – so we get this prayer in this used-to-be-religious setting, but it’s a prayer to Nature.
So religion is in the poem, but in a pantheistic sense (that’s the belief that God and Nature are the same thing, that God is everywhere). In a way, you can say the whole poem is a prayer to Nature and its power over you and your memory. That’s ‘Tintern Abbey,’ or – excuse me – ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798.
So, to sum up what we’ve talked about: the poem ‘Tintern Abbey’ was written after Wordsworth’s second visit to the Abbey in question, and he talks about his memories from his first visit and how they’ve shaped him, helped him be a better person, given him comfort. The poem is also a celebration of Nature and of the setting of the place – Nature’s reclaimed the Abbey since it’s in ruins – and about Wordsworth’s enthusiastic, passionate love for the natural world. It’s set against the ruins of Tintern Abbey, which gives the poem a religious undertone that gradually becomes more and more overt as Wordsworth gives a prayer to Nature that it will protect his sister. This poem intertwines memory and nature and religion in very complicated and balanced interplay.
That’s ‘Tintern Abbey.’
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe the setting of Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ and what it meant to him
- Explain how the themes of religion and nature are intertwined in the poem