Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey": From Self-Consciousness to Sympathy
Published in Connotations Vol. 7.2 (1997/98)
In "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798," the speaker, biographically identified with Wordsworth himself, contemplates a landscape well−remembered since a visit to the same spot five years previously, does not quite recognize the view, and is perplexed by his subdued reaction to it. This initial response stimulates his reflections upon a change in himself, and the speaker comes to terms with this change through a process common to the Romantic nature lyrics that "explore the transition from self−consciousness to imagination" and "achieve that transition while exploring it." Geoffrey H. Hartman, "Romanticism and 'Anti−Self−Consciousness,'" The Centennial Review 6 (1962): 562. See also M. H. Abrams, "Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric," From Sensibility to Romanticism: Essays Presented to Frederick A. Pottle, ed. Frederick W. Hilles and Harold Bloom (New York: OUP, 1965). One of the unique features of "Tintern Abbey," not yet sufficiently recognized in critical discussions, is that it integrates the revisitation topos The topos of revisiting was amply present in eighteenth−century topographical poetry; see M. H. Abrams, Doing Things with Texts (New York: Norton, 1989) 382. For a guide to Wordsworth's reworking of this and other topoi see John O. Hayden's cento "The Road to Tintern Abbey," The Wordsworth Circle 12 (1981): 211−16. into an enactment of a complementary transition—from an intense consciousness of the self to sympathy for another.
The change of the speaker's attitude is an enacted theme, or, in a sense, thematized "plot" of the poem: a larger biographical change, a shift of commitment, is simulated by a micro−biographical event, the speaker's temporally unfolding, trial−and−error response to his revisitation of a memorable spot.
The starting point of this dynamic poetic experience is the "sad perplexity" (l. 60) at the failure to reproduce the intensity of the emotional heightening experienced during the speaker's 1793 visit, when his love of nature did not depend "on any interest ⁄ Unborrowed from the eye" (ll. 82−83). Indeed, on the scene of his micro−biography, during the interval spent under "this dark sycamore" (l. 10) on the bank of the Wye, the speaker's attention is constantly wandering away from the data of direct [→page 182] perception—his "interest" is claimed by memories, thoughts, and surmises. In a class on "Tintern Abbey" given in the School for Criticism and Theory in 1985, Professor Ralph Freedman pointed to the ambiguity of the repeated word "again" in the first verse paragraph: its direct meaning in the context—"now, five years from the first visit"—is supplemented by the connotations of reminding oneself to actually look and listen. This is suggested by collocation: the word "again" is always followed by a reference to sense perception. The poem opens by memories—"Five years have passed; five summers ⁄ With the length of five long winters!"—and only then does the attention shift to an immediate auditory image: "and again I hear ⁄ These waters." Yet the thought moves out in space, to the sources of the river Wye in the "mountain springs" and perhaps to the sea invoked by its opposite—"a soft inland murmur." The speaker then redirects his attention to the scene: "Once again ⁄ Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs"; but immediately afterwards the perception blends into thoughts of "more deep seclusion." The word "connect," placed in an emphatic position at the end of line 6 (the cliffs "connect ⁄ The landscape with the quiet of the sky"), pertains to the spatial frame of the scene, but it also connects the present moment with a fleeting thought of the interval of time between the two visits: "The day is come when I again repose ⁄ Here, under this dark sycamore." And almost immediately after the tactual and visual senses are appealed to (through the image of reposing under the sycamore to view the "cottage grounds" and "orchards"), the direct language of the sense is replaced by personifying metaphors: the cultivated plots are "clad" in the same green color as the natural "groves" and "copses" among which they "lose themselves," creating an emblem of man's cooperation with nature. The next "again," l. 14, draws the speaker out of his incipient musings and back to perception: "Once again I see ⁄ These hedge−rows, hardly hedge−rows, little lines ⁄ Of sportive wood run wild." Here lies one of the poem's many ambiguities: it is not clear whether the speaker actually remembers his earlier impression of the man−made hedge−rows yielding to the impulses of nature ("running wild") See also Russell Noyes, Wordsworth and the Art of Landscape (New York: Haskell House, 1973) 245. or whether this impression modifies the earlier "picture of the mind" (l. 61). In other words, it is not clear whether the correction introduced by [→page 183] "hardly" simulates the micro−biographical adjustment of concept to perception or points to the difference between the remembered "picture of the mind" and the newly observed landscape. The latter interpretation is the more widely accepted one: "Because [Wordsworth] is interested in the stages of growth, he often juxtaposes two widely separated periods of time in such a way that we are made dramatically conscious of the degree of growth that has taken place between Stage One and Stage Two. It resembles the effect that might be produced by our seeing a double exposure on photographic film, where the same person appears in the same setting, except that ten years have elapsed between exposures." Carlos Baker, "Sensation and Vision in Wordsworth," English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. M. H. Abrams (London: OUP, 1960) 106.
Thus the first verse−paragraph effects a telescoped re−enactment of the vast in the contracted, the biographical in the micro−biographical: seeing the view again after five years of memories is condensed into looking at it again—and again—after wandering away into memory and reflection. This kind of re−enactment is then brought into high relief by the apostrophe in lines 55−56: "How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee, ⁄ O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer through the woods, ⁄ How often has my spirit turned to thee." While recollecting his recourse to the memories of the river during the past five years, the poet is actually turning to the river perceived at the very moment, re−turning to it, while—as the etymology of the word "apostrophe" suggests, turning away from the audience.
But to return to the second verse paragraph. Here one can observe a transition from biography to micro−biographical episodes of the past when, from enumerating the "gift[s]" that the memory of the landscape granted the speaker during the intervening five years, the poem passes on to tracing the movement towards a mystical experience occasionally achieved during that melancholy time:
… that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things. (ll. 37−49)
The most "sublime" achievement of the past micro−biography, the mystical seeing "into the life of things," is then partly subverted by the present [→page 184] doubt—"If this ⁄ Be but a vain belief" (ll. 49−50), followed by the compensatory bliss of turning to the river at the present micro−biographical moment. The apostrophe thus re−enacts the numerous occasions on which, "in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din ⁄ Of towns and cities" (ll. 25−26), Wordsworth turned to remembered landscapes as to a refuge from the vexations of the spirit; it also re−enacts his ideological shift following his disappointments with social struggle and with his own philosophical doubts. Cf. Geoffrey H. Hartman's discussion of Wordsworth's metaphysics: "Nature is second best, a substitute heaven." The Unremarkable Wordsworth (London: Methuen, 1987) 27.
In the fourth verse paragraph the handling of time in the poem is reversed. Memories are replaced by thoughts about the future ("in this moment there is life and food ⁄ For future years"), and the account of the micro−biographical movement towards mystical insight is replaced by the survey of larger biographical stages in the development of the speaker's love of nature. These stages are macro−biographical steps towards "seeing into the life of things," from complete identification with nature in childhood (ll. 73−74), through a passion for it in the early 1790s, to the present calm love. Mystical insight is no longer a matter of separate flights of the spirit achieved through the "via negativa" of the hermit−like "laying asleep" of the body; rather, the "sense sublime ⁄ Of something far more deeply interfused" is an integral part of aesthetic experience.rong>[→page 192] 6. Cf. Harold Bloom's more radical belief that these passages represent "not mysticism but, rather, a state of aesthetic contemplation," The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1963) 142. Moreover, whereas the mystical trance referred to in the second verse paragraph depended on jamming "the din of towns and cities," the insight approximated in the fourth paragraph incorporates a metaphorically transformed auditory image, "the still, sad music of humanity" (l. 91), Wordsworth's 1798 alternative to the music of the spheres. Wordsworth's present contemplation of landscape is "oftentimes" (l. 90) accompanied by an ethical awareness, whose inclusion signifies an ideological change.
The metaphysical⁄ethical "presence" which Wordsworth has learned to feel is "disturb[ing]," albeit it "disturbs" him " with the joy ⁄ of elevated thoughts" (ll. 94−95). This kind of joy, this heightening of faculties, does not reach the peak intensities of the "aching joys" and "dizzy raptures" of his earlier visionary passion. In the immediate context the verb "disturbs" pertains to the disruption of his calm contentment in the presence of the "sublime" (l. 95); in the broader context it may pertain to [→page 185] the speaker's discontent with the lowered pitch of his excitement—hence the wavy structure of the poem, with the sense of an aborted climax recurring in each verse paragraph. However it might be, the new "gifts" (l. 86) of ethics and metaphysics in the aesthetic response to nature are presented as compensatory ("for such loss, I would believe ⁄ Abundant recompense," ll. 86−87), yet ethical awareness "disturbs," because it is the awareness of human suffering.
The biographical turn from a search of an aesthetic and metaphysical communion with nature to attitudes "chasten[ed] and subdue[d]" (l. 93) by the ethical awareness is simulated by the speaker's turn to the sister in the present micro−biographical time. The trial−and−error process enacted in the poem may be roughly summarized as follows: having sought out the spot where he had once experienced visionary rapture, the speaker does not re−live the same elevation of the spirit; his memory repeatedly recapitulates the steps that had once led him to unrestrained joy, turning back to the perceived scene after each iteration; finally, he shifts to a different spiritual endeavour, one that includes human commitment. His turning to address Dorothy is a transition from a frustrated experimentation with autonomous emotional capabilities to care for another human being.
The reader has the option of identifying the two successive addressees, the river and Dorothy, in terms of their symbolic roles. What argues in favour of such an identification is that Dorothy's function at certain periods of Wordsworth's life was comparable to maternal sustenance and care; in his poetry he attributed such a function to nature. What argues against it, however, is that the first addressee, the river Wye, is still there when the speaker turns to Dorothy, only now it is in the shape of the third−person deictic presence ("on the banks ⁄ Of this fair river"), excluded from the I−Thou relationship. Robert J. Griffin notes "the displacement of the poet's youthful response to nature onto Dorothy" yet goes on to "speculate" that "the father (Pope's text) was transformed by repression first into a mother (nature), and then into a younger sister." "Wordsworth's Pope: The Language of His Former Heart," ELH 54 (1987): 704, 705. I accept Griffin's argument about Pope's troubling influence on Wordsworth but not the view (suggested by the term "transformation") of the replacement of one "object" by another as a psychological process divorced from will and choice. Read as a simulation of a trial−and−error spiritual development, the poem suggests that, eschewing the possibility of an emotional dead end, the speaker has actually turned away from the "fair river" and, instead, has turned to the sister, the nearest human presence, the natural object of affection and a representative of more remote objects of sympathy.
[→page 186] This ethical shift is not unanticipated. Though five years previously the speaker sought nature in lieu of human commitments—he had come to this spot on the bank of the Wye as if "Flying from something that he dreads"—the language used in the second verse paragraph to describe the feelings aroused by the memories of the Wye during the five years has a distinct ethical tinge. These feelings are likened to the diffuse satisfaction with one's active benevolence: "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, un−remembered acts ⁄ Of kindness and of love" (ll. 30−35; italics mine). In "An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals," David Hume writes that "the immediate feeling of benevolence and friendship, humanity and kindness, is sweet, smooth, tender, and agreeable, independent of all fortune and accidents"; David Hume, Enquiries, ed. L. A. Selby−Bigge (Oxford: Clarendon, 1902) 282. this valorization of the benefits of sober benevolence comes in the context of objections to the belief that "life, without passion, must be altogether insipid and tiresome." Hume 281. Wordsworth seems to have worked his way to a similar conclusion: with passion lost, life need not become insipid. There remains a "sweet, smooth, tender, and agreeable" love of nature, "independent of all fortune and accidents." It might prove insufficient, but there is also the care for the loved ones. Whereas the relationship with nature was characterized by a collaboration, a human commitment is characterized by reciprocity: the speaker is thinking not only about what Dorothy can do for him (remind him of what he has been and thereby convince him of the reality of former enthusiasms) but also of what he can do for her—help to steel her against inevitable future suffering—if by no more than laying the ground for compensatory memories of love. See also James Soderholm's discussion of Dorothy Wordsworth's poem "Thoughts on My Sickbed" as gratefully confirming Wordsworth's prediction, "Dorothy Wordsworth's Return to Tintern Abbey," New Literary History 26 (1995): 309−22. Hence the importance of the ruins of Tintern Abbey—invisible, several miles away, with the "bare ruined quires" that remind one to love that well which one will lose ere long; hence also the duly re−processed echoes of Psalm 23, "I will fear no evil, for thou art with me …": Dorothy should fear no evil, not because it will not come but because Nature and memories will be with her. Cf. Abrams, Doing Things with Texts 387. I am indebted to our student Aliza Raz for a detailed discussion of the echoes of Psalm 23 in her paper on "Tintern Abbey."
Yet Wordsworth swerves away from Hume's psychological egoism. The above quotation from "An Enquiry" continues as follows: "These virtues [→page 187] are besides attended with a pleasing consciousness of remembrance, and keep us in humour with ourselves as well as others; while we retain the agreeable reflection of having done our part towards mankind and society." Hume 282. Though towards the end of the poem Wordsworth will talk about the view of the valley giving him not only "the sense of present pleasure" but also "pleasing thoughts" about long−term effects and though he will express the hope of being remembered by his sister, in the second verse paragraph the little nameless acts "of kindness and of love" are "unremembered" acts—not so much in the sense of not producing gratitude in the recipients as in the sense of not leading to a Humean utilitarian complacency.
Whereas in the second verse paragraph Wordsworth uses the language of moral philosophy to describe the after−effects of a landscape, in the fourth verse paragraph he uses the language of sense perception, his "anchor" (l. 109), to mark the confluence of the metaphysical insight with the newly activated ethical sense: the ethical presence, the "music of humanity" is "nor harsh nor grating" (l. 92), and "the motion" that impels "All thinking things, all objects of all thought" is the spirit that "rolls through all things" (ll. 100−12), like the waters of the Wye that are "rolling from their mountain springs" in line 3 (italics mine). The two semantic fields converge in the fifth paragraph's address to Dorothy, a micro−biographical instance of the larger change in the speaker's ethical program.
Wordsworth's attitude to his sister in "Tintern Abbey" is sometimes described as exploitative: the poet, it is argued, seems to wish to arrest his sister's intellectual development, so that her "wild" spirit should re−invigorate his own. This view is most extensively argued by John Barrell in Chapter 5 of Poetry, Language & Politics (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1988). This reading, however, neglects the suggestion made at the beginning of the last paragraph: Dorothy could have been relied upon to sustain the speaker's "genial spirits" had he not previously learned to fuel them by new interests: "Nor perchance, ⁄ If I were not thus taught, should I the more ⁄ Suffer my genial spirits to decay: ⁄ For thou art with me here" (ll. 111−14; my italics). From his point of view, her presence is a bonus; his creative power does not depend on it. Dorothy herself is the main beneficiary of her presence on the bank of the Wye on this summer day.
[→page 188] Particularly controversial—not to say misleading—on at least three counts is John Barrell's argument that the words "yet a little while ⁄ May I behold in thee what I was once" (ll. 119−20) are "a prayer to nature to arrest Dorothy's development, and for his benefit." Barrell 162. First, it implies an identification of Dorothy with "nature" as the addressee of the prayer—whereas the address to Dorothy replaces rather than replicates the earlier apostrophe to the river. Second, "the prayer" actually begins later, in line 134 ("Therefore let the moon ⁄ Shine on thee in thy solitary walk"); it is anticipated and prefaced by "this prayer I make" in line 121. In line 120, the syntactic inversion "May I behold" need not be read as the word order typical of prayers, blessings and curses: in Wordsworth's times, more than in our own, such an inversion was demanded by the placing of an adverbial of time like "for a little while" at the beginning of a sentence, so that 'yet for a little while I may behold' would verge on the un−grammatical. It is the use of the word "may" that introduces the ambiguity concerning the illocutionary force of the sentence (an emotionally charged statement or a quasi−religious request). However, if one interprets Wordsworth's address to his sister as a respectful and sympathetic turning to a fellow subject, then the use of "may" emerges as determined by a more diffident attitude than what would have been suggested by its alternative, the self−reliant "can." The ethical flavor of the line would be radically different if Wordsworth had said "I can behold in you what I once was"—the sense of the mystery of the mind of another would have been lost. And third, and most important, even if the sentence were read as a request rather than a statement, it should invite a micro−biographical as well as a biographical reading. The words "yet a little while" are as ambiguous as "again" in the first paragraph: they may mean not "for a few more months or years" but rather, telescoping a macro−phenomenon into a micro−impression, "for a few more minutes—before we move on."
The micro−biographical pause ("yet a little while") likewise projects a biographical interval before Dorothy has to return to the "dreary intercourse" with the "selfish men" with whose "evil tongues," "rash judgments," "sneers," and greetings without kindness (ll. 129−31) both [→page 189] the brother and the sister are familiar. His prayer is that she might have the strength to resist the oppression of middle−class society: not accidentally, foreseeing that "solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief" might fall to her lot, he refers to her destiny by a word with legal−financial connotations—"thy portion" (ll. 143−44). The only portion, or dowry, that he himself can offer her is the memories of "lovely forms" (l. 140), "sweet sounds and harmonies" (l. 142). The words "thy portion," however, also refer back to the word portion used in the meaning of "part" earlier in the poem: "that best portion of a good man's life, ⁄ His little, nameless, unremembered acts ⁄ Of kindness and of love" (ll. 33−35; my italics): the discourse on the love of nature is again conducted in the language of ethics.
his is also the case in Dorothy Wordsworth's own poem "Thoughts on my Sickbed," a late response to "Tintern Abbey" as well as her brother's other poems, such as "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal." In one of the middle stanzas Dorothy Wordsworth recollects her excursions with her brother, approximately pertaining to 1798:
Our cottage−hearth no longer our home,
Companions of Nature were we,
The Stirring, the Still, the Loquacious, the Mute—
To all we gave our sympathy. Text quoted from Soderholm 317.
Here the "sympathy" which a philosopher like Hume would reserve for fellow human beings is extended to the world of nature. The change traced in "Tintern Abbey" proceeds in the opposite direction: nature has educated the sensibilities of the perceiver in a way that would make him more keenly and sympathetically aware of the various hues of sadness in human experience. The address to Dorothy, though not, strictly speaking, a case of apostrophe, actually performs a function comparable to that of apostrophe in Homer, which usually stands for the flow of sympathy for the person addressed. See Elizabeth Block, "The Narrator Speaks: Apostrophe in Homer and Virgil," Transactions of the American Philological Association 112 (1982): 14−17.
The "still, sad music" is the music of "humanity"—not of "towns and cities," not of a "world" of "getting and spending" (cf. "The World is Too Much with Us"). The final verse paragraph of "Tintern Abbey" has been read as betraying an égoisme−à−deux: "'Our' integrity is not seen as something to be defined in the interpersonal world, but a privately held bulwark against it: 'we' occupy a privileged position, separate from and superior to 'evil tongues,' 'rash judgments,' 'the sneers of selfish men,' [→page 190] and 'all ⁄ The dreary intercourse of daily life.' This is a sense of self which has been implicit from the opening section, with its distancing of those human presences which might call forth 'kindness' and 'love' into the features of a landscape, its seemingly inevitable movement towards a telling final image" of the hermit. Heather Glen, Vision and Disenchantment: Blake's Songs and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads (Cambridge: CUP, 1983) 257. This comment likewise is misleading: the "evil tongues" and "rash judgments" pertain to the socially privileged members of the middle and upper classes, those of whose malice and incomprehension Wordsworth and his sister have been the victims. By contrast, the true objects of the speaker's sympathy, people whose memory makes its way into the poem through "the still, sad music of humanity," are the poor, the protagonists of poems like "The Ruined Cottage," "We Are Seven," "Michael," "Resolution and Independence." The image of voluntary exposure to the elements in the speaker's prayer—"let the misty mountain−winds be free ⁄ To blow against thee" (ll. 136−37) is, of course vastly different from the memory of the destitute "vagrant dwellers of the houseless woods" (l. 20), yet the only "mansion" (l. 140) Dorothy will have is that of her own mind with its cherished memories.
It is true that in "Tintern Abbey" Wordsworth distances himself from the predicament of the poor—if only by walking several miles upstream, away from the beaten tourist track, to a familiar spot from which one can−not see the ruins of the abbey haunted by destitute beggars and from the town of Tintern with its massive unemployment: In Wordsworth's Great Period Poems: Four Essays (Cambridge: CUP, 1986) 20−57, Marjorie Levinson, for instance, asks how it is that Tintern Abbey itself, let alone the unemployment−ridden town of Tintern, is not reflected in Wordsworth's poem (for a spirited rebuttal of Levinson's and Barrell's critiques of the poem see Helen Vendler, "Tintern Abbey: Two Assaults," Bucknell Review 36.1, 1992: 173−90). The homeless, the vagrant charcoal burners, the poor who haunted the ruins of the Abbey, already a tourist spot in the late eighteenth century, are, indeed, absent from the poem; as are the social issues that they represent: poverty, unemployment, enclosures. More important: detonating what M. H. Abrams has called Mary Moorman's "time−bomb" remarks (see Abrams, Doing Things with Texts 375) on Wordsworth's and his sister's itinerary down to Bristol, Levinson echoes Mary Moorman's suggestion that Wordsworth unconsciously uses the word "above" Tintern Abbey instead of "below" Tintern Abbey (see Moorman, William Wordsworth: A Biography [Oxford: Clarendon, 1957] 1: 401−02) and goes on to interpret this as a search of the Pisgah view from which the social eyesores represented by the ruined and poverty−infested Abbey are looked over and overlooked (see Levinson, Wordsworth's Great Period Poems 55). Yet the point [→page 193] is that the words "several miles above Tintern Abbey" in the title refer not to the place in which Wordsworth was composing the poem while pacing towards Bristol but to the location of "this dark sycamore" (l. 9), the precise spot in which he remembers reposing five years ago (see also Abrams, Doing Things with Texts 380 and Noyes, Wordsworth and the Art of Landscape 243), one from which one cannot see the ruins of the Abbey: human misery is not staring Wordsworth in the face when he indulges in meditations on the development of his response to the landscape—Jerome McGann's suggestion that it does in The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983) 86, would not have been possible to make if McGann had visited the place and noted that the ruins could not be seen from as far as half a mile upstream. meditative nature poetry would not have been morally possible at the time and place where aggregated human misery stared one in the face, and calling for concrete "acts of kindness"—in the shape of alms charitably "unremembered" a short while later ("But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth," Matthew 6: 3). What "Tintern Abbey" turns away from is not human suffering but the struggle for social change that would purport to put an end to some forms of human suffering only to generate new ones. In the debate between the Yogi and the Commissar—the change from within and the change from without—the Wordsworth of 1798 (though not of 1789) would have placed himself at the side of the Yogi. Kenneth Johnston has suggested that, in actual fact, the poem may have been completed not on the date of the title, July 13, but on the far more explosive date of July 14, the implications of which Wordsworth may have wished to avoid; see "The Politics of 'Tintern Abbey,'" The Wordsworth Circle 14 (1983): 13.
[→page 191] Which is not to deny that, in more general terms, the exploration of the relationship between aesthetic experience and social responsibility is a piece of "unfinished business" that the poem has left behind, Johnston 13. or that there may be a tinge of paternalistic condescension in the fifth verse paragraph of "Tintern Abbey." Indeed, the commitment explored and re−enacted in the poem is a product of paradoxes and tensions: it is through a self−secluding fragmentation of the world of experience that the speaker had achieved the holistic vision of "something far more deeply interfused," and it is after wending his way aside from the loci of acute human misery that, in the presence of his sister's joy, he can afford to admit an awareness of suffering as an integral part of his poetic mood.