Wordsworth's Poetical Works Summary and Analysis

"Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey"

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Full Title: "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey; On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798"

"Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey" was written in July of 1798 and published as the last poem of Lyrical Ballads, also in 1798. At the age of twenty-three (in August of 1793), Wordsworth had visited the desolate abbey alone. In 1798 he returned to the same place with his beloved sister, Dorothy Wordsworth, who was a year younger. Dorothy is referred to as "Friend" throughout the poem.

Often the poem is simply called "Tintern Abbey." The abbreviated title is effective for clarity's sake, but it is also misleading, as the poem does not actually take place in the abbey. Wordsworth begins his poem by telling the reader that it has been five years since he has been to this place a few miles from the abbey. He describes the "Steep and lofty cliffs," the "wild secluded scene," the "quiet of the sky," the "dark sycamore" he sits under, the trees of the orchard, and the "pastoral farms" with "wreaths of smoke" billowing from their chimneys.

In the second stanza Wordsworth tells his readers that his first visit to this place gave him "sensations sweet" when he was in the "lonely rooms" of the city. He intimates that these "feelings... / Of unremembered pleasure" may have helped him to be a better person, perhaps simply by putting him in a better mood than he would have been in otherwise:

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. Nor less, I trust,

To them I may have owed another gift,

Of aspect more sublime; 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

Wordsworth goes on to suggest his spiritual relationship with nature, which he believes will be a part of him until he dies:

Until, the breath of this corporeal frame,

And even the motion of our human blood

Almost suspended, we are laid sleep

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.

In the third stanza, he begins to consider what it would mean if his belief in his connection to nature were misguided, but stops short. Seeming not to care whether the connection is valid or not, he describes the many benefits that his memories nature give him. At the end of the stanza he addresses the Wye River: "How oft, in spirit, have I returned to thee / O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the woods, / How often has my spirit returned to thee!"

In the fourth stanza, Wordsworth begins by explaining the pleasure he feels at being back in the place that has given him so much joy over the years. He is also glad because he knows that this new memory will give him future happiness: "in this moment there is life and food / for future years." He goes on to explain how differently he experienced nature five years ago, when he first came to explore the area. During his first visit he was full of energy:

like a roe

I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides

Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,

Wherever nature led: more like a man

Flying from something that he dreads, than one

Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then

(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,

And their glad animal movements all gone by)

To me was all in all.--I cannot paint

What then I was. The sounding cataract

Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,

The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,

Their colours and their forms, were then to me

An appetite; a feeling and a love,

That had no need of a remoter charm,

By thought supplied, nor any interest

Unborrowed from the eye.

Wordsworth quickly sets his current self apart from the way he was five years ago, saying, "That time is past." At first, however, he seems almost melancholy about the change: "And all its aching joys are now no more, / And all its dizzy raptures." Over the past five years, he has developed a new approach to nature:

For I have learned

To look on nature, not as in the hour

Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes

The still, sad music of humanity.

As a more sophisticated and wiser person with a better understanding of the sad disconnection of humanity, Wordsworth feels a deeper and more intelligent relationship with nature:

And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused...

Wordsworth is "still / A lover of the meadows and the woods," but has lost some of his gleeful exuberance. Instead, he views nature as the "anchor of [his] purest thoughts, the nurse, / The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul / of all my moral being."

In the fifth and last stanza, Wordsworth addresses his sister Dorothy, calling her both "Sister" and "dear Friend." Through her eyes, Wordsworth can see the wild vitality he had when he first visited this place, and this image of himself gives him new life. It is apparent at this point in the poem that Wordsworth has been speaking to his sister throughout. Dorothy serves the same role as nature, reminding Wordsworth of what he once was:

...in thy voice I catch

The language of my former heart, and read

My former pleasure 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!

Wordsworth then shares his deepest hope: that in the future, the power of nature and the memories of himself will stay with Dorothy. He is implying that he will die before she does (even though she is only a year younger), and hopes that in her memory he will be kept alive:

If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,

Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts

Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,

And these my exhortations!

Even as Wordsworth thinks about dying, he is given new strength and vitality at the thought that his sister will remember him. He describes the setting vigorously:

Nor, perchance,

If I should be, where I no more can hear

Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams

Of past existence, wilt thou then forget

That on the banks of this delightful stream

We stood together; and that I, so long

A worshipper of Nature, hither came...

At the end of the poem, Wordsworth combines their current setting with his sister's future memory of the moment. He is satisfied knowing that she will also carry the place, the moment, and the memory with her:

Nor wilt thou then forget,

That after many wanderings, many years

Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,

And this green pastoral landscape, were to me

More dear, both for themselves, and for thy sake.

Analysis

Published in 1798 in Lyrical Ballads, this poem is widely considered to be one of Wordsworth's masterpieces. It is a complex poem, addressing memory, mortality, faith in nature, and familial love. The poem's structure is similarly complex, making use of the freedom of blank verse (no rhyming) as well as the measured rhythm of iambic pentameter (with a few notable exceptions). The flow of the writing has been described as that of waves, accelerating only to stop in the middle of a line (caesura). The repetition of sounds and words adds to the ebb and flow of the language, appropriately speaking to the ebb and flow of the poet's memories.

Divided into five stanzas of different lengths, the poem begins in the present moment, describing the natural setting. Wordsworth emphasizes the act of returning by making extensive use of repetition: "Five years have passed; five summers, with the length / Of five long winters! and again I hear / These waters..." He also uses the phrase "once again" twice, both times in the middle of a line, breaking the flow of the text. It is in this manner that the reader is introduced to the natural beauty of the Wye River area.

In the second stanza, Wordsworth departs from the present moment to describe how his memories of the scene inspired and sustained him over the past five years. Life away from nature is described as being "in lonely rooms, and mid the din / Of towns and cities." Meanwhile, nature is described with almost religious fervor: Wordsworth uses words such as "sublime," "blessed," and "serene." Wordsworth refers to a "blessed mood" twice, emphasizing his spiritual relationship with nature. Interestingly, while Wordsworth uses many words related to spirituality and religion in this poem, he never refers to God or Christianity. It seems that nature is playing that role in this poem, especially at the end of the second stanza, when Wordsworth describes a sort of transcendent moment:

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.

Nature, it seems, offers humankind ("we") a kind of insight ("We see into the life of things") in the face of mortality ("we are laid asleep"). Wordsworth lays emphasis on the last line by making it only eight syllables (four iambs) long, as opposed to ten.

In the third stanza, Wordsworth returns to the present and acknowledges that his faith might be in "vain," but reiterates how important his memories of this landscape have been to him, addressing the river directly: "O sylvan Wye!" As in many of his other poems, Wordsworth personifies natural forms or nature as a whole by addressing them directly (apostrophe).

Wordsworth seems to value this period of his life, and remembers it with a somewhat nostalgic air, although he admits that in this simpler time ("The coarser pleasures of my boyish days"), he was not so sophisticated as he is now. In the present, he is weighed down by more serious thoughts. He alludes to a loss of faith and a sense of disheartenment. This transition is widely believed to refer to Wordsworth's changing attitude towards the French Revolution. Having visited France at the height of the Revolution, Wordsworth was inspired by the ideals of the Republican movement. Their emphasis on the value of the individual, imagination, and liberty inspired him and filled him with a sense of optimism. By 1798, however, Wordsworth was already losing faith in the movement, as it had by then degenerated into widespread violence. Meanwhile, as France and Britain entered the conflict, Wordsworth was prevented from seeing his family in France and lost his faith in humanity's capacity for harmony. Wordsworth turns to nature to find the peace he cannot find in civilization.

Wordsworth goes on to describe a spirit or a being connected with nature that elevates his understanding of the world:

And I have felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean, and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of thought,

And rolls through all things.

This "presence" could refer to God or some spiritual consciousness, or it could simply refer to the unified presence of the natural world. In the interconnectedness of nature, Wordsworth finds the sublime harmony that he cannot find in humankind, and for this reason he approaches nature with an almost religious fervor:

Therefore am I still

A lover of the meadows and the woods,

And mountains; and of all that we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,

And what perceive; well pleased to recognize

In nature and the language of the sense,

The anchor of my purest thoughts...

In this key passage, Wordsworth outlines his understanding of consciousness. Like other Romantic poets, Wordsworth imagines that consciousness is built out of subjective, sensory experience. What he hears and sees ("of all that we behold... / of all the mighty world/ Of eye and ear") creates his perceptions and his consciousness ("both what they half-create, / And what perceive"). The "language of the sense"--his sensory experiences--are the building blocks of this consciousness ("The anchor of my purest thoughts"). Thus, he relies on his experience of nature for both consciousness and "all [his] moral being."

In the last stanza, Wordsworth returns to the present to address his sister Dorothy, and explains that like his memory of this natural place, her presence offers a kind of continuity in his life. Although he experiences anxiety about his own mortality, the idea that Dorothy will remember him and remember this moment after his death comforts him. Dorothy offers continuity because Wordsworth sees himself in her (Dorothy was also a poet and the two spent a great deal of time together), literally seeing his "former pleasures in the shooting lights / Of thy wild eyes." Wordsworth sees that Dorothy experiences the Wye with the same enthusiasm as he did five years earlier. Moving into a discussion of the future, he hopes that Dorothy's memories of this landscape will sustain her in sad times the way they sustained him, and offers up a "prayer" that this will be the case:

And this prayer I make,

Knowing that Nature never did betray

The heart that loved her; 'tis her privilege,

Through all the years of this our life, to lead

From joy to joy...

Again, Wordsworth addresses nature with a sort of spiritual faith without actually citing God or religion. Instead, he focuses entirely on nature and on Dorothy.

In the last lines of the poem, Wordsworth creates a sort of pact between Dorothy, the natural environment, and himself, as if trying to establish and capture the memory of this precise moment forever:

Nor wilt though then forget,

That after many wanderings, many years

Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,

And this green pastoral landscape, were to me

More dear, both for themselves, and for thy sake.

With these words, Wordsworth creates a beautiful illustration of the mechanics of memory. Not only does he want to remember this moment in this beautiful landscape, but he also wants Dorothy to remember how much he loved it, and how much more he loved it because he knew that she would remember it too. Thus, nature is not only an object of beauty and the subject of memories, but also the catalyst for a beautiful, harmonious relationship between two people, and their memories of that relationship. This falls in line with Wordsworth's belief that nature is a source of inspiration and harmony that can elevate human existence to the level of the sublime in a way that civilization cannot.

Although the poem is often referred to simply as "Tintern Abbey," this is misleading because the poem is actually located "a few miles" away! At the time the poem was written, Tintern Abbey was already just the ruins of a gothic cathedral--a stone shell with no roof, carpeted with grass. Although it is a romantic image, it is not the subject of the poem.