“Tintern Abbey”â€”how does he perceive the “life of things,” and what truths does he find at the heart of the world’s being? How, specifically, does Wordsworth express to readers the qualities of this Nature (i.e. what language does he employ in the poem to describe the immense/pervasive animating force he sees connecting all life, and how does the form of the poem reaffirm this depiction)? And, importantly, how does the Nature Wordsworth sees differ from the Nature that we were presented with during the Enlightenment?
William Wordsworth, along with his dear friend and confidant Samuel Coleridge (and oft neglected sister, Dorothyâ€”the final member of the trio the British government considered â€œa mischievous band of disaffected Englishmenâ€), are often considered to be the quintessential Romantic poets. While the verity of this claim is debatable, the hallmark characteristics of Wm. Wordsworthâ€™s writing certainly do fit the mold of the early romantic period: a drive toward natural inspiration; a sense that the world around humanity harbored deep mysteries and knowledge that could only be engaged through immediate exposure and subsequent tranquil recollection; a belief that the human mind was equally uncanny to the mind of the world, replete with unconscious wisdom and potential; a willingness to engage in art for the sake of pleasure, joy, intoxication, rather than sheer dispassionate Enlightenment, etc. Wordsworth was less inclined toward the wild darkness that Coleridge embraced, and remains always a deeply civilized writer, but his departure from the purposes and drives of the Enlightenment make him a revolutionary figure in literature nevertheless.
- Wordsworth endeavored to employ a language-set more closely aligned with the middle and lower classes of British society than the high-cerebral linguistics of Enlightenment idealism; he was interested in understanding â€œhow far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure could be impartedâ€ by a quotidian tongue. Wordsworth asserts in the Preface that such language is â€œpurifiedâ€¦because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived,â€ largely because their existence is â€œless under the influence of social vanity [and they] convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expression.â€ Wordsworth was angling for directness of expression in this way, and wanted to move away from the â€œsuperfluous and inane phraseologyâ€ of classical poetry.
- But, as in many dimensions of Wordsworthâ€™s work, his philosophical position here is complex and somewhat problematic: he asks in the â€œPreface to Lyrical Balladsâ€ how far the middle-class language could be stretched and made to fit poetic parameters (â€œmetrical arrangementâ€) by a writer who was learned enough to bend the tongue to a new purpose (which doesnâ€™t sound exactly like simply taking common language at its own face value). Wordsworth was not exactly keen to allow the world or common men to speak for itself; his sense was that a writer advanced in the arts of imagination was required to interpret and reconfigure the memory of delight or sorrow anew in order for an average reader to experience the same experience as the writer himself.
- Wordsworth was a champion of the Imagination, â€œthe glorious facultyâ€ of his utmost esteem. He believed that the Imagination is the supreme capacity of the human beingâ€”not that dissimilar from what Enlightenment dogma established regarding Reason, except that Wordsworth thought the mindâ€™s main purpose was to reconfigure/reinterperet the sublime and uncanny aspects of reality into an approachable and evocative form rather than comprehend and reduce them to a formula. For Wordsworth, the Imagination was a filtering tool of great significance; it was the way by which profundity could be represented to the masses not present at the moment of its experience. The writer, for Wordsworth, was capable of creating a new reality, a version of the real that needed reconfiguration in order to be transmitted. In his words, Wordsworth was deeply invested in the â€œinterplay between the mind and nature,â€ giving somewhat equal credit to each and seeing neither one as expendable.
- Itâ€™s worth mentioning how closely remembrance and reinterpretation are related. We know now of the human mind that it doesnâ€™t ever recollect the initial moment of a memoryâ€™s creation; rather, with every subsequent recollection is added a degree of new atmosphere, a new tinge to the thing, that may directly affect our understanding of the experience. This certainly seems to be a feature of Wordsworthâ€™s â€œTintern Abbey,â€ where the recollection of a sublime experience he had with his sister on the banks of a stream in the Lake Country stays with the poet through his maturation into adulthood, taking on new dimensions of import that were not all seemingly present in the initial moment of rapture. Wordworthâ€™s poem testifies to the fact that the mind adapts to the conditions of its usage; when and where and how we recollect (be it in â€œtranquilityâ€ or turmoil) bears directly upon the character of the memory. As Emerson had it, â€œThe world wears the colors of the spirit,â€ and the spirit is never undisturbed by its conditions. Think: class, privilege, opportunity, and strife.
- I also think it is worth spending some time considering how Wordsworth prefigures many of the central tenets of semiotic linguistic theory and structuralismâ€”namely, the recognition that all language is a representation of a signified/exophoric referent. Ferdinand De Saussure, in his seminal â€œCourse on General Linguistics,â€ published posthumously in 1916, prescribes the basics of the theory, where a language system is made up of signs, which themselves are made up of signifiers and signifieds. The valuable lesson, in brief, is that words are not themselves the things they speakâ€”they are signs that convey agreed-upon ideas of things. Words are not trees, but rather the idea of tree-ness, carried across a void of time and space between two speakers. While Suassure made no pretense about whether language existed as recollection in quiet tranquility, he certainly did understand that memory, distance, reconfiguration and symbology are all deeply inexetricable dimensions of language. The very words Wordsworth uses, under this lens of thinking, are not dissimilar from his recollections of things past (nor do words escape the effects of usage, as Roland Barthes reminds us in his work on Mythificationâ€”each new use of a word, much like each new recollection of a memory, changes the inherent substrate of the thing; each usage evacuates the previous form and refills it with new material/associations).
- â€œTintern Abbeyâ€ asks a great many essential questions of its readers, belying its simplistic styleâ€”foremost among them, what makes a self a self? How do we become who we are, and how do we change along the way? How might we understand that transition without sacrificing a sense of continuity? Are we an essence, or a prevailing amalgam? In â€œTintern,â€ Wordsworth reconciles the changes that he undergoes in his later life as being a result of his mature mind losing a degree of â€œanimal pleasureâ€ and reactive affinity for the natural world that he experienced as a youth, with the deeper understanding he gains of the natural world and its correlations with the mind of the poet. Wordsworth argues that his adult mind, as opposed the deer-like flightiness and thoughtlessness of youth, gains insight into the fact that â€œthe passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.â€
- Part of the idea in this poem seems to be that we cannot know what will happen to us tomorrowâ€”indeed, the title of the poem commemorates the day before the start of the French Revolution, a metaphor for the loss of innocence and idealism if there ever was one, and yet, also stands a marker for the erudition that comes with experience after the fall of philosophical idealismâ€”but that if we maintain a fidelity to the world as it is, and to nature in particular, it will shepherd us into a new epoch of identity with all the tools required to thrive there. Wordsworth is adamant that there is no need to â€œfaint, nor mourn nor murmerâ€ about the process of growing up and moving away from the â€œaching joys and dizzying rapturesâ€ of youth. His recognition is that experience neednâ€™t destroy innocence, as Blake also holds true.
- In â€œTintern,â€ there is a complex relationship between the poet and time: at the beginning of the poem, the suggestion is that time is subordinate to the poetâ€™s mind (after all, â€œfive years have lapsedâ€ and still the poet remains with his memory), or at least subject to the direction and interpretation of the individualâ€™s experienceâ€”â€œFive years have pastâ€¦/and again I hear these waters, rolling from their mountain-springsâ€¦/Once again/ Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,/ That on a wild scene impress.â€ Key here is the fact that the individual has survived the passing of time (he is â€œonce againâ€ present in life to recollect the sceneâ€”â€œThe day is come when I again repose/ Hereâ€). And yet, as the poem goes on, Wordsworth is forced to recognize that his vision has changedâ€”no longer does he see the world of nature as â€œall in allâ€ and without need for application of thought or experience. The question becomes, is timeâ€”and its byproduct, memoryâ€”a loss or a reunion? A relinquishing or a renewal? For his part, Wordsworth answers both ways.
- Wordsworth likewise suggests that memory/Imagination has the capacity to bestow even greater gifts than the moment of original conception, once again situating the writer/reader in a position above the world or nature in complicated ways, while simultaneously deifying those conditions for their inspiration: â€œNor less, I trust,/ To them I may have owed another gift,/ Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood/ In which the burden of the mystery,/ In which the heavy and the weary weight/ Of all this unintelligible world,/ Is lightened.â€ Wordsworth here suggests that recollection, better even than the rapturous moment of original striking, might enable one to be â€œgently [led] on,â€”/ Until, the breath of this corporeal frame/ And even the motion of our human blood/ Almost suspendedâ€¦/While with an eye made quiet by the power/ Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,/ We see into the life of things.â€ Read: we didnâ€™t see the real life of things the first time, because by the wild light of youthful ecstasy, we failed to recognize the parallels between the human mind and the outside world; failed to recognize the deep sympathy that exists between ourselves and the natural realm, by virtue of seeing it as so beyond ourselves. Complicated, indeed.
- Wordsworth, like Blake, sees childhood as a formative period and idealized time when human experience and sensual perception is at its utmost richness. For Wordsworth, however, the state of childlike innocence is not one that be kept in sight as an individual agesâ€”for W.W., childhood experiences act rather as a kind of survival kit for future disenfranchisement (â€œoft, in lonely rooms, and â€˜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 heartâ€), one that connects the baser realities of civilized man to the â€œpurer mindâ€ of his natural embrace of the physical world. However, typifying his own contrariness, Wordsworth suggests that such a survival kit doesnâ€™t bespeak a loss, per se, but rather is indicative of a greater giftâ€”the ability of the Imagination to recollect such tranquil experiences whenever the individual likes, with no diminishment of ecstasy, and indeed with perhaps some added bonuses (â€œfeelings too/ of unremembered pleasures: such, perhaps,/ As have no slight or trivial influence/ On that best portion of a good manâ€™s life,/ His little, nameless, unremembered, acts/ Of kindness and loveâ€)â€”at once configuring the individualâ€™s position as above the natural and timely, and also celebrating those origins for their power and beauty.
- And yet Wordsworth realizes that the sense he maintains is potentially as fallacious as the man or his mind itself: â€œIf this/ Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! How oftâ€¦/How oft has my spirit turned to thee.â€ But what amazes me about this poem is the unwillingness of the poet to see any new moment of his life as less perfect than any moment beforeâ€”Wordsworth is ever optimistic that his vision at the present is improved even over his formerly edenic sight: â€œThe picture of the mind revives again:/ While here I stand, not only with the sense/ Of present pleasure, but with pleasant thoughts/ That in this moment there is life and food/ For future years. And so I dare to hope,/ Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first/ I came among these hillsâ€¦Not for this faint I, nor mourn nor murmer; other gifts/ Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,/ Abundant recompense.â€ And you know, maybe the guy is rightâ€¦why believe our better days are lost?
Dorothy Wordsworth 1771-1855
Beloved and admired by both her brother and Coleridge, Dorothy Wordsworth lived a tumultuous lifeâ€”orphaned, overworked, and later suffering a nervous breakdown that changed her personality from vibrant, kindhearted and keen to an angrier, more demanding, and violent version of her former self. She maintained a deep connection to her brother all her life, devoting herself to him and living in the same house with him and his wife for many years, undertaking to write the journals we have selected in the Norton primarily because â€œit might bring William pleasure.â€ Under modern standards, her intense love sometimes provokes psychological speculation as to the nature of their relationship, but there is no evidence to support the idea that there was anything untoward in their friendship and affection (she did, however, fail to make it to her brotherâ€™s wedding, so upset was she on that day). It is difficult to stress how significant Dorothy was to the development of William and Coleridgeâ€™s poetry, friendship, and Romantic visionâ€”she was both a muse and a master visionary in their eyes, and often we find passages in both menâ€™s work that seem to point directly to her guidance, if not her own verbiage.
- To my mind, one illuminating comparison for Dorothy is to Neil Cassady, Jack Kerouacâ€™s dear friend and the inspiration for his break with his Thomas Wolf-inspired sentimental prose style prior to writing On The Road. After reading Cassady’s letters, Kerouac was inspired to write his story in the style that Cassady spoke, “in a rush of mad ecstasy, without self-consciousness or mental hesitation.” Not dissimilarly, Dorothy acted as a kind of shining paragon for William and Coleridgeâ€”many passages from her journal appear cribbed or reframed in the most famous of the pairâ€™s poetry, evidencing the fact that they looked to Dorothy as a kind of barometer of feeling and vision. To them, she was a prototype for the Romantic eraâ€”astute, whip-smart, capable of seeing through and behind the natural scene to apprehend larger patterns or echoes of grand forces, and deeply affected emotionally by the natural world. Indeed, much more so than her brother, it can be said that Dorothy is the true natural Romantic, and the closeness of her attention to the natural world is genuinely striking. One can understand why the pair of poets looked to her to ground their sense for â€œsomething ever about to be,â€ and how they could have held her up as such an exemplar of the burgeoning Romantic era.
- There are several dimensions of Dorothy’s writing that merit closer inspection, both for their sheer beauty, and for the ways she departs from Williamâ€™s and Coleridgeâ€™s style. The first obvious difference is in the descriptive nature of her proseâ€”unadorned, unfiltered, and without adjectival or value-based judgment. Her mindâ€™s eye acts more like Emersonâ€™s â€œtransparent eyeballâ€ than the filter of her brotherâ€™s estimation. Whereas William saw the Imagination as a necessary interpretive tool, able after time to recollect and reorient a memory of bliss or tragedy, and thereby giving it value or gaining understanding, Dorothy’s writing does not seem to do this whatsoever. Her declarative sentences are bald and seemingly without the presence of an egoâ€”a truly remarkable thing for a Romantic poet, and a feature of her work that puts her much more squarely into the contemporary poetic world than either her brother or their good friend. Dorothy writes what she sees, not what she thinks it means: â€œA violent storm in the wood; sheltered under the hollies. When we left the moon immensely large, the sky scattered over with clouds. These soon closed in, contracting the dimensions of the moon without concealing her.â€ This selection is a perfect metaphor for the imagination and its relationship to nature in the Romantic way of thinkingâ€”each one occluding and enhancing the other, each at once tumult and peace, each of a field and of a unified picture, and both absolutely necessary/present in any sceneâ€”and yet, we donâ€™t get such a declarative interpretation from her. We simply get the experience of the visionâ€”and in this way, to my mind, she enables a much greater degree of universality (the ability for far more people to have the experience that she has) by not telling them what that experience is supposed to be. William, for all of his professing of the universal undercurrent connecting all things and all life, arrests the full prospect for this connection by supposing his senses and capacities to be greater than anotherâ€™s (see: his â€œPrefaceâ€ to L.B.); Dorothea respects her reader and respects nature equally to herself, and as a result I feel her writing to open much more than her brotherâ€™s, which by turning instantly inward, closes.
- Dorothy perceives the same life-imbuing natural force that Coleridge and Wordsworth spend their careers trying to see and describeâ€”what she calls the â€œone perpetual motionâ€ animating and underlying all phenomena. We might call this her spiral cosmologyâ€”the sense that Dorothy maintained that everything shared character with everything else, and that by paying close or particular attention to any one object or scene, one could deduce lessons pertaining to the greater whole. â€œThe Hawthorn hedges, black and pointed, glittering with a million diamond drops; the hollies shining with broader patches of light. The road to the village of Horford glittered like another streamâ€¦All the heavens seemed in one perpetual motion when the rain ceased.â€ Gorgeous. See also: all of the Feb. 3 entry from the Alfoxden journal, where she writes describing a scene of particular strangeness and grace, â€œI never saw such a union earth, sky, and sea. The clouds beneath our feet spread themselves to the water, and the clouds of the sky almost joined them. Gathered sticks in the wood; a perfect stillness.â€
- Dorothy is a poet of attentionâ€”in this way, we see perhaps her most direct influence on Wordsworth. Her writing is full of the closest, most intimate details of the natural world, often focusing on a single image within a broader scene and extrapolating from that image a whole cosmology. Her work demonstrates the depth of possible value in any given instant, the connection and interweaving of matter and man, which is to say, she provides a blueprint for how to look at the world if we are interested in seeing what her brother describes in â€œTinternâ€ as â€œthe true life of things.â€
- Dorothy’s prose style also seems to embody and prove out what William only described in his Prefaceâ€”the fact that common language, unadorned and unpretentious, unaffected prose, could be truly poetic. Her lines are plainspoken but resplendent; she manages to embody the qualities that Wordsworth himself could only prescribe. Her journals are more like chronicles of nature; more like almanacs than diaries. Her cataloging of the senses and scenes of her life place her more nearly to the Journals of Thoreau, or Whitman, than her own British contemporaries. It would be quite a long time indeed before we get English writers as respectful, open-hearted, and spiritually aware as Dorothea Wordsworth (see: Andy Goldsworthy’s art in the movie “Rivers and Tides” from our Outside Materials subsection).