Knowledge is the key to immortality
TINTERN ABBEY
Prepared by - Dr. Baburam Swami - Assistant Professor - English

Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798

BY WILLIAM WORDSWORTH

Five years have past; five summers, with the length

Of five long winters! and again I hear

These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs

With a soft inland murmur.—Once again

Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,

That on a wild secluded scene impress

Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect

The landscape with the quiet of the sky.

The day is come when I again repose

Here, under this dark sycamore, and view

These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,

Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,

Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves

'Mid groves and copses. Once again I see

These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines

Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,

Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke

Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!

With some uncertain notice, as might seem

Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,

Or of some Hermit's cave, where by his fire

The Hermit sits alone.

These beauteous forms,

Through a long absence, have not been to me

As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:

But oft, in lonely rooms, and '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 heart;

And passing even into my purer mind

With tranquil restoration:—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, 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:—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.

If this

Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft—

In darkness and amid the many shapes

Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir

Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,

Have hung upon the beatings of my heart—

How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,

O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro' the woods,

How often has my spirit turned to thee!

And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,

With many recognitions dim and faint,

And somewhat of a sad perplexity,

The picture of the mind revives again:

While here I stand, not only with the sense

Of present pleasure, but with pleasing 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 hills; when 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, not any interest

Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past,

And all its aching joys are now no more,

And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this

Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts

Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,

Abundant recompense. 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,

Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power

To chasten and subdue.—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 all thought,

And rolls through all things. 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 recognise

In nature and the language of the sense

The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,

The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul

Of all my moral being.

Nor perchance,

If I were not thus taught, should I the more

Suffer my genial spirits to decay:

For thou art with me here upon the banks

Of this fair river; thou my dearest Friend,

My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch

The language of my former heart, and read

My former pleasures 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! 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: for she can so inform

The mind that is within us, so impress

With quietness and beauty, and so feed

With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,

Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,

Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all

The dreary intercourse of daily life,

Shall e'er prevail against us, or disturb

Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold

Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon

Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;

And let the misty mountain-winds be free

To blow against thee: and, in after years,

When these wild ecstasies shall be matured

Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind

Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,

Thy memory be as a dwelling-place

For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,

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! 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

Unwearied in that service: rather say

With warmer love—oh! with far deeper zeal

Of holier love. 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!

Tintern Abbey”

Summary

The full title of this poem is “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798.” It opens with the speaker’s declaration that five years have passed since he last visited this location, encountered its tranquil, rustic scenery, and heard the murmuring waters of the river. He recites the objects he sees again, and describes their effect upon him: the “steep and lofty cliffs” impress upon him “thoughts of more deep seclusion”; he leans against the dark sycamore tree and looks at the cottage-grounds and the orchard trees, whose fruit is still unripe. He sees the “wreaths of smoke” rising up from cottage chimneys between the trees, and imagines that they might rise from “vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,” or from the cave of a hermit in the deep forest.

The speaker then describes how his memory of these “beauteous forms” has worked upon him in his absence from them: when he was alone, or in crowded towns and cities, they provided him with “sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart.” The memory of the woods and cottages offered “tranquil restoration” to his mind, and even affected him when he was not aware of the memory, influencing his deeds of kindness and love. He further credits the memory of the scene with offering him access to that mental and spiritual state in which the burden of the world is lightened, in which he becomes a “living soul” with a view into “the life of things.” The speaker then says that his belief that the memory of the woods has affected him so strongly may be “vain”—but if it is, he has still turned to the memory often in times of “fretful stir.”

Even in the present moment, the memory of his past experiences in these surroundings floats over his present view of them, and he feels bittersweet joy in reviving them. He thinks happily, too, that his present experience will provide many happy memories for future years. The speaker acknowledges that he is different now from how he was in those long-ago times, when, as a boy, he “bounded o’er the mountains” and through the streams. In those days, he says, nature made up his whole world: waterfalls, mountains, and woods gave shape to his passions, his appetites, and his love. That time is now past, he says, but he does not mourn it, for though he cannot resume his old relationship with nature, he has been amply compensated by a new set of more mature gifts; for instance, he can now “look on nature, not as in the hour / Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes / The still, sad music of humanity.” And he can now sense the presence of something far more subtle, powerful, and fundamental in the light of the setting suns, the ocean, the air itself, and even in the mind of man; this energy seems to him “a motion and a spirit that impels / All thinking thoughts.... / And rolls through all things.” For that reason, he says, he still loves nature, still loves mountains and pastures and woods, for they anchor his purest thoughts and guard the heart and soul of his “moral being.”

The speaker says that even if he did not feel this way or understand these things, he would still be in good spirits on this day, for he is in the company of his “dear, dear (d) Sister,” who is also his “dear, dear Friend,” and in whose voice and manner he observes his former self, and beholds “what I was once.” He offers a prayer to nature that he might continue to do so for a little while, knowing, as he says, that “Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her,” but leads rather “from joy to joy.” Nature’s power over the mind that seeks her out is such that it renders that mind impervious to “evil tongues,” “rash judgments,” and “the sneers of selfish men,” instilling instead a “cheerful faith” that the world is full of blessings. The speaker then encourages the moon to shine upon his sister, and the wind to blow against her, and he says to her that in later years, when she is sad or fearful, the memory of this experience will help to heal her. And if he himself is dead, she can remember the love with which he worshipped nature. In that case, too, she will remember what the woods meant to the speaker, the way in which, after so many years of absence, they became more dear to him—both for themselves and for the fact that she is in them.

Form

“Tintern Abbey” is composed in blank verse, which is a name used to describe unrhymed lines in iambic pentameter. Its style is therefore very fluid and natural; it reads as easily as if it were a prose piece. But of course the poetic structure is tightly constructed; Wordsworth’s slight variations on the stresses of iambic rhythms is remarkable. Lines such as “Here, under this dark sycamore, and view” do not quite conform to the stress-patterns of the meter, but fit into it loosely, helping Wordsworth approximate the sounds of natural speech without grossly breaking his meter. Occasionally, divided lines are used to indicate a kind of paragraph break, when the poet changes subjects or shifts the focus of his discourse.

Commentary

The subject of “Tintern Abbey” is memory—specifically, childhood memories of communion with natural beauty. Both generally and specifically, this subject is hugely important in Wordsworth’s work, reappearing in poems as late as the “Intimations of Immortality” ode. “Tintern Abbey” is the young Wordsworth’s first great statement of his principle (great) theme: that the memory of pure communion with nature in childhood works upon the mind even in adulthood, when access to that pure communion has been lost, and that the maturity of mind present in adulthood offers compensation for the loss of that communion—specifically, the ability to “look on nature” and hear “human music”; that is, to see nature with an eye toward its relationship to human life. In his youth, the poet says, he was thoughtless in his unity with the woods and the river; now, five years since his last viewing of the scene, he is no longer thoughtless, but acutely aware of everything the scene has to offer him. Additionally, the presence of his sister gives him a view of himself as he imagines himself to have been as a youth. Happily, he knows that this current experience will provide both of them with future memories, just as his past experience has provided him with the memories that flicker across his present sight as he travels in the woods

Professor Philip Shaw considers the composition of 'Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey', and explains how Wordsworth uses nature to explore ideas of connection and unity.

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length

Of five long winters! And again I hear

These waters, rolling from their mountain springs

With a soft inland murmur. Once again

Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,

Which on a wild secluded scene impress

Thoughts of more deep seclusion, and connect

The landscape with the quiet of the sky.

Revisiting

Wordsworth’s ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, 13 July 1798’ is the climatic poem of Lyrical Ballads (1798). Although Wordsworth and his circle commonly referred to the poem as ‘Tintern Abbey’, the significance of the full title is worth considering. Firstly, we are told that the poem is ‘written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’. The poem’s perspective on the abbey, therefore, is elevated and distant, and perhaps even detached. Secondly, we discover that the poet has been here before: he is ‘revisiting’ the Wye valley. Thirdly, we are informed that the poem was composed ‘during a tour’ – written, that is, during the course of a pleasure trip in which several different places of interest are visited. Finally, we learn the poem’s exact moment of composition: 13 July 1798.

What should we make of the title’s eagerness to establish an exact time and precise place? In the poem’s opening lines we learn that the speaker is revisiting the Wye after a period of five years. The man who visited the region during a walking tour from London to North Wales in the summer of 1793 has changed significantly; at that time Wordsworth was an anxious, aimless and disillusioned young man: the father of an illegitimate child to a woman in revolutionary France, the recent author of two unnoticed poems, and a political radical beset with concerns about Britain’s entry into the war against France. Looking back on this turbulent period, the opening lines insist that then as now the poet receives a healing influence from nature: just as the ‘lofty cliffs … connect / The landscape with the quiet of the sky’, so the disunited perceiver of this scene is rejuvenated and made whole. To some degree, therefore, ‘Tintern Abbey’ presents absorption in natural beauty as the solution to mental, political and social disconnection.

The imagery of unity and connection in these opening lines is strongly influenced by William Gilpin’s concept of the picturesque. In Observations on the River Wye (1782) Gilpin notes that ‘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’. With its description of ‘wreathes of smoke / Sent up in silence from among the trees’ the elevated perspective of ‘Tintern Abbey’ casts a similar veil over a landscape rapidly succumbing to the effects of industrialisation. Gilpin goes on to document the ‘poverty and wretchedness’ of the homeless taking shelter in the abbey ruins; an image of social deprivation that the poem seems simultaneously to acknowledge and efface in its mention of ‘vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods

What should we make of the title’s eagerness to establish an exact time and precise place? In the poem’s opening lines we learn that the speaker is revisiting the Wye after a period of five years. The man who visited the region during a walking tour from London to North Wales in the summer of 1793 has changed significantly; at that time Wordsworth was an anxious, aimless and disillusioned young man: the father of an illegitimate child to a woman in revolutionary France, the recent author of two unnoticed poems, and a political radical beset with concerns about Britain’s entry into the war against France. Looking back on this turbulent period, the opening lines insist that then as now the poet receives a healing influence from nature: just as the ‘lofty cliffs … connect / The landscape with the quiet of the sky’, so the disunited perceiver of this scene is rejuvenated and made whole. To some degree, therefore, ‘Tintern Abbey’ presents absorption in natural beauty as the solution to mental, political and social disconnection.

The imagery of unity and connection in these opening lines is strongly influenced by William Gilpin’s concept of the picturesque. In Observations on the River Wye (1782) Gilpin notes that ‘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’. With its description of ‘wreathes of smoke / Sent up in silence from among the trees’ the elevated perspective of ‘Tintern Abbey’ casts a similar veil over a landscape rapidly succumbing to the effects of industrialisation. Gilpin goes on to document the ‘poverty and wretchedness’ of the homeless taking shelter in the abbey ruins; an image of social deprivation that the poem seems simultaneously to acknowledge and efface in its mention of ‘vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods

Seeing into the life of things

Like thousands of travellers before him, Wordsworth’s perception of the valley and its picturesque centrepiece is informed by the aesthetics of tourism and by the genre of the landscape poem. But ‘Tintern Abbey’ is distinguished from other writings on this subject written in the late 18th century by its complex integration of landscape description, self-reflection and sheer philosophical ambition. After the opening description the speaker claims that he owes to the memory of his initial visit ‘sensations sweet / Felt in the blood and felt along the heart’ that have calmed and restored him in difficult times. More daringly he states that the landscape has inspired ‘another gift, / Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood / In which the burden of the mystery’ of the world is ‘lightened’ and, with ‘an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things’. Wordsworth, that is, looks beyond surface appearance to gain insight into a deeper level of existence. Distinguishing the ‘coarse pleasures’ that his younger self took in the forms of nature from the sober reflections of his mature self, the poet states that he has ‘felt … a sense sublime’:

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of the 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 all thought,

And rolls through all things.

In contrast to the superficial unity of the picturesque, Wordsworth uses repeated connectives (‘And the round ocean, and the living air’) as a means of fusing mind and nature in a living whole. The ‘sense sublime’ that ‘rolls though all things’, including all ‘thinking things’ is, as many critics note, a pantheistic life-force, an echo of the ‘One Life within us and abroad’ celebrated by Coleridge in ‘The Eolian Harp’ (1795).

The language of my former heart

Here, on this triumphant note, the poem might have ended. But instead the poem introduces a new figure, the poet’s sister Dorothy. In Dorothy’s ‘wild eyes’ Wordsworth is able to ‘read’ his ‘former pleasures’. The sister, in whom the poet is able to ‘behold … what I once was’, thus serves as a final point of connection between past and present. With Dorothy established as a ‘dwelling-place’ for recollections of this moment in 1793, Wordsworth concludes ‘Tintern Abbey’ with a confident assertion of the ability of memory to overcome distinctions of time and space.

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