Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey
"Lines Composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey" (often abbreviated to "Tintern Abbey", or simply "Lines") is a poem by William Wordsworth. Tintern Abbey is located in the southern Welsh county of Monmouthshire, and was abandoned in 1536. Wordsworth's descriptions of the banks of the River Wye outline his general philosophies on nature.
It also has significance as the terminal poem of the 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads, although it does not fit well into the titular category, being more protracted and elaborate than its predecessors. The poem's full title, as given in Lyrical Ballads, is "Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, July 13, 1798".
Themes and context
"I cannot paint/ What then I was," Wordsworth writes, reflecting and almost puzzling over his "boyish days" when the natural world of Tintern Abbey was to him an unmixed "passion" and a "feeling" that had no need of "any interest/ Unborrowed from the eye." Yet the poet insists that age compensates for this loss of thoughtless passion by giving him instead a sense of the sublimity of nature, of "something far more deeply interfused," and here the poem seems in a sense to grope for God's expression in nature, invoking a "spirit" that "rolls through all things."
The poem has its roots in personal history. Accompanied by his sister Dorothy (whom he addresses warmly in the final paragraph as "thou my dearest Friend, / My dear, dear Friend"), Wordsworth did indeed revisit the abbey on the date stipulated after half a decade's absence. His previous visit had been on a solitary walking tour as a twenty-three-year-old, in August 1793. In 1793 his life had since taken a considerable turn: he had split with his French lover and their illegitimate daughter, while on a broader note Anglo-French tensions had escalated to such an extent that Britain would declare war later that year. Since then he had matured, whereas the Wye had remained much the same, affording the poet opportunity for contrast. A large portion of the poem explores the impact of the passing of time, contrasting the manifestation of it in the visitor with its seamlessness in the visited. This theme is emphasised from the start in the line "Five years have passed..."
Although written in 1798, the poem is in large part a recollection of Wordsworth's visit of 1793. It also harks back in the imagination to a time when the abbey was not in ruins, and dwells occasionally on the present and the future as well. The speaker admits to having reminisced about the place many times in the past five years. Notably, the abbey itself is nowhere described.
Poems which considered nature and the countryside were an established part of eighteenth-century verse, and works such as James Thomson's The Seasons remained popular in the 1790s. However, in Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth employs a much more intellectual and philosophical engagement with nature than his predecessors.
Wordsworth claimed to have composed the poem entirely in his head, beginning it upon leaving Tintern and crossing the Wye, and not jotting so much as a line until he reached Bristol, by which time it had just reached mental completion. In all, it took him four to five days' rambling about with his sister. Although Lyrical Ballads was by then already in publication, he was so pleased with this offering that he had it inserted at the eleventh hour, as the concluding poem. It is unknown whether this placement was intentional, but scholars generally agree that it is apt, for the poem represents the climax of Wordsworth's first great period of creative output and prefigures much of the distinctively Wordsworthian verse that was to follow.
Although never overt, the poem is riddled with religious sentiment, most of it pantheistic. Wordsworth styles himself a "worshipper of Nature" with a "far deeper zeal / Of holier love", seeming to hold that mental images of nature can engender a mystical intuition of the divine.
Style and structure
The poem is written in tightly-structured blank verse and comprises verse-paragraphs rather than stanzas. It is unrhymed and mostly in iambic pentameter. Categorising the poem is difficult, as it contains elements of all of the ode, the dramatic monologue and the conversation poem. In the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth noted:
I have not ventured to call this Poem an Ode but it was written with a hope that in the transitions, and the impassioned music of the versification would be found the principle requisites of that species of composition.
At its beginning, it may well be dubbed an Eighteenth-Century "landscape-poem", but it is commonly agreed that the best designation would be the conversation poem.
Revisiting the natural beauty of the Wye fills the poet with a sense of "tranquile restoration".
After contemplating the few changes in scenery since last he visited, Wordsworth is overcome with "a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns". He is met with the divine as "a motion and a spirit, that impels all thinking things, all objects of thought, and rolls through all things". These are perhaps the most telling lines in Wordsworth's connection of the "sublime" with "divine creativity", the result of allowing nature to become "the anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, the guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul of all my moral being".
- Woodring, 116–117
- Woodring, 1
- Geoffrey Durrant, p. 24.
- A separate account of the composition process, although told the accounter by Wordsworth, supports this impressive contention. The Duke of Argyll, writing to the Rev. T.S. Howson in September 1848, noted that Wordsworth "had written 'Tintern Abbey' in 1798, taking four days to compose it, the last 20 lines being composed as he walked down the hill from Clifton to Bristol."
- Woodring, 153–156
- Simply described, a conversation poem is a lengthy blank-verse lyric which describes and contemplates the speaker's surrounds in the form of a conversation with a silent listener, who is in this case Dorothy. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth's great friend and collaborator, was the first to employ this form, in his "The Eolian Harp".
- Woodring, 95–97
- Woodring, 100–103
- Woodring, 108–111
- Durrant, Geoffrey. William Wordsworth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969)
- Woodring, Carl. "Wordsworth". Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
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