An Un-explanation and De-analysis of “Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) – Poem of the Week #43

The Hay Wain by John Constable

This poem is perhaps a little too long to post here, so if anybody would like to read it together with other fine poems by Wordsworth, click here.

I am a bit cloven as to how or even if the reading of poetry, and high-quality poetry in particular, ought to be a part of school curricula. It probably is the most effective way of diffusing it en masse, yes, but when reducing its experience to a formulaic regurgitation for the purpose of attaining a grade, I can almost only feel revulsion–and of a particularly animated kind at that.

I begin thus because the poem at hand, as great as any penned in the English language, must evidently be part of some state syllabus in India, judging by the thousands of pages and videos yielded from the subcontinent when searching “Tintern Abbey + analysis” on the internet. And yet how their readings, though gleaning the superficial substance, miss its dimensions entirely! What’s worse, they take what is living and palpable and all but strangle and sepulture it–rendering it into some kind of taxidermied cadaver.

And I would almost be surprised, in all honesty, if there were any students at all with whom a poem like Tintern Abbey still resonated after such treatment. If the true, qualitative experience of poetry has to thus be destroyed, one really must ask whether reading it in the first place is worth it at all.

And in that way I suppose I count myself lucky to have not first encountered this poem in a classroom–either at secondary school or university–lest it had thereby been tainted for me forever. For in the end, the only way to read a poem is nakedly–coming to it as naïvely as a child and without any goal in mind other than gleaning its author’s intention and delighting in the passion that he or she has poured into it.

And if one, smitten by such passion, wishes to retransmit it to others through a personal analysis and explanation, that is all well and good, but when it becomes a means of scoring points on a test or worse, promoting some bogus political ideology or cultural theory, one does more than miss the mark–one all but destroys it.

And so, if the words “analysis” and “explanation” have started to sour for any school-tired reader because they associate with them the things I have lamented against above, then as some kind of contrarians may we aim for a  “de-analysis” or an “un-explanation” of the poem at hand. I think in any case that that is what Wordsworth would have preferred.

I still vividly remember the moment I first read Tintern Abbey and reflecting on it now is almost like reminiscing on an episode of falling in love. It was cold and clear outside, and I was half lying on my bed, my upper back languidly pressed against a wall and the first edition of Lyrical Ballads on my raised lap in a manner that my senescent sinews would scarcely be capable of today. I had almost made up my mind that it was a rather mediocre collection of verse until I got to the very last poem, and oh, the electrification:

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…

How can I analyse the quality of this? How can I break it down? There is nothing particularly interesting in the language but how doesn’t it soar! How pregnant is it not with meaning–as though uttered into existence by the tongue of a divine creator! This is a poem that is all soul–not a grandiose exhibition of its power though, but a fine tracing of its beauty–and one so slight at times that it requires a particularly acute mind not to miss it. In this subtlety lies its grandeur–and it is one altogether freed from the schoolmaster’s pedantry.


Blank verse. But how much doesn’t this monologue, like all good blank verse, invite to dramatic variation? This is a poem that is anything but rigid and it should certainly not be read as such.


The full title sums up the poem in a very unpoetic fashion: Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798. If there is any key word here, however, it would be “revisiting”–for this is broadly speaking a poem about memory. It was published when Wordsworth was twenty-eight years old and though still young I suppose one can say that he had by that time experienced relatively much of the world: he had long since finished his studies at Cambridge and had spent a significant amount of time touring Europe–particularly Italy, Switzerland and France, in the last of which he fathered a child and became profoundly influenced by the ideological currents surrounding the French revolution. In 1795 he had moved to Dorset in southern England with his sister, Dorothy, who also figures in this poem. There they both felt a longing back to their childhood Lake district in the north and this sets the scene for the poem at hand, as William and Dorothy return after a five-year absence. Nothing in particular in the landscape has changed:

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. 

What has inevitably changed, however, is the poet, who goes on to describe how important the memories of these places have been as he has gone out into the world. They have been a kind of consolation in moments of despair:

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 more importantly, they have unconsciously been as some kind of glimpse into something greater–a partial answer at least to an eternal longing and meaning beyond the mere temporal, the significance of which will perhaps only be fully revealed to us in death when the soul is liberated from its body and returns to its source:

    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.

Remember how subtle I said this poem could be? The ‘intimations of immortality’ (to cite the title of another Wordsworth poem) are always just glints and silent suggestions: look at the choice of words in the passage above: the “sublime” is “serene”, it leads us “gently”, and its “power of harmony” is “quiet”. There is no sturm, there is no drang here: the great beginning of English romanticism ironically enters with a meek step forward and a gentle sense of composure.

Wordsworth could just as well have made this poem into a clichéd wistfulness for childhood, but he avoids this, noting how even now, in this moment, the sensual impressions of what he sees are being imprinted in his mind for the future:

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.

He nonetheless holds a great reverence for childhood as a time in life when one is more in tune with the spiritual essence of the natural world. Although childhood memories remain, he admits that he cannot ever enter the child’s mind again: 

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, nor any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.

Yet he avoids the other cliché of nostalgically idealising the past, noting how he in posterity has had “abundant recompense” and has in some intellectual sense been able to tap into and in his poetry express the deeper meaning manifested in the natural world. Here the orchestration of the verse launches into one of its finest crescendoes:

     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. 

Once again, look at how delicate it all is: nature’s music is “sad” and “still” and its power “chastens” and “subdues”. Although he would in later life become a devout, high-church Anglican, judging both by the contents and the ingenuous power of the verse, Wordsworth seems nothing short of a pantheist here:

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.

In the final stanza Wordsworth addresses his sister who is also with him in this moment. Both she and the poet become some physical extension of memory and there is a consolation that in their mutual presence they can and will be able to revisit what once was:

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 even if they will not be in each other’s presence, they will nonetheless be able to revisit each other by thinking back on times spent together–moments like the very one they find themselves in now:

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!

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