A Critical Introduction to William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” — By Brennan Saddler and Bohye Kim

BIOGRAPHY

A major English Romantic poet, William Wordsworth was born on April 7, 1770 in the small town of Cockermouth on the northern border of the English Lake District, a quiet, natural refuge that would later inspire his poetry. His only sister, Dorothy Wordsworth, was born in 1771. She played a significant role in poet’s life as a silent listener, friend, inspirer, and traveling partner. After their mother’s death, Dorothy and Wordsworth were separated and educated in different parts of England. After completing his undergraduate education at Cambridge (1791), he became a fervent supporter of French Revolution in France, fell in love with Annette Vallon, and fathered an illegitimate child in 1792. After he was forced out of France by the war, Wordsworth visited Tintern Abbey for the first time in 1793. He returned to Tintern Abbey with Dorothy five years later, after the two were reunited. Here he composed “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” in which he discusses his soothing relationship with nature.

CULTURAL ANALYSIS

The French Revolution

Beginning in 1789, the French Revolution played an important role in politicizing the Romantic Movement. Wordsworth and other Romantics supported the French rebellion against the monarchy because they believed in the ‘Utopia of Democracy’ presented by Godwin and his followers, which “ ‘was based on the belief in the original goodness and the ultimate perfectibility of man’ ” (Beatty 26-27). Though initially angered by Britain’s declaration of war on France, Wordsworth retracted his support for the Revolution during the Reign of Terror. When Wordsworth first visited the Wye Valley and Tintern Abbey in 1793, he had just fled from France, for the political and social turmoil ravaging the country put his life in danger. Many suggest that Wordsworth is alluding to this social and political chaos when he recalls, “flying from something that he dreads” in line 71 of “Tintern Abbey” (Bromwich 4-7).

Industrialization

Though the Wye Valley is a rural and secluded area of Eastern Wales, the effects of the Industrial Revolution were felt even here. Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the town of Tintern in the Wye valley of Eastern Wales supported ironworks (Rezpka 155). Wordsworth notes signs of Industrialization in the Wye Valley when he ponders the “wreathes of smoke” being emitted from the rooftops of pastoral farms (“Tintern Abbey” 118-120). Since the poem’s publication, several scholars have traveled to the Wye valley and have confirmed that “the region showed prominent signs of industrial and commercial activity” (Levinson 29-30). In “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth also questions the presence of vagrants in the hills (“Tintern Abbey 21-23), which Levinson later confirms were “casualties of England’s tottering economy and of wartime displacement” (Levinson 29-30).

Walking tours and tourism 

Improved technology and infrastructure from the Industrial Revolution facilitated travel throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, and thus a thriving tourism culture was born. Romantics often went on walking tours “as a way of both moving through a knowing world and knowing a world that was changing through enclosure and industrialization” (Gilroy 2). The emergence of travel literature also played a significant role in late 18th and 19th century British travel. This thriving tourism culture inspired Wordsworth’s visit to Tintern Abbey.

TEXTUAL ANALYSIS

Nature

As a nature poet, Wordsworth turned to nature for comfort. However, nature did not only provide him comfort while he was on his walking tour, but also in his mind. Throughout “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth recounts how the Wye valley was a place of comfort and solace for him throughout each stage of his life. He particularly recalls how the Wye valley functioned as his sanctuary when he was “flying from something he dreads”(Tintern Abbey 70-71) —likely after his tumultuous experiences in France in 1793. Writing “Tintern Abbey” five years later, he comments on how the valley now offers a comforting and sobering welcome that allows him to meditate on “the still, sad, music of humanity” (Tintern Abbey 89-91).

Even when Wordsworth is not physically present in the valley landscape, the memories of the geography and topography, as well as the feelings of comfort elicited by them are present in his mind. When seeking comfort from the “darkness,” “many shapes of joyless daylight,” and fever of the world” (“Tintern Abbey” 50-56), Wordsworth turns to his memories of the Wye landscape and the comfort it provided him while there: “How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee, / O Sylvan Wye!” (“Tintern Abbey” 56-57). The landscape reignites his “unremembered pleasure”—the comfort he found in it (“Tintern Abbey” 31). The comfort and memories are “Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; / And [pass] even into my purer mind, / With tranquil restoration” (“Tintern Abbey” 28-30). Wordsworth’s relationship with nature was therefore rooted not only in great appreciation for nature on the surface, but for the comfort it provided in his mind as well.

Dorothy

Dorothy “plays a major role in the poet’s life as close friend, supporter of his vocation as writer, editor, and secretary, almost his ‘all in all’ ” (Mahoney 5). Her special place in the poet’s life is solidified through her role as a silent listener and observer. Wordsworth points out in his poem, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” that Dorothy’s voice, her eyes, and her existence enables him to access his “former pleasures” (“Tintern Abbey” 117). While one group of scholars identify Dorothy as his helpmate only, others view Dorothy as her brother’s muse (Thomson 531).  James Soderholm argues that Wordsworth uses Dorothy for “his own poetic ends” (Soderholm 311). On the contrary, Heidi Thomson emphasizes that “Tintern Abbey” is the poem that “affirms the continuous necessity for a web of interlocution between Wordsworth and his sister to substantiate the myth of memory” (Thomson 533). As Thomson mentions, “Tintern Abbey” can be read as a warm sibling memory poem excluding any utility value granted upon Dorothy. Regardless, Dorothy provides Wordsworth with inspiration throughout his poetry and his life.

 

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “A Critical Introduction to William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” — By Brennan Saddler and Bohye Kim

  1. Sorry to be coming to this party so late. I appreciate being cited in your section on “Industrialization.” I only wish one of you (or someone associated with this project) had taken the time to read what I wrote in “Pictures of the Mind: Iron and Charcoal, “Ouzy” Tides and “Vagrant Dwellers” at Tintern, 1798″ (Studies in Romanticism 42.2 (2003), 155-185). The town of Tintern indeed “supported ironworks,” and long before the Industrial Revolution. However, as I conclude and as all available evidence indicates, at the time that Wlilliam and Dorothy visited there the ironworks were not in operation. Nor were any of the other industrial sites within several miles. Their manager, David Tanner, who rented this site and others from the Duke of Bedford, had gone bankrupt months before and the works were not reopened until months afterwards. The “wreathes of smoke” that Wordsworth observes, therefore, could not have been at Tintern but, as the title of his poem clearly indicates, “a few miles above”–that is, upstream from–the town of Tintern and its abbey. As for Levinson, her argument that this scene is, contrary to W’s title, actually at Tintern is what my essay mainly takes issue with, beginning with her howler of a misreading of Gilpin’s “oozy tides,” which refer not to industrial pollution (as she sensationally observes) but, simply, to the tide of the Severn estuary entering the mouth of the Wye and becoming turbid with “oozy” mud. I’m disappointed to see that even a decade and a half after I’ve refuted this and nearly all the rest of Levinson’s claims, her errors and misreadings are still being endorsed on a site designed to introduce students to Wordsworth’s greatest poem.

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