Episode 32

From Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses an extract from ‘Tintern Abbey’ by William Wordsworth.

Poet

William Wordsworth

Reading and commentary by

Mark McGuinness

From Lines Written a few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, 

on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798

by William Wordsworth

                                                   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, or 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,
Not 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 recognize
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.

 


Podcast transcript

This poem was published in 1798, fairly early on in Wordsworth’s career. He claimed to have written it entirely in his head, while he was walking back from Tintern Abbey to Bristol, my current home town, and wrote it down when he arrived in Bristol.

And he added it as the final poem in the manuscript of Lyrical Ballads, the book he co-authored with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and which is generally credited as being the beginning of modern poetry. The book was a self conscious effort to break with the past, to simplify the language of poetry and to get back to what they considered its roots.

So in the 18th, English poetry had become more and more ornate, archaic, artificial and conventional, full of witty turns of phrase and clever classical allusions. Or what Wordsworth called ‘gaudiness and inane phraseology’, in his preface to Lyrical Ballads.

He famously said that a poet should be ‘a man speaking to men’; in other words they should get down from their pedestal, and instead of writing in high-flown poetic diction, they should aim to express ‘our elementary feelings’ by talking about down-to-earth subjects with characters and images drawn from everyday experience.

And the book was a bit of a slow burn, it was mostly ignored or ridiculed when it was first published, but over time it has been hugely influential on the way we have written poetry and thought about it for the last two centuries.

Wordsworth and Coleridge set out their stall with the title, Lyrical Ballads, which alludes to the ballad tradition which you may recall we looked at back in Episode 22, with the anonymous ballad ‘The Unquiet Grave’. As we saw then, ballads formed a great oral tradition, of popular songs and stories that were handed down through the generations for hundreds of years in many cases, before they were written down. Their composers or singers were often illiterate and anonymous, and the ballads were basically public property. They were the people’s poetry, if you like.

So this was the tradition Wordsworth and Coleridge were attempting to tap into, with a somewhat more refined, literary take on ballads and songs and stories, including Coleridge’s masterpiece, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

And today’s poem, as I say, was added at the last minute and became one of the cornerstones of the collection, and really helped to establish Wordsworth’s reputation as a poet. And you’ve probably noticed, it’s not a ballad at all, but a reflective, meditative poem written in blank verse.

Which means this is the fourth and final instalment of our mini series on blank verse, which started with dramatic speeches from Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, and continued last month with a passage from John Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost.

And for this instalment, I’ve deliberately read you a longer passage than for any of the others, because I think to appreciate the movement of Wordsworth’s verse you really need to go on an extended walk with him.

The poem’s full title is ‘Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798’. And for obvious reasons it’s generally abbreviated to just ‘Tintern Abbey’.

But the part about having been composed ‘a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ has led to a lot of speculation from people trying to identify the exact route that Wordsworth took through the countryside above the ruins of the abbey.

In his excellent recent biography, Radical Wordsworth, Jonathan Bate points out that the landscape near the abbey doesn’t have the ‘sounding cataract’ or ‘tall rock’ or ‘mountain’ described in the poem. And he says the mystery may be solved by the fact that Wordsworth was such a vigorous walker, that ‘a few miles’ could have been as many as fifteen miles further up the Wye valley, where the landscape is much more rugged.

So it’s quite amusing to think of the great poet striding through the landscape so lost in thought that he didn’t realise how far he had walked, with all the literary critics and guidebook writers stumbling along behind him, struggling to keep up.

Walking was central to Wordsworth’s poetry, he often wrote about walking and walkers, and he composed many of his poems, just like ‘Tintern Abbey’, while out walking in the countryside.

And for me the experience of reading Wordsworth is very like going for a walk. His blank verse in particular feels like an extended ramble, where he often starts off by describing the sights and sounds of the natural world around him, and then before long he’s describing the memories and thoughts and feelings that arise in him as he walks. And I think in this portrayal of the walking experience, Wordsworth is very accurate.

I used to do a lot of walking in the countryside, as a teenager in Devon I walked over a lot of Exmoor and Dartmoor. And later on, I had the chance to go up to the Lake District and walk up there whether the hills are bigger and the valleys are deeper.

And what happens when you go for an extended hike, or certainly when I do it, is you start off by being very alert and aware of the beauty of nature, oh just look at those hills, and look! there’s a waterfall, there’s a little sparrow, there are some primroses, whatever. And all of these things stimulate the senses and also the emotions and eventually memories and daydreams, and if you’re really lucky, moments of clarity and insight.

So at the same time as you’re walking through the countryside, the physical landscape, you’re walking through your own memory, your thoughts, and your feelings about those thoughts – your own self. And so this movement between the outer work and the inner life is very, very characteristic of Wordsworth, and I think he is the preeminent poet of this kind of experience.

Everyone knows that Wordsworth was a great nature poet. But he was also a great psychological poet – nature and the mind are constantly intertwined in his poetry, and there are even moments where the mind and nature seem to become absorbed in one another. And it’s not really obvious which is being absorbed in which. And those moments Wordsworth becomes a great mystical poet.

So if we take a close look at ‘Tintern Abbey’, here are the opening lines of the whole poem:

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 sweet inland murmur.

Right at the start of the poem he’s walking through a landscape and looking at its beauty and it’s triggering memories and thoughts, in this case his memory of walking the same route five years previously, as well as ‘Thoughts of more deep seclusion’. And this is very characteristically Wordsworthian, as is the fact that the poem gives us a dual perspective on Wordsworth’s life, as the older poet looks back at his younger self:

                                                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,

So first of all, let’s notice how closely intertwined the natural landscape is with Wordsworth’s thoughts and feelings: when he describes the waterfall, he doesn’t say ‘The sounding cataract / Fell from the tall rocks’, he says ‘The sounding cataract / Haunted me like a passion’. And when he does mention the tall rock and the mountain and the wood, he describes them not in themselves but in terms of what they meant to him:

                                                              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,

Next, we should mind the gap between Wordsworth’s older and younger self. He says ‘I cannot paint / What then I was’, emphasising the distance between the two selves. And in an earlier part of the poem he goes even further back, and remembers himself as a boy:

(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by,)

So there’s a sense of a divided self here, and the question naturally arises: who is the real self? Who is the real me? Is it the person ‘I’, in inverted commas, am now, looking back at my younger self? Or was the younger self the real me? And if so, which of my younger selves?

Jonathan Bate points out that this sense of a double consciousness was a hot topic among 18th century philosophers, but they tended to try to tie things up neatly, by arguing that the past and present selves were really the same. And one of the great things about Wordsworth, certainly at this stage of his career, is that he didn’t reach for the easy answer, he laid out the experience as he saw it – and as he heard and felt and thought it.

So Wordsworth the poet is acutely aware of this gap, but in ‘Tintern Abbey’ he says he’s deliberately avoiding nostalgia:

                                              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.

So he says that ‘other gifts / Have followed’ and provide ‘abundant recompense’ for his ‘loss’. And what are these gifts? Well he sets up the answer by saying that he has learned to look at nature differently from when he was younger, which suggests that the ‘gifts’ are not something he owns, but something he can perceive:

                                                    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,
Not harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.

And he hasn’t told us the answer yet but he’s created a delightful sense of anticipation, first by saying it’s got something to do with looking, and then giving us the context of ‘the still sad music of humanity’, a really resonant and mysterious phrase, which again suggests that the answer may be some kind of recompense not just for his own loss, but also the sadness of the whole human race. And then we get this absolutely extraordinary passage:

                                                   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.

This is the mystical still point at the centre of Wordsworth’s world. And he’s got there through a very subtle and winding path, starting with the interplay of the landscape and his inner world as he walks through the countryside, then confronting the issue of loss and sadness, and the desire for some kind of ‘recompense’, and then suddenly we are in the presence of:

A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,

But he never tells us exactly what this something is. He uses words like ‘presence’, ‘sense’, ‘something’, and ‘a motion and a spirit’, words that could mean anything or nothing. All he can do is say where this something dwells, which seems to be basically everywhere:

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.

And here he’s being absolutely true to the mystical experience. The wonderful but also the challenging thing about mysticism, the direct apprehension of a sacred reality, is that it is literally the experience that cannot be put into words.

And of course, poets have worried at this problem over the centuries and they’ve made various attempts to find words for their experience, and I think Wordsworth has got as close as anyone to the heart of the matter.

Dante describes the same problem at the start of his Paradiso, where he says he has ascended into the highest, brightest heaven, but he who comes down from there cannot speak of what he has seen, because memory cannot follow where the heart has been.

But whereas Dante experienced his vision by soaring off into the sky, Wordsworth finds his by walking among the hills and rivers of the Wye Valley. His insights, his mysticism always feel deeply grounded and centred, even when he’s evoking setting suns and the ocean and the blue sky, it feels like there’s an earthly centre of gravity holding it all together.

And I think we can see why Wordsworth was attacked at the time for pantheism, the idea that God or the divine are identical with the physical reality of the universe around us. So this immanent, all pervasive, ‘deeply interfused’ divinity was considered incompatible with the transcendent divinity of 18th century Christianity, the idea that God is completely independent of the material universe.

And of course it would be possible, and I think the later Wordsworth was tempted to do this, to translate the Wordsworthian ‘something’ as ‘God’, to try to bring ‘Tintern Abbey’ safely within the bounds of conventional Christian thought. But let’s face it, that’s not what the poem says. Later in the poem, Wordsworth even describes himself as ‘a worshipper of Nature’, which would have been pretty outrageous if taken literally. So I think he is exploiting his poetic licence here to the full!

And in fairness, I don’t think Wordsworth would have had a definite theological or philosophical position in mind, and nor should we expect a poem to provide one.

What I think is so powerful about this passage, is that it’s so surprising and yet so relatable. I mean, we might not have had the full-on Wordsworthian mystical revelation, but many of us have been ‘surprised by joy’, to quote another Wordsworth poem, while out walking and experiencing the wonders of nature.

And I for one can never read this passage without a sense of recognition, of being grounded in or reconnected with something that I kind of instinctively know. And this is the point where categories like psychology and philosophy and religion, and even poetry start to feel a bit irrelevant.

And returning to the text of the poem again, I’d like to pick up on Wordsworth’s use of the word ‘sublime’, where he says, ‘a sense sublime’. Because sublime is a really important word for Romantic poets. When these poets describe natural beauty as ‘sublime’, this distinguishes it from the merely ‘picturesque’, which is a very 18th century concept: the idea that nature is pretty and ornamental, ‘scenery’ to be admired and painted and framed decoratively for our appreciation.

But the sublime isn’t just beauty, it’s a sense of awe combined with beauty. So, instead of trees and flowers and sheep, you focus on mountains, waterfalls, a storm sweeping across a valley – things that give us the sense that we’re in the presence of something bigger and vaster and more awe-inspiring than ourselves.

John Keats famously said Wordsworth was an example of the ‘egotistical sublime’, which you could see as a bit of a backhanded compliment or maybe a criticism with a bit of appreciation in it. Because one problem Wordsworth faced was that he had a genius for describing his own inner life, his thoughts and feelings and memories, which could easily tip over into self-obsession and self-regard.

And by all accounts, Wordsworth did not avoid this temptation; particularly later in life, when he was lauded by all and sundry, he was criticised for excessive pride in his own achievements. And I don’t think we need to sugarcoat that or avoid it. The only thing I would say in Wordsworth’s defence is that if you have a gift for describing your own experience in immortal verse, then egotism is an occupational hazard. You’d have to be a saint to avoid it.

But the paradox, of course, is that the passage I’ve just quoted is about the most un-egotistical writing you could possibly imagine. The poet starts off describing his walk in the country and his thoughts and feelings as he goes, so it’s ‘me, me, me’, up to a point. But beyond that point, he ends up producing something that wouldn’t look too out of place if we inserted it into the Sermon on the Mount or the Bhagavad Gita:

                                                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.

So if we wanted to find a justification for the egotistical sublime, and let’s face it, we don’t have to, we can just enjoy the poetry. But if we wanted to, this I think, is where we would find it.

If we asked Wordsworth for a justification, he would probably point to the lines that come immediately after the vision, at the end of the passage I’ve read today:

                                         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 recognize
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.

So that word ‘therefore’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting here, because he’s saying that moments of vision like the one he’s just described are the reason he loves nature so much, and that nature is ‘The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul / Of all my moral being’. So he’s saying that there is actually a moral payoff for the vision, it is salutary and self improving to be exposed to nature and to contemplate the sublime. And of course, that’s not what he would have been told in church, where they would have recommended a different ‘guide’ for his moral being. But what can you expect of a ‘worshipper of nature’?

So what we’re seeing in ‘Tintern Abbey’, is the movement of thought in reflective mode, and this relates to what I’ve been saying in our blank verse mini-series on the podcast, about the three basic types of poetry according to Aristotle: the dramatic, the epic and the lyric.

So we’ve seen the dramatic in speeches by Marlowe and Shakespeare, and last month we looked at the epic, in a passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost. And with ‘Tintern Abbey’, we are in the presence of the lyric, the more musical, personal and reflective mode of poetry. Obviously, the clue was in the name, when Wordsworth and Coleridge called their collection Lyrical Ballads.

And this is another way in which this collection is at the root of modern poetry. Because this kind of poetry is really the default mode of poetry that we have pretty much to this day – a relatively short poem – I mean ‘Tintern Abbey’ does go on for several pages, but it’s still short relative to the Odyssey and Paradise Lost and King Lear. So a shortish poem where we reflect on our own experience, our thoughts, our feelings, our relationships, our hopes and fears and loves and hates and so on.

And like the Romantics, we very much prize authenticity and sincerity and the expression of powerful feelings. Even now, on the increasingly rare occasions that you find poetry reviewed or discussed in the mainstream press, at least in the UK, then quite often the journalist won’t say much about the actual poetry but they are quite likely to praise any sign of raw emotion as a sign of authenticity, and this is still very much in the tradition that Wordsworth and his peers began.

And if we focus on the verse form, the blank verse we’ve been looking at for the past few episodes, then you may recall me describing Christopher Marlowe’s end-stopped, dramatic verse, where each line was a neat little unit of sense stacked one on top of another, as being like a marble staircase that his characters would stride down.

Then Shakespeare mixed it up so that phrases would often start in the middle of lines and spill over – using enjambment – from one line to another. And I said that was more like a spiral staircase, where it feels like the steps are spinning round and round as you descend.

Then Milton’s epic blank verse, took that principle of extended syntax that didn’t necessarily respect the boundaries of line endings, and took it to extremes. So we saw these really long, convoluted, sprawling sentences that were running over the lines like a mountain stream, tumbling and cascading over the rocks.

And so moving on to Wordsworth, his is a very mature form of blank verse. He’s absorbed the techniques of Shakespeare and Milton, two poets that he knew inside out and revered, and he was very consciously following in their footsteps, particularly Milton’s. So he takes full advantage of enjambment, and of pauses in the middle of the line, of varying the metrical pattern for expressive effect. And like Milton, his sentences can sprawl over long chunks of a page, to explore all the nooks and crannies of his emerging thoughts.

But I would also say Wordsworth’s blank verse is mature in another sense: it’s more relaxed. It’s not as dramatic or intense as Shakespeare nor as sinuous and convoluted as Milton. It’s feels steadier and more dependable.

So if Milton’s verse is like a mountain stream, I would say Wordsworth’s is like a river winding between the hills. Which of course, is a very Wordsworthian image. He was born and spent his early years in a house next to the river Derwent. At the start of the earliest version of The Prelude, he describes the Derwent as ‘the fairest of all rivers’, that ‘loved / To blend his murmurs with my nurse’s song’. So maybe it’s not surprising that we can detect those murmurs in the currents of his blank verse.

So after Wordsworth, it feels like it would be a natural step for our next episode to look at Wordsworth’s great friend and the co-author of Lyrical Ballads, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

And I could easily keep going in the blank verse vein by reading some of Coleridge’s beautiful blank verse ‘conversation poems’, which are quite similar in tone and length and preoccupations to ‘Tintern Abbey’ – you know, lots of walking through the countryside, thinking about nature and friendship and memories and epiphanies and so on.

But I think we’ve probably have quite enough blank verse for the time being. So we’re going to change gear, and look at a very different style of poetry that Coleridge made entirely his own.

So before we bid a fond farewell to blank verse, let’s just pause and have another look over the countryside we have just traversed, in the company of William Wordsworth.

 


From Lines Written a few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, 

on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798

by William Wordsworth

                                                   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, or 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,
Not 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 recognize
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.

 


William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth portrait by William Shuter

William Wordsworth was an English Romantic poet who was born in 1770 and died in 1850. In his youth he was associated with radical politics and radical change in English poetry, travelling to France during the French Revolution and co-authoring Lyrical Ballads with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a book that changed the course of English poetry. As he matured, his reputation grew while his poetic gifts declined, and he became Poet Laureate from 1843. Remarkably, the long poem that is now considered his masterpiece, The Prelude, was not published until after his death.

 


A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

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