[Click on image to enlarge] William Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey (NAEL 8, 2.258–62) has been described as a tourist poem in which the center of attraction, the famous ruined abbey, is out of sight "a few miles" downstream; a nature poem in which, after the opening paragraph, there are almost no images of nature; a political poem in which most of the speaker's political, social, and economic beliefs lie unexpressed between the lines; a religious poem in which what seems to be unmediated contact with a pantheistic deity (for example, "we are laid asleep / In body, and become a living soul . . . [and] see into the life of things," lines 45–49) is soberly, even logically, explained in terms of tourist postcard chitchat ("How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee, / O sylvan Wye," 55–56; "Therefore am I still / A lover of the meadows and the woods," 102–3).

[Click on image to enlarge] Like all great poems (certainly all those of the Romantic period), Tintern Abbey is a texture of contradictions from beginning to end: simultaneously a celebration of and a lament over the speaker's maturing, a depiction of both the harmony and the disharmony of humans and nature, an alternately successful and unsuccessful attempt to reconcile the "two consciousnesses" of the opening lines of book 2 of The Prelude (NAEL 8, 2.338), and a view of the speaker's and his sister's future that is at once tenderly optimistic and funereal. Several decades ago a critic remarked that it is sometimes difficult, even after many readings, to decide what the poem is primarily about. Wordsworth criticism in the intervening years has not simplified the business. We know that Tintern Abbey is about nature, time, mortality, memory, imagination, society, the city, humanity, and God (to list a few of the more frequently mentioned possibilities). But, just as in Wordsworth's own time, it remains the task of the individual reader to sort out the combinations and emphases among these — and this still leaves innumerable problems concerning specific details (as in lines 95–96, "a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused," where the question "more deeply than what?" has no apparent answer).

Wordsworth's contemporaries, whatever else they saw in Tintern Abbey, would have immediately placed it in a genre of poems written on tour. The abbey was the centerpiece of the most frequently made British tour of the 1790s (the Wye River valley, the historical border between England and Wales); thousands of travelers, with Gilpin or another guidebook in hand, visited and revisited the picturesque ruin and responded with feeling to the beauties and sublimities of the surrounding nature.

Modern tourism was relatively new at this time. Neoclassic writers who urged that poets and others should "follow nature" were talking about universal law and order, the system of things, or human nature; they were decidedly not thinking about outdoors nature, which was generally condemned as something opposed to civilized life — in the forms of mountains, oceans, and great rivers, a deviation from the regularity of creation and, for people faced with crossing them, a serious impediment to travel. Mainstream eighteenth-century poets did occasionally write about nature, but almost always for purposes of moral allegory: the "nature" of Pope's Windsor Forest symbolizes order and harmony in the universe, and wise readers are enjoined to regulate their lives accordingly.

[Click on image to enlarge]The mid- and late-eighteenth-century development of sensitiveness to nature and one's physical surroundings was at least partly owing not to the attractiveness of nature itself but to the rise of interest in landscape painting, specifically the works of two seventeenth-century schools, Dutch and Italian, that favored wide and deep prospects, rugged scenery, a blurring mistiness in the distance, classical and medieval ruins, and frequently, in the foreground, the presence of shepherds and other rustic figures. The best-known painters of the Italian school — Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin, and Salvator Rosa — were collected by the wealthy but also were made popularly available in sets of engravings with titles like Beauties of Claude Lorrain. The eighteenth-century vogue for these artists caused a revolution in landscape gardening, whereby formal arrays of trees, shrubs, paths, and ornaments in geometrical patterns were replaced by "landscape" gardens designed to look, from a specified vantage point, like a scene by Claude or Poussin. Walls and fences were hidden in ditches so as not to obstruct the long view; old ruins were created, Disneylike, on the spot, and servants were engaged to pose as farmers, shepherds, and hermits. The predictable next step was for people to venture out in search of landscapes in nature itself — first with an optical device called a "Claude glass," a tinted convex mirror in which one could compose, over one's shoulder, scenes in nature that resembled paintings by Claude, and then, leaving the mirror behind, confront nature face to face.

[Click on image to enlarge]This topic illustrates the Romantics' developing interest in nature, as background not only to Tintern Abbey and other poems by William Wordsworth but to Coleridge's conversation poems (This Lime-Tree Bower and Frost at Midnight in particular), Dorothy Wordsworth's journals, Percy Shelley's Alastor and Mont Blanc, the nature passages of Byron's Childe Harold, canto 3 (which Wordsworth read as a "plagiarism" from Tintern Abbey!), and Keats's To Autumn, among others. Thomas Gray's Journal in the Lakes, written in 1769, two decades after his famous Elegy, comes near the beginning of the movement out into nature. The Rev. William Gilpin's Observations on the River Wye shows us what travelers, including William and Dorothy Wordsworth, were looking for when they visited Tintern Abbey. Wordsworth's Guide to the Lakes praises and minutely describes the region of his birthplace and also laments widespread changes in it resulting from the very "tourists and residents" to whom his guide is addressed. Keats's letter from his 1818 walking tour records excitement at first seeing Lake District mountains mixed with disappointment over Wordsworth's political conservativism. And Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful provides rudimentary theory to help us understand the writers' consciousness of their mental activities.

These works are not without their political, social, and economic biases, quite apart from the fact that tourism required a degree of liberty and affluence frequently at odds with the workers and peasants of the places being visited. Gray makes fun of the "flaring gentleman's house" while praising "happy poverty"; several paragraphs of Gilpin describe the "poverty and wretchedness" of the homeless taking shelter near Tintern Abbey, in contrast to the bustling "great iron-works" half a mile away; Wordsworth is much distressed by "gross transgressions" and "disfigurement" resulting from the increase of settlers and consequent prosperity in the Lake District; Keats too mentions "disfigurements," in this case the "miasma" of Londoners — "bucks and soldiers, and women of fashion" — who are, just as he is, traveling through the region. But all alike are interested in the processes of viewing nature creatively, imaginatively, in ways that had been unthinkable in earlier times.


© 2010 W.W. Norton and Company :  Site Feedback  :  Help  :  Credits  :  Home  :  Top of page    
Home