Memory and Nature: Wordsworth's 'Tintern Abbey'

Famous Poem Embodies Key Points of Romanticism

Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire, Wales
Billy Stock/Robert Harding World Imagery/Getty Images

​​Notes on Context

First published in William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s groundbreaking joint collection, "Lyrical Ballads" (1798), “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” is among the most famous and influential of Wordsworth’s odes. It embodies the crucial concepts Wordsworth set out in his preface to "Lyrical Ballads," which served as a manifesto for Romantic poetry.

  • Poems made “by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation,” choosing “incidents and situations from common life ... in a selection of language really used by men.”
     
  • The language of poetry used to delineate “the primary laws of our nature ... the essential passions of the heart ... our elementary feelings ... in a state of simplicity.”
     
  • Poems designed solely to give “immediate pleasure to a human Being possessed of that information which may be expected from him, not as a lawyer, a physician, a mariner, an astronomer, or a natural philosopher, but as a Man.”
     
  • Poems illustrating the truth of “man and nature as essentially adapted to each other, and the mind of man as naturally the mirror of the fairest and most interesting properties of nature.”
     
  • Good poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.”

    Notes on Form

    “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” like many of Wordsworth’s early poems, takes the form of a monologue in the first-person voice of the poet, written in blank verse -- unrhymed iambic pentameter. Because the rhythm of many of the lines has subtle variations on the fundamental pattern of five iambic feet (da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da DUM) and because there are no strict end-rhymes, the poem must have seemed like prose to its first readers, who were accustomed to the strict metrical and rhyming forms and the elevated poetic diction of 18th-century neo-classical poets like Alexander Pope and Thomas Gray.

     

    Instead of an obvious rhyme scheme, Wordsworth worked many more subtle echoes into his line endings:

    “springs ... cliffs”
    “impress ... connect”
    “trees ... seem”
    “sweet ... heart”
    “behold ... world”
    “world ... mood ... blood”
    “years ... matured”

    And in a few places, separated by one or more lines, there are full rhymes and repeated end-words, which create a special emphasis simply because they are so rare in the poem:

    “thee ... thee”
    “hour ... power”
    “decay ... betray”
    “lead ... feed”
    “gleams ... stream”

    One further note about the poem’s form: In just three places, there is a mid-line break, between the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next. The meter is not interrupted -- each of these three lines is five iambs -- but the sentence break is signified not only by a period but also by an extra vertical space between the two parts of the line, which is visually arresting and marks an important turn of thought in the poem.

    Notes on Content

    Wordsworth announces at the very beginning of “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” that his subject is memory, that he is returning to walk in a place he has been before, and that his experience of the place is all bound together with his memories of being there in the past.

     

    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.

    Wordsworth repeats “again” or “once again” four times in the poem’s first section description of the “wild secluded scene,” the landscape all green and pastoral, a fitting place for “some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire / The Hermit sits alone.” He has walked this lonely path before, and in the second section of the poem he is moved to appreciate how the memory of its sublime natural beauty has succored him.

    ...’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 passing even into my purer mind,
    With tranquil restoration...

    And more than succor, more than simple tranquility, his communion with the beautiful forms of the natural world has brought him to a kind of ecstasy, a higher state of being.

    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.

    But then another line is broken, another section begins, and the poem turns, its celebration giving way to a tone almost of lament, because he knows he is not the same thoughtless animal child who communed with nature in this place years ago.

    That time is past,
    And all its aching joys are now no more,
    And all its dizzy raptures.

    He has matured, become a thinking man, the scene is infused with memory, colored with thought, and his sensibility is attuned to the presence of something behind and beyond what his senses perceive in this natural setting.

    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.

    These are the lines that have led many readers to conclude that Wordsworth is proposing a kind of pantheism, in which the divine permeates the natural world, everything is God. Yet it seems almost as if he is trying to convince himself that his layered appreciation of the sublime is really an improvement over the thoughtless ecstasy of the wandering child. Yes, he has healing memories he can carry back to the city, but they also permeate his present experience of the beloved landscape, and it seems that memory in some way stands between his self and the sublime.

    In the last section of the poem, Wordsworth addresses his companion, his beloved sister Dorothy, who has presumably been walking with him but has not yet been mentioned.

    He sees his former self in her enjoyment of the scene:

    in thy voice I catch
    The language of my former heart, and read
    My former pleasures in the shooting lights
    Of thy wild eyes.

    And he is wistful, not certain, but hoping and praying (even though he uses the word “knowing”).

    ... that Nature never did betray
    The heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege,
    Through all the years of this our life, to lead
    From joy to joy: for she can so inform
    The mind that is within us, so impress
    With quietness and beauty, and so feed
    With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
    Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
    Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
    The dreary intercourse of daily life,
    Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
    Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
    Is full of blessings.

    Would that it were so.

    But there is an uncertainty, a hint of mournfulness underneath the poet’s declamations.