Friday, June 12, 2009

Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," lines 36-50

         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.

This is one of the most often quoted, most often remembered passages from Wordsworth's poetry. "Tintern Abbey"—for such the poem is almost always called, though the actual title is the ungainly "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey..."—offers an early formulation of Wordsworth's pantheistic philosophy. It may be the first full-blown expression of a Wordsworthian High-Romantic ideology (perhaps theology); much of the rest of Wordsworth's poetry is essentially an expansion on, clarification of, or reaction to the lyrically measured claims of "Tintern Abbey."

Prior to the quoted lines, Wordsworth describes the immediate "here and now" of the poem—a visit to the Wye Valley, ostensibly on 14 July 1798—and he then details the benign influences of his recollections of nature when, during the five years since his last visit, he was living "in lonely rooms, and mid the din / Of towns and cities" (26-27). Thus, the chronology represented in the poem thus far has a visit to the Wye Valley (in 1793, presumably) followed by a five-year span in which the poet was in a lonely urban space, and now in 1798 he has returned to the natural scene. This recent history allows the poet both to admire the beauty of the natural scene before him and also to reflect on the value of his recollections of that scene even when he is removed from its immediate presence. This last reflection is the focus of the lines quoted above.

Initially, when the poet is lonely and stuck in the city, his recollections of natural beauty offer a kind of psychological solace and comfort: they provide "tranquil restoration" in "hours of weariness." But this is something more significant than a mere psychological palliative against urban alienation. The recollections have a moral element since they are involved with "acts / Of kindness and of love," and they lead ultimately to the moment of spiritual vision recorded above.

The central idea of the passage is that contemporary life is confused and often oppressive—it is a "heavy and ... weary weight" that makes up an "unintelligible world." But these recollections of natural beauty serve as a sort of catalyst producing a "serene and blessed mood" which Wordsworth describes in terms that seem almost mystical. The ordinary motions of the "corporeal frame" (respiration, circulation of the blood, etc.) are "almost suspended" while the mind (or "living soul") can suddenly "see into the life of things." Clearly this is a visionary moment, a momentary revelation of some "life" beyond the ephemeral appearances of "things" and beyond the confusion and alienation of ordinary urban life.

One aspect of such a passage that I find particularly intriguing is the context it provides for Wordsworthian nature ideology. It is clear everywhere in Wordsworth's writing that nature, or, more accurately, a feeling response to natural beauty, is the source of psychological comfort, moral judgment, and now even spiritual vision. What is sometimes overlooked, though, is the necessity of some non-natural space as well, some space like the "lonely rooms" described in "Tintern Abbey." One cannot fully appreciate nature unless one can recollect images of nature from a vantage point outside of nature. That non-natural vantage point is thus an essential element of the psycho-spiritual development expressed here in "Tintern Abbey" and elaborated throughout Wordsworth's life in The Prelude.

Following through on this observation, I would suggest that calling Wordsworth a "nature poet" is much too simple if one sees the term in a sort of binary system where nature is positive and non-nature (i.e. the city) is negative. It would be much more accurate to identify Wordsworth as a poet concerned with the movement back and forth between natural and non-natural environments, for in that movement Wordsworth can trace the development of his own poetic sensibilities. The fact that Wordsworth was writing at a time when England itself was being transformed from an agrarian/agricultural to an urban/industrial culture likely has some significant relationship to this central thematic concern of his poetry.

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