Nature and Humanity in “Tintern Abbey”
Surely, Wordsworth’s 1802 preface to Lyrical Ballads would not have been written if there had been no need to argue the distinguishing aspects that separated his and Coleridge’s collected poems from other works of the same era. That the book’s first publication paled in comparison to the successes of similar works would have been inconsequential to the canon of English Literature had there not been some perceived literary merit therein, and the ballads would have remained in literary obscurity. But it was precisely these merits of style and originality that warranted Wordsworth’s laborious explication of how the works were unique among contemporaneous works. Although excessively elaborate and self indulgent, the preface does indeed hold up in emphasizing how the works are more than mimetic “nature” poems, in the collection “Nature” has the highest of purposes, which is it acts as a prophetic voice that can guide humanity to moral excellence.
Wordsworth belabors the points of distinctions between the poetry of the collection and that of his contemporaries, as well as between the poet and the common person. Regarding the latter distinction, he writes that the poet possesses a "greater promptness to think and feel without any external excitement." This statement inadvertently speaks the principal dynamism of the poetic styles of Wordsworth and Coleridge—the movement of consciousness from the internal to the external, from emotion to stimulus. This, too, becomes the distinction between the lyrical ballads and the contemporaneous "nature" poems of the era, "that the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling.” For example, from Charlotte Smith's poem "To Night,": "For in thy quiet gloom the exhausted heart is calm, though wretched; hopeless, yet resigned"; and from Mary Robinson's "London's Summer Morning,": "Who has not wak'd to list the busy sounds / Of summer's morning, in the sultry smoke of noisy London?" the imagery dictates the emotions of each speaker. The Lyrical Ballads do the same, yet they express commonality between the characters or speakers and objects surrounding them.
Nature possesses a less restrictive role in the ballads. Rather than a generally passive agent that the speaker or persona draws emotional excitement or insight from, nature interacts and changes with the emotional states of the characters, both symbolically and in some cases even physically. A similar conception of this special interactivity Wordsworth gives as a characterization of the ideal poet, one who "considers man and the objects that surround him as acting and reacting upon each other.”
Wordsworth clearly states the purpose for writing the ballads as, “namely to illustrate the manner in which our feelings and ideas are associated in a state of excitement”; also, if repetition of this statement is any indication of its significance, Wordsworth restates this purpose word for word later in the preface. But the poem that encapsulates Wordsworth poetic agenda is “Tintern Abbey,” which endows the element of nature with the potential of instilling virtue and goodness to humanity
“Tintern Abbey” is very much a confessional poem for Wordsworth, a methodological treatise of his own meditations and communes with nature, a reflection of the influence nature has had on his life and moral being, a gospel testifying “Nature’s” divinity, in which he evaluates his lifelong endeavors of worshipfully regarding nature’s forms and finding in them moral enlightenment and the salvation of humanity. He aims to prove to the reader, or perhaps even to himself, that nature is indeed divine, and that by actively seeking its wisdom, humanity can reassume the state of divinity from which it has strayed. Throughout the passages, the poet struggles with the sheer unintelligibility of his faith in nature and questions its validity.
The poem tells of a revisit to Tintern Abbey, after five years have passed. The poet repeatedly speaks the word “again” as he beholds the details that are just as he has remembered them. The opening stanza marks the poet’s feeling of seclusion—seclusion from people and urban life, and also seclusion of his own ideas—as that of a hermit’s who “where by his fire sits alone.” Confronted by the vast spectacle of his surroundings, he thinks of the span of time during his absence from the scenery, during which the beauteous forms were not as “a landscape to a blind man’s eye.” Even back in society where nature there are hardly any signs of nature he is able to recollect the images.
Images of nature abound throughout “Tintern Abbey,” but the language also captures the heightened importance of nature imagery. The poem’s polymorphous and metaphorical language inadvertently speaks against the notion that the nature imagery in the ballads is either solely superficial or merely objective. Unlike picturesque poetry, which focuses on rendering depictions of natural objects for the purpose of visual aesthetic, the poem deviates from the concrete, the objective, and the strictly literal, and it entices the reader to consider the abstract.
For instance, the quote “an eye made quiet” deviates from logic and dashes expectations. If the phrase could be altered in such a way to satisfy logic and the literal sense (for one cannot literally make an eye quiet), then it could sensibly be changed to “an eye made blind,” which, in a sense, reveals the way of objectivity as leading to sightlessness. The meaning of the quote continuously changes as per slight variations of the sense. If the physical eye is made “quiet,” so to speak, then the condition being described is one in which the messages relayed to the mind by eyesight are muted, hence enabling the onlooker to see beyond the visual, beyond the concrete images. That the language is actually referring to a physical eye should seem unfitting within the context because “eye” is singular rather than plural. The singular usage seems more accurately suggestive of the mind’s eye instead of the naked eye, and, more importantly, the mind is both an eye and a voice; heretofore, it is a metaphor for the mind in a state of tranquility, set at ease by the “power of harmony, and the deep power of joy.” In this insightful state, Wordsworth says that we are able to “see into the life of things.”
Wordsworth then remarks on “Unremembered pleasures” accompanying his recollections. “Unremembered” should not be thought of as “forgotten.” The term defines the pleasure inherent in the memory of those pristine moments of meditation amidst nature. These inherent pleasures are felt after-the-fact and were unnoticed before the recollection. These feelings, Wordsworth claims, influence “that best portion of a good man’s life, / His little, nameless, unremembered, acts / of Kindness and of love,” which is to a major degree indebted to those feelings evoked by nature. Hence, it is through this commune with nature that may lend humanity a greater morality and virtue.
The poem is symmetrically divided into two halves by the third stanza in which the poet seems uncertain, considering the possibility that his longtime faith in nature may have been misplaced, “but a vain belief.” However, throughout his experiences, he has been able to draw pleasure and joy in times when, “the fever of the world, / Has hung upon the beatings of [his] heart. He reminisces how often he turned to thoughts of the river Wye for peace of mind. “How often has my spirit turned to thee!” he remarks at the end of the stanza, with a play on the idea that his spirit is transformed into the river, “wanderer thro’ the woods.” The implication of his transcendence as being but a vain belief is the main imposition he must address and must somehow justify
The greater importance of nature imagery found in the ballads and lacking in that of contemporaneous works is articulated in the lines:
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,
Nor harsh, nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.
Attuned to the harmonies of nature, he is able to sense the disharmony of humanity. It is because of these sensations he believes that nature possesses the ability to “chasten and subdue.” Nature often becomes a foil that sets off the frailty of humanity, and thus its subliminal “voice” is prophetic in that it can guide the listener toward moral perfection. He explicitly declares to recognize nature as a guide of all his moral being. But the seclusion he feels only isolates these recognitions.
The seclusion of his ideas and his doubt are resolved in the final stanza when he reveals the presence of his sister who has come along with him. “In thy voice I catch / The language of my former pleasures in the shooting lights / Of thy wild eyes,” he says. Wordsworth sees in her the very enjoyment he received from nature reflected on her face. Nature will influence her life as it has his. This experience for her will be as Wordsworth’s original experience has been for him, and it is through this shared experience validity is given to his ideals and it is proven that nature’s influence will continue to enrich the lives of those who seek it. In the previous stanza, the perplexity that he felt begins to subside with the pleasing notion that “in this moment there is life and food / For future years.” Beholding his sister reassures Wordsworth that his feelings toward nature is passed on, and that nature can a will influence a society as it has influenced the two of them. Wordsworth closes:
I, so long
A worshipper of Nature, hither came
Unwearied in that service; rather say
With warmer love—oh! With far deeper zeal
Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!
By sharing the experience, Wordsworth sees for himself the influence of nature on his
sister and understands from his own experience how nature’s influence may resonate with
someone throughout their lifetime.