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The still, sad music of humanity – Wordsworth and Tintern Abbey
Tintern Abbey was founded in May of 1131 by one Walter de Clare, the Lord of Chepstow and scion of a powerful family, related to the Bishop of Winchester, William Giffard, who in turn had Cistercian connections in France. So Tintern Abbey was founded with a group of Cistercian monks from France.
These monks followed the Rule of St. Benedict: Obedience, Poverty, Chastity, Silence, Prayer, Work. They became relatively powerful and the Abbey provided employment for the people of the near-by villages.
Then along came Henry VIII who decided, because of his dispute with Rome over his desire to marry a wife who would provide a male heir, to break with the Catholic Church and set himself up as “Defender of the Faith”, under which title he began to dissolve the monasteries in his realm, including Tintern. The dissolution of Tintern brought to an end 400 years of monastic life there, and left the buildings, most of which were built in the 13th Century, to become the elegant but rather gaunt skeletons they are today.
The first poem – Wordsworth's “Tintern Abbey”
In 1798 the collection of poems by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge called Lyrical Ballads was published, marking what many critics see as the beginning of the Romantic Movement in English poetry. The first edition of Lyrical Ballads consisted mostly of poems by Wordsworth, and four by Coleridge, notably his famous “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
The last poem in the collection, added almost as the book was going to press, was “Tintern Abbey” by Wordsworth, of which the full title is "Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks of the Wye Valley during a tour, July 13, 1798".
In his Preface to the 1802 (second) edition of Lyrical Ballads , Wordsworth wrote: “The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these Poems was to chuse (sic) incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.”
In “Tintern Abbey” I believe Wordsworth achieved to a great extent his notions of using “language really used by men” to describe “incidents and situations from common life” in a way that would “throw over them a certain colouring of imagination.”
His visit to the Wye Valley celebrated in this poem was the second he made after an interval of some five years. He tells how its “beauteous forms” gave him, in moments of loneliness or weariness, “...sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: - feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure”.
He tells how the intervening five years have changed him,
“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.
Seeing the beauty of the Valley brings about in him a spiritual awakening, an awareness of
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.”
He speaks of Nature, who
“...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.”
These are so beautiful, these words which wrap around us in the poem, and lift us out of the ordinary, superficial way we sometimes, in our haste and worry, look at but do not see the world in which we “live and move and have our being.” It is a pantheistic vision of nature – all of nature is holy and infused with
“...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:”
He is in the Valley accompanied by his sister Dorothy, whose presence, he says, makes the experience all the more wonderful:
“...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!”
Wordsworth claimed that he composed this whole poem while in the Valley and wrote it down, complete, when he returned to where he was staying. In any event, the publication of the first edition of Lyrical Ballads was delayed so that it could be included.
What is noticeable about this poem also is that the Abbey is nowhere directly mentioned.
The second poem
The second poem inspired by Tintern Abbey is that by Alfred Lord Tennyson, at the time Poet Laureate of England, called “Tears, Idle Tears” which he wrote in 1847.
This poem is not, according to critic Graham Hough, about a specific situation but “the great reservoir of undifferentiated regret and sorrow, which you can brush away…but which nevertheless continues to exist." (Hough, Graham (1951), p. 187. "'Tears, Idle Tears'." In Killham, John (ed.) (1960). Critical essays on the poetry of Tennyson .)
The poem is a lyric of sadness, looking at “the days that are no more” with regret. It builds on an accumulation of contradictory images which bring the regret and sadness to light. The tears are “idle”but “come from the depth of some divine despair”; “dark summer dawns” in which the waking birds pipe “to dying ears”; and in the last stanza, the most dramatic and most enigmatic, the tears are
“Dear as remembered kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feign'd
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more!”
For me the “Death in Life” sounds like the ruins of of the Abbey, which is not directly mentioned in this poem either. The ruins of the Abbey are dead to their original purpose, but still have grace and elegance, and give evidence of the endurance of life by their lift and upward movement.
A sad, strange poem indeed.
The Romantic influence of the Abbey
The Abbey evidently held a great fascination for English writers and artists. Austin, in her novel “Mansfield Park” has a “transparency” of the Abbey in Fanny Price's room: “... three transparencies, made in a rage for transparencies, for the three lower panes of one window, where Tintern Abbey held its station between a cave in Italy and a moonlight lake in Cumberland...”
The great artist J.M.W. Turner painted the Abbey in 1794 while still very young. He visited the Abbey in 1792 and again in then following year. Two of the resulting paintings now hang in the Tate and the British Museum. They are full of the same Romantic feeling as the poems by Wordsworth and Tennyson. Could one of them have been the model for Fanny P:rice's transparency? I guess we will never know!
What does the poem mean for me today?
I first read this poem at school, and found the opening lines already very moving:
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 soft inland murmur.”
They seemed to conjure a sense of tranquil melancholy, a yearning for something unnamed, with a sense of time inexorably rolling past, “the length Of five long winters” seemed to me, and still do, very expressive of the feeling of quiet despondency which can come over one in a wintry solitude.
I also loved the “soft inland murmur” of the river, because it so much spoke to me of the rivers of my home, from which I was away at boarding school. At home I could lie in bed at night and hear the river in the valley murmuring, and by day I spent much time on the leafy banks of the river between “steep and lofty cliffs, That on a wild secluded scene impress Thoughts of more deep seclusion.”
The mysterious waters of the river, sometimes calm and hardly moving, at other times tempestuous torrents, really fascinated me and held me in thrall. So Wordsworth's experience spoke to me very clearly.
Although the Romantics are not much in fashion these days I still feel an affinity with Wordsworth and his worship of nature. I am acutely aware of the distance I am from nature now in suburbia. I am also acutely aware of the different experiences people have of nature. Just in the past few days people's homes have been destroyed by raging rivers in flood, several people have drowned and much damage done. For these people nature is no joke, not benign setting for pleasant reveries and contemplation of higher things.
So what can we learn from the Romantics, and in particular, from writers like Wordsworth? Is his work still relevant, does it still have meaning in the hurly-burly of modern life with its technology and the desperate pursuit of wealth and happiness?
I think that being in touch with nature, our own as well as that outside ourselves, can bring about a deeper understanding:
with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.”
That is the value of taking time out from the rat race (which, in any case, the rats have won!) and just looking at what is around us, savouring it, be it a little flower, a spider on a twig, a bird flying by, branches on a tree swaying in a breeze, anything, so that
gleams of half-extinguished thought
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:”
in the end recognising that the “sad perplexity” is not
something to be fought against or run away from, but just calmly
accepted as a part of life, so that we are not “...more like a
Flying from something that he dreads than one Who sought the thing he loved.”
In this state we are able to hear with clarity the “The still, sad music of humanity,” which is our music, and recognise ourselves anew.