Tintern Abbey Notes
He’s returning in 1798 after 5 years—in that time he’s left England, been moved by the French Revolution, fallen in love, married and been forced to leave and return. He no longer feels the same way about home. The sycamore tree—not native to England, also tough and adaptible.
The scene: Wye river valley, border between England and Wales (between home and a wilder, foreign place). It’s spring—the seasons like clothing, “clad” in green that erases human boundaries (seasons are human inventions). The border between nature and civilization is uncertain, permeable here—green to the door. No people visible (cf West. Bridge). Wild nature rising up to quiet sky mirrors his later journey from wild self to quiet maturity.
First image is sound—“murmur” (cf. Nutting) of water travelling from mountain to ocean. Then sight—“I behold” cliffs, which “impress” thoughts of seclusion. Impress, from “imprimere” to print or stamp, so the mind is like a medium on which the scene “prints” thoughts and feelings. Contrast with his description later of his relationship with nature as a youth. The cliffs “connect” the landscape with the “quiet” of the sky. “Connect” how? Not physically, and how do they “connect” with “quiet”? It’s not quite nature in itself—he’s experiencing it as art, like a painting, suggested by the words “landscape” (originally a technical term of painters) and “scene” (greek “skene,” tent or stage). But with sound as well—murmur below, quiet above. He’s in-between in many ways here. A mind sitting in the heart of nature.
Next section—reflection. He has “owed...sensations sweet” to the memories. “Beauteous forms”—why not “beautiful” forms. “Beauteous” (beauty +ous by analogy to “plenteous”; the Latin suffix vs. the German –ful suffix) a much less common word; attested as “chiefly literary” in OED. Self consciously poetic word, used by Spenser, Milton, Shakespeare. (Sweet as “fresh” vs. “salty”—a term for a river or inland lake.) Flowing through body like liquid: blood>heart>mind (cf. river Wye). Not “pleasure” directly but “feelings of unremembered [=forgotten?] pleasure.” Same word 3 lines later: the best parts of a life are unremembered acts of love. A second debt: the “weight” of “unintelligible world” is lifted. Different from traditional Christianity where the body and pleasure are “weight.” The weight is the world; the body rests, harmony and joy quiet “the eye,” (mixed audio-visual metaphor), and we see into the life of things. harmony—musical notion. Harmony between what and what?
What does it mean to see “into the life of things”? As opposed to seeing things?
Next section—he doubts. Almost like a religious person doubting their faith. Is he really seeing into the life of things? Blake would never write a line like that. Does that make WW weaker? Darkness and “shapes of joyless daylight” (cf. “newton’s sleep”; contrast “beauteous forms”); again these are “weight” on the heart. Joyless daylight vs. “gleams of thought”: thoughts like firelight, dying light. The flashback: in the state of nature, he didn’t think—he just felt. Was that “Eden,” or is the present scene Eden? “I cannot paint”—contrast with the first section which is all about painting. No art or civilization back then. “The sounding cataract haunted me...” Sounding—both noise and plunging into deep suggested. Cataract: a biblical word, cf. Gen 7:11 “windows of heaven opened” (vulgate cataractae). Now as waterfall. Haunted: originally just to go to a place frequently, but used by Shakespeare both of feelings and ghosts. It doesn’t make him ‘feel’ passion; the sound/image “haunts” him directly. No boundary between self and nature. “animal movements.” “Colors and forms”=”appetite & feeling.” No need of thought or “interest unborrowed” (cf. “owed” earlier—why the language of debt and interest?). He’s not sad he’s lost it (he does not “murmur,” i.e. complain); “other gifts” have followed as “recompense”—again the language of exchange. Exchange, like art, now seen as part of civilization, part of growing up—a “fall” into economy. Now he “looks” on nature hearing the “music of humanity.” A separation of senses; nature is visual; humanity is aural. Before, it was “unintelligible...din” now it is music. Before, the memories ‘got him through’ social life, now nature makes sense of human life. Behind that, the sense of spirit/unity in all things. It’s never more than a presence, vs. Blake’s angels in the sun—why not? The unity more complete than the primitive unity of self and nature—all things are connected: setting suns (dying light), “round” ocean (implies perspective of subjective observer; not ‘really’ round), living air (invisible life), mind. From this comes moral sense as opposed to (e.g.) religion. The broken abbey as a presence in the background though not mentioned in the poem—from institution of church to the sacred in nature. “Interfused”—an exotic word; Latin. One of the few times it appears is Milton, the invocation to Paradise Lost 7. The narrator asks the muses to help him tell the story of the creation of the universe:
How first began this Heav'n which we behold
Distant so high, with moving Fires adornd
Innumerable, and this which yeelds or fills
All space, the ambient Aire, wide interfus'd
Imbracing round this florid Earth, what cause
Mov'd the Creator in his holy Rest
Through all Eternitie so late to build...
WW’s voice reaches toward epic diction as it builds to the climactic revelation of a spirit in all things.
Final section—the sister. Language is more religious here—from aesthetics of nature in section 1 to religion of nature. The “prayer” that “nature never did betray the heart that loved her.” Nature as a maternal figure, leading: she “informs” and “impresses” (same word as section 1). Described as a “cheerful faith.” Mind a mansion for “lovely forms.” Echo of John 14:2 “In my father’s house are many mansions”—not an abstract heaven but a mind as a ‘heaven,’ raising nature up into intelligible form. Images of flight and wind contrasting with weight of the world. Final lines—a sense of mortality. Desire not to be forgotten, remembered as a “worshipper” of nature. He passes his vision to her.