Tintern Abbey

People all over the web are looking for answers.

I can’t figure out why some of them end up here. However, the questions are sometimes amusing. Recently, someone surfed in looking to find the answer to why do men like to masterbate i n women’s panties. Sorry Bud, I can’t help you there. I’ve never been drawn to that myself, and it’s a mystery to me too.

However, I can offer an opinion for the search query: William Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey” sister explanation

The question of why Wordsworth’s sister shows up at the end of Tintern Abbey is a good one. It warms my heart to think that someone out there is searching the web for perspectives on poetry. That poem is a keystone to one aspect of romantic thinking, and if there is anyone out there who hasn’t read it, you owe it to yourself to give it a go. It is truly a masterpiece.

Borrowing from Russell Murphy, Jim Parins, and Paul Yoder (some of my profs), I will attempt to trace the perspective shifts involved. Dr. Murphy was a big proponent of “simple” explanations for complex poems. To understand Romantic poetry, it is important not to get lost in the symbolism involved. The primacy of the romantics lies in their ability to transmit core human feelings, feelings that everyone has, into concrete images rather than abstract algebra. But they do it within a matrix of poetic tradition, and exposure to these traditions and historical perspectives, brought to life by Dr. Yoder, also helps.

Tintern Abbey is a prospect poem. This genre, developing out of Sir John Denham’s (1615-1669) Cooper’s Hill, begins with a meditation on a landscape viewed from above. However, this is merely the point of departure. It’s meant to talk about larger issues, rather than the landscape itself. Denham’s prospect is historical and political, Wordsworth (and other Romantic poets who adopted the genre) moved it into a more personal reflective realm. The scene is set of a traveler who views a vista he has not seen for some time, with some hesitation in his heart. The early lines of Tintern Abbey offer the possibility of reading it as a social commentary. I’ve read papers that focus on the lines that close the first section:

With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.

There are two social issues here, poverty and loneliness. The industrial revolution was really sort of a glint in the eye of progress at this point, but its stirrings were being felt in the form of rural poverty as people rushed to the cities to find work. But, in my opinion it is the second issue that Wordsworth attempts to address instead. But there are other issues which also come to mind, as a thoughtful man revisits a familiar landscape.

But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘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:–feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.

Jim Parins, a Victorianist with strong respect for the Wordsworth emphasized the restorative quality of nature implied here: that even in memory, nature can calm us. However, I see the emphasis once again in the second issue raised: “the best portion” of a person’s life comes from his interaction with other men, those “nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and of love.” Stepping back from the genre issues, I feel that it is best to just picture the scene, as Russell Murphy always encouraged me to do. A man is standing on a hill thinking. Thinking of his life, and wondering about what is most important. Nature is there, but also the memory of people he has known. Then comes the real romantic turn: the turn inward. Another gift which Wordsworth contemplates is the value of dreams:

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

Exploration of the really major themes is what I find lacking in most modern poetry, and the reason why I am always drawn back to these guys. Tracing the progression through this fairly short poem, we find little of the “self-obsession” that the Romantics are always accused of. Wordsworth has nodded at politics through the vagrants now present on the hillside, nodded at history through the endurance of the landscape, nodded at humanity through the thoughts of gestures of kindness, and yet the central theme is one of deep exploration into the nature of the world, a world that is discovered by self, and yet is not self.

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.

I just can’t get over the image of “an eye made quiet by the power.” Joy and harmony are only one form of “power” though, and that is why I don’t list Wordsworth in my top five favorite poets. I think that he does approach the core issue of life though: insatiable desire to know more in an “unintelligible world.”

Then the poem takes a big turn, and we are taken away from this spot of time into the real physical universe once again. He turns to the view of the river, but then, he turns to his sister. This is a common moment for any thinking feeling person. We wonder about the world, and in order to feel peace with it we leave it for a brief second and then return. Many people have felt this moment of transcendence, but few have captured it as well as Wordsworth.

The world is a place that we “half create and half perceive.” Shelley took this moment and stretched it much further, but in this short take, you’ve got to give Wordsworth credit. Why is his sister there? Because he is alive, and living in a world filled with people not just speculation. The world is too much with us, and we need to find joy not just in our thoughts but in the people around us. That’s the lesson of Tintern Abbey as far as I’m concerned.

I think that people should drink of this poem often, and deeply. That’s not just the romanticist in me talking, but the man who often lives in his own head who often wishes that when I turned, there would be someone else there. Everybody needs a sister.