“Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” is a poem by William Wordsworth. Tintern Abbey is located in Monmouthshire, on the bank of the River Wye in Wales.
William Wordsworth, chiefly known for “The Prelude”, “Lyrical Ballads”, and “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” was born in April 1770 in Cockermouth, Cumberland to John Wordsworth, an attorney. Throughout his early childhood, the landscape of his home deeply affected Wordsworth’s view of the world and his love of nature. At thirteen, Wordsworth had lost both of his parents; leaving him a cherished sister, Dorothy.
Upon revisiting the River Wye in 1798, Wordsworth was moved to write a poem one of his most famous poems. The poet remembers nearly every detail of his first visit to Tintern Abbey and recalls how the memory has helped him get through day to day life in the city. But now that he finds himself back on the banks, Wordsworth understands that the scene is not the same as he remembers because he has changed. The beauty he remembers through innocent, fresh eyes is missing. Thankfully, his sister, Dorothy, has accompanied him and he realizes that he can experience Tintern Abbey in all its brilliance once more through her.
Nature and Knowledge
The primary theme of the poem is the relationship between the innocent, natural state of first exposure and the development of knowledge. For the poet, Tintern Abbey has always been a place of utmost beauty and tranquility in his memory. When he was a boy, his “animalistic” vigor brought everything in Tintern Abbey to life. The cataracts, the mountains, the wood, the colours, and the river all left within him an appetite that he carried throughout his life. When the poet was trapped “in lonely rooms, mid the din of towns and cities . . . in hours of weariness . . . felt in [his] blood, and felt along [his] heart” that he was passing into the beautiful memory from his boyhood. But, upon returning to Tintern Abbey, the poet realizes that something has changed.
It’s not the scene that has changed, but rather Wordsworth himself. He is unable to even “paint what [he] was” then. Since he was a boy, Wordsworth has experienced normal, everyday changes in his life. With these experiences, Wordsworth’s perceptions of the world around him have also changed. After leaving Tintern Abbey for five years, the poet’s mature observations are less coarse, unthinking, and passionate. Instead they are more contemplative, reflective, and thoughtful.
The ability to see things with a philosophical mind rather than the coarse, innocent mind is the worthwhile trade-off for Wordsworth. The loss of innocence and lack of understanding that let one be as close to nature as possible is lost, but what is gained is just as important. The poet can return to Tintern Abbey and see the life of things flowing around him and their connections to one another. There is “a presence” felt in Tintern Abbey that “impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought, and rolls through all things.”  This underlying spirit connects human knowledge with the innocence of nature; allowing the poet another, more sophisticated communion with nature.
But a slight tonal disagreement seems to run throughout the end of the poem. Wordsworth realizes that, though he cannot see the abbey as he once did, he can see the beauty and magnificence of Tintern Abbey through his sister’s innocent eyes. But even as the poet rejoices in this ability, there is a sense of lingering loss. Never again will the poet see Tintern Abbey in the same marvelous way he did as a child. After this walk, never again will his sister see the abbey the same way. Though the philosophical mind helps to equal the loss with a gain, the loss is still present.
Moments of Sublimity
A secondary theme to “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” is Wordsworth’s focus on moments of time that hold such sublimity that they can be later recalled in tranquility and written down. These moments are profound experiences that catch the eye, uplift the soul, and continue to hold an impact on the viewer after the moment has passed. These moments, for Wordsworth, are almost always found in nature. This choice is made purposefully by Wordsworth because, “in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity, and . . . may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated.”
In “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth refers to the day to day cares of the world as “heavy” and “weary” with weight as well as unintelligible. He also declares his distaste for the dark, vain, fretful, feverish world in which people live in comparison to the beautiful, rejuvenating spirit of the “sylvan Wye.” But the power of the philosophical mind is able to transport him from the darkness of the world to its own reality within the confines of abbey and the river.
Relevance to Romanticism and Nature
Romanticism was an intellectual movement that focused on art, literature, and the human relationship with nature from the late 18th century through the mid-19th century. In many ways, Romanticism was a product of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution’s materialism.
Among the various characteristics that made up the Romantic Era, most artists and writers developed a deep appreciation for nature and the natural order of the world. With this naturalistic view came a shift from the intellectual to the emotional, from society to the individual, from formality to creativity, and from realism to imagination.
Romanticism was ushered into English Literature in the 1790’s with William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge’s publication of “Lyrical Ballads;” of which “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” is a cornerstone. The creation of this monumental work inspired Wordsworth to move from his previously long and laborious poems to the short, lyrical poems written in tribute to nature or, at times, his sister. Originally these poems were published anonymously, opening with Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” followed by poems written by the two men, and closed with Wordsworth’s “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” In a preface to the “Lyrical Ballads” that was written a short time following its anonymous publication, the most accurate description of poetry during the romantic period can be found in Wordsworth’s words where it is described as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and that had been thought over “long and deeply.”
In “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth follows his own advice. The poet spends most of his time reflecting upon the magnificence of nature found at the abbey and along the river. He even speaks of the power of the location as it helps him get through the day to day struggles of “modern” life.
At the beginning of the poem, we are informed that the poet has not been to Tintern Abbey for five years, but the unforgettable feeling of the natural setting has stayed with him. To enhance the effectiveness of the memory, Wordsworth gives life to Tintern Abbey with the use of personification.
“The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite: a feeling and a love . . .”
These sensations are ones that everyone can relate to and understand on a human level. By relating them to the natural setting of Tintern Abbey, the no longer innocent mind can once again connect to the lost world.
Other well-known writers of the Romantic Era include Keats and Shelley. In Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” a Wordsworthian sense of loss is felt. The beauty of a moment is lost, but both poets are able to find a source of joy. For Wordsworth, he takes the knowledge that his philosophical understanding of the world and its underlying connections makes up for his loss of innocence and natural state. For Keats, he is consoled by the fact that, though the particular Nightingale he refers to will die, the song of the Nightingale is infinite and will be found in every civilization.
Though Wordsworth’s works are also in conversation with Shelley’s, the two poets have one fundamental difference. While Shelley, being a Romantic poet, also focuses his energy on the awful power of the natural world, he believes that the “spontaneous overflow of emotions” should not be quelled and reflected over later in tranquility. Shelley believes power lies behind the ability to witness a scene that causes passion to run through the blood so hotly that he has no other option but to write it down immediately in a true spontaneous overflow. Unlike the reflective tone found in Wordsworth’s poem, Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” overwhelms the reader’s senses in the same way his was overwhelmed at the sight.
“Now dark – now glittering – now reflecting gloom –
Now lending splendor, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings . . .”
While fundamentally in contrast with one another’s writing style, the works of Shelley and Wordsworth endured in conversation with one another.
Wordsworth, William. "Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey." The Longman Anthology of British Literature. By David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. 5th ed. Vol. 2A. Boston: Pearson, 2012. 429-33. Print.
Wordsworth, William. "Lyrical Ballads." The Longman Anthology of British Literature. By David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. 5th ed. Vol. 2A. Boston: Pearson, 2012. 433-43. Print.
Shelley, Percy. "Mont Blanc." The Longman Anthology of British Literature. By David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. 5th ed. Vol. 2A. Boston: Pearson, 2012. 871-75. Print.
- Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," Lines 76-81
- Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," Lines 26-31
- Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," Lines 76-77
- Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," Lines 94-103
- Wordsworth's "Lyrical Ballads," Page 434
- Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," Line 57
- Wordsworth's "Lyrical Ballads," Page 435
- Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," Lines 77-81
- Shelley's "Mont Blanc," Lines 3-5