To appear in Romanticism on the Net (November 2000)
Revised paper, September 12th 2000
© David S. Miall

Locating Wordsworth: "Tintern Abbey" and the Community with Nature

David S. Miall


For most of the last two decades discussion of Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" has been dominated by controversies centred on historicist readings of the poem. In particular, this has served to focus attention on how far Wordsworth acknowledged the scenes of poverty and industrial activity in theWye Valley as he made his tour with Dorothy in July 1798, and whether such scenes lie behind the poem that he wrote on July 13th, the last day of his tour. Several historicist critics, notably Jerome McGann, Marjorie Levinson, and Kenneth Johnston, (1) have suggested that Wordsworth strategically suppresses awareness of salient parts of the scene on the Wye -- the beggars lurking in the Abbey ruins, the furnaces of the iron forges nearby that burned night and day, the busy river traffic that passed the Abbey plying between Chepstow and Brockweir. The vision of unmediated benefit from Nature that the poem famously provides is, in this view, only a screen on which Wordsworth projects his anxieties. Nature can never be known directly: as Antony Easthope puts it, "Nature exists as we appropriate it." (2) Thus Wordsworth is deceiving himself (and his readers) in claiming that here he felt a spirit that rolls through everything. Such a spirit fails to account for the vagrants and the beggars, or the polluted stream of the Wye.

Following the recent emergence of green readings of Romantic poetry, however, it seems appropriate to return to this poem and reconsider some of the arguments about the place of nature in it, and what the Wye valley specifically might have offered Wordsworth. What evidence does the poem provide that a relationship with nature, of the kind Wordsworth asserts, might be possible? Attention to this dimension of the poem has perhaps been preempted by the historicist accounts of the poem. These have depended in part on assumptions about where the opening scene of the poem is located, raising questions whether the scene is merely an imagined compound of scenes, or whether the scene is actually immaterial to the point of the poem. I will argue that the location of the poem is central to Wordsworth's intentions. I suggest a precise location for it in the Wye valley, based mainly on contemporary evidence, and then show how the various aspects of the location in the poem make a specific contribution to Wordsworth's view of our community with nature. While at this point in history our view of nature may not permit us to "see into the life of things," this essay will review the psychic geography of the poem that led Wordsworth to think he may have done so.

The poem, it must be recalled, is referred to as "Tintern Abbey" only by a courtesy. The poem is not about the Abbey -- a circumstance that, as Levinson among others has pointed out, is liable to confuse its readers. (3) But given the pedantically long and precise title that Wordsworth actually gave the poem, "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798" (Wordsworth later changed "Written" to "Composed"), it would seem appropriate to assume precision in the poem itself, unless there is strong evidence to the contrary. On these grounds recent criticism of the poem has at times been misleading, drawing inferences that have little or no support in the poem or in what is known about Wordsworth's circumstances at the time of its composition. In pointing to a few of these problems in the critical literature, I will suggest why it is worth attempting to resolve the location of "Tintern Abbey." The forms of landscape that constitute the scene of the poem make it powerfully iconic, a vehicle for self-understanding that Wordsworth appears to find unique.


Among the many interpretive issues raised by the poem, I will mention three that are representative: Wordsworth's style of landscape description in this poem, his relation to the picturesque tradition, and the iconic role of landscape and human figures in the poem. In each case an element of the poem that was once considered uncomplicated has been made the focus of critical suspicion, serving to undo the poem and dislocate the internal connections on which it depends. Reassessing the significance of these aspects of the poem, however, will not restore the idealist readings that the historicist critics found problematic; rather, it will suggest that a more direct and intimate understanding of nature is encoded by Wordsworth's poem.

First, Wordsworth's lines on the hedgerows have been considered symptomatic of a general vagueness in the poem:

                                            Once again I see
These hedge-rows -- hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild. (4)
James Chandler sees the passage as part of a move to abstraction in the opening of "Tintern Abbey": "Sensory apprehension is followed by sensory release, as perception gives way to personification. Indeed, by the end of the passage not just the individual objects but the entire landscape seems to dissolve before our eyes." (5) Similarly, for Levinson these lines are characteristic of a tendency in the poem: "Most readers observe that an object does not materialize in the poem before it is effaced or smudged." (6) Thus she suggests later that "Wordsworth corrects his initial statement ('these hedgerows') as if to acknowledge its inaccuracy." Levinson believes the hedgerows to be "another emblem of enclosure," hence a sign of the rural impoverishment that Wordsworth evades throughout the poem. (7) While objecting to Levinson's reading, Thomas McFarland also finds that the passage apparently "runs off into fanciful imprecision" implying that Wordsworth has not kept his eye on the object. In fact, McFarland argues, the sportive lines are purely imaginative, an instance of the "flow" or reverie that he finds everywhere in the opening of this poem and that dissolves the boundary between fact and fiction. (8)

It is much more likely, however, that what Wordsworth is observing in these lines are hedges that were at one time laid: that is, stems that were at first laid horizontally and interwoven for strength and thickness have now been allowed to grow wild. His description is remarkably compact and precise: "Wordsworth was describing exactly what he saw," argues Mary Wedd. (9) Moreover, since this process takes time, the planting of the hedgerows that Wordsworth saw undoubtedly preceded the great period of enclosure towards the end of the eighteenth century which Levinson has in mind (some hedges in England date back to late medieval times). Since the sportive hedgerows are neither imaginative, nor a mark of enclosure, (10) it remains to ask what Wordsworth has in mind by referring to them.

The hedgerows are an essential, if minor, component of the scene that Wordsworth lays before us. It may be noted that in the order of his phrases he recreates the process of observation: conventional, or schematic expection would first look for hedgerows and find them; yet, a second glance -- " hardly hedgerows" -- would show the hedges in fact to be running wild. These lines thus invite the reader to replicate Wordsworth's own process of observation, a feature of several other elements in the opening paragraph. An object ("plots of cottage ground"; "pastoral farms") is first named, as an objective component of the scene, or what is to be expected in such a location (perhaps what was remembered from 1793); but it is then qualified in ways that suggest a second more careful focus on the actual details before him. In this respect Wordsworth shows to what extent he has superseded the picturesque mode of viewing that largely predominated in 1793. More important, the process intimated through natural objects here anticipates the modifying process occurring in memory that Wordsworth goes on to describe in the second paragraph.

While Wordsworth has not yet mentioned his earlier mode of perceiving nature, when he had no interest "unborrowed from the eye," remnants of this earlier, predominantly picturesque mode of perception can still be traced in this opening paragraph. His situation, low in the scene, under a tree with cliffs rising above him, accords with the rule for picturesque viewpoints. (11) The "vagrant dwellers" and the "Hermit" are a fanciful reminder of the human types most favoured by the picturesque artist (stemming from the banditti and gipsies of Salvator Rosa), albeit they enter only "as might seem," a slightly clumsy Wordsworthian witticism that disavows, even as it reminds us of, the standard apparatus of the picturesque. Yet the process of perception, shown in the hedgerow lines, rarely forms a part of picturesque description, since what is "agreeable in a picture" (12) has already been selected, arranged, and rendered static. Moreover, Gilpin proscribes the inclusion of signs of cultivation in a picturesque scene, (13) thus orchards and farms would be elided if he were representing this landscape (as he does in the print I reproduce below).

Since Wordsworth later in the poem explicitly compares his responses to nature in 1798 with what they were in 1793, it is reasonable to infer that the opening paragraph provides a measure of how far Wordsworth has developed beyond the picturesque principles that predominated in his early writing, such as Descriptive Sketches. (14) The picturesque mode, as critics such as Alan Liu and Ann Bermingham have shown, (15) is particularly vulnerable to the accusation that in appropriating landscape for aesthetic pleasure, the picturesque viewer overlooks the social conditions in the countryside through which he passes from one "station" to the next. As a technique for redesigning actual landscape, to which it was soon applied, Gilpin's willingness to move or eliminate inconvenient features of a scene in his drawings (16) prepared the way for the actual demolition of labourers' cottages if this would enhance a gentleman's view, as can be seen, for example, in Humphry Repton's practice. (17) But Wordsworth in 1798 is not a picturesque viewer; and while he cannot mention everything that he sees (what poem would be tolerable that did?), he sees a good deal more from beneath his sycamore tree in 1798 than he would have done in 1793 or than Gilpin was able to see. Far from blurring the details or making the scene abstract, as Levinson or Chandler suggest, Wordsworth rather carefully describes the process of his seeing as it unfolds. Indeed, he alerts us to the subjective dimension of what is to come by opening the poem not with the scene itself but with his awareness of the passage of time, "Five years have past."

Here, then, is the second problem. In identifying how far he has progressed since 1793, Wordsworth is distancing himself from, among other things, the ideological liabilities of the picturesque viewer that he was then, when nature was "To me all in all"; when, as Wordsworth himself was to put it later, to his "youthful mind," "images of nature supplied to it the place of thought, sentiment, and almost of action." (18) In this sense, Wordsworth is himself indicating a critique of his earlier approach to nature that brings him close to the tenor of McGann's or Levinson's critique of the Wordsworth of 1798, although his valuation of that earlier mind differs from theirs of 1798 in some significant respects. In this light, Stephen Gill, in his Life of Wordsworth, would seem to have misread the contrast drawn in "Tintern Abbey":

It is not surprising that Wordsworth should have erased what he was in 1793 -- tormented by his impotent hostility to his own country's policies, by his responsibility to Annette and their child . . . But it is surprising that he should present 1793 as the time when Nature was 'all in all' and 1798 as the moment when he felt most at one with the cause of humanity, for in 1793 Wordsworth had been a radical patriot, his heart given to the people and to the French cause. (19)
While Wordsworth was certainly a radical, his political aspirations in August 1793, when he first walked through the Wye valley, were "impotent" not only because of the failure of enlightened rationalism both in France and at home, but precisely because nature was "all in all." As a mode of viewing that appropriated the natural scene with a passion, it was also complicit with the same powerful set of Tory interests that to Wordsworth's intense dismay had declared war on France in February. This conflict helped induce the moral crisis that Wordsworth was to record twice: first in The Prelude, then through the figure of the Solitary in The Excursion -- the Solitary whose picturesque enjoyment of the "unappropriated earth" (III, 538) with his bride, as Wordsworth makes clear, is quite inadequate to prepare him to cope with the successive shocks of her death and the failure of the French Revolution that follow. No wonder, then, that Wordsworth in 1798 judged his visual passion for nature deficient, speaking of himself oddly in 1793 as "like a man / Flying from something that he dreads" -- a comment that makes little sense unless it is the actual impotence of his approach to nature that propels Wordsworth at this point, his attempt to escape self-knowledge amidst the tall rock and gloomy wood. (20)

There are several examples in Wordsworth's writing, however, demonstrating the ability of a landscape scene to evolve in his memory during subsequent years, notably the two spots of time in The Prelude (1805), Book XI, and the experience in the Simplon Pass recorded in Book VI. Thus Wordsworth's response to the Wye valley evolved, not only at the point he revisited it in 1798, but apparently during the intervening years, since its "beauteous forms" had prompted "sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart," moving it well beyond the conventional picturesque which apparently shaped his first response. The scene can, in some respects, be considered a "spot of time," as Rajan has suggested, (21) whose values emerge only in retrospect -- here, it contributes explicitly towards that relationship to humanity that was missing in the young man of 1793, in influencing "His little, nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and of love." This is why it becomes important to know what it was that Wordsworth actually saw.

Thus the third problem in the critical literature on the poem is the uncertainty and confusion over Wordsworth's location and what natural and human figures it encompassed. It is clearly not within sight of the Abbey, since "a few miles above Tintern Abbey" is more than enough distance to make the Abbey invisible (a sharp bend in the river puts the Abbey out of sight within a mile). This evidently calls into question several key arguments put forward by historicists McGann, Johnston, and Levinson, the last claiming notably that the absence of the Abbey in the poem looks "uncomfortably like a suppression." (22) Thus McGann's sense of shock that Wordsworth should talk of "pastoral farms" and the "vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods," given that "the force of lines 15-23 depends upon our knowing that the ruined abbey had been in the 1790s a favorite haunt of transients and displaced persons," should dissolve if the Abbey is not an issue; so too we can dismiss Johnston's similar finding that Gilpin's beggars are recast as the "vagrant dwellers"; and Levinson's elaborate argument on the history of the monasteries becomes redundant. (23)


But where is Wordsworth's scene located? Answers range from below the Abbey (Levinson seems anxious to include the lower, tidal, polluted section of the river in the list of suppressed features), to upriver as far away as Thelwall's Llyswen Farm (Geoffrey Little); while other writers suggest that the opening scene is merely a melange of previously encountered features (Jacobus, Bernhardt-Kabisch, Kelley). Even Nicholas Roe, who pays closer attention to the details of the Wye landscape than other commentators, concludes on the basis of a passage in Dorothy Wordsworth's Alfoxden journal, that Wordsworth was responsive "to Dorothy's prose rather than to his own immediate imagination." Michael Wiley, although accepting that the scene is "above" Tintern, figures Wordsworth standing "next to the Wye gazing from the world of the homeless poor and industrial waste into the constructed scene." (24) It is Antony Easthope who poses the principal questions (which he does not attempt to answer):

(1) Since the River Wye, which flows past the abbey, is tidal, how far upstream of the ruins do you have to go before you hear the waters "rolling from their mountain springs"? And how close to the river? (2) Since the valley of the Wye is V-shaped and wooded above Tintern, where do you see "steep and lofty cliffs"? There are some downstream of Tintern but the titling says "above". (3) Where is there "a sounding cataract"? There are plenty in the Lake District, none I could see or hear near Tintern. (4) How many miles above Tintern Abbey is Wordsworth supposed to be, since a sharp bend in the river conceals the abbey a mile or so upstream? (25)
In answer to answer question 1, Wordsworth's note to the phrase in line 3, "sweet inland murmer," that "The river is not affected by the tides a few miles above Tintern," shows the site of the poem to be beyond Bigsweir Bridge, five miles upstream from Tintern Abbey. However, the other questions require travel further upstream. The first notably "steep and lofty cliffs" occur at Symonds Yat, where a high ridge of irregular cliffs overlooks the left bank of the river from between trees. This point is some seventeen miles upstream from Tintern. There are a few cliffs overlooking the river nearby, a mile or two below as well as further upstream, but there are several reasons for thinking that the site described in the opening lines of the poem must be at Symonds Yat. The evidence is not only largely still visible today, but is described in detail by contemporary visitors. Gilpin's Observations on the River Wye, which several previous critics have shown to be associated with Wordsworth's poem, contains an account of his passage through Symonds Yat that matches all the main features of Wordsworth's poem (my text is taken from the second edition of 1789 that Wordsworth is known to have owned). In his account the place is called the New-Weir:
The river is wider, than usual, in this part; and takes a sweep round a towering promontory of rock; which forms the side-screen on the left; and is the grand feature of the view. It is not a broad, fractured face of rock; but rather a woody hill, from which large projections, in two or three places, burst out; rudely hung with twisting branches, and shaggy furniture; which, like mane round the lion's head, give a more savage air to these wild exhibitions of nature. Near the top a pointed fragment of solitary rock, rising above the rest, has rather a fantastic appearance: but it is not without it's effect in marking the scene. (26)
Gilpin printGilpin's book includes a print facing the page following this description (shown here: click to enlarge it) which, despite Gilpin's artistic licence, apparently depicts the "solitary rock" rising out of trees; the river bends to the left before the rock, then curves out to the right and left again beyond it, as it does in reality, although less markedly, from a viewpoint immediately to the north of the rock.

At this location, facing the cliffs, several cottages and gardens are visible on the hill on the other side of the river, where Wordsworth would have been able to see the "plots of cottage-ground" and "orchard-tufts"; and perhaps here, on the level water meadows on both sides of the river to the north, where the Wye loops sharply around the promontory, he might have seen old hedges, partly grown into trees, although from this precise location none are visible now. Wordsworth also refers to "wreaths of smoke / Sent up in silence from among the trees," as though the smoke were emerging from the cottages and farms. Gilpin, once again, provides additional support. Here, as at other locations along the Wye, including within half a mile of Tintern Abbey itself, iron smelting was carried out:

On the right side of the river, the bank forms a woody amphitheatre, following the course of the stream round the promontory. It's lower skirts are adorned with a hamlet; in the midst of which, volumes of thick smoke, thrown up at intervals, from an iron-forge, as it's fires receive fresh fuel, add double grandeur to the scene. (27)

A nearby hamlet just upstream is still named Old Forge. Another early visitor to the area, the Rev. S. Shaw, also testifies to the pastoral scene juxtaposed with industry. His description of the cottages strikingly anticipates Wordsworth's poem (there is no evidence that Wordsworth knew this account):

The thinly scattered cots, as we approach the new Weir, are richly recluse; no gripe of poverty, no perplexing cares seem to disturb these quiet haunts; a more primæval scene cannot well be conceived to exist. Passing thro' a lock we saw the busy Cyclops working on the opposite shore, and as the evening was far advanced and rather overcast, this scene became more aweful and sublime. (28)

In describing himself five years earlier, "when first / I came among these hills," Wordsworth's reference to "the mountains" and "the deep rivers and the lonely streams" are clearly generic landscape features. But his second characterization of the landscape that haunted him fits the New-Weir more precisely.

                        The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion; the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood
This not only matches the chief features of Gilpin's description (given that "mountain" was typically applied to less lofty eminences than would now be the case), but Easthope's question about the cataract is also answered by Gilpin (rising to one of his more sublime moments):
But what peculiarly marks this view, is a circumstance on the water. The whole river, at this place, makes a precipitate fall; of no great height indeed; but enough to merit the title of a cascade: tho to the eye above the stream, it is an object of no consequence. In all the scenes we had yet passed, the water moving with a slow, and solemn pace, the objects around kept time, as it were, with it; and every steep, and every rock, which hung over the river, was solemn, tranquil, and majestic. But here, the violence of the stream, and the roaring of the waters, impressed a new character on the scene: all was agitation, and uproar; and every steep, and every rock stared with wildness, and terror. (29)
Samuel Ireland, another contemporary witness, provides an equally detailed account dating from 1797. Ireland travelled downriver by barge from Goodrich Castle to the Coldwell Rocks just east of Symonds Yat. Alighting, he ascended the "majestic rocks" of the Symonds Yat promontory. He describes the view: "The new weir, and adjoining waterfall, with the surrounding rich and healthy hills afford from this spot a combination of objects, that deservedly rank among the first views on the river, or perhaps in this country." (30)

From here he descends "towards the new Weir" enjoying "some of the most beautiful views that can be imagined," which "presented themselves through the various breaks of the rocks, or openings of the surrounding woods with which they are enriched." (31) Ireland printThe adjoining plate makes clear that New Weir is adjacent to Symonds Yat: the view shown faces south, with the forges on the right. Ireland mentions a "barren and extensive moor" nearby, where are "many humble cottages of the various workmen employed in the manufactory." In addition, "The roaring of the waters from the cascade of the Weir adjoining to this work has a grand effect, its fall is precipitate although at no great height, nor is it perceived from above the stream." This last comment suggests that the Weir should not be visible in Ireland's plate (it lies below the little green island in the middle of the river). He continues: "The river here receives a considerable degree of agitation from the huge masses of stone, either swept down by the stream, or hurled from the summit of the neighbouring rocks." (32) The stones still obstruct the river bed for a stretch of about a hundred yards below the little waterfall.

Richard Warner's A Walk Through Wales, in August 1797 was almost certainly read by Wordsworth in the Spring of 1798, according to Duncan Wu, (33) while the Wordsworths met Warner in Bath shortly before embarking on their Wye tour. Warner's journey, which concluded with a walk southward down the Wye, provides additional evidence. Looking west from the rocky promontory of Symonds Yat he sees

the New Weir, the iron-works upon it, a sharp and capricious turn of the river, the Doward rocks, and an huge isolated crag, lifting its detached, precipitous form, crowned with moss, and sprinkled with ivy, to a height little inferior to the cliff from whence it is seen. (34)
By "Doward," Warner appears to mean the cliffs shown on the left bank of the river in Ireland's view (not the Doward Hill, as it is named on modern maps, across the river). These, which are almost certainly Wordsworth's "steep and lofty cliffs," Wye photoare still visible, although now largely obscured by trees, as shown in the photograph reproduced here, which is taken from approximately the same position as Ireland's view (the isolated crag is in shadow in the upper left). The "cataract," the head of which is barely visible in this view, comprises a little waterfall and a stretch of white water, and still emits a considerable roar close at hand -- a "soft inland murmur" from a distance. And along the right bank of the river near the cataract can still be found numerous sycamore trees.

It is clear from the enthusiastic tone of Gilpin and other visitors that Tintern Abbey was not the only tourist attraction on the Wye. Warner mapIn no account that I am aware of is Symonds Yat bypassed in going between Monmouth and Goodrich Castle, as the sketch map of McNulty implies. (35) The most likely route of the Wordsworths in 1798 is probably shown by Warner's map (also reproduced by Roe), (36) although we cannot tell if the Wordsworths ascended to the viewpoint on the promontory as Warner and Ireland did (the most direct path to Goodrich Castle led across the meadows to another ferry crossing at New Forge).

Finally, even the Hermit's cave, fanciful though it is, can be accommodated at this site. Near the isolated crag is the entrance to a sizable cave, which might have been visible from the river bank in Wordsworth's day before trees grew up around it, and other caves can be found at several points in the cliffs nearby. On the edge of Doward Hill to the west of Symonds Yat is King Arthur's Cave, mentioned by Ireland in his tour, probably an ancient mine. Thus we do not need to return to the vicinity of Tintern Abbey, as Davies suggests in a recent note, to locate the Hermit. (37)

The combination of features that Wordsworth describes in his poem is sufficiently striking that its location is a major tourist attraction to this day, apart from the canoeists who come to practice on the white water of the cataract and the climbers who scale the cliffs. It was clearly striking enough to have prompted Wordsworth to elaborate the poem in its vicinity, and then to work on refining it over two or more days prior to writing it down on July 13th as he approached Bristol. If it was indeed at this particular location that "the speaking face of earth and heaven" (The Prelude (1805), V, 12) gave shape to this poem, we have perhaps paid too little attention to just what Wordsworth found so significant about it as he rested under the sycamore tree.


Several earlier commentators on the poem, such as Christopher Salvesen, Alan Grob, and John Beer, have offered suggestions on the importance of the landscape and its figurative role that I will mention only in passing. (38) Here, I want to make one main argument. We can see the Wye valley as a trope for an imaginative process that is of central interest to Wordsworth, one that the particular configuration of landscape at Symonds Yat forced on his attention and which in turn shaped the construction of the poem.

First, a river is a potent image for Wordsworth of the process of life from birth to death. A key reference occurs several years later in the first of the Essays on Epitaphs, where a child is figured standing by a stream; by thinking about how it must flow into an ocean the child gains a first sense of infinity. (39) Wordsworth's encounters with the Wye may have contributed to this powerful image. Unlike most other landscape features, a river presents the process of change visually as it flows through different scenes. Perhaps by indicating in the title that the scene is set "a few miles above Tintern Abbey," Wordsworth is drawing attention to the length of the river and its changing scenery.

But at Symonds Yat the Wye exhibits a striking evolution, combining both the sublime (cliffs and cataract) and the pastoral (orchards, farms). The disposition of these elements suggests a completing: not only is it being seen "once again," with the possibility of renewed insight that this raises, but at this point it also provides a culminating "seclusion" that is also simultaneously a connecting, since the landscape and sky that elsewhere remain separate fuse here in a single perspective. While Wordsworth can see the force of nature exercised in the lofty cliffs on one hand and in the sounding cataract on the other, the scene also accommodates the human element of plots of cottage ground, the hedgerows, and the pastoral farms, and these in themselves are fused with the green landscape, just as the hedgerows are neither a human artifact nor a natural process but both at once. (40) In this respect, this particular scene on the Wye realizes possibilities inherent in both the natural and human world that are rarely seen unified in one place, and it foregrounds what is inexplicit or only partly apprehended elsewhere on the banks of the Wye -- from its sources among the cliffs of Plinlimmon, through the pastoral farms visible from its banks, to the monastic impulse of Tintern Abbey alluded to in the reference to the Hermit. The scene, in a word, embodies maximum contrast with maximum coherence. This vision, sketched in the opening paragraph, then organizes Wordsworth's principal ideas in the rest of the poem.

Perhaps the key organizing idea is that of contemplation in withdrawal, or what, following Coleridge, we might term eloignment. To master the essence of nature, the natura naturans, Coleridge argued that "the Artist must first eloign himself from nature in order to return to her with full effect," (41) just as Wordsworth has done in the five years between his two visits. After his first visit to the Wye, when Wordsworth crossed and re-crossed the river in his journey to North Wales to stay with his friend Robert Jones, he tells us that in the din of cities he has known "Sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart," somewhat as the Wye flows quietly between its banks for most of its course. But these sensations, like the river's arrival at Symond's Yat, have then passed into his "purer mind" and culminated in seeing "into the life of things" -- a life that, we infer, is patterned upon the underlying processes demonstrated by nature through the Wye. The river, in other words, with its quiet and even flow until it reaches Symonds Yat, offers an arresting pattern for the psychological process that Wordsworth found had taken place after his 1793 visit. In the Wye, nature itself models how nature can be understood as a ground for human experience. This specific scene, where the river unites both the pastoral farms and the cliffs and cataract, is a trope for what is natural in the human mind, which encompasses both "the life of things" and the "sad music of humanity / Not harsh nor grating."

That Wordsworth had been thinking about this effect of nature on the mind is shown by a notebook fragment probably written earlier in 1798 between January and March, which offers a description of the process and rhythm of eloignment (I have slightly simplified the lines as given by James Butler from the Alfoxden Notebook):

                                                To gaze
On that green hill and on those scattered trees
And feel a pleasant consciousness of life
In the [?impression] of that loveliness
Untill the sweet sensation called the mind
Into itself by image from without
Unvisited: and all her reflex powers
Wrapp'd in a still dream forgetfullness

I lived without the knowledge that I lived
Then by those beauteous forms brought back again
To lose myself again as if my life
Did ebb & flow with a strange mystery (42)

The most enigmatic phrase here, the "image from without / Unvisited," conveys in compact form just that development of response to a scene over time, the result of eloignment, to which I pointed above in the spots of time and Simplon Pass episodes. The fragment suggests something of how the image of the Wye came to mean so much more to Wordsworth in the years after 1793 than his first predominantly picturesque encounter could have meant at the time. The connection of these lines with "Tintern Abbey" is also shown incidentally by his adoption of the phrase "beauteous forms" at line 22 in revising the poem.

Finally, Wordsworth records his sense of a "motion" or "spirit" that "rolls through all things," again reminiscent of the rolling Wye, that culminates in the recognition of the "mighty world / Of eye and ear" (such as the sight and sound of the river) and what they "half-create." Thus imagination should not be seen as a threat to Wordsworth's perception of nature, as Geoffrey Hartman argued, (43) but as a completion of the potential of nature in the human mind; or, in the words of Alan Grob, "nature may instead be seen as the self's truest constituent element, so ineffaceable that it emerges as the vital core of every significant moral or poetic impulse." (44) Unlike Grob, however, who finds "Tintern Abbey" to be an essay in Lockean psychology, I suggest that the process of eloignment reveals to Wordsworth that nature and mind contain analogous processes. To feel this, Wordsworth exhorts Dorothy, is to enjoy an inhabitable community with nature "Through all the years of this our life." Wordsworth's realization involves "sad perplexity" as well as disturbing "with the joy / Of elevated thoughts": his insight leads neither to the Utopian alternative proposed by Wiley (p. 70), nor to a simple vision of union with nature; as Ralph Pite has noted, "For Wordsworth, it is unnatural to claim continuity with the universe or to claim that one identifies with 'all life'." A green reading of "Tintern Abbey" argues that the mind is rooted in and shaped by the same underlying processes that can be identified in nature. Thus in this poem, to borrow Pite's words, "Wordsworth seeks a relation to nature that . . . will re-establish or preserve community." (45) Noting that the poem originates at a real location with particular figurative powers for Wordsworth, is one way of recovering the distinctive and still radical process of feeling and thought that "Tintern Abbey" proposes.


(1) Jerome J. McGann, The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation (Chicago: U Chicago P, 1983); Marjorie Levinson, "Insight and Oversight: Reading 'Tintern Abbey'," Wordsworth's Great Period Poems: Four Essays (Cambridge UP, 1986); Kenneth R. Johnston, "The Politics of 'Tintern Abbey'," The Wordsworth Circle 14 (1983): 6-14. Levinson, whose chapter has been the focus of the most heated debate, has defended her approach only in general terms: see "Revisionist Reading: An Account of the Practice," Studies in the Literary Imagination 30 (1997): 119-140. (back)

(2) Antony Easthope, Wordsworth Now and Then: Romanticism and Contemporary Culture (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1993), p. 13. (back)

(3) Levinson, p. 15. (back)

(4) My text of "Tintern Abbey" is taken from Lyrical Ballads, ed. R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones (London: Methuen, 1965), pp. 113-118. (back)

(5) James Chandler, "Romantic Allusiveness," Critical Inquiry 8 (1982), p. 471. (back)

(6) Levinson, p. 13. Cf. Albert Gérard: "Wordsworth's wording is consistently designed to blur the outlines of things," English Romantic Poetry (Berkeley: U. California P., 1968), p. 99. For Geoffrey Hartman, on the other hand, the deictic pointers in these opening lines suggest precision; in effect, Wordsworth is saying "I have an inexplicable affection for these particular hedgerows." The Unmediated Vision: An Interpretation of Wordsworth, Hopkins, Rilke, and Valéry (New Haven: Yale UP, 1954), p. 4. (back)

(7) Levinson, p. 42. (back)

(8) Thomas McFarland, William Wordsworth: Intensity and Achievement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), pp. 48, 53. David B. Pirie also finds in the opening lines of the poem that the "tendency is to obscure all visual detail and distinction": William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Grandeur and Tenderness (London & New York: Methuen, 1982), p. 269. (back)

(9) Mary Wedd, "'Tintern Abbey' Restored," Charles Lamb Bulletin 88 (1994), p. 153. (back)

(10) Nor are the hedgerows a reference to the "paltry" shrubbery at Piercefield, as Kenneth Johnston has suggested, "Politics," p. 13 n5. (back)

(11) Noted by Malcolm Andrews, The Search for the Picturesque: Landscape Aesthetics and Tourism in Britain, 1760-1800 (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1989), p. 61. (back)

(12) William Gilpin, An Essay upon Prints (London: J. Robson, 1768), p. 2. (back)

(13) "The painter never desires the hand of art to touch his grounds." Gilpin, Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, &c., 2nd ed. (London: R. Blamire, 1789), p. 44. So too, Richard Whately, referring to the view of the Wye at New Weir, observes that "marks of inhabitants must not be carried to the length of cultivation, which is too mild for the ruggedness of the place." Thomas Whately, Observations on Modern Gardening, Illustrated by Descriptions (Dublin: John Exshaw, 1770), p. 116. (back)

(14) Although Wordsworth disavowed the picturesque propensities of this poem: see his note to line 347, Descriptive Sketches, ed. Eric Birdsall (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1984), p. 72. For further discussion of Wordsworth’s early commitment to the picturesque, see my essay "The Alps Deferred: Wordsworth at the Simplon Pass," European Romantic Review 9 (1998): 87-102. (back)

(15) Alan. Liu, Wordsworth: The Sense of History (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1989); Ann Bermingham, Landscape and Ideology: The English Rustic Tradition, 1740-1860 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1987). (back)

(16) Gilpin advises the artist "He may pull up a piece of awkward paling -- he may throw down a cottage -- he may even turn the course of a road, or a river, a few yards on this side, or that. These trivial alterations may greatly add to the beauty of his composition." Observations, Relative to Picturesque Beauty, Made in the Year 1772, On several parts of England; particularly the Mountains, and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland, 2nd ed. (London: R. Blamire, 1788), vol. 1, pp. xxviii-xxix. (back)

(17) See, for example, his before and after views of "A Common Improved in Yorkshire," in Humphry Repton, assisted by his son John Adey Repton, Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (London: J. Taylor, 1816) , facing p. 76. Repton remarks that an Act of Enclosure on a goose-common enabled the clearing of "a row of mean tenements, with some of those places of worship too apt to disfigure the neighbourhood of all great manufacturing districts." Now it has "become a line of plantation, forming a pleasing foreground to the richly wooded distance" (p. 76). (back)

(18) Wordsworth, Prose Works, ed. W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser (London: Oxford UP, 1974), vol. 3, p. 29n. (back)

(19) Stephen Gill, William Wordsworth: A Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), pp. 153-4. (back)

(20) David Chandler has also pointed to this reading of Wordsworth's 1793 picturesque: "he presented himself as a nature-worshipper in 1793, yet even in that description could not fully erase the memory of wartime vagrancy, of a fugitive self with danger's voice behind ." "Vagrancy Smoked Out: Wordsworth 'betwixt Severn and Wye'." Romanticism On the Net 11 (August 1998). <> (back)

(21) Tilottama Rajan, The Supplement of Reading: Figures of Understanding in Romantic Theory and Practice (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990), p. 112. (back)

(22) Levinson, p. 15. (back)

(23) McGann, p. 86; Johnston, "Politics," p. 9; Levinson, pp. 25-8. As Johnston has put the question more recently, referring to the location issue, "Where one stands now on 'Tintern Abbey' makes a big difference in Romantic scholarship": The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy (New York: Norton, 1998), p. 591. But Johnston's review of this controversy focuses once again on the Abbey, overlooking key elements of the location that I discuss below. For further detailed, critical questioning of historicist claims, see Nicholas Roe, "The Politics of the Wye Valley: Re-Placing 'Tintern Abbey'," in The Politics of Nature: Wordsworth and Some Contemporaries (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992), pp. 117-136, and Fred V. Randel, "The Betrayals of 'Tintern Abbey'," Studies in Romanticism 32 (Fall 1993), 379-397. (back)

(24) Levinson, p. 32; Geoffrey Little, "'Tintern Abbey' and Llyswen Farm," The Wordsworth Circle 8 (Winter 1977): 80-82; Mary Jacobus, "'Tintern Abbey' and Topographical Prose," Notes & Queries 216, NS 18.10 (October 1971): 366-369; Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch, "Wordsworth and the Simplon Revisited," The Wordsworth Circle 10 (1979): 381-385; Theresa M. Kelley, Wordsworth's Revisionary Aesthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988), p. 59 (cf. David Erdman's note that "Wordsworth's search for deep seclusion [lies] somewhere between Tintern Abbey and Chepstow Castle." The Wordsworth Circle 16 (1985), 151); Roe, p. 120; Michael Wiley, Romantic Geography: Wordsworth and Anglo-European Spaces (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997), p. 77. (back)

(25) Easthope, pp. 138-9 (numbering added). (back)

(26) Gilpin, Wye, p. 38. (back)

(27) Gilpin, p. 39. By restricting his view to the first few miles above Tintern, Wiley omits the Symonds Yat ironworks from his account, which problematizes his attribution of "idyllic" status to this section of the river (p. 73). Indeed, following McGann and Levinson, we might challenge Wordsworth for omitting the signs of industrial activity here just as much as at Tintern. The last part of this essay will serve to show why such an argument is not relevant to the poem. (back)

(28) Rev. S. Shaw, A Tour to the West of England, in 1788 (London: Robson and Clarke, and J. Walker, 1789), p. 198. (back)

(29) Gilpin, p. 39. Similarly, in Whately's description of New Weir, which also emphasizes wildness and terror, he speaks of "the cascade of the Weir, where the agitation of the current is encreased by large fragments of rocks, which have been swept down by floods from the banks, or shivered by tempests from the brow" (p. 115). (back)

(30) Samuel Ireland, Picturesque Views on the River Wye, from Its Source at Plinlimmon Hill, to its Junction with the Severn below Chepstow, &c. (London: R. Faulder & T. Egerton, 1797), p. 93. (back)

(31) Ireland, p. 95. (back)

(32) Ireland, pp. 96-7. (back)

(33) Duncan Wu, Wordsworth’s Reading 1770-1799 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993), pp. 143-4. (back)

(34) Richard Warner, A Walk Through Wales, in August 1797 (London: C. Dilly, 1798), p. 224. (back)

(35) In John Bard McNulty, "Wordsworth's Tour of the Wye: 1798," Modern Language Notes 60 (1945): 291-295. McNulty’s map is copied by such later commentators as Levinson (p. 54), and Donald E. Hayden in Wordsworth's Travels in Wales and Ireland (Tulsa, OK: University of Tulsa Press, 1985). (back)

(36) Roe, p. 118. At the same, it should be noted that Warner's map is potentially misleading: "New Weir" is actually located approximately where the route south from Goodrich is shown crossing the river for the second time approaching Monmouth; "Hensham" ("Huntsham" on modern maps) is located nearby within the bend of the river, not outside it to the north-west. (back)

(37) Damian Walford Davies, "'Some uncertain notice': The Hermit of 'Tintern Abbey'," Notes and Queries 241, NS 43 (1996): 422-424. (back)

(38) Christopher Salvesen, The Landscape of Memory: A Study of Wordsworth's Poetry (London: Edward Arnold, 1965); Alan Grob, The Philosophical Mind: A Study of Wordsworth's Poetry and Thought 1797-1805 (Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP, 1973); John Beer, Wordsworth and the Human Heart (London: Macmillan, 1978). (back)

(39) Wordsworth, Prose, vol. 2, p. 51. (back)

(40) Even Wordsworth's belated acknowledgement of Dorothy's presence later in the poem fits this account, since Dorothy is figured both as appropriately natural (her "wild eyes," etc.) and as a human agent representing their shared memory into the future. Although feminist critics have, of course, been troubled by this naturalizing of Dorothy (e.g., Anne K. Mellor, Romanticism & Gender. New York: Routledge, 1993, p. 19), I suggest that it is consistent with Wordsworth's alignment of memory with nature earlier in the poem. (back)

(41) The concept is borrowed in part from Schelling. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lectures 1808-1819: On Literature, ed. R. A. Foakes (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987), vol. 2, p. 222. (back)

(42) Alfoxden Notebook, 21v, in The Ruined Cottage and the Pedlar, ed. James Butler (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1979), p. 125. Grob also cites these lines for their general bearing on "Tintern Abbey," p. 27. (back)

(43) Geoffrey H. Hartman, Wordsworth’s Poetry 1787-1814 (New Haven: Yale UP, 1971), p. 17. (back)

(44) Grob, p. 43. (back)

(45) Ralph Pite, "How Green Were the Romantics?" Studies in Romanticism 35 (1996), p. 372. (back)

Document created August 2nd 1999 / Revisions September 12th 2000
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