Inside and Out: A reading of Tintern Abbey

I. Seeing Into the Life of Things

What does Wordsworth see when he “sees into the life of things?” Recall that in the lines leading up to his portrayal of the “blessed mood” that gives him this sight, Wordsworth has been pointing to the power of human memory and reflection. And the importance of memory and reflection are made plain by the shifting time perspectives in the poem.

The poem begins with the speaker on the banks of the Wye for the first time in five years. At first the poet emphasizes the way in which his present experience is similar to that of five years ago. More than once he tells us that “again” he has certain experiences in this secluded spot, a place that is evidently a refuge for him. He then tells how he has thought of “these beauteous forms” at many difficult times since he was last at this spot, five years before. At these moments, his recollections of his time on the banks of the Wye seems to lift his spirits and restore him. He then points to what might, at first glance, seem to be impossible: “unremembered pleasures.” How can it make sense to say that we recall “unremembered pleasures”? If they are unremembered, how can we be thinking about them? This strange phrase might point to a vague recall of some pleasant experiences in the past, one that we cannot clearly name. But it can also mean that we can now recall pleasures that previously were not only unremembered but actually unnoticed. The notion of an unnoticed pleasure might seem strange as well. But is it so odd to think that, in memory, our pleasurable experiences take on new meaning and greater substance than they had at the time? Pleasant experiences are often over quickly or happen in a rush. We are so caught up in the experience that we can’t attend to all that is happening to us. Or, in some cases, when we are in the middle of some experience, we cannot grasp just what makes it special or wonderful. For what some experience means to us depends upon what came before it and, even more, what will follow from it. And, in the middle of an experience, we may forget what lead up to it and cannot know what will come of it. It is only in retrospect that we can luxuriate in the experience, appreciate aspects of it that we could not attend to at the moment, and grasp the meaning of it for our lives.

Then Wordsworth points to the way in which our past experience color the way we live with others. Why are the “best portion of a good man’s life” “His little, nameless, unremembered, acts Of kindness and of love?” Because they are uncalculated, and unmotivated by self-concern. They flow so freely from us that, again, it is only in retrospect that we recognize them for what they were. But they are the true measure of what we are. And, what we are is determined in large part by what we remember of our lives, by the shape we give to our lives in memory. For it is the recollection (re-collection) of good memories, the naming of nameless pleasures, that helps make us the kind of people who commit nameless unremembered acts of kindness and love. (Wordsworth’s emphasis on the importance of memory is why, in one of my classes, I said that funeral speeches are very important. For they are an important moment in which we try to set the memory we have of someone.)

So the mood that leads the author to see into the life of things begins with recollection and memory, of pleasures and good deeds. But these memories occur in what seems like an otherwise dreary time for the author, when he is weary and lonely. And, they occur as well, we may assume, in times when the “fever of the world” has burdened the author, when his worries have lead him to fruitless endeavors, and when he has suffered from the “evil tongues,” “rash judgments,” and “the sneers of selfish men” he points to later in the poem. (These were, undoubtedly, some of the chief products of literary critics in Wordsworth’s time, as in our own.) Memories of the Wye raise the author’s spirits, distances him for the concerns of his daily life. The author is able to step back and look at himself from above. The vision he presents of the soul leaving the body is not, I think, one of death but, rather, of release from the concerns of every day life. For everyday life that is directed in large part by concerns connected with our bodies. The author’s soul floats above his body. From that distance, the tensions and fitfulness of daily life is diminished, and replaced by joy. This joy comes, we can imagine, in no small part from the escape from every day worries. But perhaps it is also a joy in the author’s own powers to shape his experience of the world.

For the poet has a further insight, one that comes from reflection on the very experience of the power of memory to “lift the burdens” upon him. That is, the author is now thinking not about the Wye, or about his memories of the Wye, or about how these memories have lifted his spirits and shaped his life. Rather he is thinking about the human capacities that allow memory and reflection to have this effect. And, in doing this, he grasps two important features of his own powers. First, he sees just how his power of reflection and memory can keep him from being dragged down into the pain and despair of daily life. The pleasure he received from his experience on the banks of Wye are not limited to that time and place but are always available. And the pain and worries of daily life can be diminished and put in their place by gaining some distance and perspective from them. And, second, he grasp that these very experiences are not just due to the power of nature over him. As he points out later in the poem, when he was younger “nature…to me was all in all.” This does not mean that nature was “all in all” when he was young but that he experienced it as “all in all.” What he has come to recognize is that is that the effect of nature upon him depends upon what he brings to nature. For he has seen that the pleasures he receives upon reflection on his experience at the banks of the Wye are different and perhaps even greater than those he had at the moment when he first had these experiences. And perhaps he also recognizes that the very experiences he has on the banks of the Wye are inseparable from what he brings to that experience. How different, for example, might be the experience of someone who lived on and worked this land, who hunted and gathered on it, or who looked at Maple trees to see if syrup was ready for tapping, from that of someone, like the author, who sees and seeks a natural beauty as a relief from the life of cities. Later in the poem, the author recognizes that half of the experience comes from his eye, while the other half comes from nature. That is, what has such an effect on him is not nature pure and simple but nature as filtered through his own “language of the sense.”

 From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,–both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense,

Seeing into the life of things, then, is seeing into the power of human reflection, which in turn rests on our capacity for recollection . Thus the form of the poem—the constant shifting of the author’s attention from one period of time to another—portrays the experiences and recognitions that is the subject matter of the poem. It is in this shifting of attention that the author—and we—come to distance ourselves from those aspects of our lives that trouble us and turn to other experiences that nurture us and give us hope for the future. Moreover, this power of reflection gives us the ability to give shape not just to our experiences of the past but, also, to our expectations of the future. The author has learned that he what he becomes is, in large part, the result of what he chooses to make of himself. Making oneself, for Wordsworth, however, comes not in building a career or seeking riches, but in coming to a better understanding of one’s own nature and situation. This gives the author tremendous power over his life, but also a great deal of responsibility for it as well.

II. Reflection and Connection

 The high point of this poem would seem to be reached when the author tell us that he “sees into the life of things.” Where else can we go but down?  But two further moments occur. First, the author recognizes that these very insights make it impossible for him to recreate his own earlier, less reflective and involved connection with nature. This is the experience that happens to him on returning to the Wye after five years. Immediately after the first high point of the poem, when he recognizes his power to see into the life of things, the poet finds new, half-formulated thoughts (recognitions) come before him, thoughts that leads him to be sadly perplexed. The picture of the mind revives—this might mean the picture of the Wye before his mind or the picture he has of the powers of his mind—and leads him to have hope for the future, a hope based upon his recognition of his own powers. Yet, at the same time—and, it seems, for the first time—he recognizes that his appreciation of this spot on earth is different from what it once was. Now the poet’s thoughts go back to his boyhood, when he first sought out these woods as an escape. He entered the woods in flight from boyish versions of unprofitable stirring. But he discovered a deeply passionate attachment to the colors and forms he found there. It is that feeling, however, that he can no longer have. For, precisely because of the role this place on earth plays in his life now, he can no longer see it as he once did. Now he cannot come to the banks of the Wye without being reminded of how the memories of this spot has lifted his burdens. And he cannot help seeing it as the spot at which he first recognized the shaping power of memory and reflection. It remains a place of natural beauty and a refuge. But he cannot see it as just that. Inescapable thoughts give this place remoter charms that undermine their less remote ones. For the immediate passions of youth are partly dissipated by reflection. The very powers of thought that enable us to step back from the oppressive concerns of every day life also diminish our every day appetites and joys.

(This may be a difficult experience to understand. Let me remind you of an example I gave in some of my classes. I love the circus now, as I did when I was a child. But I can’t see it in the same way. I still enjoy seeing my favorite high wire artist almost get to the top of a 45 degree incline and then slide down. But, I can’t just see this as a frustrating near-miss. For I now recognize that sliding down is much more dangerous than going up this incline. And I appreciate the tremendous, over the top, quality of circus hype. This high wire artist pretends that climbing a 45 degree wire is even harder than it is, by doing something—the sliding down the wire—that does indeed make the act dramatically more difficult. My four year old daughter sees none of this. All she sees is the suspense. She watches to see whether the high wire walker   will get to the top. But I can’t help watching to see just how long he is going to milk this moment. Everything is front and center for my daughter, but I can’t help thinking about what goes on backstage. I appreciate the circus in a way my daughter cannot. But I can’t stop my brain—so I can’t fully appreciate it her way anymore.)

Wordsworth initially believes that what he has grasped through reflective thought is “ample recompense” for his loss. And it certainly would seem that some contact with the “something far more deeply interfused” is ample compensation for the lost pleasures of youth, whether that something is the God of the Bible, the God of nature, or merely the motion and spirit of our own soul that shapes all our thoughts and perceptions (and thus all that we think about and perceive). And it is surely compensation to hear the “still, sad music of humanity” from a great enough distance that one is moved but not overwhelmed by its strains (as we might be if we had no capacity for reflection and distance). But Wordsworth is too honest to try to convince himself that, in losing the pleasures of his youth, he has lost nothing.

And then the poem swerves and the poet turns his attention to his sister, who had been entirely absent to this point. Why this dramatic change of attention? Because Wordsworth is unwilling to let go of the lost pleasures of youth. Or because the insights that come with distance and reflection are not, by themselves, adequate compensation for the passions and joys he has lost. Initially it seems that Wordsworth thinks of his sister because she can still appreciate nature in the rawer, more immediate way he has lost. He can see this in “the shooting lights of her wild eyes.” (Just as I can still approximate a child’s view of the circus by seeing the delight and in my daughter’s fiery eyes.) But this compensation cannot be sustained either. For Wordsworth’s sister will lose her capacity for “wild ecstasies.” They will be replaced by “sober pleasure.” Moreover, Wordsworth can’t help but wish for his sister to mature in this way. Life is difficult and, likely as not, her “portion” will include “solitude, or fear, or pain or grief.” How can she hope to deal with these sad times? Only by coming to have the same capacity for joy in memory and reflection that the poet has recognized at this spot. Only in gaining some distance from one’s desires so that the inevitable failures and disappointments don’t damage us. These joys will be her “healing thoughts” when life is dreary or worse. So the poem ends with Wordsworth’s prayer that his sister take the same path he has, and come to trust in the capacity of nature to stimulate the “lofty thoughts”—thoughts held aloft, above our daily life—that might relieve her in painful times, including the time of his own death.

In making that prayer, however, Wordsworth has found a deeper answer to the loss of the passions and appetites that comes with distance and detachment. It is the passionate attachment to others—and in particular to his sister—that is expressed in his prayer. Wordsworth has recognized that, even after seeing into the life of things, after gaining a broader, reflective perspective on the nature of life itself, his deep personal connection to his sister remains. Indeed it is strengthened because now Wordsworth has a new task, of helping his sister—and us—climb to the same place of reflection and recognition that he has attained. Wordsworth finds in his love and concern for his sister the profound connection to the world that saves him from a life that is too detached for human happiness. Wordsworth’s relationship with his sister has the duality of all relationships of passionate concern between unequals—such as that between father and daughter or teacher and student. In appreciating the passion and attachment of his child or students, a father or teacher partly compensates for the loss of his own connection with the world, a loss that comes with the detachment that makes this painful life livable. And, at the same time, mothers and fathers or teachers find a new passionate attachment in encouraging  their children or students to mature, to find their own path to “seeing into the life of things.” (Children grow up and students graduate. That is why, parents seek to become grandparents and teachers are always looking for more students.)

Tintern Abbey is a profound reflection on the human capacity for connection and distance, for seeing ourselves both from the inside and from the outside. A life without reflection and distance is too horrible to imagine. It is a life in which, to use an example I gave in class, we always identify with Lucille Ball and our own Lucille-like moments. If we can’t see others or ourselves from the outside we can’t laugh at them or us. And we can’t put our difficulties in their place. But a life of sterile distance and lofty horizons is, not only lonely, but too lacking in the passions and connections that make life worth living. Indeed, reflection and distance themselves are neither necessary nor joyful for someone who is always floating above merely human concerns. There may be a variety of ways to negotiate the difficult terrain between reflection and connection, distance and passion. But he sudden turn to Wordsworth’s relationship to his sister suggest one plausible route to follow.

III. Addendum on Plato and Wordsworth

Any reader of the Plato’s Republic—and, even more, The Symposium—should see parallels between Wordsworth’s concerns and Plato’s, and not just in the importance of recollection to both of them or in the many references to “forms” in Tintern Abbey. Indeed, in a strange way, the Chinese boxes of Tintern Abbey—with its portrayal of memories of a memories of a memories—is reminiscent of the Chinese boxes of The Symposium, in which one speaker tells of another speaker telling the story of yet another speaker. One of the central themes of The Symposium is the tension between the view from inside and from outside of ourselves. (This tension is also the tension between comedy and tragedy. One way in which I find Plato more powerful than Wordsworth is in the former’s greater appreciation of the role of comedy in our lives.) In the Symposium, the lives of Socrates and Alcibiades are meant to stand for each of these (unsatisfactory) extremes. (I would go even further than Martha Nussbaum has in seeing The Symposium as a partial critique of Socrates’s detachment.) The Symposium as well as The Republic points to a solution to this tension that is similar to that proposed by Wordsworth. Why, after all, do philosophers reenter the cave in order to turn other potential philosophers around and lead them up out of the cave? To see this as a wholly self-less act is to misinterpret Plato. Philosophers are also human beings. And their human eros cannot be satisfied apart from a connection to other human beings, who become their students. (Surprisingly, The Republic, which is the Platonic work that most abstracts from or proposes (however facetiously) to limit the role of eros in life is also more approving and forthright about this human erotic connection than The Symposium, which is entirely focused on eros. In the latter work, Socrates seems much more distanced from the young men who follow him around then the philosophers in the kallipolis would presumably be. The reason, I think, is that, in the Symposium, the Socrates represents the life of complete and utter detachment from this life. And The Symposium is meant, I would argue, to be a critique of both Socrates’s detachment from as well as Alcibiades’s inability to gain such detachment.)

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