A preoccupation of the true Romantic authors was that of natural inspiration; a gathering of life experience, of knowledge and of wisdom through the untamed wilds of nature. In his poem “Tintern Abbey” William Wordsworth uses both physical and metaphysical wonderings to present a careful and yet sometimes confusing study of the cyclic nature of inspiration, knowledge and spirituality. Through the use of imagery, structure and juxtaposition, Wordsworth attempts and succeeds to teach a way to live through nature.
The structure of the poem reveals one of the main themes: that inspiration, knowledge and nature are all cyclic. It is through this theme that his meaning becomes apparent. The poem begins with Wordsworth reflecting on the landscape before him. Repetitive use of terms such as “once again/ Do I behold,” “The day is come when I repose again” and “once again I see” help place Wordsworth in the present and in a contemplative mood. 1 Throughout the first stanza Wordsworth writes of the beauty of nature in an objective manner, describing the landscape exactly how he sees it.
His metaphysical wanderings begin in this stanza too. When describing the land as being connected “with the quiet of the sky”, we are led to see not only Wordsworth’s belief of nature and spirituality being as one, we are also able to distinguish a link between the cycles of nature and the cycles of spirituality. This is reiterated in the final stanza when Wordsworth connects with his sister and describes his love for the place as being a “far deeper zeal/Of holier love”, or that he feels as much love for the landscape as he does for God.
Other religious imagery, such as “worshipper of Nature” and “blessed mood”, coupled with “Nature” being a proper noun allow us to see that Wordsworth thinks incredibly highly of nature. It is through this as well as the comparison of his love for nature and his love for God, that the link between spirituality and nature is firmly established. The inspiration of creativity could also be described as spiritual in this poem, particularly through the last lines of the second stanza.
Wordsworth talks of the “blessed mood” that he encounters when thinking back on his first tour of Tintern Abbey to escape the “weary weight” of daily life. He describes the creation of inspiration as almost death-like, almost as though it is a highly sacred moment. The images Wordsworth uses to describe this ‘death’ are astounding – “breath of this corporeal frame… motion of [the] human blood/Almost suspending”. He continues the allegory by depicting the “living soul”, the part of us that, once at harmony with nature can “see into the life of all things”.
This entire illustration of creative inspiration is very spiritual and God-like, especially the idea of being able to see the life of everything. The fact that Wordsworth describes nature and the remembrance of it as something so spiritual and inspiring is one part of his lesson to live through nature. The first shift in time occurs in the second stanza when Wordsworth discusses memories of the landscape and how they have affected him through the “five years” of his absence. The depiction of his urban life is far from flattering.
Descriptions like “lonely rooms,” ” in hours of weariness” and “mid the din/Of towns and cities” relate a sense of disruption and unhappiness. When juxtaposed with words used to describe the landscape of Tintern Abbey: “wild secluded scene”, “soft inland murmur” and “green to the very door”, it is astoundingly clear which place Wordsworth favours. The juxtaposition of nature and urban is reiterated in the final stanza when Wordsworth describes his sisters’ wild enthusiasm of the land.
He says that “the dreary intercourse of daily life,/Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb/Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold/Is full of blessings”, by which he means that no matter how dreary daily life seems, or how alone, fearful or pained2 one may feel, the beauty of nature is what will fill their hearts. Through the use of these descriptions, Wordsworth begins to outline his argument and lesson – that nature is able to enrich our soul just as much as formal education can and to look at nature in a more creative, inspiring and imaginative way3.
In the fourth stanza we return to the present but there is a conflict of his present surroundings and his past reminiscence. The careful choice of wording between lines 58 and 65 help minimise confusion about this and convey the physical and metaphysical wanderings of the poet. With statements like “While here I stand, not only with the sense/ Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts/That in this moment there is life and food/For future years” Wordsworth introduces the idea of nature, inspiration and knowledge being cyclic.
The descriptions of his own reaction to nature and (through his sister) his suggestions for the future help to emphasise this point. He relates his first reaction to the land as someone bounding over mountains, enjoying the landscape as much as he could, feeling enriched by its vibrancy but not gaining much by it. As an adolescent he describes his movement to nature as one who is fleeing from “something he dreads” rather than searching for something he loved. It wasn’t until he was older and had had time to mature the thoughts in to “sober pleasure”, that he understood the true bountiful source of nature.
Indeed, in the final stanza when Wordsworth describes the “gleams” and “shooting lights” of his sister’s eyes, we are able to see the beginning of a new cycle of knowledge. Wordsworth’s statement of “oh! Yet a little while/May I behold in thee what I once was”, highlights this beginning of knowledge. Throughout the poem we have seen what he has learnt through nature, the inspiration he gets from the “picture of the mind” and to see his sister sharing in the beginning phases of knowledge helps us not only understand his idea of cycles but also his hopes for the future.
In fact, throughout stanzas four and five Wordsworth continually weaves his way between the present and past and describes his intimations for the future. It is this through this carefully conceived structure that Wordsworth first introduces the idea of inspiration, spirituality and knowledge having the capacity to borne of nature. William Butler Yeats, an Irish poet writing in the early twentieth century describes a ‘gyre’ as the cyclic nature of history and humanity4. The ‘gyre’ was a circle that started with one event and finished with another and was centred on a ‘God’ or central idea.
He used this image in quite a few poems, perhaps the most famous of which was “The Second Coming”. The idea of the ‘gyre’ as used by Yeats is particularly interesting if one relates it to Wordsworth’s ideas of nature and knowledge. If we consider nature as the ‘God’ in a ‘gyre’ it is possible to imagine the ideas of knowledge, spirituality and inspiration being a cycle that revolved around and with nature. It is already clear that the structure of “Tintern Abbey” mirrors this main theme, the idea of cycles. By highlighting this theme we are able to understand the lesson Wordsworth is attempting to teach.
By using a structure that links nature, inspiration, knowledge and spirituality together by describing them all in context of cycles, it becomes apparent that through nature all can be learnt. This is the lesson Wordsworth is attempting to teach; that we should live through nature and be inspired by it. Throughout the poem “Tintern Abbey”, Wordsworth is teaching a way to live. A brilliantly crafted structure firmly establishes the main theme of cycles and acts as a strong foundation for his lesson that nature is able to sustain and enrich our knowledge and our souls just as well, if not better than, formal education.