Friday, March 29, 2019

Lines written below Tintern Abbey

cliffs, farm, hedgerows, smoke: from Lower Wyndcliff

So I had a stroll about Tintern yesterday, and I suppose this was bound to happen. I was on a cliff, looking over a landscape of hedgerows, a farm, a trail of smoke... 

                                               -- Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild and secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.   ...

                                    Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees,
And the low copses -- coming from the trees
With some uncertain notice, as might seem,
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,    ...

The coincidence amused me, and I started thinking more narrowly about the locus of Wordsworth's poem. The full title in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads seems quite specific:






July 13, 1798.

The title specifies the locus of the poem's quiet action, the "Here, under this dark sycamore": the scene of William's thoughts and, perhaps, his spoken words to Dorothy. That was a few miles "above" Tintern Abbey.  The word "above" has confused some people, e.g. Philip Shaw on the British Library site. It doesn't refer to elevation (if it did, "a few miles above" would put him at the height of Kilimanjaro!); it means upstream. In fact the poem makes clear that the scene isn't viewed from a high elevation but a low one: "here upon the banks Of this fair river", "on the banks of this delightful stream".

If David S. Miall is correct, the imagined locus of the poem was Symonds Yat. His basic reasoning is that the poem mentions "these steep and lofty cliffs". There are plenty of cliffs below Tintern Abbey (like the ones in my photo) but none above it until Symonds Yat. Besides, it was a well-known viewpoint, illustrated in Gilpin's book and much visited by tourists in search of the picturesque. [This at a stroke renders obsolete much recent speculation that Wordsworth suppressed the extensive industrial activity of Redbrook and Whitebrook, the boisterous river traffic and pollution, the rowdy stevedores of Brockweir (considered "one of the most lawless places in the country"), the beggars who haunted the ruined Abbey, and so on: all those places were a long way downstream from Symonds Yat.]  

David S. Miall: "Locating Wordsworth: "Tintern Abbey" and the Community with Nature" (2009)

Usefully supplemented by the maps, photos and historical material on Brennan L. Saddler's 2017 digital edition:

There's a lot to commend this idea, but we shouldn't be too literal about locating a scene in an imaginative poem. The phrase " a few miles above Tintern Abbey" is quite an indirect way of referring to Symonds Yat, which is fully 17 miles above Tintern (and with a large town, Monmouth, in between). Evidently Wordsworth didn't wish his readers to be distracted by anything they might know of Symonds Yat, but wanted them to focus solely on what his poem describes and what it says.

Thrillingly close as "Tintern Abbey" is to actual experience, it certainly does have a fictive element. The title, for instance. "Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey..." Some readers of the first edition of Lyrical Ballads may have taken that claim literally, but others may not. It was a well-understood convention that this kind of title was often shorthand for "conceived as written" or "supposed to be written". No reader would feel cheated if it transpired that the lines were actually composed somewhere else.

Was that the case here? Wordsworth later appended this note:

"No poem of mine was composed under circumstances more pleasant for me to remember than this. I began it upon leaving Tintern, after crossing the Wye, and concluded it just as I was entering Bristol in the evening, after a ramble of four or five days, with my Sister. Not a line of it was altered, and not any part of it written down till I reached Bristol."

When I first drafted this post, I perceived only one interpretation of this note: Wordsworth began the poem upon leaving Tintern to go back to Bristol, in other words the poem was actually composed, not above, but below Tintern Abbey. However, I've belatedly realized that the note can be taken in a quite different way: Wordsworth began the poem upon leaving Tintern to walk further up the Wye valley.

Before proceeding, it will be helpful to provide an itinerary of the whole trip, based on what Wordsworth wrote in his Memoirs:

"We left Alfoxden on Monday morning, the 26th of June, stayed with Coleridge till the Monday following, then set forth on foot towards Bristol. We were at Cottle's for a week, and thence we went toward the banks of the Wye. We crossed the Severn Ferry, and walked ten miles further to Tintern Abbey, a very beautiful ruin on the Wye. The next morning we walked along the river through Monmouth to Goodrich Castle there slept, and returned the next day to Tintern, thence to Chepstow and from Chepstow back again in a boat to Tintern, where we slept, and thence back in a small vessel to Bristol..."

From which account, we can construct this:

DAY 1: 10th July 1798

Walk: Bristol to Pilning (10 miles)
The "Severn Ferry" to Sudbrook, near Caldicot (the "New Passage" ferry).
Walk: Sudbrook to Tintern (10 miles)

DAY 2: 11th July 1798

Walk: Upstream from Tintern to Goodrich Castle (20 miles)
(They would have visited Symonds Yat on Day 2 or Day 3, most likely both.)

DAY 3: 12th July 1798

Walk: Downstream from Goodrich Castle to Tintern, then on to Chepstow (27 miles).
"Boat" back upstream to Tintern.

DAY 4: 13th July 1798

"Small vessel" from Tintern to Bristol.

OK, now let's look at that note again.

"No poem of mine was composed under circumstances more pleasant for me to remember than this. I began it upon leaving Tintern, after crossing the Wye, and concluded it just as I was entering Bristol in the evening, after a ramble of four or five days, with my Sister. Not a line of it was altered, and not any part of it written down till I reached Bristol."

So it's definite that the composition began just as he and Dorothy were leaving Tintern, but as you can see from the itinerary, they actually left Tintern on three occasions: in the morning of 11th July (to walk upstream), in the late afternoon or evening of 12th July (to walk down to Chepstow), and, finally, some time around midday on 13th July (by small vessel to Bristol; at a very rough estimate I think this journey would take about 4-6 hours).

Which one, then?

In favour of the third and final departure from Tintern, is that 1. "leaving Tintern" might most naturally be interpreted as "leaving Tintern for the last time", and 2. that the sentence follows this event with "entering Bristol".  (This is the interpretation taken by Wikipedia.)

There are two problems with this that may not be problems.

Firstly, this interpretation implies that the whole poem was composed, not above Tintern Abbey, but below it. But as I've already said, readers probably wouldn't be too concerned about that.

Secondly, it means that Wordsworth composed the whole 159-line poem in less than a single day, perhaps just seven or eight hours. He was certainly a fluent versifier. But this would be extremely impressive. It's not just the number of lines, it's that these particular lines are so dense and intricate. (Not to mention that they were seared on his memory, with no need for notes, until he could write them down at home.)

But there's a third problem, too. Wordsworth took the trouble to add the extra detail "after crossing the Wye".

Why would William and Dorothy cross the river to catch a boat downriver? Well, of course you would do so if the boat was moored on the far side. But that doesn't seem very likely. The whole of Tintern village is on the western (Welsh) side of the river, and because this is the outer side of a loop in the river, it's where the bank is naturally steep and firm, suitable for mooring up.

Even supposing that they did cross the river to board, why take the trouble to mention it? William and Dorothy could only have been on the English side of the river for a brief interval before they were aboard and being whisked downstream. It seems like quite an irrelevant thing to mention.

So let's look at another possibility: that Wordsworth was referring to their first departure from Tintern, on foot, in the morning of 11th July. In this scenario, it's much easier to understand why Wordsworth mentions "after crossing the Wye". He's telling us that they walked up the English side of the river for a considerable time, at least as far as Brockweir and perhaps further. It would have been several hours walking, anyway. Wordsworth might well think it worth mentioning that here his poem had its birth.

But would this be a natural interpretation of "upon leaving Tintern"? I didn't think so at first, until it occurred to me that Wordsworth when writing his note might be intending it to be taken in conjunction with the topographical information already supplied in the title of the poem, specifically the words "a few miles above Tintern Abbey". So "upon leaving Tintern" would mean "upon leaving Tintern to go upstream to the location already indicated...". That is, on the morning of 11th July.

The more I look at Wordsworth's note, the more I'm inclined to think this the most natural interpretation.

This would mean that the composition occurred over the course of three whole days (and two nights), allowing ample time for polishing, further consideration, revision and fixing it in his mind. And a large part of the work, though by no means all, did indeed take place above Tintern Abbey.

(On this interpretation, the date in the title -- July 13, 1798 -- is the date the poem was finished and set down on paper, and is not intended to place all the composition within a single day, though it may have been happy to suggest that.)

At the risk of being thoroughly tedious, I'll toss in a couple of further complications. 1. Could the clause "after a ramble of four or five days" be intended to describe what happened between "leaving Tintern" and "entering Bristol"? This of course would only be possible if Wordsworth was referring to the first departure; and even then it would not be accurate; it was just three days. Besides, the 20 miles walked on the day prior to arriving at Tintern were surely a part of the "ramble".  More likely, the clause only has reference to "entering Bristol" and is telling us how long the whole tour took, which was indeed four days. 2. Before it struck me that Wordsworth might have meant the first departure from Tintern, I dallied with the possibility that he might have been thinking of the second departure, in the late afternoon or evening of 12th July, when the indefatigable pair extended their walk down to Chepstow. The note cannot mean that, but it could perhaps be that Wordsworth, while meaning the third and final departure, was actually thinking of the second, which was on foot, and this might account for the detail about "crossing the Wye".

Ultimately, we can't be sure, except of one thing. On every interpretation, at least some of the poem was composed below Tintern Abbey, on a boat going down to the mouth of the Wye, crossing the Severn estuary and passing up the Avon to Bristol.

And accordingly, the poem registers multiple experiences. Somewhere in the course of their walk Wordsworth noticed the the topographical details lovingly described in the opening section, for instance the "little lines / Of sportive wood", the "pastoral farm", the smoke rising behind the trees;  perhaps, too, it was at this time that an apprehension flashed across him, for example a sense of how different his present experience was from his experience in 1793; perhaps, too, it was at this time that he remarked Dorothy's response to the scene, her "wild eyes". That's how the poem portrays it, and thus it may have been. More likely (I think) there wasn't just a single moment of insight but a succession of insights; there's an element of dramatization, of assembling scattered impressions along the way into a single scene. But on any account the moment or moments of insight and the labour of forming the words could not be coincident. The essence of insight is that it's swifter and more direct than discourse, and always has more integrity. But it's also embryonic: it contains everything, but this everything needs to be unpacked and unless we find words to express it we can't even be fully said to realize its contents ourselves. The poem's long and articulate meditation needed to be drawn out; that process of discovering what you think (or what you think you think), finding the words and images, framing arguments, expanding on examples, heading off miscontructions; this all happened during the composition itself. It wasn't at Symonds Yat (or wherever it was that the moments of insight arrived) that Wordsworth e.g. laid his hands on "nature and the language of the sense", progressively understood its role as "anchor", "nurse", "guide", "guardian" and "soul", or considered the "evil tongues, Rash judgements" and "the sneers of selfish men". And composition is not a passive delineation of past experience. Who doesn't know that, as we find words for someone dear, and know that they'll soon be reading them, our emotion wells up? The more so as Dorothy was actually beside him all the time he was composing. His love for Dorothy may have been a flash of affection, something almost latent, at Symonds Yat; the welling up of William's emotion was perhaps on a boat to Bristol.

It's often pointed out that though the handy shorthand title "Tintern Abbey" came into immediate use (e.g. by Wordsworth himself), yet, title aside, the poem makes no reference at all to the Abbey and its setting is avowedly elsewhere. Still, the itinerary shows how central Tintern was to William and Dorothy's tour: they were there every day, either arriving at it or departing from it: on Day 3 they were there twice. Tintern was their HQ, their base-camp. The Abbey, that ruinous but so-prominent landmark, seen at different times of day, was a persistent presence during these important days. In that respect its presence in the title of William's poem is understandable. And by then not referring to it in the text, by not describing it, the poem creates a kind of absence that is also an unspoken presence; an absence very different from, say, the absence of Monmouth. It has its place in a poem that is constantly thinking about the invisible, the submerged, the immanent, the not-quite-plainly present: "unremembered", "nameless", "dim", "faint", "half-extinguish'd"...

These reflections on the importance to the poem of, not only Symonds Yat, but e.g. Tintern and downstream from Tintern, where Wordsworth actually composed some (or perhaps all) of his poem. . . -- these reflections raise once more the question about "What happened to all the industry?" But I do wonder if it's more our issue than Wordsworth's. We know far more now about air quality and pollution, and in our own overcrowded and traffic-ridden world we are far more sensitive to disfigurement by such horrors as industry.  But the industry of the Wye valley in 1798 can never have resembled, say, Dickens' nightmarish vision of Birmingham in The Old Curiosity Shop. There was no railway, there were no steamboats, no steam-driven machinery.  The sounds would have been human sounds. The villages were small, with large green spaces between them. If the residents were busy manufacturing, that didn't necessarily seem discordant with pastoral expectations, or even picturesque ones. Nor would the Wordsworths have expected to find an empty countryside: the countryside of their time was not empty. It's the farmed landscape of our own time that is eerily unpeopled, with just a single person on a tractor doing what was once the work of fifty farm-hands. We know that Wordsworth was, for people of his class, unusually sensitive to the trials and sufferings of common people -- not least, in the Lyrical Ballads. (He also wrote disparagingly of heavy industry, in The Excursion.) But I'm not convinced that what he saw in the Wye Valley would have seemed to trouble the engagement with nature that the poem describes. And besides, doesn't the poem find its own way to connect that exhilaration among natural scenes with "the still sad music of humanity"?

Ramsons: a lone variegated individual. 

Wood Sorrel

Brockweir, upstream from Tintern

Tintern Abbey

Mistletoe on hawthorn, with Tintern village in the background


From the "Eagle's Nest" at Lower Wyndcliff


 Some papers I enjoyed reading subsequently:

Joseph S. O'Leary, "A Mystical Utterance in Context: 'Tintern Abbey'" (2013). 

Explication du texte, with emphasis on the two mystic passages. Entertaining critique of various historicist and other scholars. (The first couple of pages are accidentally repeated.)

Peter Larkin, "Some Preliminary Remarks for a Workshop on 'Tintern Abbey'" (2012) 

Reflects on TA as revisiting a visit (i.e. after five years); the stability of the poem's flow, nurture, a monastic ethos; its position in Lyrical Ballads; the address to the present Dorothy. Dense, informed and sensitive. I genuinely wish I could understand the final sentence (and a few others). 

Eric Lindstrom, "The Command to Nature in Wordsworth and Post-Enlightenment Lyric" (2011)

Eric Lindstrom develops the approach of his PhD advisor Paul Fry, one of the scholars O'Leary (above) takes to task for inaccuracy about the poem's details. But that doesn't necessarily invalidate the directions in which Fry and Lindstrom are burrowing. Lindstrom follows Fry in focussing on the command to nature "Therefore let the moon / Shine on thee in thy solitary walk" (he sees the command to nature as different to apostrophe). 

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