Friday, March 29, 2019

Lines written below Tintern Abbey

cliffs, farm, hedgerows, smoke: from Lower Wyndcliff

So I had a wander about Tintern yesterday, and inevitably this happened.

                                               -- 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 location was Symonds Yat. The basic reasoning is that the poem mentions "these steep and lofty cliffs". There are plenty of cliffs below Tintern Abbey 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 much further downstream.]  

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 and I basically accept it, with the cautious reflection that we shouldn't be over- literalistic about locating a scene in an imaginative poem. The phrase " a few miles above Tintern Abbey" is quite an indirect way of talking about Symonds Yat, fully 17 miles above Tintern, indeed five miles above Monmouth. 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. "Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey..." Readers of the first edition of Lyrical Ballads might believe that claim, but later Wordsworth was quite happy to add 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." He composed the lines, then, while moving down from Tintern Abbey, and actually wrote them in Bristol. (The date 13th July was in fact the date the poem was composed and written down.)

But "Tintern Abbey" is fictive in a more thoroughgoing sense, too. Probably it was at Symonds Yat that Wordsworth saw 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;  probably, too, an apprehension flashed across him, for example a sense of how his experience now was different from his experience in 1793; probably, too, he remarked Dorothy's response to the scene, her "wild eyes", though certainly not for the first or last time. 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 came later, during the composition itself. It wasn't at Symonds Yat 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 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 love for Dorothy may have been a flash of affection, something almost latent, at Symonds Yat; the welling up of William's emotion is more accurately to be located on a boat to Bristol.

Wordsworth gave this account of their tour 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..."

So we can put together an itinerary something like this:

DAY 1: 10th July 1798

Walk: Bristol to Pilning (10 miles)
"New Passage" ferry across the Severn.
Walk: Sudbrook to Tintern (10 miles)

DAY 2: 11th July 1798

Walk: Upstream from Tintern to Goodrich Castle (20 miles)
(Likely to have included visiting Symonds Yat.. If not, on the next day... Very possibly 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

Boat from Tintern to Bristol.
"Tintern Abbey" composed.

The only slight doubt concerns this phrase in the note about "Tintern Abbey": I began it upon leaving Tintern, after crossing the Wye... That sounds as if the Wordsworths were on foot. Perhaps they actually walked some way down river before picking up a boat. Or perhaps Wordsworth conflated the two downstream departures from Tintern on days 3 and 4. In which case he might have actually begun the composition in the late afternoon of 12th July, while walking down to Chepstow.

It's often pointed out that though the handy shorthand title "Tintern Abbey" came into immediate use (e.g. by Wordsworth himself), yet apart from in its title the poem makes no reference at all to the Abbey and the action 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 was actually composing his lines, -- these reflections raise the question again 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, or even picturesque, expectations. Contrariwise, the Wordsworths wouldn't have been expecting to see 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 one person on a tractor doing the work of fifty peasants. 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



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