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Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey by Wordsworth

Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey by Wordsworth
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  • 0:05 Behind the Poem
  • 2:21 About the Abbey
  • 3:54 Memories and the…
  • 11:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeff Calareso

Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.

Is there a place you once visited and now, whenever you think of it, a flood of emotions returns? If so, then you can relate to William Wordsworth's ''Tintern Abbey.'' In this lesson, we'll examine the famous Romantic poem that's not really about an abbey at all.

Behind the Poem

If you were wondering what the Romantic poet William Wordsworth was doing on July 13, 1798, I can tell you that he was writing a poem. Where was he? He was traveling on the River Wye. Why was he traveling on the River Wye? Because he had just left Tintern Abbey, and the river was how you got there. Had he been there before? Yes!

You can learn all this stuff about that day in Wordsworth's life without even reading the poem that we're talking about. All you have to do is read the incredibly descriptive title 'Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798'. The title's often shortened to 'Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,' or just 'Tintern Abbey' if you want to get right to the point. You don't have to remember the full title, but it is kind of fun to know that it exists. It's also kind of fun to think about why he might do that. I don't really have any thoughts about it, but that's something you can ponder. Why would you write a title like that? Just to annoy people and make them have to remember the whole thing?

As you now know, Wordsworth (along with his sister Dorothy) was visiting the ancient Welsh abbey in the summer of 1798 - again, we got that date from the title. He had visited it by himself five years earlier, in the August of 1793. Between 1793 and 1798, he thought about it a lot - he thought about that visit and the impact it had on him. It's like any great trip you might have taken. Maybe Cabo might not be totally the same idea, but the point is that the traveling stays with you even after you've left that awesome place. When he returned in 1798, it inspired him to write a poem. He claimed that he composed this 160-line poem in his head, which, if you've ever tried to memorize a poem, is a little nuts (actually, a girl in a class I took on Wordsworth did memorize this whole thing and recited it for us, which was crazy, and I don't know how she did it). He was so proud of this poem that he wanted to add it on to the end of Lyrical Ballads, which was the collection of poems he had written and published with Samuel Coleridge. The book was already in production, but they did manage to tack it on at the end, so he got his way.

About the Abbey

Just a little background about this scene - let's talk about the Abbey. Tintern Abbey was the home of the Earl of Grantham - no, that's Downton Abbey, a different place, even though they both have 'abbey' in the title. Tintern Abbey was founded around the 1100s, and its great church was completed in 1301. It's 700 years ago now, still 500 years before Wordsworth ever visited it, so it was a ruin. It was the home of Cistercian monks who were really into manual labor; they were into agriculture, they were into making delicious beer - monks just love to do this. There are some monks that make awesome jelly. Monks just like to make cool stuff, and also books and whatnot.

The Abbey was doing great for about 400 years, and then in 1536 Henry VIII decided that monasteries were going to go the way of the dinosaur and he disbanded them, and that was kind of the end of it. The thing that is important is that when Wordsworth visited, it had been in ruins for hundreds of years already. It wasn't like it was a working thing or like it was recently ruined. It was all covered in ivy, but it was otherwise pretty similar to what you'd find if you went and looked at it today. In 1798, it had just been kind of rediscovered as a bit of a tourist trap of its day. As a fun kind of side note, the Abbey was actually also the setting for an Iron Maiden video, so it kind of inspires lots of people: it's got monks, it's got Wordsworth, it's got heavy metal. It's a pretty versatile place.

Memories and the Worship of Nature

Let's get to the poem. It begins with Wordsworth reflecting on the time that's passed between his first visit and his second visit. He says:

Five years have past; five summers, with the length

Of five long winters!

You first notice the use of accessible, ordinary language. He's not tarting up his speech; he's going simple and keeping it clear. It was really important to Wordsworth and his fellow Romantic poets to do this: to make the language not artificially fancy. The poem was written in blank verse, which means that lines don't have rhymes but they are in iambic pentameter, which is five pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables. There are two main themes to consider with the poem: memory and Nature worship. They're kind of intertwined, so we're going to examine them together in the poem.

Right from the start we get this emotional connection to his memory. He's so amazed that it's been five years that he says it in three different ways: he says 'years,' he says 'summers,' and he says 'winters.' It's all the same thing - all of those three things mean that five years have passed, but he gives a lot of depth to the time that has passed by naming it in all these different ways.

And then right away we jump right into Nature. He says:

and again I hear

These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs

With a soft inland murmur.-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.

Since you know he's visiting the ruins of an abbey, and it's not a still-functional abbey, it's easy to understand why the actual Abbey itself is not described in the poem. Instead he's talking about the beautiful rural landscape in this particular remote corner of Wales. The ruins of the Abbey become the landscape in a way, which is kind of poignant, because it used to be for people, and now it's for Nature. It's kind of been reclaimed by the land in a way due to its ruin.

Another poet might have just described his visit to Tintern Abbey and how it was great and looked nice - he would have taken a photo but cameras weren't invented - and he would've just called it a day at that. But Wordsworth is not just interested in nature and pretty scenery. He's also interested in memory. He's been to this place before, and that's interesting to him. He says:

These beauteous forms,

Through a long absence, have not been to me

As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:

But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din

Of towns and cities, I have owed to them

In hours of weariness

It's a special place to him, and it had a really profound impact in 1793. In the ensuing five years since then, the memory was strong enough that he took solace in it; it soothed him when he was in a less pleasant place or in a bad mood.

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