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Locating Wordsworth: "Tintern Abbey" and the Community with Nature[Record]

  • David S. Miall

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  • David S. Miall
    University of Alberta

For most of the last two decades discussion of Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" has been dominated by controversies centred on historicist readings of the poem. In particular, this has served to focus attention on how far Wordsworth acknowledged the scenes of poverty and industrial activity in theWye Valley as he made his tour with Dorothy in July 1798, and whether such scenes lie behind the poem that he wrote on July 13th, the last day of his tour. Several historicist critics, notably Jerome McGann, Marjorie Levinson, and Kenneth Johnston, have suggested that Wordsworth strategically suppresses awareness of salient parts of the scene on the Wye—the beggars lurking in the Abbey ruins, the furnaces of the iron forges nearby that burned night and day, the busy river traffic that passed the Abbey plying between Chepstow and Brockweir. The vision of unmediated benefit from Nature that the poem famously provides is, in this view, only a screen on which Wordsworth projects his anxieties. Nature can never be known directly: as Antony Easthope puts it, "Nature exists as we appropriate it." Thus Wordsworth is deceiving himself (and his readers) in claiming that here he felt a spirit that rolls through everything. Such a spirit fails to account for the vagrants and the beggars, or the polluted stream of the Wye. Following the recent emergence of green readings of Romantic poetry, however, it seems appropriate to return to this poem and reconsider some of the arguments about the place of nature in it, and what the Wye valley specifically might have offered Wordsworth. What evidence does the poem provide that a relationship with nature, of the kind Wordsworth asserts, might be possible? Attention to this dimension of the poem has perhaps been preempted by the historicist accounts of the poem. These have depended in part on assumptions about where the opening scene of the poem is located, raising questions whether the scene is merely an imagined compound of scenes, or whether the scene is actually immaterial to the point of the poem. I will argue that the location of the poem is central to Wordsworth's intentions. I suggest a precise location for it in the Wye valley, based mainly on contemporary evidence, and then show how the various aspects of the location in the poem make a specific contribution to Wordsworth's view of our community with nature. While at this point in history our view of nature may not permit us to "see into the life of things," this essay will review the psychic geography of the poem that led Wordsworth to think he may have done so. The poem, it must be recalled, is referred to as "Tintern Abbey" only by a courtesy. The poem is not about the Abbey—a circumstance that, as Levinson among others has pointed out, is liable to confuse its readers. But given the pedantically long and precise title that Wordsworth actually gave the poem, "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798" (Wordsworth later changed "Written" to "Composed"), it would seem appropriate to assume precision in the poem itself, unless there is strong evidence to the contrary. On these grounds recent criticism of the poem has at times been misleading, drawing inferences that have little or no support in the poem or in what is known about Wordsworth's circumstances at the time of its composition. In pointing to a few of these problems in the critical literature, I will suggest why it is worth attempting to resolve the location of "Tintern Abbey." The forms of landscape …