Thursday, July 13, 2023

This Day in Literary History (Wordsworth Sparks Romantic Movement With ‘Tintern Abbey’)


July 13, 1798—Returning to a sylvan landscape he’d visited five years before, inspired by conversations and shared poems with a recently made poet friend, William Wordsworth wrote 159 lines of blank verse that served as the foundation of England’s Romantic movement.

The title of the poem “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, 13 July 1798,” was mercifully shortened in conversation by its author and his circle to “Tintern Abbey.” But it’s important to keep the longer title in mind because Wordsworth wanted to summarize the change and reconnection to the natural world that the trip meant for him.

The 28-year-old poet was trying to make sense of the turbulence in his political beliefs and personal life wrought by the French Revolution in that decade. (While in France, he had fathered an illegitimate child by his mistress, then was prevented from returning to the country by the Reign of Terror and the wars that ensued on the Continent shortly thereafter. His growing disgust with Napoleon led him to shed his onetime radicalism.)

The French Revolution might be thought of as an experiment in a new kind of relation among men through government. Wordsworth used the word “experiments” to describe most of the poems in the collection he issued anonymously two months after his ecstatic pastoral experience by the Wye with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, which, he noted, were written chiefly to “ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.”

More concisely, Wordsworth wrote in an 1800 preface to the Lyrical Ballads, he was hoping for “fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation.”

Rather than the public controversies in which the likes of John Dryden and Alexander Pope engaged, these works focused on the private and the subjective, the local and even rural. In giving voice to “the commonplace” in the speech of men and women, Wordsworth would indelibly influence later poets such as Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost.

Moreover, to an extent never before explored, Wordsworth’s poems did not directly address religious beliefs, but found in nature overwhelming elements of the divine. In this way, he inspired American Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Wordsworth scholar Stephen Gill referred, in his notes for the poet’s Major Works, to 1798 as the “annus mirabilis” (Latin for “miraculous year”) for him and Coleridge.

The two young men, along with Wordsworth’s devoted sister Dorothy, couldn’t get enough of each other’s company, on walks taking in the rural landscape”—or, as Coleridge observed in his Notebooks, “The flames of two Candles joined give a much stronger Light than both of them separate.

Coleridge contributed to Lyrical Ballads several of the poems that established his enduring fame, including “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “The Foster-Mother’s Tale,” and “Nightingale.” Wordsworth managed to make a last-minute addition to the volume with “Tintern Abbey.” Indeed, he composed the poem so rapidly, judging from his description below, that the verses could have written themselves:

“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 4 or 5 days, with my sister. Not a line of it was altered, and not any part of it written down till I reached Bristol.”

Several years later, when Wordsworth, strongly encouraged by Coleridge, attempted a more ambitious project, he was more self-critical, unable to summon the spirit of transport that enabled him to write “Tintern Abbey” so rapidly. Though he finished “The Prelude” (only one-third of this larger work), he refused to publish it during his lifetime. His wife Mary only did so after his death 45 years later.

The friendship of Wordsworth and Coleridge had its own bumps along the way. In the last quarter-century of their relationship, the two poets became estranged over misunderstandings, and even when the breach was healed their easy onetime intimacy was gone for good.

But in this first phase, when they were young and unburdened by ill health (Coleridge’s addictions to laudanum and opium) and family tragedies (deaths of Wordsworth’s young son and daughter a couple of years apart), they embarked on what Adam Sisman, in his dual biography The Friendship, called “their joint mission, to fulfill the hopes of a generation disappointed at the failure of the French Revolution: nothing less than a poem that would change the world.”

For the Romantic movement of which Wordsworth and Coleridge formed the leading edge—and for the hundreds of thousands of nature and poetry lovers sustained by “Tintern Abbey” in the 225 years since—it became a matter of faith that “Nature never did betray/The heart that loved her.”

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