Mary Herrington-Perry: "Tintern Abbey"

and the "Spiritual Presence of Absent Things"

"Tintern Abbey" has been characterized as a poem of absences, with critics such as Jerome McGann citing its "disappearance of particulars," its "strategy of displacement" (1), and Marjorie Levinson taking issue with its "acts of exclusion" (2). Their point has been to convince us that the poem is irresponsible, that it obscures socio-economic and political truths that even guidebook writer William Gilpin, in his 1770 description of the Wye Valley (which Wordsworth consulted), did not ignore. I argue, however, that "Tintern Abbey" does indeed possess a moral conscience, though in a form that may be difficult for cultural materialists to comprehend. When Levinson, for example, says that the poem's values "define a negative ideal: the escape from cultural values" (p.16), she apparently does not include religion as a "cultural value." Thus for her, the poem's many biblical allusions may have seemed insignificant. Indeed, that Wordsworth belonged to a generation "steeped in the Bible -- able to use it, quote it and recognise even the most fleeting references or turns of phrase from the Authorised Version . . . a generation still emotionally in contact with the biblical framework of history" (3), does not require that he be, in 1798, a proper Anglican. In fact, depending on who was defining Wordsworth's religious proclivities, he was a pantheist (4), a proponent of "natural religion," or a "semi-atheist." Yet the biblical allusions in "Tintern Abbey" suggest that, whatever Wordsworth did not believe in 1798, he did "believe"; and his faith, embodied by his sister, Dorothy, and based on a culturally deep experience of the Bible and of Anglican liturgy, led him to offer spiritual immortality as the solution to the problems discussed in the poem. As such, it is a solution we might prefer to believe only an older and more conventional William Wordsworth would dare offer. Yet in the context of "Tintern Abbey" -- in the poem Wordsworth did write, not the one he is criticized for not having written -- his solution is a conceivably efficacious one aimed at a very narrowly defined set of problems.

Immortality is rooted in duality, in division. It is no accident that, three lines into "Tintern Abbey," Wordsworth begins to divide the landscape: on one hand is the Wye River, and on another is the sky, the two of them connected by the "steep and lofty cliffs" (5). The first stanza also prefigures the body/soul dichotomy that the second stanza will elaborate on in another way, offering an Edenic setting intended to echo that described in Genesis, the "birthplace" of duality. It was in Eden that man became a "living soul" when God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life" (6). Prior to this act, man was merely an "empty" body crafted, as the word "Adame" suggests, from "earth." Like Adam, Wordsworth tells us, we are body first; though we have souls, nature must intervene to remind us of that fact, lulling us into a meditative state in which our "breath" and the "motion of our human blood / [are] [a]lmost suspended" (ll. 44-46). Nature's power to transform the body into "a living soul" is thus a metonymizing one, a short-hand description of God's own act. Seen in this light, pantheism is little more than displaced (or perhaps misprisioned) theism. But then, so is the act of writing poetry. For the ambiguity of the second stanza allows us to understand that Wordsworth is also asserting a dichotomy between man and poet, the former dulled by the "weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world" (ll. 40-41), and the latter, the "living soul," able to "see into the life of things" (l. 50). To nature the poet owes "another gift" as well, his own creative ability. The possibility that Wordsworth lacks such power, that his belief in himself is in "vain," is one explanation of what distresses him at the beginning of the third stanza.

It is as a poet that Wordsworth best understood the act of creation. Yet the dichotomy he describes in "Tintern Abbey" is more obviously religious than metapoetic. Wordsworth, we recall, had a devout mother, attended church school as a boy and compulsory Chapel at Cambridge, and was intended for the clergy. Even if such experiences had not familiarized him with I Corinthians, its use as the Anglican-prescribed text at funerals could not have escaped him: "And so it is written, The first man Adam, was made a living soul, the last Adam was made a quickning spirit. Howbeit, that was not first, which was spiritual; but that which is naturall . . . . The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven." (7). To his confirmation of the duality first recorded in Genesis, Paul adds the New Testament promise of immortality: the "second man" is both Christ and our own eternal "quickning spirit."

Of course, it is the "first man" who is afflicted by the various evils that a belief in the soul offers eventual relief from. And it is in "Tintern Abbey's" first stanza that Wordsworth offends recent New Historicists by having the audacity to allude to socio-economic problems ("wreathes of smoke," "vagrant dwellers") that he then fails to address. Yet if we look at the poem carefully, we see the possibility that in "Tintern Abbey," Wordsworth did not believe he was alluding to such problems. In stanza two, he refers to the landscape he has just described as "[t]hese forms of beauty." Do we really believe the poet was callous enough to assert that industrial pollution and homelessness were beautiful? I suggest, instead, that Wordsworth, in the context of this poem, regarded the smoke and the vagrants as elements of the landscape. He was not ignoring a moral responsibility: he had not yet even shown us what that responsibility was.

A majority of the problems that Wordsworth focuses on in "Tintern Abbey" are not likely to be high on any Marxist's "misery list." He does not mention unemployment, poverty, starvation, servitude or sickness, focusing instead -- in what is essentially an autobiographical poem -- on the problems he faced himself. The bourgeois Wordsworth experiences misery in "lonely rooms" and "the din of towns and cities," in the unintelligibility of the world, its "weary hours" and "still, sad music," and in man's "sneers," "[r]ash judgments," and "evil tongues." It is only in connection with Dorothy that he broadens his list, adding "fear, or pain, or grief" in recognition, we assume, of his sister's more vulnerable position. When he is no longer with her, such things might be her "portion," he says with dramatic self-importance, employing a biblical word most often used to describe a dowry or inheritance.

In "The Politics of Tintern Abbey,'" Kenneth Johnston comments on Wordsworth's tendency to "generalize . . . about human evil from a narrow base of negative emotions" (8). In addition to the fact that the poet concerns himself with personal, not necessarily "human," evil in "Tintern Abbey," we should consider that his refusal to more thoroughly delineate sin might represent a romantic refusal to discuss what is essentially a religious issue in conventional terms. It might also have resulted from his being raised in the shadow of The Book of Common Prayer which, had his family followed suggested practice, required that the "Litanie" be said or sung three times a week. Among the various evils Anglicans were to pray for deliverance from are blindness of heart, pride, vainglory, hypocrisy, envy, hatred, malice, uncharitableness, and fornication; all other deadly sins; all deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil; all sedition, conspiracy, and rebellion; all false doctrine, heresy, and schism; hardness of heart; and contempt for God's word (pp. 73-74). A steady diet of the "Litanie" -- which also fails to list real social evils -- could easily convince a writer that "less is more," that the broad strokes of sin might have a more powerful effect on readers.

It is not uncharacteristic of Wordsworth to identify others' "sins" more readily than he does his own. Yet in the poem's fourth stanza, his use of phrases such as "coarser pleasures" and "animal movements" makes it clear that the "appetite" he confesses to alludes not only to nature but to Annette Vallon, who, like both nature and the French Revolution, provoked the aching joys "and dizzy raptures" he associates with the "time [that] is past" (l. 84). For this reason, Wordsworth's description of himself as a deer bounding "o'er the mountains" recalls the Bible's general use of the roe as a symbol of virility, and that symbol's particular appearance in the Song of Solomon: here, the bride, singing of her anticipated sexual union, calls to her bridegroom to be "a roe. . . / upon the mountains" (8:14). We are to believe, of course, that Wordsworth's "boyish days" have been lost without regret. That he will not "faint" or "murmur" ("murmur" being what biblical personae did when they spoke in opposition to the word of God) in response to his loss seems to echo Paul's admonition to the Corinthians to put their "childish -- i.e., earthly or physical -- things" behind them (13:11). For what he has lost, Wordsworth would have us believe, his maturer understanding of the import and power of nature has been "[a]bundant recompense." Yet line 89, which begins this assertion ("For I have learned / To look on nature, not as in the hour / Of thoughtless youth"), contains a reference to Philippians that seems to be stoically contradictory: "For I have learned," says Paul, "in whatever state I am, therewith to be content" (4:11).

While Wordsworth would have us believe that he has willingly turned his back on "coarser pleasures," his use of the Pauline allusion allows us to question the real extent of his spiritual growth. Yet this is neither the first nor the last time that he undercuts his own declaration of faith. Richard Bourke has commented on the poem's "disabling reluctance"(9), Kenneth Johnston on its "negative rhetorical constructions" (10). The faltering they refer to occurs in lines 50-51 ("If this / Be but a vain belief, yet, oh!") and 112-113 ("Nor, perchance, / If I were not thus taught"), and is known rhetorically as aposiopesis, an abrupt halt in a text which suggests that its speaker is too excited or too upset to continue. In "Tintern Abbey," the source of Wordsworth's distress, it seems to me, is his recognition of his own spiritual inadequacy. For while he identifies himself as a "good man" in stanza two, he has no illusions about the extent of that goodness. He wants to believe, and his imitation of the New Testament's Pauline rhythms, such that

. . . neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, not the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e'er prevail against us (129-133)

mimics Paul's promise to the Romans, reflects that fact: "neither death," the Saint tells us, "nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39). "[T]hus taught," Wordsworth nonetheless requires the support of a faith more steadfast than his own. In "Tintern Abbey" -- as in real life -- it was to his sister, Dorothy, that the poet turned.

Wordsworth is aware of Dorothy's own dualism, seeing in her, "for yet a little while," "what [he] was once" (ll. 120-121). That he couches her similarity to him in scriptural terms, however, draws our attention to her purity as much as to her youthfulness, and casts him in the role of disciple: in John 14:19, Christ advises his followers that "Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also." Similarly, while Wordsworth's reference to his sister's "wild eyes" is both a fact and a symbol of her passionate nature, the "lights" in her eyes also recall the manifestation of grace, as it is commonly described in the New Testament. Appropriately, in its "Calendar" of suggested readings for July 13, the date included in "Tintern Abbey's" title, The Book of Common Prayer lists 1 Thessalonians: "Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day," we read in 5:5. Likewise, the July 13 morning prayer calls for John 1: "And the light shineth in darkness. . . . [T]he true light. . . lighteth every man that cometh into the world" (vv. 5 and 9). It is her possession of this "light" that distinguishes Dorothy from her brother and marks her as his spiritual teacher -- his own personal Christ.

By acting as a friend, a companion, a helpmeet, and yes, a substitute for the two women Wordsworth has already lost (his mother and Annette), Dorothy is indeed her brother's salvation. In this domestic context, however, the poem's final words, "for thy sake," have a curious biblical reverberation. In Genesis 12 we are told the story of Abraham who, though a nomad, was given by God the gift of land, a gift that requires that he and his descendants settle down. During their journey to this land, Abraham fears that the Egyptians will kill him in order to have his beautiful wife. "For thy sake" (11), he says to Sarah, "say thou art my sister, that it may be well with me" (v. 13). And indeed, as his sister, Sarah is welcomed into the Pharaoh's house -- and bed -- and both she and Abraham treated well. Presumably, we should treat this echo not as a subtext for incest but as a reminder that Dorothy, however god-like, is also a human being.

The most obvious biblical reference in "Tintern Abbey" is to the Twenty-Third Psalm, alluded to in Wordsworth's declaration to his sister that, regardless of the condition of his own religious faith ("If I were not thus taught," l. 113), he knows he can depend on hers: "For thou art with me," he says, "here, upon the banks / Of this fair river" (115-116). The considerable burden that he places on Dorothy is lessened somewhat when we consider, again, that Wordsworth is also addressing God, who has led him beside the "still waters" of the Wye and who will care for him even when he faces the "shadow of death" -- which is precisely where Wordsworth imagines being when he can no more hear / [Dorothy's] voice." It is by accident that "Tintern Abbey," included in Lyrical Ballads as an after-thought, became the twenty-third poem in the 1798 edition. Yet it is an intriguing accident, one that marks the poem as the culminating "psalm" of the collection and thus elevates it as "scriptural" authority offering immortality as the solution to the various ills Lyrical Ballads detail. Fortunately for me, the ramifications of the broader application of such a solution are beyond the scope of this paper.

If death does separate Wordsworth from Dorothy, he asks her to "remember me," words which once again establish their respective positions as disciple and deity. "Remember me, O Lord, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people," the Psalmist cries (106:4). "Remember me and strengthen me" is also Samson's cry to God from prison, as he prepares to have his vengeance on the Philistines (Judges 16:28). Most significantly, of course, is the echo in Luke: one of the criminals condemned with Christ asks him to remember me "when thou comest into thy kingdom." Jesus's response, as we know, was, "Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise" (23:42). Thus Wordsworth's task, in the final stanza of "Tintern Abbey," seems to be to prepare us for Dorothy's eventual apotheosis.

When the poet asks his sister to remember him in the Wye Valley, not just as [a] worshipper of Nature, "but rather" as one with warmer love, "far deeper zeal, "holier love," he is, to be sure, speaking of his filial affection. At the same time, the escalation in the intensity of his feelings marks them as expressions of religious adoration, as well as underscoring his desire to convince Dorothy that he has returned to Tintern Abbey a better man than he was five years before -- his love is "warmer," "deeper," more god-like (and thus more like hers) than it was in 1793. It is no coincidence that Paul's definition of love, which -- perhaps to Wordsworth's relief -- suggests that it is more powerful than even faith and hope, has become a standard part of many marriage ceremonies: Love "envieth not," "vaunteth not itself," "thinketh no evil," "[b]eareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things" (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). In these verses, Paul is speaking in particular of God's love, which He demonstrated by sending Christ to die for humankind's sin. The passage's transvaluation in "Tintern Abbey" cannot disguise its origin, any more than Wordsworth's address to Dorothy secularizes (or disguises) his underlying intent.

Wordsworth commented that, just as The Prelude and The Excursion are the antechapel to and body of a Gothic church, so his other poems are "the little cells, oratories, and sepulchral recesses, ordinarily included in those edifices" (12). As one of those "cells," "Tintern Abbey" suggests that, via nature and Christ-like love, Wordsworth can transcend his doubt and his proclivity to sin and be sinned against, thus ensuring his own immortality. Yet the allusions that support this conclusion may not have been chosen consciously. In a critique of Jerome McGann's use of the term "displacement," James Longenbach reminds us that according to Freud, displacement is not the denial of meaning but "the means by which the dreamwork subverts repression, allowing thoughts access to the dream in a form that the censor will not recognize" (13). In "Tintern Abbey" (the displaced dream), Wordsworth's religious allusions could thus have escaped his attention and still underscore his belief. Of course, his panacea may offer little more than emotional relief, but it was, after all, the solution to his own problems, not the Wye Valley's vagrant dwellers', that he chose to describe in "Tintern Abbey."