Learn more about the history, publication, thematic content, and literary elements of "Tintern Abbey" that contribute to the poem's lasting legacy
"Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey" emerged out of walking tour William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy took to the Wye Valley in the summer of 1798. Before taking the ferry across the Severn Estuary into Wales, Dorothy and William visited a dear friend and travel writer, Reverend Richard Warner, who had recently published an account of his own walks through the Wye Valley only months before in his book, A Walk Through Wales, August 1797 . The Wordsworths may have even brought a copy with them on their journey, to serve as a guide for their own tour of the Wye (Wordsworth's Reading 143-144). After docking in Chepstow, the siblings traveled inland, and followed the River Wye all the way to Goodrich Castle, passing through the New Weir—now named Symonds Yat—in the borderlands of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, just east of Monmouth. This landscape became the primary inspiration for "Tintern Abbey."
This landscape held significant sentimental value to Wordsworth, for it had been a constant presence in his life since boyhood. Far removed from the experiences of his younger, carefree self who bounded through the hills as a boy, his most recent visit
to the Wye Valley five years prior was full of heartache and turmoil. In 1793, he had just fled the hostile political climate in France, and left behind his mistress Annette Vallon and their infant daughter Caroline. Later, Wordsworth was barred from returning to France after France declared War on Britain in February
1793. Wordsworth recalls in The Prelude that the French Revolution was the greatest
". . . shock Given to my mortal nature . . . It was a grief—
Grief call it not, 'twas any thing but that—
A conflict of sensations without name . . ." (The Prelude X.263-266).
Moreover, both during and after the Revolution, he was alienated from his social and writing communities, first for supporting the Rebulican cause, and later, after Robespierre' killing spree that challened the Revolutionary ideals of libertè, egalitè et fraternitè, for changing his mind. He and fellow Romantic writers, inlcuding William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, were also under constant surveillance by The Home Office, and subject to heavy censorship by William Pitt's Gagging Acts and what John Bugg calls, "the decade-long assault on freedom of speech" (Five Long Winters 43).
Despite the scrutiny and censorship Wordsworth faced, and the general oppressiveness of London city life, his return to the Wye in 1798 was under slightly more favorable personal circumstances. William and Dorothy were recently reunited after the death of their parents had forced them to spend most of their younger years apart. After everything he had endured, and after cultivating a strong relationship with the landscape that transcends time and space, Wordsworth was now able to look upon this landscape and hear "the still sad music of humanity" (line 94).
This poem is chiefly a reflection on Wordsworth's relationship with the Wye Valley landscape at various stages of his life, but it is also implies that his memory and imagination are dependent on the Wye Valley landscape. There is unity and renewal in nature itself, but these feelings can be recollected and relived "in lonely rooms, and mid the din" (line 28) with the power of imagination. Nature offers Wordsworth nourishment and "present pleasure" (line 66), but also gently reassures him of "life and food / For future years" (Line 67-68). Though blended with notes of social critique, this poem ultimately affirms that the healing power of nature is always there to offer a warm refuge.
"Tintern Abbey" was first published in Lyrical Ballads in 1798. William Wordsworth and fellow Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, worked tirelessly to complete this groundbreaking, experimental volume of poetry to fund their upcoming intellectual and educational journey to Germany. The duo first sent the manuscript to the press in May 1798. Joseph Cottle in Bristol was the intended printer for Lyrical Ballads, but he sold the volume to London's J. & A. Arch, who added a new title page and began selling the anonymous volume in London bookshops on 3 October 1798. "Tintern Abbey" was composed in July 1798, after the first manuscript was sent to the press, and became the last poem included in the volume.
In addition to the conspicuous placement of "Tintern Abbey" at the end of the volume, the poem seems thematically and stylistically anomalous in context with the other poems in the volume, which has led some critics to consider "Tintern Abbey" as more of a postscript (Stafford xx). With such emphasis on returning to the familiar, "Tintern Abbey" does not present the "strangeness" or "awkwardness" that Coleridge and Wordsworth warn readers of in the "Advertisement" preface (Lyrical Ballads ii). While Coleridge's haunting "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere," might encompass this "strangeness," if we accept Wordsworth and Coleridge's challenge to "persist in reading this book to its conclusion," we find the poem's dazzling themes of beauty and renewal transform the feeling and tone of the entire volume, which leaves us with another dramatic testament of poetry as a "natural delineation of human passions" (Lyrical Ballads ii).
Like several of the "experimental" poems in Lyrical Ballads, "Tintern Abbey" is written in fluid blank verse, a style that challenged elitist, neoclassical strictures of poetry, and made it accessible to the common man. Here Wordsworth abandons traditional regulations, such as stringent iambic alternations, closed and rhyming couplets, pompous speech, and lofty subject matter, and instead writes about everyday life for everyday people. According to Julia S. Carlson, Wordsworth's use of blank verse is "materially and spiritually energetic in measure and medium" (Carlson 16). Though blank verse was already used in drama, it became a key linguistic, cultural, and social phenomenon well into the 19th century (Carlson 18), which would explain why conservative critics such as John Thelwall were so skeptical of this unfettered verse. The genre of Lyrical Ballads—as a fusion of the and ballad—already marks "Tintern Abbey" as radical, according to conventional expectations, but, Wordsworth diverges further still by complicating these genre components. As Stafford puts it, "A ballad was no longer traditional once it had been stretched to embrace the travel account, natural history, and adventure" (Stafford xvii). Overall, the poem's departure from 'proper' 18th-century genre, form, verse, subject matter, and language propels Wordsworth's mission of democratizing poetry and language, and challenges his audience's reservations about what poetry should do and be about.