This just in from Cnivas Albinus:
Oddly enough, exactly five summers have passed since I first read the following:Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winter! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.
William Wordsworth was twenty-eight when he wrote his "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey" five years after first visiting the abbey; I will be twenty-eight this month. And, just as the narrator of the poem, gazing upon on the familiar “steep and lofty cliffs,” notices how he has changed over the past five years, I, too, rereading Wordsworth's poem, have become aware of the changes―at least the changes in how I read poetry― that have occurred in me. For one, I no longer experience the “dizzy raptures” that I once felt “when first I came among these [Wordsworth's] hills.” This waning of affect could be due to age― to a “growing out” of the Romantic phase― or to the fact that I no longer read the Romantics under the influence of any stimulant (a practice common among literature-majors).
First, so long as there are metropolises, there will also be its discontents, and for them it is the Romantics who will always be there to console their city-wearied nerves. Bohemians, rustics, hippies and primitivists, each sick of the city’s culture and its artifice, and of its unctuous citizenry, all long for that pre-Lapsarian state where dirt, bugs, weeds and, depending on their mood, either solitude or likeminded company can still be found. It is this idealized hinterland that the Romantic poets, addressing these bands, eternally sing of, and it is to this “natural state” that they unfavorably compare the city, with its “evil tongues,” its “rash judgments,” and its “sneers of selfish men,” who trade “greetings where no kindness is.” Such is the “dreary intercourse of daily life” in the city, and it is from the lonely, crowded and corrupt metropolis that the hermit-poets, Wordsworth’s narrator included, flee. Yet even in their longed-for forests and underground caves, they cannot shake the fever of the city:. . . amid the many shapes
Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart (51-4)
Second, so long as there is the trauma of youth’s transformation to adulthood, there will also be the accompanying sense of nostalgia and loss, and it is the Romantics who sing most precisely of this loss. The “I” of Wordsworth’s poem, looking out at the abbey, is concerned not with any changes in the physical appearance of the scene, but rather only with the changes he has endured over these five years.Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I cam among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers. (66-69)
As a boy, he sought in nature only adventure and simple pleasures. But now he is. . . more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.― I cannot paint
What then I was. (70-76)
After a failed attempt to convey in words at least some of the impressions of his youth, the narrator, in an admission of defeat, concludes, “I cannot paint/ What then I was.” This startlingly simple, powerful statement offers perhaps the most moving moment of the entire poem, and seems to serve as the work’s climax, as it marks the narrator’s resignation to the incontrovertible fact that he is no longer the boy that he was, but is now, to borrow a phrase from John Ashbery, a “stinking adult”― in this case, a world-weary hermit fleeing the capital. Having entered this new realm of experience, he is no longer able to access or recreate, either in art or life, that world he once inhabited.
This drastic transformation of the subject is in stark contrast to the abbey and its surrounding scene, both of which seem to have an existence that is permanent and immutable. The abbey, of course, need not be an abbey; it could be any scene― to the narcissistic Romantic poets, all outer things are but mirrors in which they see their own reflections. His sister, who appears in the last section of the poem, is another case in point. Her function― both in the poem and in the life of the narrator― is to serve only as an intermediary between the narrator’s past and present selves. She has no independent existence, or if she does, the narrator is obviously not interested. Since he cannot paint or sufficiently recall what he once was, he uses his sister as a mirror with which he can better view himself:May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear Sister! (120-121)
He then, in his own oddly narcissistic way, attempts to console her.If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations! (143-146)
To paraphrase: If you’re ever ill or troubled in the future, you will at least have many memories of me and my lofty thought to console you.
Though I’m not sure whether Wordsworth had read Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790) when he wrote “Tintern Abbey,” he certainly seems familiar with the main points of Kant’s argument. The narrator likens the child’s experience to the pure, disinterested aesthetic experience described by Kant in his third critique― namely, that pure aesthetic judgment involves neither fixed concepts nor any personal interest in the aesthetic object. Kant’s influence seems most apparent in the following lines, particularly in the phrases, "a remoter charm," "thought supplied," and "interest unborrowed." The narrator’s pure, animal-like experiences as a child, he recalls,. . . had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, nor any interest
Unborrowed from the eye. (81-3)
I suspect that Kant would find this an inappropriate use of his argument, and that he would admit no similarities between the instinctual perceptions of the child and the processes of pure aesthetic judgment, which require the complex, simultaneous manipulation of the imagination, the understanding, and a refined sensory awareness.
Just when the narrator is about drown in self-pity at his loss, the tone suddenly shifts as he gives himself a good slap in the face:Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. (85-88)
That compensation lies is his two newly acquired abilities: to experience nature symbolically rather than only instinctively, and to be consoled by its anthropomorphic powers.The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. (91-93)
Having acquired this faculty of a matured imagination, he is now capable of “elevated thoughts,” of synthesizing subjective and objective realities, and of “a sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused” (95-96). Now an adult, he can simultaneously experience the worlds of nature and of man as interfused through his matured mind. Echoing Berkeley, he even posits that perhaps all external phenomena reside only “in the mind of man” (99). But he immediately rejects this “subjective idealism” in favor of a compromise that resembles Kant’s notion of the human mind-as-waffle-iron, which receives through the sensory apparatuses the external, formless, and independent “batter” of phenomena, and orders it into a predetermined structure that the mind is capable of comprehending.. . . of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,― both what they half create,
And what perceive. (105-107)
Thus, beginning with Wordsworth, the Romantics see the experience of reality as a volitional and participatory act, filtered through subjective mind where it is then reconstructed by the imagination, which has at its core not intellect but feeling. In seeking to order the “batter” that it perceives, the mind actively participates in reality, seeking to “connect/ The landscape with the quiet of the sky” (7-8, italics mine).
Though there are aspects of Romantic poetry that modern readers find hard to digest, we are, especially in America, for better or worse, still living in the final stages of the Romantic era. The claims put forth by the early Romantics― the primacy of feeling over reason; the assertions of the self’s primacy, and the subordination of everything else to it; the disdain for the city and the extolling of all things provincial; the positioning of sincerity above artifice; the low status given to technique; the naïve assertions of the artist’s own individuality and genius; the contempt for tradition― all of these early assertions, which were at the time reactions to certain historical conditions, have in present-day America been pushed to their logical conclusions. Yet, despite all the faults we may find in Romantic works, one does not wish that the Romantic Movement had never occurred. The movement had to occur, both in its historical and artistic forms, just as Modernism had to occur as a reaction to Romanticism. And for many reasons― most important of which are perhaps the freedom of form to which they have imparted us, and the creation of the new genre, poetry-as-epistemology―we are grateful that it did.