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October 22, 2017

Wordsworth at Tintern Abbey

On this day William Wordsworth finished writing "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798." Wordsworth worked on the poem during a 4-day walking tour of the region, composing as he walked by way of a singsong, "booing and hawing" method he had developed, but "not any part of it was written down till I reached Bristol" on the 13th. Delivered to the printers the next day, the poem would become the second most famous one in Lyrical Ballads -- after Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" -- and his preface announcing a new movement in poetry would make the collection itself one of the most famous in literary history.

Neither Wordsworth nor the Abbey was as popular in 1798 as it is now -- a stuffed salmon called "The William Wordsworth" was recently on the menu in the packed restaurant next to the packed parking lot -- but they were getting that way. The Wye region was a favorite stop for those swept up in the Picturesque movement, many of whom would have seen Turner's painting of the Abbey ruins, and consulted the same best-selling guidebook that Wordsworth carried in his pocket. The early parts of the poem show the painterly touch:
    . . . The day is come when I again repose
    Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
    These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
    Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
    Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
    'Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
    These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
    Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
    Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
    Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
    With some uncertain notice, as might seem
    Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
    Or of some Hermit's cave, where by his fire
    The Hermit sits alone.
Scholars now debate whether Wordsworth was attempting to transcend or merely cover up the historical facts -- that the "wreaths of smoke" came from the local ironworks, and the "vagrant dwellers" were the hordes of poor beggars who squatted in the woods and hustled the tourist crowd at the Abbey. The poem shows Wordsworth doubtful enough of man, and in "sad perplexity" at all that comes and goes; still, it remains a hymn to all that stays, and one of the essential Romantic texts:
    ... And I have felt
    A presence that disturbs me with the joy
    Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
    Of something far more deeply interfused,
    Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
    And the round ocean and the living air,
    And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
    A motion and a spirit, that impels
    All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
    And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
    A lover of the meadows and the woods,
    And mountains; and of all that we behold
    From this green earth; of all the mighty world
    Of eye, and ear, -- both what they half create,
    And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
    In nature and the language of the sense,
    The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
    The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
    Of all my moral being.

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