Published April 14, 2012
My pick for National Poetry Month is the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey." One of the richest and most iconic poems in the English language, "Tintern Abbey" is long, difficult to classify, strange and sublime, magical and marvelous. It's the poem I've read, and taught, and thought about perhaps more than any other, and it's also the poem that both best describes and has most powerfully shaped my own experience as a student, teacher, mother and writer.
Wordsworth has been called both the great poet of childhood and the great poet of loss, and “Tintern Abbey” exemplifies these aspects of his sensibility. Revisiting a familiar haunt years after he played there with unselfish abandon, the poet laments the loss of childhood's "aching joys" and "dizzy raptures," but asserts: "other gifts have followed, for such loss, I would believe, abundant recompense." Profoundly universal in both its evocation of the bliss of childhood and its recognition of the burdens and strains of adult life, poignant in its depiction of a paradise lost and yearned for, and comforting in its ultimate message of reassurance and affirmation, “Tintern Abbey” is also breathtakingly beautiful, stirring and an endless source of wisdom, solace and inspiration.
I first encountered "Tintern Abbey" as a college sophomore in a required course for English majors, and I went on to teach it as an English professor myself. I left academia in 2006, but I never left the poem. I've taught it to all sorts of people with all sorts of backgrounds and at all different stages of life: Yale and Vassar undergraduates, inmates in a restorative justice program in San Francisco, continuing education students in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, elderly people in nursing homes. For the past year, I've been reading bits from "Tintern Abbey” to teachers and parents as part of talks I give about education, autism and literature and to audiences at bookstores and libraries. More recently, I’ve been teaching it to New York State high school students and at non-profit organizations via a grant from the New York Council for the Humanities.
I am continually struck by the wide range of impassioned and engaged reactions to Wordsworth’s poem. Some focus on the poet’s reverence for nature (he calls himself "a lover of the meadows and the woods,/ And mountains; and of all that we behold / From this green earth”) and his gratitude for its crucial role in his ethical development. Others respond with special fervor to the ideas of inheritance and legacy and to the tender relationship between the poet and his beloved sister, to whom the poem is addressed; many parents and teachers see their own concerns reflected in Wordsworth’s solicitude for his younger sister's well-being. Still others are moved by Wordsworth's aspirations towards transcendence, his attempts to rise above "the dreary intercourse of daily life" and find a place of "quietness and beauty”:
With an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
Everyone I’ve shared the poem with has his or her own version of paradise lost and is interested in the poem's exploration of innocence versus experience. And I have seen again and again how Wordsworth’s idea of “abundant recompense”-- that out of disappointment or the thwarting of one’s wishes and desires can come great gain, that suffering and loss can enable growth and wisdom -- can sustain and inspire readers. Finally, everyone can benefit from the poem's reflections on what makes a life worthy and worthwhile, its nourishing reminders of what is truly important: the love between family members, the beneficent influence of the natural world; the "best portion of a good man’s life;/ His little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love."
Toward the end of my memoir, "The Anti-Romantic Child," I quote these lines from "Tintern Abbey" to describe the ways that I’ve grown as a result of parenting a challenging child and losing an idealized vision of how my life would turn out:
For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
. . . And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused.
"Tintern Abbey" itself disturbs us with the joy of elevated thought, gives us a sense sublime, moves us to tears and inspires "thoughts too deep for tears." Another great romantic poet, John Keats, wrote that "Poetry... should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.” “Tintern Abbey” perfectly fulfills Keats’ conditions, and helps us “see into the life of things.”
Priscilla Gilman is the author of "The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy."