Death and the Sublime in “Tintern Abbey”

Keats famously called Wordsworth’s approach to nature and the sublime egotistical. Indeed, most Wordsworthian poems are chiefly concerned with his metacognition — memory, personal loss, and nature are filtered through Wordsworth’s self-concept. But while he interprets the power of nature through his personal context, there are many commonalities with a more overawed portrait of the sublime. Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”, a veritable treatise on the terrifying might and glory of the natural world, might have much more in common with Wordsworth’s “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey”. The latter is far more subdued and self-focused than Shelley’s dizzying verses, but it still evokes the strange power and terror the world can wreak upon the human mind.

Inside of Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire exhibited 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Wordsworth’s meditation does not begin with the poet overwhelmed as Shelley initiates “Mont Blanc”; rather, he begins with an invocation of memory. “Five years have passed; five summers, with the length/ Of Five long winters!” (Wordsworth, 429). This not only  introduces his fascination with memory, but also focuses on the passage of time. Deeply interconnected with memory and nostalgia is the continuing march of time. Wordsworth notes the passage by time by comparing his younger self to his current state — “With many recognition dim and faint/ And somewhat of a sad perplexity” (Wordsworth, 430). But it is not merely the onset of life that Wordsworth approaches, but its end. The recollection of his the abbey and its landscape quickly generates associations with death. “The breath of this corporeal frame/ And even the motion of our human blood/ Almost suspended, we are laid asleep… We see into the life of things” (Wordsworth, 430). It is as if the poet, while contemplating both the ruined abbey being swallowed up in nature, is seeing his own body subjected to the same force.

Such a view, while minimizing the superlative perspective often generated by the sublime, does incorporate the general principles of awe and fearful beauty. But Wordsworth is not only interested in his own reaction to this view. His (relative) loss of youth causes him to return to sister, who, while barely younger than him, still represents his earlier youth . Heidi Thomson in “We Are Two: The Address to Dorothy in ‘Tintern Abbey'” argues that this somewhat patronizing view draws on several themes in Lyrical Ballads. Youth is connected to both an ignorance of death and a relatively uncorrupted perspective on nature, and communal, natural worship can revive the “‘sense sublime’ of nature” ( Thomson, 545). “Our modern preoccupation with sublime individuality as the supreme expression of selfhood,” she argues, obscures this gesture of spiritual community. While Wordsworth’s meditations on the natural world might very well be more egocentric than a more traditional approach to the sublime qualities of nature, he still displays the same overwhelmed awe that characterizes it. “I, so long/ A worshipper of Nature, hither came… with far deeper zeal/ Of holier love” (Wordsworth, 433).

Works Cited
Thomson, Heidi. “‘We Are Two’: The Address to Dorothy in ‘Tintern Abbey'” Studies in Romanticism 40.4 (2001): 531-46. Print.
Turner, Joseph M. W. Inside of Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire. 1794. Watercolor on paper. Tate Gallery, London.
Wordsworth, William. “Lines Written a few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 5th Edition. ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. New York: Pearson, 2012. 429-433. Print.
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