“The Still, Sad Music of Humanity”: The French Revolution’s Influence on Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey
William Wordsworth’s Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798, usually abbreviated “Tintern Abbey,” was written close to the end of the French Revolution, a period of time in France characterized by excessive political and social upheaval. Tintern Abbey is Wordsworth’s meditation on nature and how it evokes a sense of sublime and becomes the guide for his soul. Throughout the poem, he praises the landscape that he observes and all the joys that it brings him when he is surrounded by it, especially after reflecting on it. He often contrasts this feeling with the dreariness of humanity, something that seems to come about as we grow older and forget the joys of youth according to Wordsworth. Although Wordsworth is using Tintern Abbey as a vehicle to express his sublime feelings from nature, the poem can also be interpreted as a direct response of Wordsworth’s experiences concerning the French Revolution and how returning to nature relieved him from all the radical upheaval.
The specificity of the date in the title is the first indicator that Tintern Abbey is tied directly to the French Revolution. In his article, “A Note on the Date in the Title of “Tintern Abbey,”” J.R. Watson explains that July 13 was the anniversary of the day he visited France for the first time, eight years before Tintern Abbey was written (Watson, 379). He elaborates on Wordsworth’s perplex experience in France, regarding his “inaccessible mistress and an illegitimate daughter.” Although this isn’t a proven fact in regards to Tintern Abbey, as Watson states, reading the text with this information in mind resonates with the idea that Wordsworth intentionally chose that date to characterize the poem as a response to the French Revolution.
The first stanza of the poem compares the narrator’s experience, the narrator usually being interpreted as Wordsworth himself, of returning to the Banks of the Wye to his first visit. From the first couple of lines of the poem, “Five years have past; five summers, with the length of five long winters,” we are aware that the sense of time is significant. Wordsworth seems ecstatic to be back in this scene of nature with his descriptions of the landscape. Wordsworth has had time to reflect on his previous visit to the Banks of the Wye during the five years while the French Revolution has progressed. Now that he has returned, he appreciates the tranquil landscape more in contrast to the chaos that has escalated during the revolution. He feels more joyful in this landscape and even sees “wreaths of smoke, sent up, in silence, from among the trees,” suspecting that it is a hermit that shares his same consent to be away from society and rather be surrounded by nature.
The next stanza of the poem describes the reflections Wordsworth has been making ever since his last visit to the Banks of Wye and how it has started to change his view on life. While he has been in society making these reflections on nature, he has experienced “tranquil restoration” and remembers the joyful feelings he had forgotten, not only from becoming an adult in general, but while the revolution was just beginning. This “blessed mood” that Wordsworth has achieved from reflecting on nature has lightened the heaviness of the world that is exemplified by the revolution, allowing him to “become a living soul” and “see into the life of things.” William Richey writes in his article, “The Politicized Landscape of Tintern Abbey,” that Wordsworth turning his back upon the revolution was necessary for him to keep his “equilibrium” during all the turmoil caused by the revolution (Richey, 201). He goes on in the next stanza to say that it has been that reflection of the landscape that has comforted him from “the fever of the world.”
The third stanza of the poem seems to be the most revealing in terms of the French Revolution’s effect on Wordsworth and the poem. The stanza starts with his mind being revived while being at the Banks of the Wye despite his sad recognition of humanity. He admits that he has changed, that he was led to nature “like a man flying from something that he dreads” rather than seeking it out on his previous visit. He abandons the past and accepts nature as the guide to his moral being. The previous stanzas have given us glimpses of how being in the landscape has influenced Wordsworth and has helped him understand the world more clearly. It is in this stanza that all of these influences are tied together and Wordsworth makes the decision to allow nature to guide him for the rest of his life. This go with the flow approach is the polar opposite of the philosophy dominating the French Revolution, which was radical action to make a dramatic change. Once all the radical action became violent, Wordsworth went to nature to get away from the dreadfulness, which explains how nature led him “like a man flying from something he dreads.” David Bromwich supports this claim in his article, “The French Revolution and Tintern Abbey,” saying that Wordsworth was on the run out of disgust and hatred for France and wanted to hide (Bromwich). He has given up on his hopes for the revolution and put it all in the past to stay, focusing more on nature as his moral guide for life.
The poem ends with Wordsworth conversing with his sister Dorothy, which seems to present Wordsworth’s future concerning not only himself, but the French Revolution. Wordsworth writes “the dreary intercourse of daily life, shall e’er prevail against us.” He is saying that no matter how bad life gets, him and Dorothy will not fall victim to the evils of the world because they are ones with nature and are enlightened beings. This reflects Wordsworth’s loss of hope in the French Revolution and what it had become up to that point. However, Wordsworth isn’t fearful of what the revolution will bring about in the future because he has nature as his moral guide. He rather has hope for the future in his new enlightened state.
Throughout Tintern Abbey, we can see traces of the French Revolution’s influence on Wordsworth and how it brought about his return to nature. This period of time impacted Wordsworth both positively and negatively, causing him to lose hope for humanity, but gaining a new hope within himself, allowing nature as his guide.
Bartlett, William Henry. The Vale of Tintern, from the Devil’s Pulpit. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. N.p., 24 Jan. 2013. Web. 27 Oct. 2015. <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Vale_of_Tintern,_from_the_Devil%27s_Pulpit.jpg>.
Bromwich, David. “The French Revolution And `Tintern Abbey’.” Raritan 10.3 (1991): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
Richey, William. “The Politicized Landscape of “tintern Abbey””. Studies in Philology 95.2 (1998): 197–219. Web…
Watson, J. R.. “A Note on the Date in the Title of “Tintern Abbey””. The Wordsworth Circle 10.4 (1979): 379–380. Web…