Lessons from Tintern Abbey

I spent the summer of 2015 in England, wandering the thin, cobblestone streets of Oxford, reading Victorian literature, and drinking champagne in walled gardens. It was the summer I met my boyfriend, Jack. It was the summer I learned to love in new ways. Late in July, Jack and I drove from Oxford to Tintern, Wales, a small village on the River Wye, close to the English border. The sleepy town is home to Tintern Abbey, the Cathedral ruins that inspired William Wordsworth’s evocative Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.

I first encountered the poem as a high school student. I was struck by Romantic poetry as a teenager because it expressed swells of passionate emotion and reflected an authenticity I found lacking in my life at school and with my friends. I chose to write my college admission essay on Tintern Abbey, which became a meditation on the act of cutting down a tree for the first time.

Chopping down a tree is a violent act. The axe makes a harsh thud as it hits the trunk. The saw cries out as it cuts into the wood. As a very sensitive young woman, the experience jarred me, drawing me instantly back to my childhood playing in the magnificent woods of the Chagrin Valley and fascination with willow trees. I turned to Wordsworth’s personification of the natural world as a divine “guardian” in Tintern Abbey for consolation. My reading of the work at the time highlighted nature as “the anchor of [his] purest thoughts…guardian of [his] heart and soul.” Wordsworth describes himself as a “worshipper of nature,” humbled by the divinity he finds in all natural things. I then wrote:

“Upon chopping the tree, I felt ashamed and bewildered. Yet the beauty of nature lies in its regenerative power. The forlorn stump I left in the woods will grow back with vigor as a coppiced tree. Its sap will travel to the tips of its branches. New buds will burst, and life will begin again.”

I was learning to love poetry when I first wrote that essay; Wordsworth’s lines inspired a fresh reaction in me that no other work of literature had before. Life was simpler then, too. My thoughts only wandered so far.

Poetry has since become a refuge for me: sometimes the metal shed that keeps me dry in rainstorms, other times a warmer space for my soul to feel its own expansiveness. Texts, over the years, have become like places to me, where I can rest, explore, record, release and reflect. Reading has become my equivalent of sitting under a willow tree: the texts, like long, delicate branches, shielding me just for a moment.

Our visit to Tintern inspired me to revisit the poem. I thought it would be like returning to a place I knew well. What I found surprised me: the terrain of my soul had so wildly changed that my relationship to the poem, too, had changed.

Wordsworth’s poem begins by meditating precisely on the experience of returning to a place one used to know. Upon returning to Tintern, he writes, “Five years have past; five summers, with the length / Of five long winters! And again, I hear / These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs / With a sweet inland murmur.” The movement of the water and the strength of the Welsh hills welcome him home to a place that soothes him and rouses the reflection that follows.

We arrived in Tintern at golden hour. The river that runs through the town had a glassy quality as it cut through the hills; it seemed as though it was carrying the sunlight with it. The Abbey’s massive walls reached towards the sky like sturdy tree trunks. Grass grew where the foundation of the church had once been. The windows were hollow, like empty frames cutting the forested hillside and blue sky into pieces. After wandering the grounds, we sat beneath a large oak tree together, and I read aloud Wordsworth’s poem for the first time in five years.

Some might tell you that Wordsworth’s poetry is overindulgent and escapist. (Don’t believe them. They’re wrong.) Escapism implies that one is seeking a distraction or dipping into fantasy. Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey looks to nature for refuge to lighten the “unintelligible world.” He is looking for consolation and perspective because he is exhausted by engaging with the world. Wordsworth finds simply that the beauty of nature lessens the heaviness of his burdens:

           the burthen of the mystery,

           in which the heavy and the weary weight

            Of all this unintelligible world,

            Is lightened.

Wordsworth acknowledges the difficulty that underlies all of human existence that weighs on the human soul.

Don’t we all understand the “sad perplexity” of which Wordsworth speaks? It is rooted in timeless poignancy, for life – for all of us—contains suffering. We carry our own pain, and we carry the pain of others. It is global and personal simultaneously. What we see in the media: the violence and chaos that seems too cyclical to ever end. What we hold as sisters, brothers, children, parents, friends, partners, lovers: the intimate pain that punctures our lives and the lives of those we love most.

Contemporary culture does not offer much in the way of finding perspective. The millennial generation, often referred to as the “nones,” is the least religious generation in American history. While many have departed from traditional religion for good reasons, it can leave us young, open, woke people alone in making sense of the mystery of human existence. Abandoning tradition can leave us with less direction in times of need or confusion. I believe poetry, when read attentively, can guide us. In this work, Wordsworth offers three prescriptions for a life well-lived, for a life filled with joy and wisdom.

Firstly, he states:

                        With an eye made quiet by the power

                        of harmony, and the deep power of joy,

                        We see into the life of things.

We have to find stillness. For Wordsworth, returning to Tintern quiets his inner world. The harmony and beauty he sees in natural things help him cultivate insight. With insight, comes clarity. And with clarity, we can see the life into the life of things. We see beyond the surface, beyond the illusion of chaos and complexity.

Secondly, Wordsworth discusses the importance of tending to one’s inner landscape. He states to his sister:

                        Thy mind

                        Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,

                        Thy memory be as a dwelling-place

                        For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! Then,

                        If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,

                       Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts

                       Of tender joy wilt thou remember me

In one sense, Wordsworth describes how introspection can be healing. The “mind” itself can become the space for love, harmony, and solace, but I do not believe Wordsworth is advocating for the solitary life. He acknowledges that life is filled with loneliness, fear, pain, and grief, but he also asks his sister to remember his advice and the lessons he has learned about the importance of finding true refuge, either in the natural world or in stillness. Wordsworth describes that living wisely means living  fully—feeling the depths of both joy and sadness, for that is what makes us human, what makes us “living soul[s].” Find the beauty and hold onto it. Feel sorrow and turn towards it. Both make us human.

And thirdly, Wordsworth describes the importance of simple compassion. He writes, “The best portion of a good man’s life [is marked] by his little, nameless, unremembered acts/ of kindness and of love.” This insight brings me comfort in difficult times, particularly when I feel helpless and the static in my head prevents me from thinking clearly and zeroing in on what’s important in life. Wordsworth reminds us that the good life, that holiness, that the best part of our life is contribution without expectation: to be kind when no one is watching.

Like Wordsworth, I often feel the weight of the world’s suffering. Who does not these days? If you’re turning towards what’s happening, my sense is that you need Wordsworth’s wisdom, too. My heart has broken at realizing the far reach of global violence, the pain felt by those I most love, and by the disappointment that comes from confronting life’s difficulty. Certain heartbreaks have been graver than others, either in their breadth of impact or the intimacy of the pain. Reading Wordsworth’s lines with Jack as the sun descended and lit the hollow church with golden rays of light, the sensation swelling within me was a mixture of grief and love.

I sense, now perhaps more than ever, that there is much I do not understand about the world. I have yet to experience many sorrows and joys in life, which scares me. Sometimes I feel like I’m bracing for impact of both kinds. Wordsworth’s lines remind me that our contract for being human dictates that we take in light and darkness, joy and grief because if we are not open to feeling both, we are numbing part of ourselves. In order to hold the difficult and see it clearly, though, we need to rest.

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