A STONE’S THROW FROM TINTERN ABBEY

Professor Robert Archambeau.  Don’t be fooled by that knowing look.

William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” concerns neither childhood, loss, nor Tintern Abbey. The mistaken readings of this famous poem are so acute and widespread that it’s safe to say if you know nothing of the poem, the professor who has studied it knows a great deal less. In the case of “Tintern Abbey,” ignorance may not be bliss, but it is less ignorant.

Professor Robert Archambeau recently published an essay on “Tintern Abbey” on his respected literary blog, Samizdat, but he’s apparently writing on a different poem—one that exists in his own mind.

Tintern Abbey is nowhere in “Tintern Abbey,” whose full title is “Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour: July 13, 1798.”

The abbey is a several miles away: out of sight and out of mind—it is not mentioned in the poem at all. Wordsworth is a Nature poet. It makes sense.  But here is Professor Archambeau in his “Tintern Abbey” essay:

For Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey was a haunted place— shrouded with past associations…

Here, the whole action of the poem involves the speaker standing near the ruined abbey he used to visit as a child

When he sees the abbey now, he experiences it screened through thought and memory and judgement and layers of experience.

Wordsworth had his experiences at the dramatic ruins of an ancient abbey…

It would have seemed undignified and odd to locate significant experiences in a place as trivial as an old beat-up building…

The differences between the old abbey and the Tintin books…

Professor Archambeau has the building on his brain, and we can see it there in his mind’s eye as he writes. The trouble is, Wordsworth’s experience of the building doesn’t exist—it is mentioned in the title of the poem as a general marker (“a few miles above”) and that’s the end of it.

How is this possible? How can a man who is paid to teach literature get a short and very famous poem entirely wrong? Poe wrote a “thousand scholars are wrong—because they are a thousand.” Herd mentality promotes error—and keeps it going—like nothing else.

Archambeau not only gets the abbey wrong in his essay, putting Wordsworth in the middle of the abbey’s “dramatic ruins,” with its “past associations,” “thought and memory and judgement and layers of experience,” but professor Archambeau gets the whole thrust of the poem wrong.

He writes:  “the whole action of the poem involves the speaker standing near the ruined abbey he used to visit as a child.”

Wordsworth never visited the abbey, or the scene of the poem, as a child.

Nor is Wordsworth’s poem about, as Archambeau tell us, “how Wordsworth came to understand what he’d lost in terms of childhood perception.”

This is not the poem’s message.

Archambeau is not alone.

Billy Collins perpetuates the misreading of the 1798 poem in his 1998 poem, “Lines Composed Over ThreeThousand Miles from Tintern Abbey,” in which Collins wittily glosses the commonly accepted theme of the poem:

I was here a long time ago/and now I am here again…But the feeling is always the same/It was better the first time…as he recalls the dizzying icebergs of childhood/and mills around in a field of weeds

Collins, like Archambeau, thinks “Tintern Abbey” concerns loss of childhood’s sensory thrill—an adult awareness, by the adult speaker of the poem, of the loss. As Collins puts it, simply:

I’m not feeling as chipper as I did back then…Something is always missing—/Swans, a glint on the surface of the lake

Archambeau says the same thing, slightly more elaborately, comparing Wordsworth’s “loss” to his own, as he, Archambeau, now reads “Tintin” as a grownup quickly for plot, though as a child he dreamed over intriguing details of the comic in a glowing, mystical, one-with-the-universe, ocean-of-feeling, sublime.

Collins’ poem is charming, Archambeau’s essay, due to its length, less so.

But the point is Collins, Archambeau, and experts galore continue to grossly misread the most famous poem in the canon.

Wordsworth was a Nature poet, and more, he was an environmentalist. And even more, Wordsworth was part of the great intellectual tide still washing over us—the secular, we-are-part-of-nature, not-Christian-subduers-of-it, tide.

In this poem, W. is out to convince us that Nature civilizes us and inspires us as adults. Nature makes us kinder and more human; Nature, W. wants us to see, is a meditative force for social good—not simply a haunt for restless adolescents, a tree-climbing adventure for thoughtless youth. “Tintern Abbey” is not about childhood loss. “Tintern Abbey” is about adult gain,  due to Nature’s gifts. “Tintern Abbey” attempts to make Nature sublimely healthy, social, and respectable in the eyes of grownup readers—at that time, a still unorthodox view.

“1798” is in the title—Wordsworth was 27 when he wrote the poem. “Five years have past” is how the poem begins—Wordsworth’s sole previous visit to the banks of the Wye was when he was 23 (ending a phase of his life with French girlfriend and child).  Wordsworth is a 27 year old reflecting on his experience as a 23 year old—there are no childhood memories or impressions involved at all. Wordsworth’s childhood is referenced once, parenthetically, and dismissed: “(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days and their glad animal movements all gone by.)”

Nor is there any loss. Quite the contrary. Five years ago he was alone ; now with his sister, in the present, in the sublime occasion of the poem’s conclusion, W. gushes, not about how things are not as good now, but:

Nature never did betray the heart that loved her; tis her privilege, through all the years of this our life, to lead from joy to joy; for she can so inform the mind that is within us, so impress us with quietness and beauty and so feed with lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues, rash judgements, nor the sneers of selfish men…shall e’re prevail against us…I, so long a worshiper of Nature, hither came, unwearied in that service; rather say with warmer love, oh! with far deeper zeal of holier love.

Wordsworth, in the present, is “unwearied,” and feels “warmer love” and “deeper zeal.”

In addition, during the last five years, when he was away from the banks of the Wye, leading up to the present, the scene’s “forms of beauty” do this to him:

passing even into my purer mind with tranquil restoration feelings too of unremembered pleasure; such perhaps as may have had no trivial influence on that best portion of a good man’s life: his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love…another gift, of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood in which the burden of the mystery, in which the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world is lighten’d—that serene and blessed mood, in which the affections gently lead us on, until, the breath of the corporeal frame, and even the motion of our human blood, almost suspended, we are laid asleep in body, and become a living soul: while with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.

This, the most powerful and sublime rhetoric of the poem, is reserved for how Wordsworth interacts with Nature now—not in youth or childhood.

Archambeau quotes one portion of the poem, the famous, “when like a roe I bounded o’er the mountains” passage, in which W. makes some reference to how he has “changed, no doubt, from what I was, when first I came among these hills” (at 23, not as a child) and how “nature then…was all in all.”

But it is laughably wrong to think Wordsworth had previously been in some joyous youthful state of oneness with nature—for even in the passage Archambeau cites, W. says (of his former experience) he “bounded o’er mountains, by the sides of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams, wherever nature led; more like a man flying from something that he dreads, than one who sought the thing he loved.”

Flying from something you dread does not fit with misty, lost ideals of something sadly lost.

Immediately after the passage quoted by Archambeau, Wordsworth (now in the present) states “other gifts have followed, for such loss, I would believe, abundant recompense. For I have learned to look on nature, not as in the hour of thoughtless youth…”

Wordsworth presents his silent sister, Dorothy, as containing his past naive feelings—yet she’s only a year younger than Wordsworth.  Archambeau could have made something of this, in light of the male-dominated Tintin of his youth—but professor Archambeau was distracted, no doubt, by his bungled reading of “Tintern Abbey.”

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