“Tintern Abbey” & “Intimations of Immortality”: Wordsworth’s Symbolism of Nature
Immortalized in the history of English literature, William Wordsworth is a prominent Romantic poet who demonstrated the importance of profound engagement with emotional and spiritual values attributed to nature through his lyrical poetry. Writing during the period of socio-political tensions and intensifying French and Industrial Revolution, Wordsworth emphasized the therapeutic power of nature to provide mental cleanliness and spiritual tranquility to its readers while drifting them away from the ongoing processes of industrialization and urbanization. Not only has this but he also correlated the physical growth of a child into an adult with nature through his mystical speculations to illustrate how the process of acquisition of knowledge is simultaneously associated with the loss of innocence and the “celestial light.”
Through this article, I had attempted to objectively analyze the spiritual growth of human mind under the nature’s guidance and the mystical speculations presented in Wordsworth’s poems “Lines Written A Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” and “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” to understand the aesthetic and moral core that Wordsworth finds in nature.
Set against the backdrop of Tintern village in Monmouthshire on the Welsh bank of the River Wye, Wordsworth’s seminal poem “Tintern Abbey” chronicles the revisit of the 28-years old poet to Wye valley after five years. He reminisces how the recollections of these “beauteous forms” had purified his intellect “in the hours of weariness” and replenished him “with tranquil restoration-feelings too of unremembered pleasures” when he was desolate in those busy cities. Through this magnum opus, he indicated the restorative superpower of nature that inspired the people in times of trials and tribulations. Enhancing this theme in “Intimations of Immortality” in 1802, Wordsworth described the ever-changing relationship of a human with nature in the process of growing up and attaining maturity. According to the poet, the nature that appeared “appareled in celestial sunlight” in childhood “fade into the light of common day” in adulthood as he gained intellectual and material knowledge.
Wordsworth’s poetry describes the transitional period of a man’s journey from childhood mischievousness to the spiritual and intellectual pursuits of maturity in correlation with nature. He discusses how the child is attached with the divinity of nature at its primary stage but in youth, he distances himself from imperial celestial light slowly in the process of acquiring knowledge and self-consciousness and as the time rolls on and he becomes a grown-up man, this divine glimmer permanently vanishes in common daylight. It is typical theme in Wordsworth’s poem that he deals with the concept of nature-human correlation in mystical terms- Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” and “Tintern Abbey” are the philosophic exploration of the soul’s place in nature and the universe. He also believes that what a child perceives intuitively the infiniteness of the soul which the adult may only perceive through mature thought and contemplation.
Wordsworth thinks that when we are born into this world, we bring with us a celestial light of our spiritual reality, a sparkle of hope for immortality but this steadily vanishes as we descend further away from God into adulthood. He writes:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star….
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home?
“Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing boy.
[Intimations of Immortality, Lines-59-69]
According to Wordsworth, the newborn infant dwells into a more pure and glorious realm before taking birth on earth, thereby suggesting the notion of pre-existence. He suggests that during early childhood, the child possesses various memories of his previous life in his mind and he beholds the heavenly vision and glory when he comes from the heavenly abode but as he grows up, “the shades of prison” hover over the child which transports him “daily farther from the east” towards the west like the setting sun thereby, bringing him to the materialistic world of mortals which is despondent and desolate. Nostalgically reminiscing his childhood days in his youth, Wordsworth writes in “Intimations of Immortality” that-
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
[Intimations of Immortality, Lines-1-5]
Wordsworth remembers that when he was a child, he used to observe the natural landscapes beautified with divine light and the glory in components of nature but “The things that I have seen I now can see no more” because of the spiritual and intellectual advancement of the human mind. Thoroughly exploring this belief in the sixth and seventh stanza, he reflects how the earthly pleasures, motherly kisses and fatherly affection can assist a kid to forget the celestial light and his blessed origins to make worldly hardships more tolerable to him. The poet professes that a child is the “best philosopher”, “mighty prophet, seer blest” who can decrypt the realities, truths and sensibilities of life because of his heavenly heritage that the learned philosophers can’t do. At the end of the 8th stanza, the poet questions the child that why he is hurriedly striding towards “the earthly freight” and customary ways of adult life consciously when he possesses “the heaven-born freedom” and “glory in his might” in his childhood, as underlined below-
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
Full soon thy soul shall have the earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight
Heavy as frost and deep almost as life!
[Intimations of Immortality, Lines-124-129]
Delineating the remedial influence of nature to this worldly burden in adulthood, Wordsworth writes in “Tintern Abbey” that the recollections of Wye Valley had motivated him to accomplish “the serene and blessed mood” when he is overloaded with “the burthen of the mystery/ in which the heavy and weary weight/ of this intelligible world” existed in his personal life in the towns and the cities. The poet suggests that during those moments of disappointment, nature heals our depressing memories and instructs us, inspires us and enlightens us to live life with “the deep powers of joy and harmony.” He even thanks to the Wye river for functioning as a foundation of motivation in his life and then attempts to capture the natural grace of this valley once again in his eyes so that it can act as “life and food for future years” of despondence, desolation and disappointment. At one point, the poet even voices the intentional reluctance to accept the dark reality of “joyless daylight” and rather to live in “vain belief” close to nature that comforts him and provides internal tranquility when he states-
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying for something that he dreads, then one
Who sought the thing that he loved.
[Tintern Abbey, Lines-70-73]
Through this conscientious and moral correlation of child with divine energies of nature, Wordsworth implies that the child’s pristine mind and immaculate heart have the eternal philosophical and emotional power within it that he can discern the complicated truths of life because of his heavenly heritage and purest connection with divinity. However, in the process of attainment of knowledge and gaining self-consciousness, he unconsciously glides towards the customary burdens of adult life.
Reaching adolescence, the youth receives “abundant recompense” of knowledge, maturity and worldly pleasures in place of the natural grandeur of “the sounding cataract”& “the mountain and the deep and the gloomy wood” which supports him in adapting to the earth but the celestial vision become dim and fade. Here, Wordsworth shifts from melancholic to optimistic tone and writes-
The song of thanks and praise;
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Falling from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a creature.
[Intimations of Immortality, Lines-141-145]
At mature stage, the man gains spiritual enlightenment and moral tranquility that wipe out the coarse pleasures of childhood and the passionate sensuous appetite of the “thoughtless youth” and realizes “The still, sad music of humanity.” Wordsworth correlated the tragedy or sad music of humanity with his vision of nature through the following lines:
For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing often
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh, Nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with
The joy of elevated thoughts.
[Tintern Abbey, Lines-88 to 95]
Through this correlation, Wordsworth makes his readers melt, and blend into a supreme harmony that helps them to feel “a presence that disturbs him” with joys of “elevated thought”. He realizes the existence of a presence that encompasses both the outer and the inner world – “the round ocean”, “the living air”, “the blue sky” and “the mind of man”. Because of this sense of harmony between life and its reality, human sufferings and tragedies lose their sharp edges and the all-encompassing presence of nature creates music – sad and still- in the poet’s mind. In the matured life, the experience widens with the intimate knowledge of human evil and suffering. The “dizzy raptures” of the “thoughtless youth” vanishes as the poet tries to integrate his old love for nature by looking at it more thoughtfully. He discovers a vaster harmony in the vision of nature, which takes in “the still, sad music of humanity”.
Similarly, Wordsworth attempts to produce a sense of optimism for the readers by reflecting the abundant compensation that one receives after losing visionary gleam through the following lines in “Intimations of Immortality” as well:
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now forever taken from my sight
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic tone.
[Intimations of Immortality, Lines-176-187]
Bolstered by this joy, Wordsworth urges the birds to sing, and all other creatures to participate in “the gladness of the May.” Through these lines, he suggests that though he has lost some part of the glory of nature and experience, he will take solace in “primal sympathy,” “soothing thoughts” & “in faith” in memory, and in the fact that the years bring a mature consciousness—”a philosophic mind. ”He writes “Thanks to the human heart by which we live” because it is the very immortality of the soul.
Concluding the above analysis, it can be reasonable to state that Wordsworth’s poem is a clear depiction of the poet’s emotional and moral closeness to nature. According to him, nature is the constant source of inspiration to the human mind during the hours of weariness, desolation and desperation. He utilizes the mystical speculation that the human soul is immortal to demonstrate the dynamically transforming emotional human-nature relationship from childhood to manhood. According to him, during the birth of a child, the immortal soul has memories of previous birth in his mind and he is connected to the divine powers of nature. The child mind is too pure that he can decode the philosophies that even the learned scholars can’t solve even after gaining mature thought but as the shades of the prison-house befall over him in adulthood, the celestial light that he beholds become dim and fade but he receives earthly pleasures, parental love, material and intellectual knowledge in abundance as compensation which on one hand helps him to adapt to earthly hardships but on the other, takes him away from divinity. On reaching manhood, the celestial light mixes in the common daylight and almost disappears. Under such excruciating circumstances, the recollections of childhood are the mere source of solace, moral tranquility and spiritual cleanliness.
- Wordsworth, William, “Ode of Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood“
- Wordsworth, William, “Line Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey“