Alienation, Memory, and Childhood: The Quest For Meaning In Adult Life. A Reading of Tintern Abbey

Melancholy, much more than any other emotion, permeates so much of the poetry of the eighteenth century. And while William Wordsworth remains indebted to this mood, he takes his own turn at the loss of innocence through the transition from childhood to adulthood. Unlike some of his contemporaries—Thomas Grey comes chiefly to mind—in which his Elegy Written In A Country Church-Yard, considered to be “the most popular poem of melancholy in the eighteenth century” (Quinney 132), Wordsworth inherits this poetic legacy while steering it in a new direction. Where Thomas’ focus was on the invisibility and anonymity of the narrator, living a condemned life in which the future has been “emptied out” (Quinney 132), Wordsworth relates to us a journey, one from childhood to adult, where the melancholy and loss of childhood is compensated by an heightened awareness and cognizance of maturity. The end of childhood is not the death of the self for Wordsworth, but rather the terminus of a stage, all bliss and felicity withstanding. It is in the fullness of intellect and its illumination of spirit that Wordsworth, as a grown man says, “And so I dare to hope, though changed, do doubt, from what I was when first I came among these hills” (lines 65-67). In spite of the alienation he experiences in the transition from boy to man, Wordsworth sees the fully mature human being as the only one capable to synthesize the disparate images of nature, which he sees before him, and through “abundant recompense” (line 88) re-sacralize the world into a “sobre pleasure” (line 139).

In order to have a better grasp on both the transition to adulthood and the compensation had therein, it is necessary to take a moment and examine Wordsworth’s conception of childhood. For Wordsworth, childhood is a quasi-animal state, in which one (at least according to his experience) not only wonders at nature, but sees oneself as a part or extension of it. When Wordsworth visited Tintern Abbey as a young boy, he did so “like a roe”, where he, “bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams” (lines 67-69). These mosaics of natural phenomena are not simply landscape artifacts but interconnected entities that he visits in his time there. These “glad animal movements” (line 74) cement the boy of Wordsworth’s youth as an equally natural expression amongst the natural landscape.

The childhood that Wordsworth also describes is an un-nuanced and unarticulated existence. His boyish encounters in Tintern Abbey constitute more to do with raw emotion than intellectualized endeavors. When, as a boy, he thought of the mountains and woods, their appearance manifested to him as “an appetite” or “a feeling and a love” (line 80). Their forms appeared to him without the need of external influences. Having “no need of a remoter charm” (line 81), nature appears to Wordsworth solely based on his youthful sensorium, an ecstatic exchange, in which all of nature seems holy and sacred to Wordsworth.

It is necessary to expound on the nature of youth as Wordsworth interprets it in order to gauge and comprehend the alienation and loss he experiences in adulthood. And it is in adulthood that alienation, loss, and melancholy, are negotiated. Wordsworth’s urban experiences allude to this fact, where in “lonely rooms” and “mid the din of towns and cities, I have owed them ” and “passing even into my purer mind” (lines 25-28) his sense of sorrow and alienation come to fruition. Here, the negotiation of child and man is rooted in memory and its ability to provide Wordsworth the basis by which he can measure and treat his loss. In summary, Wordsworth reckons childhood and adulthood as two disparate stages in which the defining characteristics of the first stage cannot be carried over into the second (Grob 35). This is clearly demonstrated in the poem’s narration of loss: the “glad animal movements”, “coarser pleasures”, “dizzy raptures” and the like. This loss, or alienation, is forever gone as Wordsworth writes, in the present tense, “I cannot paint what then I was” (lines 75-76). The passage from child to adult is permanent. The only recompense for this loss is the illumination that Wordsworth receives upon maturation, as I shall discuss shortly.

Despite the entranced nature of his childhood, Wordsworth satiates this absence in moving from what I will term the experiential-self (the child) to the knowing-self (the adult). It is the primacy of knowledge over enraptured enthusiasm that ingratiates his soul in its newfound context. While recognizing the “nameless, unremembered, acts of kindness and of love” (lines 34-35) Wordsworth makes his case for knowledge as that which brings man happiness: “of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood, in which the burthen of the mystery of all this unintelligible world, is lightened” (lines 37-41). This “serene and blessed mood” gives Wordsworth the peace of mind that will abide in him until his death (“until, the breath of this corporeal frame” line 43).

Wordsworth’s knowing-self is also the means by which he is able to acknowledge and act upon the “other”. In specific, the “other” in Tintern Abbey is his sister and “dearest Friend” (line 116). When Wordsworth first visited the Abbey as a child, there was no mention of her as he “bounded o’er the mountains”. His time then was purely individual and self-experiential. In the bloom of adulthood, Wordsworth is able to articulate strong feelings for his sister; feelings previously reserved for his natural landscape. Amidst the myriad of emotions that Wordsworth conveys to us, compassion is one of the strongest amongst them. From here, Tintern Abbey takes on the role of didactic prescription, where Wordsworth attempts to administer the cure he found in his experience at the Abbey to his sister: “Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind shall be a mansion for all lovely forms 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” (lines 141-145). Wordsworth is leaving his poem as an inheritance to his sister, where if she should find herself suffering from similar alienation or despair, she need only call on these “healing thoughts”. This is without a doubt one of the poem’s more strident empirical moments, where Wordsworth’s experiential-self and knowing-self, as subject and findings, are packaged and prepared for treatment on another individual, with expected success.

As I stated initially in this paper, Wordsworth shared the fixation on sorrow and disappointment with several other eighteenth century Sensibility poets. Some literary critics, such as Laura Quinney, have claimed it to be his favorite subject (Quinney 131). I do not seek to depart ways with the likes of Quinney in observation but in scope, for Tintern Abbey most certainly deviates from both Wordsworth’s past writings, as well as that of the Sensibility poets, favoring optimism over pessimism. In Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth is able to reconcile the experiential-self with the knowing-self. To articulate this plainly, I see Wordsworth’s take on the nature of both states, the experiential and the knowing, as an affirmation of life: it is neither devoid or flushed of meaning. This is accomplished by the experiential-self being assimilated by the knowing-self. The ingenuity of Wordsworth’s technique is accomplished by using the same source material as his predecessors: nostalgia, anxiety and regret (Quinney 131), and by synthesizing them into a new articulation out of that body of work; or as Mary Jacobus puts it: an “indiscriminate melancholy” (Jacobus 107).

Wordsworth’s approach to the self, by distancing and re-imagining himself from the Sensibility poets, allowed him to spark a new conversation on the nature of the self and how it might be approached. Where the poetry of his contemporaries frequently focused on the “inner erosion and failing” (Quinney 132) of the human spirit, Wordsworth’s perspective looks towards the future. He sees life, in the present tense, as “a moment”, where there is “life and food for future years” (line 64). This bricolage of old and new material left and leaves much to be inspired by. No doubt, such motifs have been applied by other great writers; Marcel Proust comes foremost to mind, in his use of memory as the vehicle through which he explored all of his major works. I see Wordsworth’s evolution from boy to man, as conceived with and by the act of memory, a presage to Proust’s petites madeleines, in which they ignited the memory of the author’s protagonist, carrying the tea to Marcel’s lips (Proust 45). So too did Wordsworth employ memory as a vehicle, the Abbey here a stand-in for Proust’s madeleine. The indebtedness that modern fiction owes to writers, such as William Wordsworth, cannot be emphasized enough. Perhaps, through re-engaging with texts from a bygone era, we can benefit from the lyrical wisdom they house, versus common day philosophies that revel in their forward-looking stances, claiming that novelty, change, and innovation alone are capable of ascribing meaning to our context. Such systems of thought have a habit of “placing little or no value on the preservation of views or perspectives from the past” (Jackson 170). Wordsworth clearly demonstrates the value and contribution his works made and the potential to continue to speak to us more than two centuries later.

Citations

  • Jacobus, Mary. Tradition and Experiment in Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1798). London: Oxford University Press, 1976, 107.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007. 259-262.
  • Grob, Alan. “Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode and the Search for Identity” ELH 32.1 (1965): 32-61.
  • Jackson, Sherman. “Taqlid, Legal Scaffolding and the Scope of Legal Injunctions in Post-Formative Theory Mutlaq and Amm” in the Jurisprudence of Shihab al-Din al-Qarafi Islamic Law and Society Vol. 3, No. 2 (1996): 165-192.
  • Lau, Beth. “Wordsworth and Current Memory Research” Studies in English Literature 42.4 (2002): 675-692.
  • Proust, Marcel, trans. Lydia Davis. Swann’s Way. New York: Penguin Group, 2002. 45.
  • Quinney, Laura. “Tintern Abbey,” Sensibility, and the Self-Disenchanted Self.” ELH 64.1 (1997): 131-156.

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