Tag Archives: lyrical ballads

Analysis of “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth: The transcendent power of Nature

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

This is one of my favorite poems, and it’s been a while since I read it last. But today was a beautiful and warm day, so after spending a few hours working in the yard, I got my copy of English Romantic Writers, opened to the section on Wordsworth, and read “Tintern Abbey” while sitting outside, basking in sunshine.

I first read this poem in college. As part of my English Lit class, we had to read all of the Lyrical Ballads. I was so moved the first time I read this poem. It expressed in words how I felt being in Nature, the transcendent feeling, the resonance deep within my soul. And that is what I want to focus this post on—how Wordsworth addresses the transcendent power of Nature in this poem.

The poem is fairly long, so I will not include the entire text, but here is a link to an online version should you want to read it in its entirety.

Poetry Foundation

In the second stanza, Wordsworth expresses how he had spent a long time away from Nature, living in the city. He describes how he visualized scenes in Nature as a way of maintaining his spiritual connection. He then goes on to describe how, being in Nature and focusing on the harmony of the natural world, one becomes open to the transcendent experience, experiencing enlightenment through the transformative power of Nature.

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this 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.

As a kid, I love being in the woods. I would go camping, hiking, and fishing. It was a place of escape and adventure. But as I got older, I developed a different sense of Nature. I would go off and sit beside a stream, gazing at the water and listening to the gentle sounds that surrounded me, and then easily slip into a deep meditative state. Wordsworth expresses this feeling beautifully at the end of the fourth stanza.

For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
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; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:

But it is the fifth stanza that in my opinion best conveys the reverence Wordsworth feels toward Nature. Not only is Nature a means for transcendence, it is also healing and nurturing. Like so many of us, there have been times in my life where I have gotten caught up in work, stress, and the monotonous grind of daily life. But all it takes is an hour or two in the woods, walking along a mountain trail or sitting beside a stream, and I feel restored, reconnected to my true self. This rejuvenation of spirit is what Wordsworth is describing in the following stanza.

A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

I know that most people envision Thoreau when they think about transcendent writers extolling the spiritual aspects of Nature, but Wordsworth wrote about Nature’s transcendent power fifty years before Thoreau penned Walden. If you have never done so before, I encourage you to sit outside on a warm sunny day and read “Tintern Abbey,” surrounded by Nature, as it was meant to be read. I suspect that doing so will have a profound impact on you.

9 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Lines Written in Early Spring” by William Wordsworth

Lake District - Source: Wikipedia

Lake District – Source: Wikipedia

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

It has been many years since I last read this poem, and reading it again reminds me why I love the Romantic writers so much. This poem captures emotions I have felt too often.

In this poem, Wordsworth expresses contrasting emotions stirred by sitting quietly in a meditative state in Nature. On one hand, he experiences a serene spiritual connection to the beauty and harmony of Nature which surrounds him. But he is unable to sustain that feeling because as he revels in the joy of Nature, his thoughts involuntarily drift and he thinks about the tendency of humans to extract themselves from their connection with Nature, to see themselves as distinct from the natural world.

I live in a beautiful place, surrounded by mountains and Nature. When I go and hike in the woods, or sit beside a stream and let the sounds and scents of Nature transport me, I feel the connection which Wordsworth describes. But then I think of the things we have done to Nature, the exploitation and destruction for short-term gain. It saddens me deeply. But there is also the spiritual component. I was recently in Atlanta and observed people trapped within their cars, sitting in ten lanes of traffic, and I felt sad for these people. They have sacrificed their spiritual connection to what is important. I know this because I lived in a big city for many years and during that time there, I know my spiritual connection with the earth was diminished. What connection I had took a conscious effort to maintain. And as Wordsworth points out, we have done this to ourselves.

“Have I not reason to lament what man has made of man?” It’s a haunting line and it is as relevant today as it was when Wordsworth penned it over 200 years ago. I only hope that one day a poet will be able to rejoice in what man has made of man.

11 Comments

Filed under Literature, Spiritual

Ice Symbolism in Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Image from Princeton.edu

Image from Princeton.edu

This is my 200th blog post, so I wanted to do something worthy of the milestone. I decided to re-read and write about “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of my favorite poems. The poem is long and rich in symbolism, and I could easily write a dissertation on this one poem. But for brevity’s sake, I will focus on one aspect: the metaphor of ice.

I feel that ice is a key metaphor in this poem, especially since it figures prominently in the title. Rime is defined as “an accumulation of granular ice tufts on the windward sides of exposed objects that is formed from supercooled fog or cloud and built out directly against the wind.” So what make rime so unique is that it is the metamorphosis of gas to solid, bypassing the liquid state. Essentially, this would be symbolic of the transformation of spirit to flesh or matter.

Ice makes it first appearance in the poem at line 51:

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It crack’d and growl’d, and roar’d and howl’d,
Like noises in a swound!

The ice here seems both beautiful and frightening. The crystal structures create a stunning landscape, but also represent a dangerous place. Below the surface, hidden ice waits to tear into the hulls of ships. I see the ship as a metaphor for the journey into unknown regions. The land of ice represents the realm of imagination. I therefore interpret this passage as the mariner’s voyage into the mystic, a wondrous place where the images of the world are reflected and fractured. But a mariner must remain safe within his vessel, otherwise he becomes lost in the labyrinth of ice and cannot return to the realm of reality.

It is while in the land of ice and snow that the albatross appears, guiding the ship through the mists and clouds. I see the albatross as a spirit guide whose purpose is to lead souls safely through the mystical realms of imagination, ensuring they do not get lost. But the mariner, for no apparent reason, kills the albatross. He shows no emotion and has no remorse. Essentially, his soul has been iced over and his heart is frozen. It is a cold and senseless act that displays a complete disregard for all things divine and holy. This begins the ship’s descent into horror and the darker realms of the imagination.

It is only after the mariner begins to feel a sense of remorse that the ship begins to move again and the divine beings return to guide the ship safely to port. The rime that coated the mariner’s heart is melted away when he realizes that his actions have consequence and that all living things, instilled with the divine spirit, are deserving of love and reverence. He reiterates this belief toward the end of the poem.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.’

I’ve often wondered why the mariner chose to recount his tale to the wedding guest. After this reading, I’ve come to believe that it is because the wedding guest is displaying the same coldness of heart that was in the mariner. The mariner sees this and chooses the guest. Likewise, the guest recognizes the mariner’s past iciness resides within himself, which adds to the fear that he feels as the mariner unfolds his tale.

Lastly, the mariner knows that unless he relives his experience through the retelling of his tale, he is at risk of returning to his cold, unfeeling state. The rime over one’s heart and soul forms quickly and silently. It is only by exposing the darker regions of one’s memory to the light that one can prevent the icing over of emotion.

I have only scratched the surface of this poem. There are so many images and metaphors which one could explore, it would be easy to write an entire book about this one poem. I encourage you read it, and if you have read it before, read it again. I have no doubt that you will discover things that you missed in your previous readings.

Click here to read the poem online, or better yet, go to a local bookstore and buy a copy of Lyrical Ballads. It’s worth the money and you’ll be supporting your local bookseller.

17 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Lines Left Upon a Seat in a Yew-tree” by William Wordsworth

WordsworthThis poem was originally published in the Lyrical Ballads, which is a collaborative collection of works by Wordsworth and Coleridge. When I was younger, I read the Lyrical Ballads several times. Then, on a trip to England, I was fortunate enough to spend some time in the Lake District and visit Wordsworth’s cottage. Doing so gave me a deeper appreciation of these works.

For me, I see a lot of mystical symbolism in this poem. First off, the yew tree is a symbol of rebirth and resurrection, which is why it is often found in cemeteries in England. Keep this in mind when reading the poem.

The poem opens with the writer beckoning a Traveller to rest at a yew tree. He describes the effect of the surrounding environment on a person:

Yet, if the wind breathe soft, the curling waves,
That break against the shore, shall lull thy mind
By one soft impulse saved from vacancy.

I get the impression that sitting at the tree and listening to the sounds causes one to enter a state of altered consciousness.

The poem continues with reflections upon some ancient mystical Being who seems to have some connection to the yew tree:

Who he was
That piled these stones and with the mossy sod
First covered, and here taught this aged Tree
With its dark arms to form a circling bower,
I well remember.–He was one who owned
No common soul.

I feel that the person being described here is some form of fertility king, such as described in Frasier’s The Golden Bough. But as the poem continues, it appears that the fertility king had become unfruitful. Hence, a new king is needed in order to continue the cycle of rebirth and regeneration.

Fixing his downcast eye, he many an hour
A morbid pleasure nourished, tracing here
An emblem of his own unfruitful life:

The first part of the poem ends with the death of the fertility king, who left behind the yew as a symbol of his impending resurrection. Now a new king can emerge and take his place upon the bough.

On visionary views would fancy feed,
Till his eye streamed with tears. In this deep vale
He died,–this seat his only monument.

In the second and final section of the poem, the Traveller is encouraged to take his rightful place as the new fertility king. He is warned to avoid feelings of pride and contempt and to focus on the mystery of “Nature’s works.” He is also instructed that:

… true knowledge leads to love;
True dignity abides with him alone
Who, in the silent hour of inward thought,
Can still suspect, and still revere himself
In lowliness of heart.

This poem is more complex than it appears. I encourage you to read this slowly and more than once in order to get the full effect.

Click here to read the poem online, or better yet, visit your local bookstore and buy a copy of the Lyrical Ballads. It’s worth the investment.

Leave a comment

Filed under Literature