Wordsworth Essay, Research Paper
Tintern Abbey: Seeing into the Life of Things
What does Wordsworth see when he “sees into the life of things?” Remember that in the lines leading up to his portrayal of the “blessed mood” that gives him sight, Wordsworth has been pointing to the power of human memory and reflection. And the importance of memory and reflection are made plain by the shifting time perspectives in the poem. The poem begins with the speaker on the banks of the Wye for the first time in five years. At first the poet emphasizes the way in which his present experience is similar to that of five years ago. More than once he tells us that “again” he has certain experiences in this secluded spot, a place that is evidently a refuge for him. He then tells how he has though of “these beauteous forms’ at many difficult times since he was last at this spot, five years before. At these moments, his recollections of his time on the banks of the Wye seems to lift his spirits and restore him. He then points to what might, at first glance, seem to be impossible: “unremembered pleasures.” How can it make sense to say that we recall “unremembered pleasures”? If they are unremembered, how can we be thinking about them? This strange phrase might point to some vague pleasant experience in the past, one that we cannot clearly name. But it could also mean that we can now remember pleasures that previously not only unremembered but actually unnoticed. The thought of an unnoticed pleasure might seem strange as well. But is it so odd to think that, in memory, our pleasurable experiences take on new meaning and greater substance than they had at the time? Pleasant experiences are often over quickly or happen in a rush. We are so caught up in the experience that we can’t attend to all that is happening to us. Or, in some instances, when we are in the middle of some experience, we cannot grasp just what makes it special or wonderful. For what some experience means to us depends upon what came before it and, even more, what will follow from it. And, in the middle of an experience, we may forget what lead up to it and cannot know what will come of it. It is only in retrospect that we can revel in the experience, appreciate aspects of it that we could not at the moment, and grasp the meaning of it for our lives.
Then Wordsworth points to the way in which our past experiences affect the way we live with others. Why are the “best portion of a good man’s life” “His little, nameless, unremembered, acts of kindness and of love?” Because they are uncalculated and unmotivated by self-concern. They come so freely from us that it is only in retrospect that we recognize them for what they were. However they are the true measure of what we are, and what we are is determined in large part by what we remember of our lives, by the shape we give our lives in memory. It is the recollection of good memories, the naming of nameless pleasures, that help make us the kind of people who commit nameless unremembered acts of kindness and love.
So the mood that leads the author to see into the life of things begins with recollection and memory, of pleasures of good deeds. But these memories occur in what seems like and otherwise dreary time for the author, when he is weary and lonely. They occur in times when the “fever of the world” has burdened the author, when his worries have lead him to fruitless endeavors, and when he has suffered from the “evil tongues,” “rash judgments,’ and “the sneers of selfish men” he points to later in the poem. Memories of the Wye raise the author’s spirits, and distance him from the concerns of his daily life. The author is able to step back and look at himself from above. The vision he presents of the soul leaving the body is not one of death but of release from the concerns of every day life. The author’s soul floats above his body. From that distance, the tensions of daily life is diminished, and replace by joy. This joy comes in no small part from the escape from every day worries. But perhaps it is also a joy in the author’s own powers to shape his experience of the world. For the poet has a further insight, one that comes from reflection on the very experience of the power of memory to “lift the burdens” upon him. That is, the author is now thinking not about the Wye, or about his memories of the Wye, or about how these memories have lifted his spirits and shaped his life. Rather he is thinking about the human abilities that allow memory and reflection to have this effect. In doing this he grasps two important features of his own powers. First, he sees just how his power of reflection and memory can keep him from being dragged down into the pain and despair of daily life. The pleasure he received from his experience on the banks of the Wye are not limited to that time and place but are always available. And the pain and worries of daily life can be diminished and put in their place by gaining some distance and perspective from them. Second he grasps that these very experiences are not just due to the power of nature over him. As he points out later in the poem, when he was younger “nature…to me was all in all.” This does not mean that nature was “all in all” when he was young but that he experienced it as “all in all.” What he has come to realize is that the effect of nature upon him depends upon what he brings to nature. For he has seen that the pleasures he receives upon reflection on his experience at the banks of the Wye are different and possibly even greater that those he had at the time of the actual experience. Later in the poem, the author recognizes that half of the experience comes from his eye, while the other half comes from nature. That is, what has such an effect on him is not nature pure and simple but nature as filtered through his own “language of the sense.”
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, –both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
Seeing into the life of things, then, is seeing into the power of human reflection, which in turn rests on our capacity for recollection. Thus the form of the poem—the constant shifting of the author’s attention from one period of time to another—portrays the experiences and recognition’s that is the subject matter of the poem. It is in this shifting of attention that the author—and we—come to distance ourselves from those aspects of our lives that trouble us and turn to other experiences that nurture us and give us hope for the future. Moreover, this power of reflection gives us the ability to give shape not just to our experiences of the past but, also, to our expectations of the future. The author has learned that what he becomes is, in large part, the result of what he chooses to make of himself. Making oneself, for Wordsworth, however, comes not in building a career or seeking riches, but in coming to a better understanding of one’s own nature and situation. This gives the author tremendous power over his life, but also a great deal of responsibility for it as well.