Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Allusive Pursuits: The Song of Songs in Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey"

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Allusive Pursuits: The Song of Songs in Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey"

Article excerpt

FOR A POET WHOSE STYLE JOHN KEATS FAMOUSLY AND JUSTIFIABLY dubbed "the egotistical sublime," (1) William Wordsworth's autobiographical narrative in the fourth paragraph of "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey" is remarkably (and deliberately) obscure. (2) Writing in 1798 and recalling his visit to the Wye Valley five years previously in 1793, Wordsworth declares his hope that he will find "life and food / For future years" (65-66) in the present moment,

   Though changed, no doubt, from what I was, when first
   I came among these hills; when like a roe
   I bounded o'er the 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. For nature then
   (The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
   And their glad animal movements all gone by,)
   To me was all in all....
   (67-7 6) (3)

It is a critical commonplace that "Tintern Abbey" is riddled with elisions, absences, and incomplete comparisons--after all, the poem surprisingly negleets to mention Tintern Abbey at all. (4) Wordsworth's comparatives in lines 67-76 of the poem have been particularly troublesome, provoking questions that remain unsatisfactorily answered: How is the speaker "like a roe"? How is he "like a man"? What is the "something" that he dreads? What is the "thing" that he might have loved? How can one interpret the poet's confusing movement through time, from his "boyish days" (74), to "what [he] was" (67) five years earlier, to who he is now? Wordsworth seems deliberately to obscure the personal allusions to his life five years earlier. Most of these mysteries can be cleared up, however, if one recognizes in these lines Wordsworth's allusions to the Song of Songs, the Bible's erotic love poem.

I have located over fifty critical responses to lines 67-76 in "Tintern Abbey": none of them convincingly answers the questions posed above. (5) The notes in Michael Mason's excellent edition of Lyrical Ballads exemplify the challenges confronting a skilled literary critic attempting to explicate these lines for a perplexed reader:

68-73. a me ... he loved: the ambiguous and interacting similes in these lines leave the question of the balance between frightened flight and loving quest, in the Wordsworth of 1793, intriguingly uncertain. If the 'like' of 'more like a man' has the sense which the 'like' of 'like a roe' at first seems to have--the sense of 'with the appearance of'-- then we have a purely exterior picture of Wordsworth's state in 1793. But the second 'like' is perhaps better read as meaning 'in the condition of,' and however we take it the image of a fleeing man modifies the bounding roe image significantly through the suggestion of a deer hunt. In 'Hart-leap Well' ... Wordsworth tells the story of a hunted stag which is in flight and seeking to return to a beloved spot. (6)

One can sense the tentative nature of Mason's speculations as he attempts to clarify what seems "ambiguous" and "intriguingly uncertain." He rightly dismisses the first interpretive option--for a male poet to compare his external appearance to a man's seems strangely obvious and unimaginative. Mason's second suggestion is more plausible--that the force of Wordsworth's comparison falls not on the word "man" at all, but on the action of "flying" rather than seeking. However, this interpretation still raises the question as to what the man is fleeing and what he might instead have been seeking. The image of the hunt that Mason suggests, while possible, does not seem to fit well with the language Wordsworth uses here. The image of a deer flying from "dread" seems too psychological to work in this context--besides, at this point the speaker is no longer like a deer, but like a man. The connection between the roe and the man remains ambiguous--why would Wordsworth have chosen to compare himself to a roe? …

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