Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth, Turner, and the Power of Tintern Abbey

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wordsworth, Turner, and the Power of Tintern Abbey

Article excerpt

The beautifully illustrated Dove Cottage exhibition catalogue Towards Tintern Abbey, edited by Robert Woof and Stephen Hebron in 1998, reveals how linked Wordsworth's poem has become with the historical abbey and with the art that depicts it. Although it is not mentioned in the poem, the Abbey has long served as its abbreviated title, a metonymic device alluding to the contemplative genre of the ruin poem, travel narratives, and visual art, in particular the early work of J.M.W. Turner, whose paintings of the Abbey often accompany Wordsworth's poem. The otherworldliness of Turner's paintings evokes the meditative mood of the poem, and, in both works of art, ruin coexists with a type of radiance. In Romanticism and the Forms of Ruin, Thomas McFarland examines this paradox in which "the sense of eternal power and of a divine spark was inseparable from diasparactive limitation--from incompleteness, fragmentation, and ruin" (15). The walls of an abandoned abbey were not simply inanimate blocks of stone; they wer e altered by the effects of time, the facts of history, and the imagination of the observer. As Wordsworth wrote in another context,

While poring Antiquarians search the ground Upturned with curious pains, the Bard, a Seer, Takes fire.

(Roman Antiquities" 218)

By the 1790s, ruined monasteries were as much the haunt of artists as antiquarians.

Tintern Abbey had already become a British landmark when Wordsworth visited it. Since the dissolution of Roman Catholic monasteries in Britain in the 1530s, this Cistercian Abbey, like so many others, "mouldered quietly away," until the late eighteenth-century taste for gothic ruins brought frequent visitors (Spence 311). Peaceful river tours described by William Gilpin in Observations on the River Wye (1783) "the chief architectural glory of the Wye Valley" (Andrews 94). Long before Wordsworth travelled through the area, artists sold picturesque watercolours of the Abbey to tourists, comparable to modem-day postcards (Rosenthal 50).

Wordsworth went to the Wye Valley for the first time in 1793, returned in 1798, and later made several excursions with his family, the last in 1841 (Hayden 1-52). In 1798, he was on his way to Bristol to oversee the printing of Lyrical Ballads. After a five-day tour through the Wye Valley with Dorothy he added the new long poem in blank verse, just a few days before the book had to be ready to go to press.

While some of the descriptive details in the poem echo Gilpin's (Moorman 402), before Wordsworth went to the Wye Valley, he met the Reverend Richard Warner (Johnston 588-589), a clergyman and man of letters, who had published the gothic novel Netley Abbey (1795), inspired by another famous ruin, which rivalled Tintern in prominence (Watson 14). Netley Abbey was the subject of one of the best known ruin poems of the late eighteenth century, William Sotheby's 1790 ode "Netley Abbey. Midnight," which Coleridge boasted to have known almost by heart (Wu 257; 195). A great advocate of walking tours Richard Warner had published earlier that year a popular book entitled a A Walk Through Wales in August 1797, and was preparing to make his second tour when he met the Wordsworths. His travels of August and September, 1798, became A Second Walk Through Wales (1799).

The first Walk Through Wales featured a picture of Tintern Abbey by Thomas Girtin as its frontispiece. While he concedes that people might be weary of reading about the Wye Valley ("the scenery of this place and its neighbourhood" has been "described by Tourists out of number" [231]), he admits that "Nothing, indeed, can be more perfect than the architecture of its various parts; its moulded arches, clustering pillars, and figured windows" (233).

The relationship between monastic ruins and heightened feeling appear in his description of Valle Crucis Abbey in the north of Wales, near Llagollen:

The sun was setting when we approached the ruins of Valle-Crucis Abbey, and shed a rich but softened light over the pile; a deep repose reigned around, and not a sound was heard to disturb the reflections which a scene so solemn tended to inspire. …

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