The Critic in the Classroom: “Tintern Abbey”
When I teach Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” I give students a handout with excerpts from three essays about the poem:
“Everyone knows that “Tintern Abbey” is a sad poem…” Quinney, Laura. “Sensibility, and the Self-Disenchanted Self in ‘Tintern Abbey.’” ELH 64.1
“Tintern Abbey” has a temporal structure of absence and presence which is folded upon itself and projected into the future as we move from memory to imagination: grammatically, the poem moves from the “present perfect,” where the “past” is recuperable, to the “future” tense at the poem’s close, where the present situation is imagined as already “past.”
Lawder, Bruce. “Secret(ing) Conversations: Coleridge and Wordsworth.” New Literary History 32.1 (2001) 67-89.
The romantic critical tradition has read Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” as a poem about aesthetic contemplation, and about the “personal myth” of memory as salvation. In this line of thinking, the poet’s aesthetic contemplation entails both an objective focus on the natural setting of the Wye Valley, the Abbey’s surroundings, and a subjective focus on perception and imagination, between what the “eye, and ear. . . half create, and what perceive” (lines 105-7). The poet’s use of memory details a shift from past to present, from the loss of childhood’s “glad animal movements” (line 74) to the “abundant recompense” of a mature imaginative sensibility. Likewise, it details another shift from present to future, a projected continuity wherein the poet’s sister Dorothy represents for him a remembered existence even in his anticipatory absence; toward this end, the poem concludes in his final entreaty to her:
with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations!
Hadley, Karen. “The Commodification of Time in Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey.’” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.4 (2002) 693-706.
The first excerpt cracks some of my students up while it annoys and confuses a few others, and we all note how tricky it would be for one of them to a write a sentence in their essays that begins “Everyone knows.” It also forces the group assigned to this excerpt to instantly rethink their feelings about the poem. I am always pleasantly surprised by the discursive space Quinney’s bold claim opens up. They assume Quinney is describing the tone of the poem, a reasonable place to begin. Students who might not answer the question “what is the tone of the poem?”—either because they hadn’t noticed it or wouldn’t have the language to describe it—suddenly have very strong opinions about this element of it. The poem isn’t “sad,” they argue, but “happy.” The most this group will allow, at the beginning of their work, is that the poem might be contemplative and bittersweet but they are emphatic in their belief that the poem is not sad. Most of the time, someone will wonder what Quinney actually means when she describes the poem as sad. Is it sad in its tone? Is it sad in its subject matter? Is it sad throughout or just in parts? Is it sad that Wordsworth wrote it? And, if things go well, someone asks about the introduction of the Dorothy figure and the language in that part of them poem, and I see students frantically flipping back and forth between the pages trying to sort through it all. Their impulse is to read the introductory, biographical information at the start of the Wordsworth section, and someone will offer to do that, but then someone else remembers what I’ve been repeating every class and says, “textual evidence” (and I realize that I might be more like Cleanth Brooks than I care to admit).
Each excerpt provides its own challenges, but even students who struggle mightily with poetry enjoy this entry into the text. I think they find it so satisfying for a number of reasons. On a practical level, there is safety in numbers, so even if they’re overwhelmed by the longer excerpts, they are overwhelmed together. Each excerpt is so different that it also allows space for them to ask questions about specific lines and passages and to pay careful attention to Wordsworth’s language. They also like puzzling out what the critic is actually trying to say. When the group working with Lawder finally works out what he means when he points to the poem’s “temporal structure,” they happily start seeking out the shifts in tense in the poem. Lawder gives them the tools to breakdown a poem whose length is overwhelming while offering a theme they might have noticed without knowing how it contributes to a fuller interpretation of the poem.
Hadley’s assertions allow them to recontextualize their initial response to the poem. For reasons that have a lot to do with the very term “Romanticism” in general and Wordsworth’s subject matter in particular, I find that my students read him with an incredibly sentimental eye. They also project onto him their own experience, so they see the poem as happy because they imagine how happy they would be to revisit a place from their past. This is a fine place to begin, but my goal is to push them into the poem and its language (this partly out of fear that I’ll get journal entries with titles like “My Own Private ‘Tintern Abbey’” rather than critical essays when they turn in their first full writing assignment ), and Lawder’s work with the poem moves them to a place where they can consider its philosophy against their own world view—one that works differently in real time than it does in their heads. Hadley’s argument asks them to rethink the pleasure of memory, and they do that by paying close attention to how Dorothy is addressed in the poem.
I teach poetry and fiction in my Romanticism class. Students tend to be more comfortable with the prose than the verse, and I’ve been trying to work out ways to give them more of a foothold with the poetry while still leaving them plenty of space to work with it on its own terms. I’ve found that these critical tidbits lead to productive work, particularly in helping students solidify their own sense of the poem; because when they finally “get” the critic, what they are really understanding more concretely is their own initial responses to the text.