“[W]hat they half-create, / And what perceive”: The Creation of A Hypertext Scholarly Edition of "Tintern Abbey"

Why “Tintern Abbey”

The Vale of Tintern, from the Devil's Pulpit - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Vale_of_Tintern,_from_the_Devil%27s_Pulpit.jpg

            The subject of my hypertext scholarly edition was an easy choice. The work needed to be relatively concise to facilitate the restructuring of the arrangement, a touchstone for different methods of criticism that have evolved in Romantic studies, and widely anthologized to serve the largest audience. “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798”, commonly called “Tintern Abbey”, by William Wordsworth was a perfect fit. While one could argue that Wordsworth’s The Prelude has seen its leaves take an equal if not greater share of critical focus, the scale of the work is simply too vast for such an experiment and the more concise of the two Wordsworth poems has served as a lightning rod for some of the most heated debates in Romantic studies. Indeed, Alan Liu referred to the poem as a “battleground”, while Kenneth Johnston remarked in his 1998 biography of Wordsworth , “[w]here one stands now on ‘Tintern Abbey’ makes a big difference in Romantic scholarship” (The Hidden Wordsworth 591). I will briefly summarize the two major critical diversions as they relate to “Tintern Abbey”—namely New Historicism in the 1980s and Ecocriticism in the 1990s—to situate the two approaches in another way, “red” versus “green” Romanticism.

            The establishment of Romantic scholarship in the 1960s to the early 1970s was dominated by the extraordinary contributions of M. H. Abrams, Northrop Frye, Geoffrey Hartman, and the early writing of Harold Bloom. Though their critical methods varied, these founding scholars of Romanticism were largely in agreement in that they thematically situated Wordsworth in terms of his own Preface as a “visionary.” In their criticism, Wordsworth is frequently valorized as not only “a man speaking to men” but also as a visionary “endued with a more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness” who possessed a “more comprehensive soul” (Wordsworth, Preface 887).  In Eric Yu’s study of the ethics of criticism, he finds the “visionary” Romantic scholarship of the period viewed “the male Romantic poet” as

a prophet-seer, in possession of extraordinary sensitivity and personal insights, whose work will continue to enlighten the entire human kind, or at least, in Wordsworth’s own words, ‘extend the domain of sensibility for the delight, the honor, and the benefit of human nature’ (751). There is, in addition, a constellation of related Romantic ideas such as poetic spontaneity, originality, the transcendental imagination, and the cult of feelings. (131)

Even during the poststructuralist turn in the 1970s, Yu notes, “the poststructuralists only need to replace transcendence with linguistic hypersensitivity and reflexivity, and the Romantic as a ‘clairvoyant’ prophet-seer having much to teach the future generations is thus reconfirmed” (131).

“[W]reathes of smoke / Sent up, in silence”


            The major disruption in Romantic studies was ushered in during the 1980s with the rise of the New Historicism. This new direction in critical inquiry sought to make its mark on Romantic studies by directly challenging previous schools of thought. Lead by Jerome McGann, John Barrell, Marjorie Levinson, and Alan Liu, the New Historicists, to use Yu’s language, have a “[l]eftist obsession with local, particularly traumatic, historical and economic details which are supposedly suppressed in the literary text or denied by its author” (129). Romantic scholarship to this point, in McGann’s opinion, is “dominated by a Romantic Ideology, by an uncritical absorption in Romanticism’s own self-representations” (Romantic Ideology 1). McGann argues that his study seeks to correct Romantic study’s “clerical preservers and transmitters” who have been guilty of perpetuating those same ideologies (Romantic Ideology 1). Through his critique of the Romantic ideology and by situating “Romanticism and its works in the past in order to make them present resources by virtue of their differential” will “free present criticism” from the “crippling illusion” that infected Romantic studies until the New Historicism’s arrival (McGann, Romantic Ideology 3).  For McGann, Wordsworth, like his poem’s imagined hermit, loses “the world merely to gain his own immortal soul” (Romantic Ideology 89). The other New Historicist critics follow McGann’s lead in viewing Wordsworth in this manner, as Yu explains, “[w]hereas Wordsworth in ‘Tintern Abbey’ is valued in ‘visionary’ Romanticism for his turn to nature for self-restoration and for a nourishing human relationship, for the New Historicists he is guilty of renouncing his former revolutionary ideals, retreating to the comforts of nature or of solipsism” (Romantic Ideology 131). The New Historicists view Wordsworth’s decision to write about his relationship with nature as a betrayal of his revolutionary ideals and his concern for the vagrants and wretched poor. To McGann, “Tintern Abbey” “annihilates its history, biographical and socio-historical alike, and replaces these particulars with a record of pure consciousness” (Romantic Ideology 90).

J. M. W. Turner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons            I turn to Levinson’s study, Wordsworth’s Great Period Poems, since McGann based his own reading of “Tintern Abbey” on an early draft of her first chapter that follows McGann’s method and shares his sense of disappointment in Wordsworth’s historical erasures and previous scholarship in Romantic studies. Even earlier historicists critique through their use of the “empiricist, positivist concept of historical fact” (1) places them in “the devil’s party” (1). Levinson claims her realization about the idealized models came from her students’ queries about why the poem was known as “Tintern Abbey” when the abbey is not present in the poem. Indeed she opens her exposition with an epigraph from Mary Moorman who noted that the abbey was not present in the poem:

It is a curious fact that nowhere in the poem does Wordsworth mention Tintern Abbey itself, though we know that he must have admired it, for they returned from Chepstow to spend a second night there. Gilpin describes its condition; the grass in the ruins was kept mown, but it was a dwelling place of beggars and the wretchedly poor. The river was then full of shipping, carrying coal and timber from the forest of Dean. This also Wordsworth does not mention…. (qtd. in Levinson 14).

I have included the Moorman quote since Levinson also ponders the possible reasons for the absence in the poem of not only the abbey but the beggars, wretchedly poor, and industry in the forest and on the river. Levinson returns back to the title’s “incongruity” with the text and notes that the title of the poem is linked to four anniversaries: the nine-year anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, the eight-year anniversary of Wordsworth's first visit to France, and the five-year anniversaries of the death of Marat and of Wordsworth's first visit to Tintern Abbey (22). The link to Bastille Day is one of proximity only since Levinson acknowledges that the date in the title is “almost to the day” (16). Levinson later gives an extensive historical recreation of the area:

In 1798, the Wye Valley, though still affording prospects of great natural beauty, presented less delightful scenes as well. The region showed prominent signs of industrial and commercial activity: coal mines, transport barges noisily plying the river, miners’ hovels. The town of Tintern, a half mile from the Abbey, was an iron-working village of some note, and in 1798 with the war at full tilt, the works were unusually active. The forests around Tintern—town and Abbey—were peopled with vagrants, the casualties of England’s tottering economy and of wartime displacement. Many of these people lived by charcoal burning, obviously a marginal livelihood. The charcoal was used in the furnaces along the river banks. The Abbey grounds were crowded with the dispossessed and unemployed, who begged coins of the tourists anxious to exercise their aesthetic sensibilities. The cottage plots noted in the poem are “green to the very door” because the common lands had been enclosed some time back and the only arable land remaining to the cottager was his front garden (29-30). 

Levinson’s recreation illustrates what she believes Wordsworth actively erased from “Tintern Abbey” and shows her tendency to raise uncertainties without enhancing the reader’s understanding of the poem through any direct connection with textual or historical evidence. The main thrust of her argument, which is shared with other New Historicists, is that through the poem’s tendency toward abstraction and selective erasure of the area’s features Wordsworth is evading history. As she explains, “Wordsworth’s pastoral prospect is a fragile affair, artfully assembled by acts of exclusion” (Levinson 32). Levinson explores the notion that the “above” in the poem’s title means the speaker is vertically “above” the Abbey. Her goal in so doing is to “bring ‘Tintern Abbey’ back to earth that we may do more than worship it” (55). She further declares that “[t]he doctrine delivered by ‘Tintern Abbey’ is [. . .] about both the French and Industrial Revolutions” (17).

            Reactions to the claims of the New Historicists were numerous and at times equally antagonistic. Even in the initial reviews, readers can sense the contentiousness that surrounded the methodology and arguments of the New Historicism. For example, in

 W. J. B. Owen’s review of Levinson’s book, Owen takes Levinson to task for her four connections that she raises concerning the date in the title, in particular her weak connection to Bastille Day:

In such a context, however, 'almost to the day' is not precise enough; and even if it were, the relevance is unclear. Common opinion, indeed, finds another nonrepresentation in the poem by connecting Wordsworth's reaction to the scene on the Wye in 1793 (probably in August, certainly later than 13 July) with his feelings about France; but, though the importance of the anniversaries is twice stressed by Dr Levinson, it does not emerge in subsequent discussion [. . .] And although Dr Levinson believes, because it suits her argument, Wordsworth's dating of the poem in the title (his other statements confuse the point), she appears not to believe the title when it gives the scene as 'a few miles above Tintern Abbey’, since she is intent on reading the poem as a non-statement about the Abbey and its immediate environs. (125)

By Jean-Joseph Weerts [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThomas McFarland also comments on the connections that Levinson establishes from the poem’s date “[I]t is impressive that the date is the fifth anniversary of Marat’s murder, but then what do we make of the fact that it was Robespierre’s, not Marat’s, death that sent Wordsworth into paroxysms of joy and thankfulness?” (4). He also goes on to chide Levinson about her “near miss” noting that “it would have been vastly, even exponentially, more intriguing had that Bastille moment actually been 13 July, and not, forever and eternally, 14 July” (4). McFarland goes on to question, “[T]o what extent does a near miss qualify for parapractic use? And is nine years as good as ten?” (4). McFarland’s questions echo Owen’s concern about the possibility that Levinson is forcing a reading based on a pre-determined conclusion.

            How heated was the New Historicism’s entrance into Romantic studies? The title of Helen Vendler’s response to Levinson and Barrell, “‘Tintern Abbey’: Two Assaults” should provide another example as to the prickly reception. Vendler finds Levinson’s charge that Wordsworth evaded history completely erroneous and lacking in recognition of “by what means lyric both participates in history and is effective within history” (178). In response to Levinson’s claim that “the primary poetic action is suppression of the social” (37) and that “[t]he audience consists of one person, the poet's ‘second self,’ and even she is admitted into the process a third of the way through, a decidedly feeble gesture toward externality” (38), Vendler remarks, “[s]ometimes one wonders whether one has read the same poem as Levinson” (175) and 

[w]hether the sister's appearance is meant as ‘a gesture toward externality’ at all, and, if so, whether it is a "decidedly feeble" gesture of that sort, are surely matters to be argued rather than assumed. (176)

To counter Levinson’s charge that the “collective” is repressed, Vendler reminds readers that “[l]yric, unlike the social genres, does not incorporate interaction with a ‘collective’; it privileges the mind in its solitary and private moments” (179). Vendler’s frustration with Levinson’s argument and tone leads her to suggest that a New Historicist like her “has never found anything to like in the poem” (178).

            Vendler turns her attention to John Barrell’s “equally mistaken, and only apparently more sophisticated” (180) New Historical take on a deconstructive and feminist reading of “Tintern Abbey.” Barrell argues that there are two registers of languages at work in the poem: the primitive or literal “language of the sense” (152) and the abstract or “meditative and contemplative language” (154). For Barrell, there is a dependent relationship between these two registers:

the language of the sense, as presently employed by Dorothy, stands as a present and audible guarantee of the meanings in his [Wordsworth’s] own language of the intellect; it assures him of the secure foundation of his language in the language of the sense. (162)

Barrell states that Wordsworth “needs to believe that Dorothy will grow up and sober up, for by doing so she will naturalise and legitimate his own loss of immediate pleasure in nature” (162); however, even though Dorothy “is promised future membership among the company of the intellectual” (161) Wordsworth choses to “withhold it for the time being, and perhaps indefinitely” (161). In Barrell’s view, “Dorothy can perform these two functions, only if her potential for intellectual growth is acknowledged, but only if, also, that potential is never actualised” (162). “Barrell's aim,” according to Vendler, “is to show that Dorothy represents primitive, unambiguous, and impoverished sense language, and that her brother (and other members of the masculine sex) are the only owners of the realm of abstract and highly articulated language” (181). Vendler claims Barrell’s interpretation “regards lyric as a woodenly allegorical form, in this case of sex war” (183). In Vendler’s opinion,

The narrow conviction on the part of cultural materialists that allegory, symbol, and analogy represent the "suppression" of the social betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the charismatic means of lyric poetry, which must schematize and reiterate, rather than describe and expatiate, if it is to remain true to its own principle of compact analogical representation. (186)

Vendler goes on to give her own reading, examining the language of the poem “as a symptom of its historical moment” (187) and finds that “[n]ature could hardly have been so personified in Tintern Abbey without the entrance of the female auditor in the poem” (188) who has never betrayed Wordsworth. She goes on to note that it will be Dorothy who will enter “the dark passages” and then “it will be her turn to remember that her brother, in his truth telling, never betrayed her” (188).

[A] sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused”


Lear 21 at en.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons            The debate over “Tintern Abbey” would take a green turn in the 1990s with Jonathan Bate’s Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition. Bate begins his study with a moving description of his own historical moment after the Communist Party of the Soviet Union relinquished their monopoly over the government, the move towards German unification, and the scientific support of global warming. Given the news of the day, Bate suggests “the crude old model of Left and Right” were now redundant and the “political map has been redrawn and it is time for literary criticism to politicize itself in a new way” (Romantic Ecology 3, 4). Bate explains the progression of scholarship:

The 1960s gave us an idealist reading of Romanticism which was implicitly bourgeois in its privileging of the individual imagination; the 1980s gave us a post-Althusserian Marxist critique of Romanticism. The first of these readings assumed that the human mind is superior to nature; the second assumed that the economy of human society is more important than [...] the “economy of nature.” It is precisely these assumptions that are now being questioned by green politics. (Romantic Ecology 9)

Karl Kroeber and Bate are careful to approach the “Wordsworthian-romantic position as proto-ecological” (Kroeber 18) rather than in the contemporary sense of ecological. As Kroeber explains,

The term is meant to evoke an intellectual position that accepts as entirely real a natural environment existent outside of one’s personal psyche. Scientific procedures are useful for helping us to comprehend this reality […]. But external reality can be fully appreciated and healthily interacted with only through imaginative acts of mind. The poets, not unjustly in their time, thought of such acts of imagination as beyond the capacity of mere scientists. (19)

Furthermore, Bate explains that a green reading of the Romantics “has a strong historical force” and it has a

strong contemporary force in that it brings Romanticism to bear on what are likely to be some of the most pressing political issues of the coming decade: the greenhouse effect and the depletion of the ozone layer, the destruction of the tropical rainforest, acid rain, the pollution of the sea […]. (Romantic Ecology 9)

Bate expresses a concern, shared by many scholars in Romanticism, about appealing to a wider audience. McGann’s Marxist views are “a powerful analytic, but its potential for wider political use, for praxis outside the academy, is minimal”, while a green reading “speaks to our present discontents” (Romantic Ecology 8).

John Martin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons            Bate informs readers that, far from hiding from politics and society, Wordsworth wrote A Guide Through the District of the Lakes in North of England, with a Description of the Scenery, etc. For the Use of Tourists and Residents, in which “Wordsworth aimed to show what it meant to dwell there” (Romantic Ecology 45). Where other guides used picturesque stations, Bate explains that Wordsworth’s Guide used a “holistic” approach, moving “from nature to the natives, exploring the relationship between land and inhabitant” to finally considering the “increasingly disruptive influence of man on his environment” (Romantic Ecology 45). In later editions, the Guide also contained a call from Wordsworth to “deem the district a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy” (qtd. in Romantic Ecology 47). As Bate explains, that phrase is the probably origin of the National Trust and the Lake District National Park (Romantic Ecology 47).

            Bate claims the New Historicism view that the Wordsworthian turn to nature represented a “flight from the material world, from history and society” is mistaken, rather “it is in fact an attempt to enable mankind the better to live in the material world by entering into harmony with the environment” (Romantic Ecology 40). Bate argues that, in “Tintern Abbey”, the “plots of cottage-ground (11) and “pastoral farms / Green to the very door” (17-18) that Levinson sees as symbols of enclosure, “Wordsworth finds a cottage-economy which does not ‘disturb’ the ecosystem” (Song of the Earth 146). Bate continues:

As the poet’s self is lost by means of the impress of the cliffs, so here the predatory aspect of agricultural production is imagined to be lost within the larger landscape. The colour green is attached to both orchard and uncultivated land. This is an image of sustainable productivity, in contradistinction to the Cartesian ambition of developing an ‘infinity of devices by which we might enjoy, without any effort, the fruits of the earth and all its commodities’. (Song of the Earth 146)

Where Levinson and the New Historicists charge Wordsworth with erasing history through “selective blindness” (24) in order to “see into the life of things” (50), Bate finds Wordsworth examining “the psychological work which nature can do for alienated urban man” (Song of the Earth 146). He states that

[t]he crucial move here is the idea of quieting the eye, giving up on the picturesque quest for mastery over a landscape, and submitting instead to an inner vision which enable one to ‘see into the life of things’. The memory of the Wye valley teaches the poet that all ‘things’, even apparently dead matter such as earth and rock, have life, an animating spirit. We may call this pantheism: ‘I, so long / A worshipper of Nature’. Or we may call it a recognition of what in our time the ecologist James Lovelock has called the Gaia hypothesis, the idea that the whole earth is a single vast, living, breathing ecosystem […]. (Bate, Song of the Earth 146)

In his rejection of the picturesque view with its consumption-based perspective, Bate argues that leaving the abbey and the ironworks out of the poem was crucial since these “were ‘ornaments’ of an aesthetically arranged construction” (Song of the Earth 147). “Wordsworth’s ecopoetic”, Bate explains, is “an exploration of the inter-relatedness of perception and creation, a meditation on the networks which link mental and environmental space” (Song of the Earth 148). Following Bate, I combine object-relations psychology with deep ecology to posit that “the creation of reality” for Wordsworth “is an interrelated, shared experience, with a continual interchange in influence and a rejection of the objectifying, Cartesian duality with its isolated concept of self” (109-110).

              Following Bate and Kroeber, James McKusick reads the hedgerow progression as evidence of “the biodiversity that once pervaded this region, the hedgerows now functioning as a remnant habitat” (67). This is a strong contrast to Levinson, who reads the same section not only as Wordsworth’s suppression of the evils of enclosure but as symptomatic of the speaker’s progressive blindness, or “mental unavailability” (44), to the material world. As David Miall notes, the lines recreate

the process of observation: conventional, or schematic expection would first look for hedgerows and find them; yet, a second glance—" hardly hedgerows"—would show the hedges in fact to be running wild. (7)

Miall’s reading of these lines is in agreement with McKusick in the ecological privileging of wilderness and its connection to biodiversity. Wilderness is important to McKusick’s reading of Dorothy’s role in the poem. McKusick connects Dorothy’s “wild eyes” and “wild ecstacies” to the poet’s younger self. For McKusick, Wordsworth’s exhortation is in the hope that his sister can “preserve her own inner wildness” while acknowledging “the question of whether such wildness can be sustained in any human relationship with nature” (68). For Bate, the “key word” in the last section of the poem is “healing” (Song of the Earth 150). Rather than a prisoner who is silenced, Dorothy “is the power which draws man back to integration with nature” (Bate, Song of the Earth 150). “Inmate” in this case, Bate argues, refers to “a dweller […] who feels with nature” (Song of the Earth 150). Dorothy’s silence, Bate explains, “is a sign not of condescending objectification, but of William’s respect for her attunement to the place” since, by speaking, “you detract from its beauty by violating the silence of its language” (Song of the Earth 151).

            Romantic ecocriticism flourished after this initial tilling by Bate, Kroeber, and McKusick with further pruning from Mark S. Lussier through the lens of quantum mechanics and the role of perception in “establishing boundary conditions of a ‘transactional interpretation’” (35) and Kate Rigby through a careful analysis of the German authors of the period.  Rigby, for example, agrees with Bate’s assessment on many levels but explains,

neither Wordsworth nor Goethe can be said to reduce the divine to the merely existing material world. Their religious vision is in my view not pantheistic, as has so often been stated, but rather panentheistic, implying an understanding of the divine as simultaneously immanent and transcendent. (48)

 Rigby also reminds readers that there are “aspects of romanticism that resist easy assimilation” to green readings and some that “represent a problematic legacy” (49). The hierarchy of “romantic holism” privileged humanity and the human mind over the natural world (Rigby 49-50). Thus, as Rigby explains, “romantic thought is not so much ‘biocentric,’ as Gode-Von Aesch once termed it, as anthropocentric” (50). Along those lines, Greg Garrard posits a major problem to green Romanticism:

Moreover, the ‘nature’ that Wordsworth valorizes is not the nature that contemporary environmentalists seek to protect. Romantic nature is never seriously endangered, and may in its normal state be poor in biological diversity; rather is loved for its vastness, beauty and endurance. By focusing attention upon sublime landscapes, mainly mountainous, Wordsworthian Romanticism may have diverted it from places that are more important and under more severe pressure ecologically but less ‘picturesque’, such as fens, bogs and marshes. (43)

Garrard believes that, since the Wordsworthian aesthetic focuses on the sublime, Wordsworth’s poetry is less suited for an ecological reading than a poet like John Clare who was closer to the nature found in daily life. Similarly, Scott Hess argues that since “Tintern Abbey” presents “an ideal of a transhistorical ‘nature’ that can ironically be separated from specific places and relationships”,  the poem teaches readers to value this idealized version of nature, which in turn “actively discourages us from paying attention to [...] everyday environmental and social relationships” (98).

            The refinements to and criticisms of the various ecological approaches seem to me a natural evolution of the critical thinking that surrounds this line of enquiry. In contrast to the critical blood that was spilt on the banks of the Wye when the New Historicism entered “Tintern Abbey” and the subsequent retaliations that followed, Romantic ecocriticism’s approach often softened and merged the two critical practices by practicing a type of historicism while simultaneously rescuing Wordsworth. The question now is, what new approach will make its entrance into the critical landscape of “Tintern Abbey.”