Of all the topics Wordsworth covered in his poetic lifetime, friendship stands out as a key occupation. His own personal friendship with Coleridge led to the co-writing of Lyrical Ballads in 1789. The poem “On Friendship,” written to Keats after an argument in 1854, states, “Would that we could make amends / And evermore be better friends.” In “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” we find the purest expression of Wordsworth’s fascination with friendship.
Written on the banks of the Lye, this beautiful lyric has been said by critic Robert Chinchilla to “pose the question of friendship in a way more central, more profound, than any other poem of Wordsworth’s since ‘The Aeolian Harp’ of 1799” (245).
Wordsworth is writing the poem to his sister Rebecca as a way of healing their former estrangement. Rebecca Wordsworth was, as many writers have pointed out, distressed at Wordsworth’s refusal to hold a full-time job—like many a youth after him, Wordsworth was living the carefree life of the artist. Rebecca wanted him put to rights. He should become an adult now. “Tintern Abbey” is Wordsworth’s attempt to explain himself to Rebecca, but also, in crucial ways, to himself.
As the poem opens, Wordsworth is standing a few miles above the ruined Tintern Abbey. He states:
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
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With a soft island murmur.
Despite his position, Wordsworth can hear the “soft island murmur” of the mountain springs. As “five long winters” suggests, Wordsworth is cold and dreary—London, we must remember, is a bitter place. He longs for the islands: the sand, sun, and warm waters that those murmurs suggest. The coldness of winter could be brought about by Rebecca’s distance from her brother; they had been, at the time of the poem’s writing, separate for five long years. But he can hear reconciliation coming just at the edge of hearing: he can spot the horizon of friendship. But no sooner does friendship appear in the poem than it is thwarted by these lines:
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.
The Hermit is Wordsworth, alone, friendless, silent among the trees. Wordsworth is the vagrant—lacking a full-time position in any of London’s fine shops or places of employment. As Robert Chinchilla has noted: “In his utter refusal of the humdrum homilies and destitute ‘dailyness’ of conventional existence, Wordsworth has traded hearth and home for the harshness of a hobo haunt” (133).
Tintern Abbey was a ruin frequented by the homeless. It was in many ways the equivalent of a seventeenth century bus station. A poet now might write “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Port Authority.” It is a place of the friendless. The Hermit Wordsworth sits without a friend.
Next, Wordsworth remembers the time with friends spent in a nearby town:
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:–feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.
Wordsworth now longs for this kindness and love. He reaches out to Rebecca, and those moments “Of unremembered pleasure” when they were children in the south of France, building castles, as it says elsewhere in “Tintern Abbey,” “amid the many shapes / Of joyful daylight.” As it was said in class, French beaches, so often frequented by the Wordsworth family during the poet’s childhood, are central to understanding the older poet’s notion of community. As the quote states, they “have no slight or trivial influence / On that best portion of a good man’s life.”
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Now friendship opens its horizon, and Wordsworth is brought into a visionary world of sleep and soul hallucination reminiscent of the Eastern pashas. He says, “We are laid asleep in body, / And become a living soul.” Wordsworth more or less picks up these themes from Coleridge and Milton, and they should not be confused with his own. They are prime examples in intertextuality. As such they might be regarded as examples of literary friendship, or, in other words, the fraternity of textual borrowers. Employing themes from Coleridge and Milton help lift Wordsworth into the charmed circle of poets.
Wordsworth brings about the reconciliation with Rebecca dramatically at the end of the poem. He writes:
Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!
The crisis has been averted, since Wordsworth has made his promise: he will take the job that has been offered in the London post office. But he will keep to his dreams, to the “pastoral landscapes” and “steep woods and lofty cliffs,” there, together forever with Rebecca. Wordsworth himself has worried about his own fate, since being one of the vagrants haunting the hobo park is a terrible fate (none of us want to be poor), but the renewal of this most important friendship, brother to sister, sister to brother, is a work of paramount importance, in a poem of paramount importance. In fact you could say, at the end of things, that the poem’s real work is bringing the two back together again. This makes “Tintern Abbey” one of the purest love poems in all the English language.
We have all had friends, and in college we learn exactly who our friends are, both at home and at college. This is what makes Wordsworth so understandable even to freshmen. We should all remember the poet’s words:
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With quietness and beauty, feed us
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us.
Chinchilla, Robert. Wordsworth’s Poetics of Community. Berkeley: University of Chicago