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The still, sad music of humanity – Wordsworth and Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey was founded in May of 1131 by one Walter de Clare, the Lord of Chepstow and scion of a powerful family, related to the Bishop of Winchester, William Giffard, who in turn had Cistercian connections in France. So Tintern Abbey was founded with a group of Cistercian monks from France.

These monks followed the Rule of St. Benedict: Obedience, Poverty, Chastity, Silence, Prayer, Work. They became relatively powerful and the Abbey provided employment for the people of the near-by villages.

Then along came Henry VIII who decided, because of his dispute with Rome over his desire to marry a wife who would provide a male heir, to break with the Catholic Church and set himself up as “Defender of the Faith”, under which title he began to dissolve the monasteries in his realm, including Tintern. The dissolution of Tintern brought to an end 400 years of monastic life there, and left the buildings, most of which were built in the 13th Century, to become the elegant but rather gaunt skeletons they are today.

Tintern Abbey by Turner

Tintern Abbey by Turner

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth

Title page of "Lyrical Ballads"

Title page of "Lyrical Ballads"

The first poem – Wordsworth's “Tintern Abbey”

In 1798 the collection of poems by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge called Lyrical Ballads was published, marking what many critics see as the beginning of the Romantic Movement in English poetry. The first edition of Lyrical Ballads consisted mostly of poems by Wordsworth, and four by Coleridge, notably his famous “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

The last poem in the collection, added almost as the book was going to press, was “Tintern Abbey” by Wordsworth, of which the full title is "Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks of the Wye Valley during a tour, July 13, 1798".

In his Preface to the 1802 (second) edition of Lyrical Ballads , Wordsworth wrote: “The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these Poems was to chuse (sic) incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.”

In “Tintern Abbey” I believe Wordsworth achieved to a great extent his notions of using “language really used by men” to describe “incidents and situations from common life” in a way that would “throw over them a certain colouring of imagination.”

His visit to the Wye Valley celebrated in this poem was the second he made after an interval of some five years. He tells how its “beauteous forms” gave him, in moments of loneliness or 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”.

He tells how the intervening five years have changed him,

“For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.

Seeing the beauty of the Valley brings about in him a spiritual awakening, an awareness of

A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.”

He speaks of Nature, who

“...never did betray
The heart that loved her; 'tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
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, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings.”

These are so beautiful, these words which wrap around us in the poem, and lift us out of the ordinary, superficial way we sometimes, in our haste and worry, look at but do not see the world in which we “live and move and have our being.” It is a pantheistic vision of nature – all of nature is holy and infused with

“...a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:”

He is in the Valley accompanied by his sister Dorothy, whose presence, he says, makes the experience all the more wonderful:

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“...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!”

Wordsworth claimed that he composed this whole poem while in the Valley and wrote it down, complete, when he returned to where he was staying. In any event, the publication of the first edition of Lyrical Ballads was delayed so that it could be included.

What is noticeable about this poem also is that the Abbey is nowhere directly mentioned.

Tinturn Abbey by Turner

Tinturn Abbey by Turner

The second poem

The second poem inspired by Tintern Abbey is that by Alfred Lord Tennyson, at the time Poet Laureate of England, called “Tears, Idle Tears” which he wrote in 1847.

This poem is not, according to critic Graham Hough, about a specific situation but “the great reservoir of undifferentiated regret and sorrow, which you can brush away…but which nevertheless continues to exist." (Hough, Graham (1951), p. 187. "'Tears, Idle Tears'." In Killham, John (ed.) (1960). Critical essays on the poetry of Tennyson .)

The poem is a lyric of sadness, looking at “the days that are no more” with regret. It builds on an accumulation of contradictory images which bring the regret and sadness to light. The tears are “idle”but “come from the depth of some divine despair”; “dark summer dawns” in which the waking birds pipe “to dying ears”; and in the last stanza, the most dramatic and most enigmatic, the tears are

“Dear as remembered kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feign'd
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more!”

For me the “Death in Life” sounds like the ruins of of the Abbey, which is not directly mentioned in this poem either. The ruins of the Abbey are dead to their original purpose, but still have grace and elegance, and give evidence of the endurance of life by their lift and upward movement.

A sad, strange poem indeed.

Jane Austin

Jane Austin

The Romantic influence of the Abbey

The Abbey evidently held a great fascination for English writers and artists. Austin, in her novel “Mansfield Park” has a “transparency” of the Abbey in Fanny Price's room: “... three transparencies, made in a rage for transparencies, for the three lower panes of one window, where Tintern Abbey held its station between a cave in Italy and a moonlight lake in Cumberland...”

The great artist J.M.W. Turner painted the Abbey in 1794 while still very young. He visited the Abbey in 1792 and again in then following year. Two of the resulting paintings now hang in the Tate and the British Museum. They are full of the same Romantic feeling as the poems by Wordsworth and Tennyson. Could one of them have been the model for Fanny P:rice's transparency? I guess we will never know!

Tinturn Abbey. Photo Margery McGregor, 1983

Tinturn Abbey. Photo Margery McGregor, 1983

Tinturn Abbey. Photo Margery McGregor, 1983

Tinturn Abbey. Photo Margery McGregor, 1983

The river of my childhood. Photo Tony McGregor, c1955

The river of my childhood. Photo Tony McGregor, c1955

What does the poem mean for me today?

I first read this poem at school, and found the opening lines already very moving:

“Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.”

They seemed to conjure a sense of tranquil melancholy, a yearning for something unnamed, with a sense of time inexorably rolling past, “the length Of five long winters” seemed to me, and still do, very expressive of the feeling of quiet despondency which can come over one in a wintry solitude.

I also loved the “soft inland murmur” of the river, because it so much spoke to me of the rivers of my home, from which I was away at boarding school. At home I could lie in bed at night and hear the river in the valley murmuring, and by day I spent much time on the leafy banks of the river between “steep and lofty cliffs, That on a wild secluded scene impress Thoughts of more deep seclusion.”

The mysterious waters of the river, sometimes calm and hardly moving, at other times tempestuous torrents, really fascinated me and held me in thrall. So Wordsworth's experience spoke to me very clearly.

Although the Romantics are not much in fashion these days I still feel an affinity with Wordsworth and his worship of nature. I am acutely aware of the distance I am from nature now in suburbia. I am also acutely aware of the different experiences people have of nature. Just in the past few days people's homes have been destroyed by raging rivers in flood, several people have drowned and much damage done. For these people nature is no joke, not benign setting for pleasant reveries and contemplation of higher things.

So what can we learn from the Romantics, and in particular, from writers like Wordsworth? Is his work still relevant, does it still have meaning in the hurly-burly of modern life with its technology and the desperate pursuit of wealth and happiness?

I think that being in touch with nature, our own as well as that outside ourselves, can bring about a deeper understanding:

“While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.”

That is the value of taking time out from the rat race (which, in any case, the rats have won!) and just looking at what is around us, savouring it, be it a little flower, a spider on a twig, a bird flying by, branches on a tree swaying in a breeze, anything, so that

“...with gleams of half-extinguished thought
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:”

And in the end recognising that the “sad perplexity” is not something to be fought against or run away from, but just calmly accepted as a part of life, so that we are not “...more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads than one Who sought the thing he loved.”

In this state we are able to hear with clarity the “The still, sad music of humanity,” which is our music, and recognise ourselves anew.


Andrei Andreescu from Seattle, Washington on October 24, 2015:

I love William Wordsworth,Coleridge and Byron as well.British romanticism is unique and expressive.Great Hub!

Glen Rix from UK on October 18, 2015:

Very enjoyable hub. I agree that it's important to try to remain close to nature. Poetry can often help in that respect - both nature and poetry can touch the soul. The Romantic poets are part of English cultural history and therefore still relevant in the UK - I think their poetry should form a part of the school curriculum here. I visit the Southern Lake District occasionally - it's one of my favourite places and I always come home refreshed by the experience. (Of course, Wordsworth would have disapproved - he deplored the incursion of trains and tourists into his homeland).

AuraGem from Victoria, Australia on September 10, 2011:

When I think of Wordsworth, I think of 2 quotes..."I wandered lonely as a cloud" and "the still sad music of humanity"...If Romantic relevance is all about being a part of spiritual memory, then I must say Romantic Wordsworth is relevant for me today! His thoughts on Nature are universal thoughts! Many other Romantics are an interesting, enjoyable experience, but I am not convinced that they step up to the level of relevance. And that is in no way a negative comment! It's just an alternative value.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on June 21, 2011:

A masterful production! I love and treasure the Romantics which live forever. The paintings and photos are yet, one more work of art. "Wordsworth" - his name says it all! Thank you for bringing to us, a gift such as this. You, too, are timeless, dear Tony.

Matt in Jax from Jacksonville, FL on May 02, 2011:

Nice hub! Very interesting.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on March 14, 2011:

Barbara - an insightful comment, thank you. I think nature, while beautiful at times, is completely dispassionate. We read into nature all sorts of meanings and personify it sometimes to our own detriment. The Romantics attributed to nature a sensibility which it does not have. Made for lovely poetry but not really for good sense! I am grateful for the beauty of both nature and poetry.

Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace


Barbara from Stepping past clutter on March 13, 2011:

I believe Romantics have relevance, and yet these words, in light of Japan's disaster seem so naïve and cruel.

Nature...never did betray

The heart that loved her; 'tis her privilege...

Hugs, my friend.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on January 16, 2011:

Peggy - thanks so much! Glad you liked this Hub and my mother's photos.

Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace


Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 16, 2011:

I really like the painting by Turner and loved seeing the photos of Tintern Abbey. The poetry is still relevant today and I truly enjoyed reading this excellent hub of yours.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on December 06, 2010:

Micky - thanks, Brotherman! Your kindness is legendary and I really appreciate it.

Love and peace


Micky Dee on December 06, 2010:

Awesomely beautiful again Tony! You are solid gold!

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on March 14, 2010:

Thanks for the read and the comment, Pinkhawk

Love and peace


pinkhawk from Pearl of the Orient on March 13, 2010:

wow...splendid! very inspiring! :) thank you Sir for sharing.. :)

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on March 12, 2010:

Thanks Habee for you kind words. And of course for stopping by and reading.

Love and peace


Holle Abee from Georgia on March 11, 2010:

Wow! I taught "Tinturn Abbey" and "Tears, Idle Tears." I didn't realize we have so much in common! Great discussion!

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on March 05, 2010:

Moulik - thanks for the visit and comment. I appreciate it very much.

Love and peace


Moulik Mistry from Burdwan, West Bengal, India on March 04, 2010:

I love Wordsworth - romantics will never die and it will remain closeted in every man's heart...

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on February 01, 2010:

Griffy - thanks for that. Changed!

Love and peace


Griffy123 from South Wales UK on January 31, 2010:

I'll try not to be petty but its Chepstow not Chepston you might like to edit that very good other wise

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on January 31, 2010:

Mystique - so glad to have introduced you to these great peots.

Love and peace


Mystique1957 from Caracas-Venezuela on January 30, 2010:


This is the first hub I read from you! There are so many things to ponder over after having read these magnificent poems. Particularly myself love the pantheistic view of life. We cannot even if we try, get away from the fact that Nature is a silent Teacher, a humble Sage. It is not possible to read or write poetry without feeling the throbbing of Nature in all its expressions within us. A great lesson for me, for I didn`t know about Wordsworth or Lord Tennyson.

I enjoyed it very much so!

Two thumbs up!

kind regards,


Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on January 30, 2010:

Amillar - thanks. Just checking out Jedburgh now. It's impressive, to say the least. Our Henry sure got around, didn't he?

Jay - thanks for the kind words. Appreciated.

Kartika - you are welcome. Wordsworth was indeed a sage.

Ray - you are the lucky one, then! Thanks for your kind words also.

Ethel - thanks, he will indeed!

Story - sorry about the finger, my dear. Hope it mends really soon.

Thanks all for stopping by and reading. Your comments are really valued.

Love and peace


Barbara from Stepping past clutter on January 30, 2010:

Tony you are a soul saver! After a week bogged in political events, I have need of this respite and I thank you from a very deep place! ( I have broken my finger too and so I have stuggles writing much for now, lol.) I am not as familiar with the Romantics as I would like and I find them fresh and very relevant to my current circumstance. Perhaps I will turn again to the exploration of poetic styles as they certainly do fill one's heart while politics destroys all that is good with its posturing.

Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on January 30, 2010:

Wordsworth will survive forever in his poems

Ray Van Hoff from Michigan U.S.A. on January 30, 2010:


A very moving as well as informative piece. I too have always thought the Romantics were under rated. I am fortunate to live in a rural area with nature at my doorstep. thanx for reminding me to stop and appreciate it. :)


kartika damon from Fairfield, Iowa on January 30, 2010:

Thank so much, Tony! This hub is absolutely wonderful - full on interesting information and the poetry of masters who offer deep inspiration. This is the voice of a sage,

"While with an eye made quiet by the power

Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,

We see into the life of things.”

jayjay40 from Bristol England on January 30, 2010:

I so enjoyed reading this hub, thanks for a beautiful piece of writing

amillar from Scotland, UK on January 30, 2010:

Another great hub Tony. Check out Jedburgh Abbey, (my home town). Henry VIII had a go or two at this one too.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on January 29, 2010:

Alek - thanks, you are kind and I love it!

Dim - yes indeed, nature is threatened as never before and we should all learn to appreciate what we have before its gone. The Big Yellow Taxi is one of my favourite songs too.

Thanks Alek and Dim for dropping by, reading and commenting. I appreciate it very much indeed.

Love and peace


Dim Flaxenwick from Great Britain on January 29, 2010:

Now more than ever poets, such as Wordsworth have written words that should be important to us. Much of nature is being ruined.

On a much lighter note than the great Wordsworth , Joanney Mitchell wrote in the 60s..... They paved paradise and put up a parking lot....... took all the trees, put them in a tree museum and charged people a dollar and a half just to see them.... You don't know what you've got till it's gone.

Wonderful hub. Thank you

Nancy Hinchliff from Essex Junction, Vermont on January 29, 2010:

Beautiful, Tony. a wonderful hub. I loved everything about it. I have saved it as one of my favorites. Actually, most of your hubs are favorites for me. Thanks so much.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on January 29, 2010:

Shalini - that music does flow into one's heart with the words, thanks.

Donna - I have not yet had the opportunity to visit Dove Cottage but would love to.

Charlie - your comment wamred the cockles of me heart, friend.

Thanks all for dropping by, reading and commenting - it means a lot to me.

Love and peace


ralwus on January 29, 2010:

I love this hub my friend. Kudos to you for writing it. Your love of them is very evident in your writing. If I love or like a poem why does it need to be relevant to anything, any period? I love it for what it is, great poetry and moving. I like how you put up the personal photos with this. That is a beautiful and moving place.

donna bamford from Canada on January 29, 2010:

I too love the romantics and Wordsworth is a special favourite i visited his home in the Lake District when i was living in London in 78. I shall come back to this article and read it more carefully when I have woken up. As it is it is a good good morning treat! Thankyou! Well written and very enjoyable.

Shalini Kagal from India on January 29, 2010:

The Romantics hold a special place in my heart when it comes to poetry - so thank you for this wonderful hub, Tony! I've always loved that Turner watercolour - and the 'still, sad music' that Wordsworth makes flows so wonderfully into the heart and mind, doesn't it?

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