how to read romantic poetry Wordsworth tintern abbey Keats to autumn

How to read Romantic poetry (I): William Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ & John Keats’ ‘To Autumn’

Romanticism is one of those terms that seem to mean everything and nothing at the same time.

It’s about nature, beauty, love, transcendence, the individual, the soul, the ‘sublime’. I get it – it can be confusing. That said, when it comes to poetry, there are often unmistakable markers of what makes a ‘Romantic poem’, well, ‘Romantic’. 

A quick note on the word ‘Romantic’: in the context of literature, this term refers to the cultural/literary movement which spanned the late 18th century to mid-19th century in Europe.

While poets such as Wordsworth and Blake are representatives of English Romanticism, Victor Hugo, the French novelist, and Johann von Goethe, the German writer-cum-statesman, belong to the Continental European Romantic tradition. As such, it is unrelated to the word ‘romance’ in the sense of affection or love.

What is a ‘Romantic’ poem?

There’s the celebration of Nature as a pantheistic force (the idea that Nature and God are one and the same), the prioritisation of the Self as the locus of all human experience, and the irresistible urge to find immortality in the mortal world – and many more.  

Romantic poetry is kind of like marmite: some people find it sentimental to a fault, while others find it inspirational and transcending. 

But in any case, there’s no denying that Romanticism, with its unwieldy but impressive range of concerns, bears great emotional power and intellectual depth. And this, of course, is what makes it a continual area of study for English students. 

WW Keats

Comparing Wordsworth and Keats’ visions of nature 

In this post, let’s compare two Romantic poems: William Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ (1798) (its full title is the cumbersomely diaristic ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, 13 July 1798’) and John Keats’ ‘To Autumn’ (1820). 

The two poets had met in real life, and while Keats was inspired by Wordsworth after reading the latter’s Prefatory Sonnet, their poetic styles are more distinct than similar, despite the thematic overlaps in some of their works. 

In ‘Tintern Abbey’, which was written as part of the seminal collection titled Lyrical Ballads (1798), Wordsworth portrays Nature as a grand, majestic force to which all living things are subordinate, but also as a comforting reprieve for the weary soul and a moral lodestar for the wayward mind. 

On the other hand, Keats’ characterisation of Nature in ‘To Autumn’ is a more microscopic affair, expressed not so much in broad, philosophical brushstrokes, but in naturalistic observations bookended by melancholy musings. 

 

Reading William Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ (1798): Nature in the Macro

William Wordsworth tintern abbey

The poem’s popularised, shortened title, ‘Tintern Abbey’, is a bit of a misnomer, because ‘Tintern Abbey’ isn’t really about the Abbey. Rather, it concerns the speaker’s emotions upon “revisiting the banks of the [River] Wye” and its surrounding landscape. 

True to the poem’s longer title, the speaker’s perspective is placed a “few miles above” the monastery, and this relative distance between observer and subject partly explains why Nature is described in macroscopic terms throughout the poem. 

Seen from afar, individual elements in the pastoral tableau become fused as one – 

The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
‘Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild:

“Cottage-ground”, “orchard-tufts”, “hedge-rows” that are “hardly hedge-rows”: in a series of hyphenated strokes, Wordsworth amalgamates what cannot clearly be distinguished from a distance – all “are clad in one green hue”. 

Yet, there is a surprising unity in this lack of contour.

What’s normally three-dimensional has now been transformed into runaway “little lines”, similar to those one would find on a sketch painting. 

Birmingham museums trust

As the speaker looks on a landscape he had once witnessed in his youth, he realises the long-lasting imprint that “these beauteous forms” have left on his mind and character.

Pastoral beauty isn’t just a matter of aesthetics enjoyed in the moment; it possesses a deeper power that provides solace and wisdom.

Over the years, the speaker found himself able to see the bright side of things – to keep “that serene and blessed mood” – despite the many disappointments and disillusionments life has thrown his way. 

And he credits Nature for having first planted in him this seed of optimism – 

To [these beauteous forms] I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened: 

This, perhaps, explains why the materiality of the landscape isn’t the main point in Wordsworth’s poem.

It is the way Nature lodges itself in the human mind, finds a home in the memory as “beauteous forms”, and resurfaces in times of spiritual need to “lighten” one from “the heavy and the weary weight/Of all this unintelligible world” which makes it so valuable for the speaker. 

The apostrophe  to “O sylvan Wye” is proof of this – 

How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer thro’ the woods, 
How often has my spirit turned to thee!

And we reach the climax of ‘Tintern Abbey’ when the speaker reflects on his present view of nature, which is significantly different from that “Of [his] thoughtless youth”, when his immature self only saw natural beauty for the superficial pleasure it grants the eye –

For nature then… to me [was] 
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, nor any interest
Unborrowed from the eye. 

But now, as a man roughened by years and made wiser by experience, he is able to appreciate Nature not only for what it does to the eye, but also to the mind, heart and soul – 

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.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; 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:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

A couple of observations about Wordsworth’s language: 

One of the great things about Wordsworth is his use of simple diction to convey big ideas.

Being (ostensibly) one of the ‘common man’, Wordsworth avoided the use of classical allusions where he could, which in this aspect sets him stylistically apart from Keats, who likes his Greek and Roman myths. 

In this section of the poem, the metaphor of “the still sad music of humanity” points to a fundamental pessimism the speaker holds about human progress.

If viewed in an autobiographical light, this could relate to Wordsworth’s eventual disillusionment with the French Revolution and its violent excesses

Liberty Leading the People (1830), by Eugene Delacroix
Liberty Leading the People (1830), by Eugene Delacroix

But despite human failings being “of ample power/To chasten and subdue”, the speaker feels Nature’s counterforce to be a far greater power, one which, in fact, ‘chastens and subdues’ humanity with its all-encompassing reach to permeate all things.

It is – 

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

Here, the diction is ambiguous, and the syntax tautological. What exactly is this “motion” and “spirit”, and are “all thinking things” not also “all objects of all thought”? 

But vagueness is the point here: Nature’s power is so god-like that perhaps ineffability is the only appropriate way to respond.

We shouldn’t go beyond describing it in broad terms, first because we cannot, and second, because it would be sacrilegious to probe divine Nature for details.

Maintaining distance is what communicates reverence. 

romantic painting_2

In this sense, Wordsworth is demonstrating the ‘Negative Capability’ that Keats so famously coined, which proposes that humans should accept the limits of their knowledge when faced with what they can’t understand, and be comfortable with this state of unknowing.

This awareness, however, doesn’t deter Wordsworth from trying to put his experience in more concrete terms, but arguably to little avail – 

And I have felt 
A presence that disturbs me with the joy 
Of elevated thoughts; 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: 

In this periphrastic description of Nature’s effect on the speaker, we realise that this ‘effect’ really is, to a large extent, ineffable.

It’s not quite ‘inspiration’ in the usual sense, despite this being closest to what “a presence that disturbs me with the joy/of elevated thoughts” could mean, and it’s not quite ‘harmony’ or ‘transcendence’ either, despite them conveying ideas similar to “a sense sublime/Of something far more deeply interfused”. 

Ironically, because no single word can justly encapsulate his feelings, the poet is forced to use more words to describe “something” that no word can ever fully describe. 

ineffability

Mysterious as this feeling may seem, it ‘dwells’ in the most common things that are accessible to all – “the light of setting suns,/And the round ocean and the living air,/And the blue sky”, and “the mind of man” which is inherent in everyone of us.

Note, too, the repetition of the word “all” in this section, which strengthens our impression of Nature’s boundless, permeating reach. 

More than two centuries later, Glenn Albrecht, an Australian professor of Environmental Studies, would come up with the term ‘eutierra’, which means – 

“A positive feeling of oneness with the earth and its life forces where the boundaries between self and the rest of nature are obliterated and a deep sense of peace and connectedness pervades consciousness.”

Short of Spinoza’s theory of pantheism, which posits that reality – the presence of a non-religious ‘all-things’ – is the same as divinity, Albrecht’s ‘eutierra’ seems to capture, at least on a human level, what Wordsworth describes in this poem. 

 

Reading John Keats’ ‘To Autumn’ (1820): Nature in the Micro

John Keats to autumn

In Keats’ ‘To Autumn’, the celebration of nature takes on a more specific focus. 

The speaker considers Autumn as a source of abundant life, as the successor to spring and summer, rather than the preamble to winter.

It is the corrective to summer’s “o’er-brimm’d” excesses and a mirror to spring’s lively “songs”. 

From reading the poem, one gets the impression that autumnal life doesn’t start winding down and packing up for winter hibernation. Instead, Autumn hosts its own kind of party, and while it’s a ‘mellower’, drowsier version, it’s one that’s well-attended nonetheless. 

viktor-forgacs-DTTIfcAyzAE-unsplash

In the first stanza, there is an echo of the kind of natural plenitude conveyed in Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’, when Keats paints Autumn as the season of optimal growth – 

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 
 Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; 
   Conspiring with him how to load and bless 
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; 
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees, 
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; 
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells 
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more, 
And still more, later flowers for the bees, 
Until they think warm days will never cease, 
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells. 

There is an overarching imagery of rotundity here, established by references to “bosom-friend”, “sun”, “apples”, “core”, “swell”, “plump”, “kernel”, “cells”.

In curvature lies harmony, and the harvest that’s only seen in autumn is, metaphorically, the ‘fruit’ of agrarian labour that “fill[s] all fruit with ripeness to the core”. 

carolyn-v-I1dEwQHsnpA-unsplash

The fruit of work begets fruit for consumption, and while Autumn’s power isn’t as sweeping as that of Wordsworth’s all-embracing Nature, summer’s orange cousin bears a similar, procreative potential for yielding life. 

In the second stanza, Keats personifies Autumn as being the giver who’s sometimes forgotten.

The traces of autumn are everywhere around us – “Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?” – in the form of hay, crops, leftover fruit made into cider by the “cyder-press”. 

Unlike summer with her surplus and spring with her songs, however, Autumn isn’t a season which asserts its presence loudly. It “hast thy music too” – she just doesn’t sing it herself.

Instead, she sits on the sidelines “with patient look”, and shows up in the most nondescript moments in nature that we take for granted – 

While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies; 
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies. 

There’s a clear transition from the cheerier abundance in the first stanza to the more morose, but resolutely hopeful, tone in the final stanza. 

The sounds are quiet and pensive, reinforced by the alliterative sibilants of “soft-dying”, “stubble-plains” rosy hue”, “sallows”, “sinking”, “treble soft”, and “swallows… in the skies”. 

patrick-hendry-o4fi007rmTs-unsplash

An undeniable solemnity is present in this scene, but the focus isn’t on melancholy from the awareness of impending death.

Rather, the stanza celebrates those regular signs of life that normally no one pays attention to, and yet are cyclically present in nature – these are what make autumn more human than seasonal. 

Notice, then, while the stanza begins with reference to “a wailful choir”, it ends with sounds of joy and vitality – “full-grown lambs loud bleat”, “hedge-crickets sing”, “with treble soft/The red-breast whistles”, “and gathering swallows twitter”. Any reminder of mourning is quickly ushered aside.

Instead, the ‘choir’ is taken over by a cacophony of many sounds, but this is joyous cacophony, one underpinned by the speaker’s understanding of life as the dominant force in existence, which carries on in nature’s domain even after an individual passes away. 

jr-korpa-Cqio7d-qLsk-unsplash

For someone writing in his final year of life, the then-25-year-old, tuberculosis-stricken Keats showed a remarkable optimism for the death that was soon to come beckoning on the door of his short-lived fate. 

Compared to Wordsworth writing ‘Tintern Abbey’ as a healthy, vital man of 28 years old (with many more years ahead of him, as he would eventually die at 80), Keats’ mind while writing ‘To Autumn’ would have been considerably more conflicted.


It’s not easy to write rigorous analysis on Romantic poetry, precisely because a lot of what it seeks to convey is so ineffable – which, of course, is partly the point of Romantic writing. 

But in a world where the expression of raw emotions is at times mistaken for vulnerability, it is perhaps all the more important for us to appreciate the way these Romanticists unabashedly expressed what they felt, even if they themselves were often unsure of what exactly they were feeling. 

The embrace of ambiguity, the comfort of being ‘at one’ with Nature and to just ‘ooh and aah’ without having to dissect and rationalise or document and record – these are becoming increasingly difficult for the modern man and woman to experience. 

This, then, is why Romantic poetry, despite its occasional sentimentality and woolliness, should remain valuable, mandatory reading at some point in all our lives. 

To read my analysis of other poems, check out the posts below: 

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