Samuel Colman, "Tintern Abbey with Elegant Figures"
Makeshift abodes erected around an echoing shell of a religious edifice in disarray … donations made by passing sightseers … members of the ramshackle community angrily protesting hardships, conscious that financial speculators are making fortunes …
Despite some suggestive parallels, the scene is not that of the St Paul’s Occupy London camp, whose two hundred or so tents are presently pitched on the cobbled piazza outside the Cathedral, just across from the Stock Exchange. Rather, this is the sight that greeted William Wordsworth in 1798, when he returned to Tintern Abbey with his sister Dorothy after a space of five years.
The chaotic setting around the abbey was largely unchanged when Thomas Green (another traveller in that antique land of the Forest of Dean), turned up almost a year later in June 1799, expecting an unintercepted view of the “delicious retreat”. Drawn like Wordsworth to the Abbey’s deep seclusion, Green – as he recorded in his diary with infinite distaste – was actually obliged to pick his way through the “vile hovels which in every direction vexatiously obstruct[ed] the approach to the Abbey-Church”, and threatened to ruin his view of the abbey’s “magical and sublime effect”, its “beautifully stained” walls, and “long and deep perspective”. Charles Rzepka’s recent Selected Studies in Romantic and American Literature, History, and Culture (2010), which collects many of his superb essays on Romantic topics, gathers similar accounts from appalled seekers of sublime and picturesque thrills, forced to negotiate the shanty town that had expanded at the turn of the century due to “late distresses” that beset Tintern’s once-thriving iron-based economy, and indeed war-weary Britain as a whole.
In terms of cultural capital, Wordsworth’s immediate “return” from his visit was “Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”, one of the poet’s most popular works, and for generations of readers a comfortingly quiet work of introspection and calm contemplation. For generations of Romantic critics, also, the poem was widely felt to represent a retreat from the turbulent politics of the age that had seen the young Wordsworth a focus of interest for government spies (and a candidate for political assassination).
The title of Wordsworth’s poem, often shortened to “Tintern Abbey”, is finicky in its precision: “lines written a few miles above …”. The abbey is not actually referred to explicitly anywhere in those lines. Indeed, the abbey is a troubling absence in Wordsworth’s loco-descriptive poem, though not from the poem – the distinction is important. Over the last two decades, “Tintern Abbey” has become a test case for materialist (new historicist) readings of Romantic texts. The debate has become increasingly self-complicating, but can perhaps be boiled down to the following positions. Either (1): Wordsworth revisited Tintern while retreating from radical 1790s politics, fully intended to write a calm pastoral poem, but – despite himself – ended up writing a political one; or (2): Wordsworth, supremely attuned to the radical energies around Tintern – rebel country, after all, situated along a line of castles that extends from Goodrich in the north down to Chepstow in the south – deliberately hid a political poem inside a pastoral one.
Lecturing today to undergraduates on Marxism, I kept thinking of that resonant phrase from Wordsworth’s poem, “a presence that disturbs” (l. 95). Whatever the Occupy St Paul’s camp is, it is emphatically a disturbing presence.
I’m not the only one bringing Romanticism and the current financial crisis into charged apposition at the moment. Writing in The New York Times (21.11.11), Paul Krugman, Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University, suggested that the “technocrats” who have just taken over the running of Greece and Italy, who were responsible for “bullying” much of Europe into a single currency and more recently into austerity measures, are not in fact “technocrats” but “deeply impractical romantics”. Krugman qualifies this by adding that they are “a peculiarly boring breed of romantic, speaking in turgid prose rather than poetry,” before suggesting that their “romantic visions” are “often cruel”, involve “huge sacrifices from ordinary workers and families”, and are “driven by dreams about the way things should be rather than by a cool assessment of the way things really are”.
The majority of responses to Krugman’s spiky New York Times piece engage the author on details of European economic policy. I was more troubled, though, by Krugman’s definition of “Romantic”, and wondered which authors he had in mind. Surely not Wordsworth, whose ears were infinitely attuned – whichever way we read “Tintern Abbey” – to the “still, sad music of humanity” (l. 92), and whose assessment of the sight of economic hardships around the entrance of the abbey could hardly have been cooler, less dogmatic, or more finally judged.
Traipsing back to my office from the lecture theatre, I found myself thinking about Tintern in another context. Over the summer, I attended The Wye Valley: Romantic Representations, 1640-1830 conference, organized by Tim Fulford and Damian Walford Davies. It was held in Tintern’s village hall, which overlooks the abbey. On the last evening, Cadw switched off the enormous floodlights that usually illuminate the ruins by night, and allowed the conference delegates to wander under the huge gothic windows through the aisled naves and transepts, holding huge garden candles. Delegates who took part in this torch-lit procession found the abbey, much as Thomas Green did, “carpeted with velvet turf”, “roofed by the … sky”. Several were moved to tears. Evidently, the abbey still beguiles with its promises of sublimity.