Tintern Abbey as a Philosophical Poem
A philosophical poem is the one which embodies some philosophic truth without sacrificing the essential poetic qualities and graces. There is nothing to mind if poetry is the outcome of philosophy or is the vehicle of some philosophic truth. Wordsworth, for example, wished to be considered as a teacher or as nothing. Lord Morley says, “In deserts of preaching we find almost within sight of one another delightful oases of purest poetry.” What makes for the difference between poetry and philosophy is not the presence or absence of philosophical ideas. The difference lies in the treatment of ideas. We should not, therefore, quarrel with any poet who offers us philosophy in the fashion of poetry. “We require only,” as Hudson says: “that his philosophy shall be transfigured by imagination and feeling; that it shall be shaped into a thing of beauty; that it shall be wrought into true poetic expression.” (An Introduction to the Study of Literature).
Tintern Abbey is remarkable for its brilliant exposition of Wordsworth’s philosophy of Nature. It is as Myers puts it, “the consecrated formulary of Wordsworthian creed.” And the different aspects of Wordsworth’s philosophy of Nature that the poem expounds are Nature-pantheism, mystic belief in the power of Nature and the true relationship between Nature and man.
Tintern Abbey expresses most clearly Wordsworth’s pantheistic philosophy, a belief that a mysterious spirit permeates not only the objects of Nature, but also the mind of man. It is this spirit which gives life to all thinking creatures, to all objects of external Nature.
“A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.”
It binds Nature and man together and makes communion between both possible.
The poem gives a good exposition of Wordsworth’s mystic faith in the power of Nature. It shows how the contemplation of Nature can be made a revealing agency like Love or Prayer. The contemplation of calm and beautiful objects of Nature creates in us, Wordsworth says in the poem, the happy mood of spiritual ecstasy in which we lose all physical consciousness and become living souls. In this blessed mood we are freed from the cobwebs of mental depression caused by the mysteries of life and the manifold, baffling problems of our society, and catch a vision of the harmony or cosmos governing the whole universe-the vision that makes us see into the real meaning of all things.
Tintern Abbey is a philosophical poem, because it conforms fully to the definition of a philosophical poem. It expresses some such ideas as belong to the world of philosophy. First, it states the pantheistic philosophy, the belief that a mysterious spirit (i.e., God) permeates everything in this world- the objects of Nature as well as the mind of man. It is this spirit which binds Nature and man together and makes communion between both possible. Secondly, the poem gives a good exposition of mysticism and transcendentalism. In it Wordsworth shows how the contemplation of Nature can be made a revealing agency like Love or Prayer-an opening into the transcendent world.
Wordsworth believed that there was a world of divine reality behind and within the ordinary world of observation and experience-a world to which mere reason would never give access, but which was nevertheless open to the spiritual faculty in man. The contemplation of the calm and beautiful aspects of Nature creates in us, as the poet says in the poem, the happy mood of spiritual ecstasy in which hints from the world of divine reality come to us. Such hints suspend “the breath of this corporeal frame and even the motion of our human blood”, make us bodiless spiritual beings, and give us power to see into the true spiritual significance of things. Thirdly, the poem records Wordsworth’s philosophical ideas about the relationship between man and Nature. Nature is our best friend, philosopher and guide. She leads us from joy to joy, comforts us and so feeds our mind with lofty thoughts that “neither evil tongues, rash judgements nor the sneers of selfish men, nor all the dreary intercourse of daily life shall ever prevail against us or disturb our cheerful faith” in the goodness of visible things.
Tintern Abbey expounds profound philosophical truths, no doubt. But it is not the philosophy that is the best thing about the poem-the best thing is rather the inspired beauty of expression. True to his poetic theory, the poet expresses his philosophical ideas in a selection of language really used by men; but his expression is charged with an intensity of emotion and feeling and is full of subtlest suggestions that effectively stir our imagination. In the passage where Wordsworth speaks of “that serene and blessed mood” the expression attains to the highest height of imaginative and emotional intensity that can hardly be scaled. When we read the lines,
“That serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame”
our emotions are so stirred that we pass into a state of spiritual ecstasy. In the lines where Wordsworth gives a succinct exposition of his Nature-pantheism. “I have felt/ A presence that disturbs me with the joy”, the language thrills through imaginative passion, and the rushing case and rapidity of movement of the expression spontaneously crystallize round the gushing flow of his noblest thoughts.
To conclude, the philosophy in Tintern Abbey has been transfigured by imagination and feeling, that it has been shaped into a thing of beauty. In other words, Tintern Abbey offers a perfect blend of poetry and philosophy. It is a philosophical poem in the true sense of the term.