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Writing in 1818, Samuel Taylor Coleridge characterises romantic landscape poetry as “the mediatress between, and reconciler of nature and man”. This description holds true for William Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, an eighteenth century prospect poem that summons spiritual meaning out of nature through introspection and metaphorical explorations of the physical world. Likewise, it is possible to claim that A. R. Ammons’ Corsons Inlet, an American poem similarly composed following a walking tour, shares the Romantic tradition of expressing a deep emotional connection with rustic surroundings. However, through his wandering depiction of the randomness and emergence of nature, Ammons offers a critique of the Romantic tradition, instead using loco-descriptive verse to express his sense of membership and discovery of the New World. The ways in which the poets respond to both their surroundings and wider social changes, such as the process of Enlightenment, differ significantly, therefore making it possible to regard Ammons’ ambulatory poem as a post-Romantic rejoinder to Tintern Abbey.
As an eighteenth century prospect poem, Tintern Abbey is irrevocably shaped by the historical circumstances in which it was written. Composed during a period of significant doubt towards previously accepted doctrines and a gradual shift to rationalist thought, Wordsworth’s piece implicitly rejects the standards of traditional Christianity, instead beginning to replace it with a new, more exclusive, form of worship towards nature’s beauty. This is made immediately apparent through the poem’s opening stanza, which sensuously depicts the “soft inland murmur” and “steep and lofty cliffs” (7) of the banks of the Wye in intricate detail, thus elevating Wordsworth’s natural surroundings to an almost spiritual level. In the face of God’s absence within the poem, the distant form of Tintern Abbey serves as a place of solace and guidance, enabling Wordsworth to draw parallels between the natural world and more formal places of learning, such as schools. For example, the narrator demonstrates how childhood memories of the abbey have acted as a guide in difficult times (“How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee”), aiding him in a restorative process of self-discovery. The reverent manner in which Wordsworth describes his surroundings as a refuge against “the heavy and the weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world” (46-7) establishes his piece as an alternative cultural force to the Enlightenment, thus rendering his attitude towards the natural world characteristic of much British pastoral poetry during the Romantic period. Through his description of the rich tranquillity of the Wye, therefore, Wordsworth displays a sense of yearning for a utopian place of escape and a pure, uninterrupted communion with nature.
In this way, it is possible to claim that Ammons’ Corsons Inlet is emblematic of the American people’s actual achievement of this Eden-like state. The poet’s depiction of the “hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends / and blends” of the southern New Jersey shore captures the exhilarating unpredictability of nature in a post-Enlightenment age, and the potential of the vast wilderness beyond the frontier. On a surface level, this sense of discovery is reflected through the poem’s wandering form, a technique that marks a departure from conventional metres and verse. Much like the unhurried meandering of the narrator himself, the lines protrude and curve down the page, thereby mirroring Ammons’ scattered thoughts and responses:
I went for a walk over the dunes again this
to the sea,
then turned right along
rounded a naked headland
along the inlet shore: (1-8)
We are reminded of the irregular and unmapped nature of the American landscape, largely symbolic of the new rivers of thought and cultural possibilities following the Enlightenment. It is important to note that Ammons is writing after the groundbreaking work of Charles Darwin, a writer who, similarly, was inspired by the poetry of Wordsworth. Darwin’s discoveries regarding evolution transformed the way in which the natural world was viewed, a change that manifests itself in Corson Inlet’s loco-descriptive verse, thereby suggesting that Enlightenment has led to thoughts of disorder and uncertainty. This incertitude is encapsulated through Ammons’ claim: “in nature there are few sharp lines” (41), a line that suggests that twentieth century existence can no longer be expressed through prescribed descriptions and absolute terms. Rather than succumb to the despotism of straight lines, Ammons possibly feels that his American identity is better reflected through ambiguities and unconventional poetic form. Thus, his departure from British predecessors, such as Wordsworth, whose poetry is often reliant upon memory and reflection, highlights a poignant form of innovation displayed in Corsons Inlet and evinces a new sense of emergence and continual discovery.
In contrast to Ammons’ ambulatory descriptive style, Wordsworth lays emphasis on the concept of distance throughout Tintern Abbey, in both physical and metaphorical terms. For example, the poet’s allusion to “vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods”(27) is deliberately vague, prompting Clark to claim that Wordsworth tends to recall features that are “just out of sight or beyond definition”. As such, he follows the British pastoral tradition of describing the mere result of the shaping of land, rather than the process of shaping itself. This enables the poet to take a step backwards and construct a reflective account of his emotional and spiritual relationship with nature. Using his position of distance from Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth attaches a wider significance to what he sees by contemplating affecting ideas of memory and loss. This sense of meditation is largely achieved through the dislocation of the abbey – Wordsworth expresses how memories of the banks regularly work upon the narrator even during his time “’mid the din / Of towns and cities” (33-4), demonstrating how rural scenery can hold a considerable influence over the thoughts and actions of mankind. As Alan Bewell notes, Wordsworth sought to make a “universal statement” in his writing, using his depiction of the Wye as a vehicle to create “a major moral philosophical statement of what humans have been, what they are, and what they ideally might become”. As a consequence, Wordsworth’s neglect of the mechanics of nature enables him to write an overarching, reflective piece on man’s spiritual and emotional ties with the natural world.
Conversely, the complex processes of rural landscape are displayed in Corsons Inlet, with the narrator in the midst of nature in all its rawness. His proximity to the base, mysterious aspects of wildlife is augmented by the shades of brutality within the poem, namely Ammons’ description of how a seagull “cracked a crab, / picked out the entrails, swallowed the soft / shelled legs, a ruddy / turnstone running in to snatch leftover bits” (98-101). While this grisly depiction of natural behaviour may have been intended to symbolise the ruthless materialism of a capitalist American society, Ammons shows a reluctance to explore wider philosophical themes within his poem. Indeed, he asserts that “Overall is beyond me” (36), thereby alluding to the impossibility of achieving an “overall” understanding in the ambiguous and erratic world that the poem evokes. Instead, Ammons records his journey through the labyrinth of the New Jersey shore and, in a similar vein to Wordsworth, surrenders himself to the striking power of nature.
In this way, we are reminded of the literary ties connecting Ammons’ twentieth century piece to Tintern Abbey. Both poems, written during periods of rapid social change, are characteristic of pastoral poetry’s tendency to describe a strong emotional bond between the poet and their natural surroundings. Wordsworth and Ammons clearly regard nature as a liberating means of escaping the “perpendiculars, / straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds” of daily life, and a crucial agent in our discovery of our own identities. Furthermore, Ammons’ juxtaposition of the dull, clinical nature of thought with the “flowing bends” and “shadings” (20) of sight illustrates how the poet shows a “willingness, nearly an urgency, to surrender his own agency to the natural world”. In the light of this, it is possible that Wordsworth’s address to his “dear, dear Sister” could in fact be directed towards the American poets of the nineteenth and twentieth century, who indeed “catch / The language of my former heart” (132-3) and “read” the “former pleasures” of nature through new eyes. Consequently, this sense of transition ensures that, rather than regarding both poems as contrasting pieces of writing, it would be more accurate to interpret Corsons Inlet as a development of the British Romantic tradition.
In conclusion, it is clear that Ammons’ Corsons Inlet draws inspiration from the poetry of precursory British Romantics, including Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey. Nevertheless, his writing is not simply an extension of the poetic forms of his predecessors. Indeed, Ammons’ depiction of nature’s unmarked ambiguity, coupled with his adoption of a meandering ambulatory form, defies many aspects of the established pastoral verse, thereby crucially developing the English tradition in order to express his own identity as an American. This consequently suggests that the child-like communion with nature that Wordsworth longs for in Tintern Abbey is actually achieved through the settling and development of the New World, thus enabling modern American poets to experience nature’s rich “life and food for future years”.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, On Poesy or Art. (Cambridge, Massachussetts: Harvard University Press, 1914).
Joseph Warren Beach, The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth-Century English Poetry. (New York: Macmillan, 1936), p. 115.
C.C. Clarke, Romantic Paradox. (Oxford: Alden Press Ltd, 1962), p. 51.
Alan Bewell, Wordsworth and the Enlightenment. (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1989), pp.35-8
J.T. Barbarese, “Theology for Atheists: Reading Ammons”, in Journal of Modern Literature 36: 3/4 .
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