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In his article On Reading Romantic Poetry, L. J. Swingle identifies the Romantic poet’s tendency to “think into the human heart” by using rustic description to explore “the naked dignity of man”. This analysis certainly holds true for William Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey and Thomas Gray’s Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, two eighteenth century prospect poems that examine humanity and man’s changing relationship with nature through an expressive overview of a place of emotional significance. Both poems, written during a period of considerable upheaval in the countryside, place an emphasis on physical, temporal and metaphorical distance in order to examine complex questions relating to the poet’s past and future. In this way, the descriptive and reflective elements of the texts interact with each other, enabling the poets to poignantly communicate ideas of memory, loss, and, ultimately, the restorative power of nature.
The first stanza of Tintern Abbey imitates the process of recollection by conveying the narrator’s experience of the landscape before him in intricate detail. Wordsworth delights in depicting the tranquil serenity of his surroundings, appearing to savour such particulars as the “soft inland murmur” of the waters “rolling from their mountain springs”. His gentle use of assonance enhances the sensuous nature of the piece, suggesting that the narrator’s thirst is being quenched – albeit from a distance – after the aesthetic drought of “five long winters” in the city. This interplay between sense and recollection exposes an important aspect of much prospect poetry – the power of reflection and memory. Indeed, it is significant that Wordsworth writes of “Thoughts of more deep seclusion” , thus reminding the reader that the poem is not simply an objective description of the landscape. The rural surroundings impress beliefs and resonance on the narrator, enabling Wordsworth to present “two consciousnesses belonging to the poet at different points of his life” , bound together by memory and used as tools in an exploration of humanity. Similarly, Gray’s Ode highlights the importance of memory through the romanticised, almost childlike, tone adopted to describe his previous perception of the grounds at Eton College (“Ah, happy hills, ah, pleasing shade, / Ah, fields beloved in vain”), thus expressing the important relationship between the mind, reminiscence and natural description.
However, it is important not to undermine the role of dislocation in the prospect poem, especially with regards to Wordsworth and Gray’s reflections on distance. In Tintern Abbey, for example, Wordsworth demonstrates how memories of the abbey regularly work upon the narrator during his absence from the countryside, summoning spiritual feelings even within the confines of the city:
“But oft, in lonely rooms and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet”.
We are reminded that, rather than existing fully apart, the country and the city often intrude upon each other, bearing a considerable influence over Wordsworth’s thoughts and deeds. Furthermore, Clarke draws attention to the poet’s allusion to “vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods”, claiming that Wordsworth tends to recall features that are “just out of sight or beyond definition”. This brings forth the possibility that the commotion of urban life has rendered certain aspects of the landscape inaccessible for Wordsworth. Even a location of tranquillity and great emotional significance, such as Tintern Abbey, cannot avoid being tainted by the experiences gained from “this unintelligible world” , thus ensuring that childhood’s pure communion with nature can no longer be retrieved. This sense of impenetrability is more explicitly conveyed in Gray’s Ode, where he poignantly depicts the wholesome landscape being ambushed by personified, adult passions: “Disdainful Anger, pallid Fear, / And Shame that skulks behind”. The attachment of human characteristics to these blemished emotions – augmented by the poet’s use of capitalisation – enables Gray to equip them with an almost unstoppable power, demonstrating how the immorality of city life inevitably imposes itself upon the countryside. This feeling of alienation from the scene being remembered lends credence to Williams’ observation that much eighteenth century pastoral literature, including prospect poetry, “contrasted the worthy simplicities of rural life with the corruption of the town”, thereby demonstrating how even the most charming of rural environments cannot escape from the vices of urban life.
In this way, both poems lay emphasis on the concept of distance, ranging from the physical to the temporal and metaphorical . Wordsworth and Gray explore the loss of youth’s carefree, unpolluted relationship with nature, implying that certain factors, such as the passing of time and a growing realisation of the inevitability of hardship, have severed their childlike connection with the countryside. The only way in which this union can be preserved, therefore, is through memory. For example, Gray is able to use his distance from Eton College, in both a physical and temporal sense, to regard his own schooldays in a different context, leading him to brand the young inhabitants of the grounds “little victims”, unsuspecting of their impending “doom”. This sense of remoteness can be more fully appreciated when one considers the agricultural changes that took place during the eighteenth century. While this period was one of tremendous progress, it was also one of significant doubt, with the Enclosures leading to restricted access and the decline of the common lands. Consequently, it is possible that, through the comprehensive use of memory and imagination in their poetry, Wordsworth and Gray intended to compensate for their lack of proximity to the countryside, instead emphasising the benefits of distance in exploring the hopes and doubts involved with living in eighteenth century society.
It is this interaction between hope and doubt that exposes the importance of the reflective elements of prospect poetry, enabling Wordsworth and Gray to engage both in past reminiscence and future speculation. These musings often amount to reflections on gain and loss – for example, although his childhood experiences along the Wye have allowed Wordsworth to acquire “food / For future years”, this realisation is bittersweet, as he has also lost his childlike, unquestioning communion with nature. In this respect, Wordsworth’s allusion to “unripe fruits” may be interpreted as a metaphor for unfulfilled dreams, adding an additional layer to the poem’s theme of loss. However, although ideas relating to loss feature in both poems, it is important to consider the enriching sense of rejuvenation associated with the countryside, which is implicit in Wordsworth and Gray’s writing. While the pupils described by Gray stand as a reincarnation of his younger self’s carefree pleasure in the grounds of Eton College (“Yet ah! why should they know their fate?”), Wordsworth’s heartfelt address to his “dear Sister” towards the end of Tintern Abbey both reaffirms his own past and demonstrates a deeper appreciation for his surroundings, thereby exposing the cyclical, restorative power of the countryside.
In conclusion, both Tintern Abbey and Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College successfully exemplify the interconnection between descriptive and reflective elements in the eighteenth century prospect poem. Using the concept of distance as an expressive tool, Wordsworth and Gray apply bucolic description and meaningful introspection in order to view the scenery of their childhood in a different context, thus exploring the wider philosophical themes of memory, imagination, loss, and restoration.
L. J. Swingle, “On Reading Romantic Poetry”. In PMLA, Vol. 86, No. 5. (New York: Modern Language Association, 1971), p. 976.
Andrew Cooper, Doubt and Identity in Romantic Poetry. (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1988), p. 159.
Charles Sherry, Wordsworth’s Poetry of the Imagination. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 18.
C. C. Clarke, Romantic Paradox. (Oxford: Alden Press Ltd, 1962), p. 50.
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