O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods,How often has my spirit turned to thee!
Wordsworth returns to a place he was fond of once, and he finds it lovely again, although he knows he’s changed and he sees it differently now. The poem he wrote about revisiting the Wye River near Tintern Abbey is one of my favorite Romantic poems, because he doesn’t just wade in the shallows of nature worship and nostalgia, but rather embraces his former self while appreciating who he has become. He values the memories, and wishes similarly fond memories for his sister, but he doesn’t want to turn back the clock.
Finding comfort in revisiting a place without being overwhelmed by nostalgia is difficult, I think, and I’m impressed that he could do it and then write a brilliant poem about it. I suppose that’s what makes Wordsworth a poet we return to again and again.
I first visited the ruins of Tintern Abbey with my family when I was in high school, around the time we studied “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” in English class. I saw them again last May, when my friend Liz and I drove from London to Wales for a couple days. I remembered it as a lovely spot in the ’90s and unsurprisingly, it still was in 2013. I didn’t quite have the revelations Wordsworth did, but finding old and new pleasures in revisited sites is something I’ve long valued.
The abbey used to be reached only by tramping or boating in, but now an A road runs right past, which is convenient for reaching the ruins but not so great for contemplating them in peace. But there weren’t many people there on the Sunday afternoon we arrived, so it was pretty quiet as we walked the neatly trimmed grass inside the walls of stone, under a roof of sky.
The abbey was the first Cistercian order established in Wales, in 1131. The monks took vows of work and silence, and Tintern Abbey was a productive place until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1536. The ruling lord of the area got the abbey, but rather than use it, he sold off its lead roof and let the building fall into ruin. A bad move for his people, who could likely have put it to some purpose, but a boon to the tourists visiting since the late 18th century, when the crumbling (and once ivy-covered) walls drew people in.
Revisiting beloved places is like re-reading a book; new layers of meaning and beauty are revealed. When I was here before, I was focused on retracing Wordsworth’s steps and wishing the car park away so it wouldn’t spoil my view. Now, I tried to hold in my head a picture of what I imagined the abbey looked like in its heyday alongside a picture of what it looks like now, to see the beauty in both. I still wished the car park away, though.