Deist Pantheism in Tintern Abbey


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"Tintern Abbey" typifies William Wordsworth's desire to demonstrate what he sees as the oneness of the human psyche with that of the universal mind of the cosmos. It is his pantheistic attempt to unfurl the essence of nature's sublime mystery that often evades understanding, marking his progression as a young writer firmly rooted within the revolutionary tradition to one caught in perplexity about which way to proceed socially and morally, and further, to define for himself a new personal socio-political vision. Moreover, "Tintern Abbey" exhibits Wordsworth's eclipsing of the Cartesian belief in a supernatural creator who stands beyond the universe, echoing the ideas of Burach Spinoza, and redefining late eighteenth century deism into a more personal, pantheist revision of nature. The poem's portrayal of the intimate connection with nature implicitly underscores Wordsworth's view on conventional religious belief as one surpassing commonly held interpretations of the supernatural. It conveys Wordsworth's ideal of the universe as bound inextricably within the essence of all that is harmonious and natural -- a "Oneness." It sympathetically depicts the inseparability of "God" from nature, the "material-spirit" of energy that, as Wordsworth portrays it, imbues the life force with
. . . a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. (96-103)

In terms of "Tintern Abbey"'s naturalistic depiction of nature's interconnection with the universe and humanity, the poem reveals Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Thelwall's implicit influence upon Wordsworth's development as both a writer and naturalist poet. Similar to Wordsworth, for instance, John Thelwall illuminates the organic spur of the human frame and other life forms in his scientific prose, such as found in his celebrated medical essay, Towards A Definition of Animal Vitality (1793). Thelwall's "cosmic-monism" fuses the workings of the human body to the movements of heaven and earth -- a holistic interconnection of the organic to the inorganic. His connection to Wordsworth through Coleridge serves to partially explain the inherent pantheistic vision in "Tintern Abbey"'s 1798 composition.

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In a letter written in October of 1797, Coleridge expresses this way of seeing nature to Thelwall, stating that,

I can at times feel strongly the beauties you describe -- in themselves and for themselves. But more frequently all things appear little -- all the knowledge that can be acquired, child's play; the universe itself, what but an immense heap of things? I can contemplate nothing but the parts, and parts are all little! My mind feels as if it ached to behold and know something great, something one and indivisible -- and it is only in the faith of this that rocks or waterfalls, mountains or even caverns, give me a sense of sublimity or majesty! But in this faith all things counterfeit infinity! (S. T. Coleridge. "Letter from S.T. Coleridge to John Thelwall, 14 October 1797 (extract)," in Wu, Romanticism, 2000: 460)

Like Wordsworth, Thelwall's materialism similarly echoes that of Baruch Spinoza's earlier philosophical view on nature and its connection with the cosmos. In this sense, he conflates Spinoza's "pancomism" that informs "Tintern Abbey"'s general method of looking at the universe through the lens of pantheistic understanding. Although not as explicit as later nineteenth century materialist thinkers who moved beyond many of the theistic philosophies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Spinoza's rejection of the "Cartesian dualism of mind and matter in favour of a God who is identified with the ultimate substance of the world" (Magnus Magnusson. "Baruch Spinoza" (1632-1677), in Chambers Biographical Dictionary (1993): 1380) foreshadows the grafting of Renaissance logic to late eighteenth century materialist ideas about the universe. In Spinoza's schema "God" no longer stands beyond the universe. His holistic conception of the universe -- different to Coleridge and Thelwall's only in degree of materialist science -- implicitly reveals itself in "Tintern Abbey", illustrating Wordsworth's universalizing deist-pantheism that reminds us, as in his "Ode. Intimations of Immortality" (1802-1804), that

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
-- "Ode. Intimations of Immortality" (1802-1804), 59-66, 77-84



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