Taoist Reading of Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth

Taoist Reading of Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth

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Wordsworth's 'hsü': towards a Taoist reading of Tintern Abbey

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! And again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain springs
With a sweet inland murmur. (1-4)

"Tintern Abbey"'s opening lines prepare the reader for a reunion, notable in tone not only for the sense of anticipation with which the poet apprehends this moment, but equally so for the poignancy which immediately inflects the poem's proceedings. My reading of "Tintern Abbey" takes as its most prominent concern the sense in which Wordsworth's "Revisiting the Banks of the Wye" represents a haven-seeking of sorts. Since his visit to the Wye in 1793, much has happened to Wordsworth: he has found, and relinquished, his first romantic love in Annette Vallon. As a young would-be radical, sympathetic to the ideals of the French Revolution, he finds himself at odds with London's entrenched conservatism. In 1795, after well over a decade of only intermittent contact with his sister, Wordsworth and his beloved Dorothy are reunited at Racedown, at about the same time that they make the acquaintance of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Within two years of this happy occasion, the two Wordsworths will move to Alfoxden to be near Coleridge. The ensuing years of intense friendship and creative discourse will yield, by 1798, the collaborative Lyrical Ballads, to which "Tintern Abbey" belongs. As we consider the tumult and activity that have characterized this period of his life, we might well speculate upon the nature of the thoughts going through Wordsworth's mind as he surveys the Abbey from his vantage on the riverbank; my own temptation is to equate the quietly reflective tone of the poem with the Taoist notion of hsü.

In Taoism hsü is defined -- in describing a state of mind -- as meaning:

absolute peacefulness and purity of mind and freedom from worry and selfish desires and not to be disturbed by incoming impressions or to allow what is already in the mind to disturb what is coming into the mind. Hsü-shih means unreality and reality, but hsü also means profound and deep continuum in which there is no obstruction. (Wing-tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton University Press, 1963.

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I would submit that "Tintern Abbey" is one of Wordsworth's more perfect expressions of 'nature poetry,' and in that light the Taoist sensibilities of the poem are all the more striking. The poem aptly illustrates the extent to which Wordsworth, as a poet of 'natural mysticism,' sets himself the task of revealing the unifying oneness found in Nature:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts, 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 minds of man --
A motion and a spirit that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. (94-103)

If we view Wordsworth's naturalism as a sort of pantheism, wherein Nature as animative force is realized in all things, then the parallels to a Taoist 'One', the Tao, are distinctly suggestive: "it is the One, which is natural, eternal, spontaneous, nameless, and indescribable. It is at once the beginning of all things and the way in which all things pursue their course." Now to "Tintern," and these lines which at once reveal parallels between Wordsworth's naturalism and Taoist Oneness, and also evoke the spirit of hsü (Chan, op. cit., 136):
Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood
In which the burden of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lightened -- that serene and blessed mood
In which the affections gently lead us on
Until the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul,
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things. (36-49)

Reading this passage, I cannot dispel the impression that Wordsworth is seeking respite from events, a pause in which to take stock of things. What is implicit in all of this is the transcendental movement towards unity or oneness with Nature; even while the poet actively recreates a sort of haven in the moment, he seems to recognize the need to resolve this act of creation with a dissolution of self: "Almost suspended, we are laid asleep / In body, and become a living soul". In true mystical form this transcendental movement poses something of a paradox: Wordsworth must lose himself in the moment in order for the moment to occur, but in order for the moment to exist on the page he must be present, as the poet, recording the experience. We might see this as yet another perverse example of the eternal failure of Art, but I digress . . .

Returning to Wordsworth's hsü, I think it is important to point out that the "Tintern Abbey" 'moment' is persuasively invoked as an ever-present state, and not as a pause in strict isolation:
Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye;
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration (23-31)

In Lao Tzu, the text from which the underlying tenets and teachings of Taoism are derived, hsü is discussed as an important feature in achieving tranquility. And not surprisingly, tranquility is the desired state in Taoism, in contrast to the Neo-Confucianist 'man of virtuous action.' Lao Tzu writes:

Attain complete vacuity,
Maintain steadfast quietude.
All things come into being,
And I see thereby their return.
All things flourish,
But each one returns to its root.
This return to its root means tranquillity.
It is called returning to its destiny.
To return to destiny is called the eternal (Tao).
(Chan, op. cit., 147-8)

The "tranquil restoration" Wordsworth conjures from "forms of beauty" approaches, in a rather limited way, the 'steadfast quietude' of hsü. Less successful is the attempt on Wordsworth's part to preserve the 'moment' for his sister, Dorothy. Never was there an evangelical Taoist; irreverence aside, we might argue that any mystical experience or transcendental revelation is highly personal, and virtually incoherent in the translating. In my view, a Taoist reading of "Tintern Abbey" must take its leave in the vicinity of line 112. For at this point the poet's voice is far too 'loud' to sustain the sort of reading I've been striving for thus far. By introducing Dorothy, Wordsworth shatters the mystic's vital solitude; the poem reaches its conclusion with the return of 'explicit ego', resulting in an utter breach of hsü:
-- oh then
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations! (143-147)

Wordsworth implicates himself in 'the moment' in a manner most disruptive to the vacuous state of hsü.

Having, perhaps ill-advisedly, attempted to place "Tintern Abbey" within a Taoist context, I will in the next discussion turn from the East, and explore the tradition of mysticism native to England. I would like to explore to a greater extent Wordsworth's 'natural mysticism,' and flesh out my reasoning for upholding "Tintern Abbey" as being one of his finest works as 'the poet of Nature.' This will lead into some comparisons between William Blake's relentlessly visionary mysticism and Wordsworth's natural mysticism.
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