Romantic Autobiography and Modern Self

Romantic Autobiography and Modern Self: A Reading of "Tintern Abbey"

It is a commonsense that "Tintern Abbey" has some autobiographical elements prefiguring a modern idea of self-consciousness. But it is not easy to answer the question properly what kind of autobiography "Tintern Abbey" really is and in what sense. This paper begins with an understanding that "Tintern Abbey" is not an autobiography of William Wordsworth as such. The poetic narrator of "Tintern Abbey" is not a unitary voice of Wordsworth of 1798 but a complex of diverse speakers representing each phase of his poetic experiments in the 1790s. Each narrator is not a lyrical speaker reflecting Wordsworth own emotion at the time of visiting the site, but a poetic device set up for a unique poetic effect. With this understanding, it is not important at all how faithfully the narrator reflects Wordsworth own "real" voice at the time even if it were possible to recover that "real" voice. This paper tries to uncover by a close examination of "Tintern Abbey"'s narrator the traces of Wordsworth's diverse experiments of poetic forms carried out during those "five years" intervening his two visits to Tintern Abbey. "Those five years" mentioned at the outset of the poem was indeed the period when Wordsworth explored various options of possible political commitments but it did not come to any result of significance. What did take place indeed during "those five years", as far as we could confirm, was a series of poetic compositions through which Wordsworth "grew" his poetic self that matured at the end of the period enough to author that ground breaking work called Lyrical Ballads containing "Tintern Abbey" itself. This paper identifies those four disparate narrators in "Tintern Abbey"'s narration, which are picturesque, didactic, autobiographical, and elegiac ones representing each the poetic forms Wordsworth had experimented by 1798.  Such reading is possible of course only with hindsight, with knowledge of what Wordsworth was up to during "those five years". But such reading with hindsight enables us to establish "Tintern Abbey" as a particular type of modern autobiography with more convincing evidences, which is, a poetic autobiography presenting the growth of a poetic self, which Wordsworth was due to commit himself to in the ensuing works, most prominently in The Prelude.

A chapter in English Studies in the Globalizing Age(2004)


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