Romantic readings: ‘Tintern Abbey’ by William Wordsworth

by Rosie Schaap
Tintern Abbey sits in ruins on the Welsh side of the River Wye. It was established in the 12th century and dissolved under the orders of King Henry VIII in 1536; then, its descent into decay began. I have never been to Wales. I have never been to Tintern Abbey. But it is often in my dreams.
That’s because, if I had to pick a single favorite poem, much as I’d rather not have to do that, it would be William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798,” more often referred to as Tintern Abbey.

It’s a great poem. But most people I know who know Wordsworth’s work well don’t consider it his best poem. That honor, in my experience, most often goes to his ode, “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” It’s a poem I also love well, but nothing gets to me quite like Tintern Abbey does. It is the most reliable source of comfort I know. It is the work of literature I return to most often when I feel detached from other people, even, somehow, disconnected from myself. Nothing remembers to me my own humanity as Tintern Abbey does. It is the poem I need most.

It’s a poem concerned with remembering, and unremembering (the unusual word “unremembered” appears twice), concerned with straining both not to forget, nor to be forgotten. Inspired by a ruin, a ruin of a holy site, it is suffused with a sense of decay. It is intimately alert to mortality. And although I couldn’t have been more than 21 when I first read it, I think its effect on me was so immediate and strong that it made me start thinking about—and accepting—mortality and decay even then.

It’s not a short poem, and for all of my devotion, even indebtedness, to it, I’ve never been able to commit it completely to memory. Instead, I’ve surrounded myself with reminders of the poem, small tokens scattered all around me, that now have an effect on me not so different from the poem itself, if largely by strength of the power of association. In a used bookshop in England, I found an old engraving of Tintern Abbey. It was probably torn from a book. It’s dark and gloomy, and I matted it in a murky gray-green and framed it in black. Much more cheerful is a reproduction of a travel poster, brightly colorful, showing the ruined abbey as if lit up by midday sunshine, foregrounded and framed by what appears to be a young beech tree.

A small ceramic shoe, upon which matches can be struck, from Tintern Abbey ©Rosie Schaap

A small ceramic shoe, upon which matches can be struck, from Tintern Abbey ©Rosie Schaap

But my most beloved Tintern Abbey artifact is a small, strange thing. It is a miniature ceramic shoe, or possibly a bootie, designed to hold matches. It is painted rather crudely: There’s a Welsh woman in a hat and bonnet and cloak, sitting on a patch of grass. There’s some red trim around the sole, and the word “matches” in red, in relief, on the toe. (There’s a small patch on the heel upon which matches can be struck.)
When I first spotted it in an online auction about a decade ago, I had to have it. (Apparently I was one of a very few who felt this way. It was mine for a few dollars, plus shipping.) For me, the main draw was that, on the side of the shoe not adorned with an image of a young Welsh woman, the words “Tintern Abbey” were painted.
For years, the thing sat on a small shelf beside my stove. Occasionally, if the pilot light went out, those matches came in handy. I liked looking at it, but it collected dust. Ultimately, I had to clean it. Even by hand, going pretty gently, I managed to rub off the words “Tintern Abbey” entirely. They’re gone. No vestige remains. Few but I could possibly discern that the little ceramic boot has anything to do with my favorite poem.
And now I value it even more. It’s like we share a secret. Defaced and diminished, but still solid and useful, the boot bears more relation to Tintern Abbey now than it did when those words were etched on it. It has descended softly into ruin, and that’s not just okay, it makes it more beautiful.

©2015 Rosie Schaap. This post was first published on The Mid
Rosie Schaap is the author of Drinking With Men: A Memoir. The Drink columnist for The New York Times Magazine and a contributor to This American Life, she has also written for Al Jazeera America, Bon Appetit, Lucky Peach, Marie Claire, npr.org, The New York Times dining section, Saveur, and Slate.
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