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To “See into the Life of Things”[1]: Brain as Poet in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey"

Hannah Silverblank's picture


Upon my second visit to William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” I find myself struck by the ways in which the poem recontextualizes and resituates the concepts of sight and memory as we have explored them in our Neurobiology and Behavior course. The visual images noted and described by Wordsworth take on an alternative significance under a neurobiological lens, with the understanding that seeing and seeming are more estranged than they appear – as we have learned that “‘color’ is a function of the brain, not of physical reality,” that the act of perception unfolds differently within the consciousness of each individual, and that memory can operate as a constructive performance rather than as a simple or pure task of recalling upon the past. As Wordsworth finds the “wild ecstasies” of his youth “matured / Into a sober pleasure” (138-139) upon his second visit to Tintern Abbey, he meditates upon memory’s power to sustain and nourish a restless mind, functioning as “life and food / For future years” (64-65). He acknowledges the sense of epiphany that arrives through the transformation from the immediate sensory pleasures of youth to the “serene and blessed mood” (41) of matured recollection, evoking notions of sight and silence in his claim that “With an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things” (47-49). The speaker’s claim of “see[ing] into the life of things” becomes problematic, however, because the method of memory that he portrays in “Tintern Abbey” is highly interactive and poeticized: the poet’s call to memory is not merely a passive act of reflection, but rather an active, creative one of imagination through which he transcends the literal “life of things” and enters into a dialogue with his past. The metaphor itself – “we see into the life of things” – is problematized within Wordsworth’s poem, as well as within neurobiological conceptions of the acts of cognition and remembering. Wordsworth’s speaker seems to imagine the possibility of a reconciliation between sight (“we see”) and ‘reality’ (“into the life of things”), all the while demonstrating the impossibility of a pure or unfiltered form of memory and assuming that there might be one ‘reality’ under the pseudonym “the life of things.” Wordsworth evokes images of architecture, poetry and music that surround his reflective memory and demonstrate the compositional, constructive nature of his “elevated thoughts” (95). These images, however, suggest that perhaps the poet does not truly “see into the life of things,” but rather creates a reality superior to the “unremembered pleasure” (31) of the past in his interaction with his own memories, and thus – under the Wordsworthian model of memory – the brain functions as its own author, storyteller, poet.

The English word “poet” is derived from its Greek root, ποιητής, which translates into English as author, poet, or most literally, maker. Similarly, the English word “text” arrives into the language from the Latin textum, meaning web or woven thing. Here we can see the ancient correlation between language and construction: to poeticize is to fabricate, both in the sense that the construction of poetry is a process of making (rather than musing/considering/observing) as well as a practice of weaving. If we treat the brain as a poet and poetry as thought/memory, the space between what is seen and what seems becomes both wider and more comprehensible in “Tintern Abbey.” The speaker defines the sensory world of nature as “The anchor of [his] purest thoughts” (109), but supplements the ‘real’ with the artificial: the use of his own imagination as a filter for memory functions as a process that inherently fictionalizes and poeticizes the recollected experience, as he explains,

                        Therefore am I still

A lover of the meadows and the woods,

And mountains; and of all that we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye, and ear – both what they half create,

And what perceive (102-107 italics mine).


The narrator thereby acknowledges the necessity of conversing with his past, attributing a sense of interactivity to the process of memory. This fictionalization, Anna Foca suggests, gives birth to an artificial but loftier version of reality.[2] In his fond memories of landscapes and the sublime, Wordsworth ascertains a degree of malleability within the memory itself and attributes a sense of agency to the rememberer, and thus suggests that perhaps he does not “see into the life of things” (49), but rather manufactures a more finely tuned ‘reality’ through fictionalization that can represent the deep essence of “things” more acutely than is found in ‘reality’ itself.

            How does this vision of memory – which is half derivative and “half creat[ive]” – interact with the functions of the brain and the nervous system? Since Wordsworth’s speaker invites us to consider what we “see,” let us first use the process of vision as a starting point toward understanding the constructive power of the brain. The phenomenon of vision offers a window into the ways in which the brain operates as a weaver, since seeing is a many-layered process, with “the weaving finespun, and the yarns endless.” When a human nervous system processes the visual data of an object in order to “see” it, the process “creates [a] one to one correspondence between direction in space and location on [the] retina.” Next, it “creates appearance of light going in one direction rather than all directions.” The fovea also houses a distinct image – “the picture in our heads” – that is crafted from and also distinct from the multiplicity of images that bounce around the retina. These images are all artificial constructions: the eye makes assumptions, draws conclusions, and fills in blind spots as it “sees fit.” Like the workings of a poet, the process of seeing functions as a layered interpretation of signals and representations and weaves through these to construct a new, internal vision of ‘reality.’


In Critique of Judgement, Kant examines beauty in a manner similar to the ways in which neurobiological functions of vision operates, and the way that “Tintern Abbey” portrays a complex image of memory as creative. For Kant, beauty is purely subjective and aesthetic, in the sense that the understanding of beauty lies in the subject’s interpretation of the object’s physical representation of its existence, rather than this representation itself. He argues that, in order to deem something beautiful, “everything turns on what I make of this representation within myself, and not on any factor which makes me dependent on the existence of the object.”[4]

Kant’s understanding of beauty as an internalized function – as it is comprehended subjectively rather than objectively – signifies that beauty can only be understood in a human interpretation of it rather than in its true, pure existence; it mirrors Hegel’s problem of pure knowledge, which suggests that human consciousness can only render objects in the phenomenal rather than the numinal due to its own interpretive limitations.

W. David Shaw suggests that Kant’s subjective interpretation of beauty “is a fiction we enter into ‘as if’ it were true, an imaginative and poetic premise”[5]; it parallels the problem of Wordsworth’s claim of the possibility of “see[ing] into the life of things” through memory, while he portrays a mode of remembering that is interactive and, like Kant’s evaluation of beauty, poeticized. Similarly, we treat vision as Kant portrays a corresponding element of imagination in his discourse on aesthetics and beauty: “a representation, whereby an object is given, involves, in order that it may become a source of cognition at all, imagination for bringing together the manifold of intuition, and understanding for the unity of the concept uniting the representations.”[6] Shaw connects Wordsworth’s dual sense of perception and creation to Kant’s “new axiom of knowing that our judgments of the world are both synthetic and a priori.”[7] Foca further expands upon this notion of a poeticized reality within Kant and Wordsworth as she asserts, “Wordsworth’s experience at a young age, at a time when he ‘was afraid of such processes,’ revealed to him the power of the idealistic imagination to create an alternate reality which may successfully masquerade as reality.”[8] Wordsworth’s sense of imaginative agency in memory transforms the act of remembering from mere historical reflection to a collaborative process of construction. If Wordsworth truly “see[s] into the life of things,” then the “life” to which he is witness is a self-manufactured one.

            In “Your Broken Brain,” Johnathon Montgomery explores the potential for memory-fabrication to replace ‘real’ memory. This possibility of falseness attests to the malleability and artificiality of memory, as Montgomery writes, “By fishing for specific details, investigators can accidentally convince an eye-witness that they remember something they could not have seen.  Therapists face the same problem.  Some allegations of childhood sexual abuse later turned out to be a false memory accidentally planted by the therapist.” Montgomery outlines the textuality of the process in which memory “trick[s] us into remembering something that didn’t happen” and suggests that we enact this trickery upon ourselves: “...our brain may only store fragmented, compressed bits of information… When we retrieve that information, we expand it into a cohesive memory based on what information we're able to retrieve, potentially leading to these false memories. Of course, once you've reconstructed it incorrectly once, you're probably going to do it again, as that reconstruction probably gets stored away so that next time, you may just retrieve it and misattribute its source.” This language itself suggests the construction and fabrication involved in the process of remembering – with artificially charged words such as “reconstructed,” “stored away,” and “misattribute” – that underlies all remembering, and not just “false memories.” Montgomery remarks, “The brain doesn't know which memories are real and which are false.  We're just as sure and confident about the fake ones as we are about the real ones.  Memories of a ghostly visit, an answered prayer, a miracle, or a spiritual experience may all be exaggerated and enhanced after the fact, but we would never know.” The verb “to remember” even maintains a restructural tone: to re-member is to reassemble – and thereby construct – an entity out of fragments and limbs (in Latin, membra). In a conclusive caveat, Montgomery’s language continues to support the notion of perception as narrative, as he writes, “we must be just as skeptical of our own memory as we would be if the story was coming to us from someone else.”


Michael Vander Weele also acknowledges the occurrence of embellishment and fabrication in Wordsworth’s process of memory through his description of “the architecture of memory”[10]: he establishes the connection between Wordsworth’s memories and those of St. Augustine in his Confessions, arguing that “the images of memory were frequently architectural,” allowing for a “comparing [of] builder to poet.”[11] Weele’s argument stems from the architecturally charged language of “Tintern Abbey,” from “some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire / The Hermit sits alone” (21-22) to the “lonely rooms” (25) in which Wordsworth dwells. The poet further develops the notion of memory as house-like, as he relates his hope for his sister, Dorothy, for a time 

when thy mind

Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,

Thy memory be as a dwelling place

For all sweet sounds and harmonies (139-142).


Weele’s concept of the nostalgic mind as a physical bastion of recollection also implies a sense of construction and building, as he argues, “Wordsworth’s image of the memory as mansion or dwelling-place, and Augustine’s image of the memory as palace or chamber, recall for us premodern notions of the memory as an ethical construct.”[12] In his vast mansion of memory – a space “not only for inventory but also for invention”[13] – Wordsworth functions as both the dweller and the architect in that he “meets himself in his memory, meets himself as both constructed and constructing”[14] and engages in a constructive, imaginative interaction with himself and his memories.

            In his treatment of memory as an interactive experience, Wordsworth thus transforms memory into a kind of poetry or composition: if poetry is, as Wordsworth defines it, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” that “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility,”[15] the processes of memory and poetry are aligned, as they both originate in “aching joys” (84) and “dizzy raptures” (85) that, over time, transform into “a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused” (95-96). Wordsworth’s description of memory in “Tintern Abbey” is staunchly parallel to that of poetry, as he praises the comforts brought to him from memories of nature:

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 (26-30).


Both poetry and memory are characterized by “tranquility,” a sense of “restoration,” and the departure from the wild passions of “thoughtless youth” (90). The “abundant recompense” (88) for the loss of the pleasures and passions of childhood that the poet describes is an internal compensation that the poet provides for himself: he has learned “To look on nature, not as in the hour / Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes / The still, sad music of humanity” (89-91), establishing the compositional nature of his vision in his metaphorical reference to music. As memory parallels the forms of architecture, poetry, and music, his vision and “recompense” is further inseparable from Wordsworth as an architect, poet, and composer. The life into which Wordsworth sees becomes not the “life of things,” but rather the life of his own mind – his own “mansion for all lovely forms” (140) – as it builds, embellishes, and composes a sense of the past that remains clouded by the fog of Wordsworth’s narrative ego and the limits of his visual and remembering perception.


[1] Anna Foca, “Let me be the calm you seek”: Imagination as (Safe)house in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” History and Memory: Suffering and Art, ed. Harold Schweizer. Cranbury: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1998, 35.

[2] Foca 35.

[3] Neurobiology and Behavior, Spring 2010. /exchange/courses/bio202/s10/notes

[4] Kant 37.

[5] Shaw 89.

[6] Kant 49.

[7] Shaw 89.

[8] Foca 36

[9] “Your broken brain #5: Things didn't happen the way you remember them,” Jonathon Montgomery. . Written 7 June 2009. Accessed 7 May 2010.

[10] Michael Vander Weele, “The Contest of Memory in ‘Tintern Abbey.’” Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Jun., 1995), 20. Accessed 2 December 2008.

[11] Weele 20.

[12] Weele 20.

[13] Weele 20.

[14] Weele 20.

[15] William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 362.