Wordsworth’s introspection in “Tintern Abbey” leads him to attempt to answer the question we ask with our curriculum at our college: How does the experience of unforgettable natural beauty in the full vitality of youth affect the moral and spiritual life that follows?
As all the world should know, the curriculum at Wyoming Catholic College focuses on the great books and ideas of the Western tradition. Students learn through occasional lectures and steady Socratic discussion of ideas in literature, history, philosophy, and theology; meanwhile, they get a thorough grounding in Latin and in classical and modern mathematics, not to mention the senior courses in modern science. But the most visible distinctive of the College—by far the most photogenic—is the outdoor program that starts in the summer of freshman year with the 21-day hiking expedition. How does this dimension fit with the others? The question involves understanding the effects of horsemanship, rock-climbing, rappelling, white-water kayaking, and caving on students’ characters, especially their confidence and leadership capacities; perhaps even more crucially, it involves understanding the influence of extraordinary natural beauty and the experience of wonder.
I was reminded of the question this week in the junior Humanities class that I teach, because the reading included Wordsworth’s famous meditation, technically called “Lines” (with a long subtitle) but popularly known as “Tintern Abbey.” Wordsworth writes about his walking tour of Wales with his younger sister Dorothy, and he reflects on coming back to the same splendid scene, with its cliffs and vistas, that he had first seen five years before, when he was the age she is now. The monastery at Tintern Abbey, founded in 1131, was destroyed by Henry VIII in his attack on the Roman Catholic Church, but the presence of the ruins gives a subtle coloring of anticipated holiness to the whole scene. Wordsworth’s introspection leads him to attempt to answer the question we ask with our curriculum: how does the experience of unforgettable natural beauty in the full vitality of youth affect the moral and spiritual life that follows?
Wordsworth looks to nature itself as a teacher; at Wyoming Catholic, we speak of nature as “God’s first book.” The powers implicit in natural forms impress themselves upon the imagination, and Wordsworth reflects, at the age of 28, on what this influence feels like in his own life:
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, 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: —feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.
His original experience of Tintern Abbey—like the first, “magical” view of a particular mountain scene that one of the juniors described in class this week—passed without deliberate effort into his memory, and the memory has been responsible for “sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart” that revive him and give him restored hope in his hours of weariness. But the effect does not stop there. He thinks that this gift of nature has made him morally better than he might have been. Why? Because the pleasure he took in such beauty has worked against meanness or envy and disposed him to “little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love.” Call these experiences, if you will, the natural underpinnings of charity.
And Wordsworth thinks there might still be “another gift / Of aspect more sublime” that came with the grandeur of what he felt five years earlier at Tintern Abbey. In describing it, he sounds like St. Augustine in the ascent toward God that he shared at Ostia with his mother Monica shortly before her death. He ascribes to his visit “that blessed mood” that sometimes comes upon him, when
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.
Not only does his earlier visit to Tintern Abbey make him morally better, but it also seems to give him access to the contemplative habitus that once characterized the Abbey itself, as though something Godward in spirit remained in the very landscape, a holy trace that enters his inmost being and his aspirations.
Unquestionably, this is the kind of effect we hope “the outdoors”—hardly an adequate term for the whole of what they come to know—will have on our students. I’ve spoken before of the modesty of our graduates, despite their success in this arduous curriculum, and I can’t help but think that this modesty contains layer on layer of the kind of thing that Wordsworth describes, that it informs their goodness to each other and the depth of their prayer, in addition to everything else the outdoor dimension adds in terms of skills.
I can’t help but remember Edmund Burke’s comments about the frailty of human nature and the best way to clothe it with what he calls the “moral imagination.” In a passage on the effects of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution (which we also read this past week), he writes that a purely rationalistic approach to manners and customs strips away “all the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society.” Manners and courtesies—all of Wordsworth’s unremembered acts of kindness and of love—“are to be dissolved,” says Burke, “by this new conquering empire of light and reason.” How one would assess it (the overriding impulse of our day’s “light and reason”) remains a question, but clearly the effect of beauty and wonder is to shape the moral imagination of our students, even if the whole of what forms them never fully enters the conscious intellect. They have felt the “deep power of joy.”
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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The featured image is “Cathedral Rock” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.