Thursday 18 January 2018

The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851)

Niall MacMonagle

On Wednesday evening next, something extraordinary will happen, all over Ireland. More people will be reading poetry then, than at any other time of the year. Fifty-thousand plus, in fact, and they'll be sitting their Leaving Cert Literature paper the following afternoon.

They'll be enjoying the company of Elizabeth Bishop, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Kinsella, Derek Mahon, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and the two Williams – Shakespeare and Wordsworth. And every one of them will be hoping to see a particular poet on the paper. Wordsworth's great poem Tintern Abbey is a possibility. He himself called it Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting The Banks Of The Wye During a Tour. 13 July 1798. A mouthful.

But the ruined Cistercian abbey itself, the wealthiest abbey in Monmouthshire in Wales, founded in 1131 but plundered by Henry VIII in the 16th Century doesn't get a look in.

This symphonic poem was written in one day and, more impressive still, was composed as he walked. Wordsworth leaves this account: "No poem of mine was composed under circumstances more pleasant for me to remember than this. I began it upon leaving Tintern, after crossing the Wye, and concluded it just as I was entering Bristol in the evening, after a ramble of four or five days, with my sister. Not a line of it was altered, and not any part of it was altered, and not any part of it written down till I reached Bristol." He was 28. Yes, incredibly, 28.

Not many 28-year-olds, then or now, could write with such wisdom, depth, humanity.

Turner (1775-1851) and Wordsworth (1770-1850) were almost exact contemporaries and both geniuses, when young, visited the abbey.

In 1794, JMW Turner, then 19, made this watercolour of it. Though ruined and roofless, the abbey's arched, towering, airy, light-filled presence is still magnificent.

Poetry matters beyond the classroom but that's where we first en-counter it. And it stays with us.

But it's terrible that an exam system has spoilt the pleasure of poetry with the 'who's coming up?' factor. If Wordsworth isn't on the paper next Thursday I'll have to find a hat and eat it.

Irish Independent

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