Among the great English poets, Wordsworth has always been one of my favourites. I think it’s because he strikes some of the same chords as Tolkien does. On the face of it, they make for strange bedfellows, and, in many respects, they are. Wordsworth is a poet of inwardness, so much so that he has been described by at least one critic as pre-Freudian for the subtle, modern ways that he delves into the complex workings of the human psyche. In rather stark contrast, Tolkien presents a vivid narrative tableau that is rather sharply focused on outward action. And yet, despite this radical difference of approach, there are great psychological affinities between these two towering figures of English literature in the modern era.


I say “modern” here advisedly. Even though they pre-date Tolkien by more than a century, Wordsworth and his friend, the poet and critic, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, are considered to have inaugurated the revolution in literary sensibilities that heralded our own age, when, in 1798, they jointly published Lyrical Ballads, a collection that included some of the greatest and most memorable poems in all of English literature—poems like Wordsworth’s deeply evocative “Tintern Abbey” and Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a richly enigmatic work, modern in its ambiguity and full of gothic atmospherics.


There is no small measure of irony here in the linking of Tolkien and Wordsworth, given that Tolkien was a kind of literary throwback, a staunch mediaevalist who viewed even Shakespeare with misgiving and whose own work harks back to pre-Renaissance literary forms of epic and romance.


Wordsworth is often called the poet of memory, and “Tintern Abbey” is a meditative exploration of this faculty, which is so closely linked to the temporal framework of our lives and is perhaps the most poignant dimension of our humanness. In 1804 Wordsworth composed “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” also known as his Great Ode. It’s the poem that Margaret Thatcher had read at her funeral and is quite probably Wordsworth’s signature work. In it he plumbs the depths of the concept of memory, accounting for human nostalgia, our aching desire for an ultimate homecoming, in a startling way that is suggestive more of Plato than Christ. The poem resounds with unforgettable phrases that have passed into our common store of cultural reference points. To explain the radical, underlying sense of unease that attaches to our human journey, Wordsworth implies that our souls were pre-existent and says that, “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting… trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy! Shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing boy.”


You do not have to be a Platonist, believing in the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, to appreciate the deep truths that Wordsworth is exploring here. Even Wordsworth himself may simply have been using this concept as a metaphorical vehicle to give point and emphasis to the sense of dislocation and unease inherent in human life.


Tolkien, I believe, was an explorer in this same realm of nostalgia and drank from the same fountainhead of profound human longing. In Tolkien’s case, however, he transposes the insight he shares with Wordsworth into a framework of deep narrative, using the quasi-historical and philological scaffolding of Middle Earth to achieve the same evocative sense of ultimate realities that lie outside the austere, often stifling, routine of our daily lives.


In his classic essay on fairy stories, Tolkien says that these ancient tales are noteworthy for the appeal of antiquity that they possess even more so than their beauty and horror. He speaks of them as being marked by “distance and a great abyss of time, not measurable even by twe tusend Johr.” I’ve always been struck by Tolkien’s beautifully suggestive use of the phrase twe tusend Johr here and the clever way it reinforces his argument and casts a light on his own great masterpiece. A direct borrowing from “The Juniper Tree”, one of two tales in the Pomeranian dialect collected by the Brothers Grimm, the phrase means “two thousand years” and is immediately understandable to anybody with even just a smattering of German. However, it is not standard German and leaps to the eye at first as something familiar, yet strange. In this way, the phrase mirrors Tolkien’s own magisterial artistic transformation of the words, images, and phrases he drew from his wide knowledge of the old dialects of the Saxons, Norsemen, and Celts, in order to build a world that “trails clouds of glory,” while still remaining a world that is recognizable as our own.


Beyond this, I believe that there is a kind of paradox of the “near, yet far” inherent in the timeless appeal of Tolkien’s “distance and a great abyss of time.” It’s a paradox that lies at the heart of nostalgia and is one, indeed, that he balances with the assurance of a master. What I mean is that he bridges the “distance and a great abyss of time” by establishing the intimate homeliness of the shire, a place that engages the reader on familiar ground and serves as a point of entry to the vast, heroic spaces of Middle Earth

1 Comment »

  • theviking

    I’ve never read Wordsworth so I can’t comment on him. But Tolkien certainly drew on nostalgia quite a bit, binging us back to a far earlier time and perhaps helping us put our own in perspective.

    November 5, 2013 >> 12:16 pm

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