Tintern Abbey Themes Lesson Plan
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Theme Revealed through Diction in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”:
This lesson plan focuses on Wordsworth’s use of diction to convey themes in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” Students will identify and examine groupings of related words that reveal the poem’s attitude toward nature and its reflection on how the experience of nature changes with maturity. In studying how the poem’s diction conveys attitudes, students will be able to infer and describe its major themes.
By the end of this lesson, students will be able to
- define diction, denotation, connotation, and theme as literary terms;
- explain the role of diction in expressing attitudes about nature, urban life, youth, and maturity;
- identify and describe major themes that are revealed through diction.
Skills: close reading, describing the connotations of diction, drawing inferences from the text, inferring theme from diction
Common Core Standards: RL.1, RL.2, RL.4, SL.1
When William Wordsworth and his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge first published their 1798 landmark poetry volume, Lyrical Ballads, most reviews were not appreciative. The style and content was too common and humble, critics said, to be worthy of the name "poetry." Wordsworth was undeterred. His objective, he declared, was to create a poetry that challenged the prevailing ornate, artificial style, one that instead gives a “natural delineation of human passions, human characters, and human incidents” using ordinary, conversational language and humble characters. As Wordsworth defined his egalitarian role: “What is a poet? He is a man speaking among men.” He responded to the complaints and questions of critics with a new preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800), in which he laid out his poetic objectives more elaborately. Wordsworth famously writes that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” that have been “recollected in tranquility.”
While this definition does not fit every poem in Lyrical Ballads, “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” exemplifies the “overflow of powerful feelings . . . recollected in tranquility.” In it, the poet recounts in blank verse an episode from a vacation in Northern Wales he had taken with his younger sister, Dorothy. The two stopped to gaze on a lovely scene that William had visited five years earlier: the farms and countryside around the village of Tintern, situated on the River Wye. Wordsworth explains that the natural beauty that had so moved and excited him as a younger man had played a key role in sustaining and forming him as he matured. The cherished memories of nature’s “lovely forms,” he declares, have inspired his many “unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love,” while also enabling him to rise above the problems and worries of daily life. The poem, however, is more than a passionate expression of the poet’s love of natural scenery: it is also a reflection on the “mind of man” and the role of nature in forming self-knowledge and moral insight.
Wordsworth’s paean to the importance of nature in his life leads to some more complex and equivocal reflections on how aging has affected his experience of nature’s power and beauty. He recognizes that the unconscious and passionate connection he once had with nature has given way to a more calm and intellectual appreciation of nature. While he appreciates the wisdom and self-consciousness of his mature perspective, he misses the wild spontaneity of his younger self. The poet finds some consolation when, in the final section of the poem, he directly addresses Dorothy. Wordsworth describes his sister as a dear friend who can both appreciate the poet’s ruminations and, as a mirror of his younger self, experience the unfiltered, rapturous connection he once did. In this way, Dorothy serves as a bridge between his past and present self, enabling him to imagine that he can, at least for a moment, have it both ways: he can vicariously revisit the rapture of his youthful experience while enjoying the wisdom and serenity of his mature perspective.
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