London Letters #4: “That Serene and Blessed Mood”

By Adam Katz

This was to be my final letter; the one in which I told you what it’s like for me, as a scholar of 16th and 17th century English literature, to visit Stratford-on-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare. I hardly mentioned Shakespeare in my dissertation; but my connection with his writing goes back to childhood. Being able to understand works like Macbeth when the rest of my classmates were struggling was one of the early clues that my vocation lay in this direction. And I wrote my graduate school admissions essay about how, every time I’ve needed him, it seems, King Lear has been there with a different version of the same message: don’t trust gods and kings and ceremonies; trust love and show it by showing up.

But here’s the thing. I didn’t make the long-expected pilgrimage to Stratford. Nothing major happened, exactly, to prevent me from doing it. I just didn’t go. This past weekend, I did in fact visit Tintern Abbey, that great romantic ruin on the west bank of the Wye. To get to Tintern Abbey from our place in the Hopton Castle area, just south of the Shropshire Hills, was not an astonishingly long drive; to get to Stratford a day or two later would not have been much farther. But it is hard for me to drive on the wrong side of the road. And it’s hard getting used to the narrower gauge of the lanes, constantly turning the windshield wipers on and off, and so on. Plus, there is always the elephant in the room: time is running out for me and Anuja. When we started our time together in England, we had a month of days and nights and any little daytrip was just a drop in the bucket. But we have less than a week remaining, as of this writing, before we’ll have to go our separate ways. Spending five of our remaining hours in a car, even to see something as precious to me as the birthplace of Shakespeare, seemed like wasted time.

I’m not going to do the sour grapes thing: “what is a birthplace, even?” No. I probably would have loved it. Just not on these terms.

So what have we done instead? We’ve walked around the neighborhood. We’ve taken our Airbnb host’s dogs for a walk. We’ve stepped in sheepshit and goatshit and cowshit and probably pheasantshit. We’ve cried. God, have we cried. And we’ve talked.

And, like I said, we went to Tintern Abbey. That was an unexpected delight. Not that I didn’t expect it to be delightful; I just didn’t expect to go. But there we were looking at a map, planning out our day-trips, and Tintern Abbey was less than two hours from where we were staying. And once we made the decision to go, I realized how excited I was.

Tintern Abbey. Photo by Adam Katz

I had read Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey” literally the first week of my first year of college—half a lifetime ago. It’s hard to say exactly what it meant to me. Obviously I had read complex and thoughtful works of literature before then—Shakespeare, Melville, Adrienne Rich… But this poem changed what a poem could mean for me. The idea that a poem need not be anything else but a window into the poet’s own mind and the ways in which that mind interacts with the world around it was a liberating notion for me. Ten years later, that idea would form the basis for my dissertation. 

If reading “Tintern Abbey” all those years ago was one of the seminal moments in my education, visiting the structure wasn’t too shabby either. Tintern Abbey, it turns out, was founded by Cistercian Monks about 800 years ago. The church we can visit today was constructed later—in the mid-1300s. What happened to this beautiful building? Same thing that happened to most of the Catholic churches in England and Wales. Henry VIII happened. He did not knock it down exactly, but when royal protection was withdrawn from the building, the looters came in; the windows were smashed; eventually the great structure started to collapse on itself, so that by the time the 1700s rolled around, all that was left for the tourists to visit was the shell.

But the shell is just ethereal; it is so grand and gorgeous it makes a mockery of any attempt at description. 

I have been in Great Britain now for more than three weeks and I have largely managed to avoid visiting churches. I don’t really like the aesthetic. Most churches I have ever visited are either too loud and busy in their decorative scheme or too deliberately somber. Or, in some rather confusing cases, a combination of both. And of course there is the uncomfortable history that I, as a Jewish person, can’t help thinking about—the forced conversions, the pogroms, the genocides. You might say that Tintern Abbey was the first church I have set foot inside since I came to England. And it was beautiful. I won’t deny the possibility that its ruined state allowed me to focus on the beauty of the architecture without as many intruding thoughts about the bloody history it represents. But I was bewitched. It was just… It was so… Again. What to say? All the gaudiness of a medieval church is stripped away from Tintern, and we are left with the things that we (that is the original users of the church and I) can agree on—those soaring lines of stone that seem to aspire to reach God, and, in doing so, to teach the parishioners (in this case the monks) to aspire likewise.

Anuja walking along a path through the woods on the east bank of the Wye. Photo by Adam Katz

Apart from the shocking and disarming beauty of the building and its surrounding landscape, being there helped me imagine the poet and the poem a little bit better. Things I had been glossing over suddenly made sense. Even the title of the poem: “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey…” When I first read the poem, I imagined “a few miles above” referred to elevation—that there might be a hill or small mountain behind the abbey and it might be few miles’ hike to the top (not a few miles’ elevation… there is no Mount Denali in South Wales) and from the top of that hill or mountain, Wordsworth could behold the distant abbey in the valley below. But the hills in that neighborhood are relatively small, so Wordsworth must mean “a few miles upriver.” The likelihood is that he could not see the Abbey at all from that distance. Nor does he mention its graceful ruins even once in the poem that bears its name. So the long title of the poem* which usually gets shortened to “Tintern Abbey” would more appropriately be abbreviated as “On Revisiting the Wye.” This may be stuff and nonsense to someone who has been politely following my narrative up until this point but who can’t imagine why I am obsessing over where a poet was sitting 223 years ago when he was conceiving or writing a poem. And to an extent, they’re right. I made no attempt to find, either by research or other means, where Wordsworth might have been sitting when he thought of those lines. Even if I had, “this dark sycamore” is likely not there anymore. But still it mattered to me because loving a poem means having a connection with it; and with the person who wrote it; and wanting to know more. And I suppose that is reason enough.

Another insight I had was into what kinds of hedgerows he is talking about. Early in the poem he makes reference to 

“These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines

Of sportive wood run wild,”

and now that I’ve seen them, I get it. The hedges in this part of England and Wales are formidable. They are technically bushes, but their stems are thick as treetrunks, and their pruned-back branches look like the interlacing arms of a row of massive candelabras. They really do look like miniature forests, and, like forests, they are full of life. You can see pheasants and rabbits threading in and out of them as if they provided real cover; and when the hedges loom close to both sides of the road, cars are forced to grope blind in between, with more than a hundred degrees’ worth of visibility struck away in each direction. All of which is to say that I can see what Wordsworth sees when he observes that not only the uncut forests higher up in the hills, but even the tamed fields of the farms and pastures that stretch out from the banks of the River Wye, look wild and inviting to a “worshiper of nature.”

A pleasing parallel between Wordsworth in his visit and me in mine is that neither of us was alone and our experiences were necessarily filtered through our companion. He was there with his little sister, and I was there with Anuja, whose name means “little sister” in Sanskrit. She was playing the part to a T that day, because she would continuously tap me on the shoulder and say: “This is where the monks dumped their shit.”

One of the first things we saw when we entered the grounds of the abbey was a pie-chart showing the schedule-items in a typical day-in-the-life of a Cistercian monk. One of the items is “Sext” which refers to the sixth-hour prayer. For the rest of the day, Anuja would wait until I felt safe and then would whisper in my ear something like: “If the monks hadn’t been spending all their time sexting, they wouldn’t have had to shit in buckets.” Or: “If the monks hadn’t been spending all their time sexting, maybe their church would still have a roof.” I don’t know if you’ve ever had a socially-unacceptably-loud belly laugh wrung out of you by main force while you were in a place where it felt like you were supposed to be quiet and contemplative, but I now have, and it’s glorious. A place like Tintern Abbey needs more laughter, and, thanks to Anuja, I have done my part.

Even now as I write, I set out at first to achieve a sad, contemplative tone. But continually remembering our pranks and jokes is making that tone difficult to achieve. But that’s probably for the best, isn’t it? One of the real shortcomings of Wordsworth’s artistry is that he doesn’t have much of a sense of humor. A poem (or essay) about Tintern Abbey that’s a bit comic is long past due.

And we, that is Anuja and I, needed a bit of laughter, not just that day but also in the days since. Once the clock struck a certain hour and we realized there was only about a week before I would have to go back to New York, a gloom settled upon our party. We know, as much as we know anything,  that what we have together is real, and that this is not the last time we are going to see each other. But bodies are stupid and simple, and mine has a knot in its stomach at the prospect of not seeing Anuja for even one day, let along for the few months it’ll take to get our affairs sorted. So any opportunity we have to giggle about the bowel movements of 14th century Cistercians? I’ll take it. Any opportunity we have to try to sound out Welsh double-els? I’ll take it. Any opportunity I have for her to tease me about once more ordering the fish-and-chips with a side of mushy peas? Yes please, garçon, I’ll have the cod-and-chips with a side of affectionate namecalling, thank you. Fun fact: my first time (which I’m told you always remember) ordering fish-and-chips was in a dedicated fish-and-chip shop in London. So ignorant was I that I thought the green splodge on the plate was guacamole. It wasn’t until I tasted it for myself that I learned my error.

One of the things I’m particularly conscious of is that, as I’m writing this fourth and probably-not-final essay, I’m experiencing pressure (not from all of you; you’ve been lovely) to make this cycle of essays feel story-shaped. And that means making call-backs to the first essay. But I don’t think I want to do that, because that hasn’t been my experience. Have there been callbacks to some of those moments? Of course. But if Funes the Memorious taught us anything it’s that life is always going to be richer more varied, more detailed than story. So the things my mind is recalling from those first days are not necessarily the things that came up when I was writing my first essay.

For example: The week before I got on the plane to London, Anuja and I had a serious conversation about cancelling the trip. Why? Was there some emergency? No. She raised the concern that when we got together, we would be so reluctant to part that it would be worse than if we had never seen each other at all. I dismissed her concerns (which I should not have done). But when I thought the matter over, I realized that, even though neither of us wanted to cancel the trip, nevertheless, she was more than a little bit correct. I even brought the matter up to my mom: “I’ve survived the past 18 months,” I said, “by putting up walls that I didn’t even necessarily notice I was putting up. And the moment I see her, those walls are going to come down. And it’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt when I get there, and it’s going to hurt again when I leave.” If my mom responded verbally at all, she did it was with some quiet expression of sympathy, which is exactly what the moment called for. There was nothing to do about what I was feeling except feel it. As for the pain of leaving, there was nothing to do except live each day and get to that pain when I would get to it. But now that I’m thinking about that conversation; now that I’m on the verge of its fulfillment, I can’t help being a bit afraid.

What do I have to look forward to when I return to New York? Just greyness and sadness, slightly colored by the prospect of seeing Anuja again; at least, with apologies to friends and family, whom I do sincerely miss, that’s what it feels like to me right now as I’m writing this . But that feeling passes, as all feelings pass, and I am able to look forward to seeing the faces of my family and friends; able to look forward to the things I have not been able to do because I’ve been here. But I am also, like Wordsworth, able to see how this trip has allowed me to store up some measure of the positivity that will be sorely needed in the months ahead. I’m not going to go through the whole complicated argument of Wordsworth’s poem here. I may another time. But foremost in my mind right now is one aspect of his argument, that is, his idea that when we visit nature (when Anuja and I visited Shropshire and the Wye and so forth, for instance) we store up these reserves of sylvan calm to temper the disappointment and frustration that the more built-up parts of the world sometimes offers us. An aside: as Anuja and I discuss where we eventually want to live, this subject has come up again and again: where is there some green? A lot of the cities and even suburbs of the world have foolishly, callously wasted away all of their green spaces and given their citizens nowhere to recharge. Do we condemn ourselves to such a city? It is only our privilege that gives us any choice in the matter. 

But even a city that has some green spaces, like New York, doesn’t have anything like this. Despite myself, I’ve felt the calm of this countryside infusing my being. And so if I hold in my head a sensory image of the way her hand feels, fingers interlaced with mine, as we watch a dog playing fetch along a forest path that followed the east banks of the Wye; if I hold in my head the way we looked through the empty skeletons of stained glass windows; the way clouds and sky have replaced the old glazed designs with something far more spectacular; and if I hold in my mind the smell of the freshly-cut hedges, I can embrace the grief of going home, and, just as crucially, can embrace whatever comes after that.

Ludlow, the nearest sizable town to where w are staying. Note the ruin of a medieval castle on the left. Photo by Adam Katz

*Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798

Read London Letters #1: I’m Having a Great Trip

Read London Letters #2: “O, for a Muse of Fire”

Read London Letters #3: “The Rain, it Raineth Everyday”

4 thoughts on “London Letters #4: “That Serene and Blessed Mood”

  1. Where Wordsworth was standing in relation to the abbey might not be a matter of physical miles, but imaginative ones, recalled in recollection, but not literally memorialized in the poem. See below:
    The imagination is not a state: it is the human existence itself.― William Blake
    I do not paint by copying nature… Everything I do springs from my wild imagination.
    — Paul Gauguin
    Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination, do not become the slave of your model.
    — Vincent van Gogh

      1. You’re most welcome. I hope you’re return is less painful than you anticipate, and that your absence from your lover is brief, and your pain softened by the knowledge of its limited duration.

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