Romantic and Picturesque Tintern Abbey – Its Effect on Art and Poetry

29 Nov

Ruins of the Tintern Abbey situated in Southeast Wales inspired many poets and artists, from Wordsworth and J.M.W. Turner to Lord Tennyson and Ginsberg. Once representing the architectural developments of the day, Tintern Abbey was abandoned and doomed to solitude and decay, but the spirit of this once magnificent Abbey, resistant to transience, still resides, woven into these old stone walls.

Tintern Abbey, West Front circa 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-18511794. Ruins of West Front, Tintern Abbey by J. M. W. Turner

Tintern Abbey is situated on the Welsh bank of river Wye; a river which forms the border between Monmouthshire in Wales and Gloucestershire in England. It was founded by Walter de Clare, Lord of Chepstow on 9th May 1131. Tintern Abbey was the first Cistercian monastery founded in Wales, and only the second to be founded in all of Britain.The present-day remains of Tintern is a mixture of building works covering a 400-year period between 1131. and 1536, thought very little of the first buildings remained. Abbey was mostly rebuilt in the 13th century in the ‘Geometrical‘ style; first period of the Decorative Style; part of English Gothic Architecture. Tintern Abbey, as it is seen today, represented the architectural developments of its day, being built of Old Red Sandstone in a typical Cistercian ground plan which is charasterised by a cruciform plan and a rectangular shaped apse. The Abbey put Roger Bigod, 5th Earl of Norfolk’s coat of arms in the glass of the east window in token of gratitude as he was a generous benefactor in the rebuilding of the Abbey.

However the Abbey was disestablished in 1536. under the reign of Henry VIII. His ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries‘ ended the monastic life in England and Wales that was cherished in this Abbey particularly for more than four hundred years. Valuables from the Abbey were sent to the Royal Treasury and the lead from the roof was sold. Decay of the buildings had begun.

The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window 1794 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-18511794. The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window by J. M. W. Turner

No one has shown interest in the history of the site in the next two centuries and it wasn’t until the mid eighteenth century that the interest arose again, as it was popular to visit ‘wilder’ parts of the country. Wye Valley, where the Tintern Abbey is situated, is particularly known for its picturesque and romantic landscapes, and was often visited by ‘romantic‘ tourists; poets, writers, painters and other ‘romantic fanatics‘. The Abbey was overgrown by ivy which was considered especially romantic.

In 1745. John Egerton, later Bishop of Durham, started taking his friends on boat trips down the valley. The area, however, became more widely known following the publication of works by the poet Thomas Gray who traveled throughout Britain in search of picturesque landscapes and ancient monuments which he did found, in places such as Yorkshire, Wales and Scotland. These elements were not particularly valued in the 18th century, at the peak of the Enlightenment era. Gray’s writing on these subjects, and the Gothic details in works such as Elegy and The Bard, foreshadow the Romantic movement. Lake Poets such as Coleridge and Wordsworth taught people to value picturesque, Gothic and sublime. Some of the most famous poets, writers and artists of the day made the pilgrimage to the great sights such as Tintern Abbey, and were inspired by its romantic and magical sensibilities.

Wordsworth in particular was captivated by the area, having written a famous poem ‘Lines Composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey‘ or simply ‘Tintern Abbey‘ after a tour that took place July 13th, 1798. In the poem he expresses his fascination not only with Tinter Abbey, but with the River Wye also, and presented his philosophies on nature. Revisiting the natural beauty of Wye filled the poet with a sense of ‘tranquil restoration‘. He felt the ‘divine creativity‘ at these old ruins, gazing at the old red sandstone which changed colours from purple to grey in the sunset.

1790. Visitor to a Moonlit Churchyard - Philip James De Loutherbourg1790. Visitor to a Moonlit Churchyard – Philip James De Loutherbourg

Tintern Abbey inspired not only poets, but artists too, J.M.W. Turner most notably. Turner painted the Abbey many times, which is unusual as he favored painting seas and ships, but seems like he was powerless against the magical spirit of the old ruins. The wealth of decorative detail displayed in the walls, doorways and archways has surely been inspiration for painters, as it was for poets. Numerous other artists painted the abbey and made engravings, such as William Havell, Edward Dayes and William Henry Bartlet, but the most interesting among them is Philip James De Loutherbourg, a Franco-English painter famous for his landscapes and elaborate stage designs for London theatres.

In 1790. he painted a painting called ‘Visitor to a Moonlit Churchyard‘ which is very romantic and melancholic in its sensibilities, but also very dark and nocturnal. A figure is standing in the overgrown ruins of an abbey, identified as Tintern Abbey, contemplating the remnants of an old painting showing the Resurrection. Above the figure of Christ is sundial which casts a long moonlight shadow which, along with the ivy overgrown ruins, old graves and sculls, suggests the imminence of death, but also the possibility of salvation. This painting shows another reason for the popularity of Tintern Abbey; its emotive historical associations with the Protestant Reformation. Many elements of the painting; ambiance itself, ruins of an old abbey, the nocturnal setting, the idea – inability to resist transience, make this painting a Romantic one.

1820s Tintern Abbey by William Havell1804. Tintern Abbey by William Havell

The popularity of Tintern Abbey did not fade in the Victorian era thanks to Lord Tennyson, a much respected Victorian poet, who, inspired by his visit to the ruins of the abbey, wrote a poem ‘Tears, Idle Tears‘ in 1847. He said the convent was ‘full for me of its bygone memories‘, and that the poem was about ‘the passion of the past, the abiding in the transient.‘ Lord Tennyson developed the similar theme as Wordsworth in his poem ‘Tintern Abbey‘ written almost fifty years earlier. The final verse of Tennyson’s poem however reveals the true reason for melancholy and tranquility. It was the unhappy attachment to Rosa Baring, the love of his youth, that provoked such deep emotions.

Tears, Idle Tears

 Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

   Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.

   Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awaken’d birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

   Dear as remembered kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feign’d
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more!

1794. Edward Dayes, Tintern Abbey & the River Wye1794. Edward Dayes, Tintern Abbey & the River Wye

After inspiring artists and poets, and many other ‘romantic souls‘, old ruins of Tintern Abbey still reside in the picturesque and magical Wye Valley, old walls still change their colour from purple to gray in the sunset, Autumn rains still mourn over those sad ruins, wind still blows through the branches of hawthorn trees, old archways are still adorned by evening shadows in the dusk, moonlight still illuminates the old doorways and the spirit of the past pervades the old Abbey, now enriched with memories of many visits.

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2 Responses to “Romantic and Picturesque Tintern Abbey – Its Effect on Art and Poetry”

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  1. Romantic Welsh Landscapes – Paul Sandby and Richard Wilson | Byron's muse - 29th May 2015

    […] artists to capture it on canvas. I already wrote a post about Tintern Abbey – ‘Romantic and Picturesque Tintern Abbey – Its Effect on Art and Poetry‘, so don’t be shy, check it out as it is connected with the topic of this […]

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  2. Pre-Romanticism: Ruined Abbeys, Erotic Dreams and Strange Visions | Byron's muse - 29th October 2016

    […] starting points for contemplation about life and death. William Wordsworth wrote verses inspired by the famous Tintern Abbey, and J.M.W. Turner captured its delicate beauty overgrown with ivy a few time. We could say that […]

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