Wordsworth’s autobiographical shaping has always been an important part of autobiography,while we would think that a first-person account would yield the most accurate rendering of a person’s life. William Wordsworth is well known for writing about himself, but while Wordsworth shaped his story with the best of them, he did so for very different reasons. His goal was not self-aggrandizement but the attaining of a better understanding of his own life and the world around him, an understanding which he could then share with his readers.Indeed, his efforts in writing autobiographically were not egotistical but rather empathetic, as he reached out to the common man by writing about everyday happenings and encounters. Wordsworth constructs his autobiography by carefully shaping, and in some cases fabricating, his memories of actual life experiences. The success of his quasi-autobiographical efforts is evident in our ability as readers to draw from and sympathize with his fictionalized bank of experiences just as he did throughout his life.In looking to his past and present, Wordsworth received inspiration for his work.
Stephen Gill, a prominent Wordsworth biographer, asserted that for the poet “autobiography was the well-spring of his creative powers”. The first source of this spring is described as Wordsworth’s imaginative recounting of actual life experiences—what Gill refers to as “history-making”—and is most famously exercised in his seminal works “Tintern Abbey”.This poem was a living and working examination of Wordsworth’s own life. When Wordsworth says of his “Tintern Abbey” visit that “in this moment there is life and food / For future years,” he is referring to this spot of time’s ability to sustain him not only as a tender memory but as an instructive experience whose lesson he may keep with him throughout his life. Through “Tintern Abbey” Wordsworth finds an outlet to comment on the truths and purposes of life which can be universally applied.There are, of course, limitations to his autobiographical endeavors, as Wordsworth was very much aware, such as the issue of the veracity of his work.
Whether justified or not, many critics have critiqued Wordsworth for giving a false representation of what his life was really like. Gill says outright of “Tintern Abbey” that “factually it is not true” citing Wordsworth’s inaccurate representation of his school days as well as his supposed confidence in 1793—a disheartening time for Wordsworth—as being out of place in the reality of his life’s history.These inaccuracies are problematic, not only because they question the integrity of the rest of Wordsworth’s autobiographical accounting, but also because they put into question what effectiveness autobiography has at all if it cannot be based purely and entirely on what really happened.
Wordsworth was fully aware of this problem. Wordsworth clearly found autobiography to be a difficult exercise, and yet his continued attempts at it show that he found great value in it nonetheless. Despite these obstacles, Wordsworth turned limitations into opportunities.First of all, the time which separated Wordsworth from the events he was writing about can be seen on the surface level as an obstacle hindering him from an accurate recounting of those events, but Wordsworth took advantage of that time to let his thoughts and ideas develop and deepen. Experiences which may not have meant as much to him at first came to mean more to him as he progressed in life shows his lifelong commitment to continue revisiting and reanalyzing those life experiences which came to form a part of him.As he changed and developed, so did his self-awareness. Indeed, as the critic David Miall points out, the famous “Tintern Abbey” poem is not written at Tintern Abbey but rather, as the title suggests, “a few miles above Tintern Abbey. ” Wordsworth himself had to be removed and even elevated from the situation of his past to be able to see it in the perspective that allowed such a powerful reminiscence.
Distancing himself from the situation yielded him the clarity not only of an elevated viewpoint but also of hindsight, and as another critic said, this “distance serves Wordsworth as a principal means through which imagination exercises its power” and “enables him to perceive more clearly and more fully what is before him, to understand the significance of what he sees”. Wordsworth achieves suspension of time and poetic immediacy because he is so aware of the passage of time and the limitations and opportunities inherent therein.This sense of immediacy that Wordsworth creates for the reader is one of the fruits of his carefully reader-directed writing. In the case of “Tintern Abbey,” where someone else would see the difficulty of describing a place so important to the poet as accurately and as precisely as it should be, Wordsworth saw the opportunity to generalize and thus create a more accessible setting for his readers.Tintern Abbey could be anywhere—as Gill points out, the poem “strikingly avoids localizing detail” and while “it opens with the evocation of a particular place . . .
but for all its apparent specificity the scene remains generalized,” and thus universally accessible. By keeping the scene generalized, Wordsworth saves the natural elements of this famous locale (the Fall waters, the cliffs, the cottage-ground, etc. ) from being fettered to this one place, and thus they can be just as meaningful to the reader as they are to the author.Wordsworth’s autobiographical selflessness allows the moment of revisiting a familiar place to be just as much a part of our life’s story as it was a part of his. Furthermore, he writes in the first-person to allow the reader to join him above the Abbey and to experience what he experiences. As we, the readers, go through “Tintern Abbey,” it is we who hear the waters, we who behold the steep and lofty cliffs, we who repose there, etc.
Gill surmises that “the poet is concerned not with what is seen in itself, but with the eye that sees” (153). That eye is our own as much as it is Wordsworth’s, and Wordsworth often uses the first-person plural to invite us to see with him and join him in whatever experience he is undergoing. In the end, Wordsworth’s autobiographical writing, as real or as deliberately fictional as it may have been, served to fulfill his desire to understand life, even at its most common or vulgar roots, and then to help the reader to do the same.Wordsworth always “kept his eyes open and wanted to hear what people had to tell” and the fact that he “knew no certainty [whether in life or in philosophy] could be achieved did not stop him searching”. The underlying motivation of his autobiographical writing was his belief that “the past and the present will combine . . .
against all the adversities the future might bring, to sustain the ‘chearful faith that all which we behold / Is full of blessings”, a conviction which has affected and inspired millions of readers all over the world for over two centuries.