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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.4 (2002) 693-706

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The Commodification of Time in Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey"

Karen Hadley

Marjorie Levinson's influential historical materialist approach to William Wordsworth's "Lines: Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey" addresses the sociohistorical dimensions of the poem, often to the exclusion of formal and aesthetic considerations. More recently, Thomas Pfau's pragmatic materialist approach addresses the social dimensions of Wordsworthian poetry, while dwelling also on its formal and aesthetic dimensions. 1 Both materialist approaches address the poem in the context of the issue of time; neither approach, however, considers the issue of time from the perspective of materialism.

Contrary to what this might seem to indicate, compelling reasons exist for why the issue of time has relevance to the socioeconomic context in which the poem was written—given that the poem itself was first published in the same year as William Pitt's controversial tax on clocks and watches (1798-99), a tax imposed on a nascent industrial capitalist society increasingly reliant on the commodification of time as labor. Thus, my approach acknowledges the relevance of time as an issue both which addresses current materialist concerns, and which addresses the contemporary production of the poem. In this respect, I look beyond Levinson (who overlooks the materialist aspects of time to keep her sights on history) and Pfau (who somewhat uncharacteristically addresses the issue of time in exclusive relation to the poem's formal and aesthetic dimensions), to address both aesthetic and social concerns in the context of thinking about the time of "Tintern Abbey." 2 [End Page 693]

In particular, I address the poem's "abundant recompense," 3 which tradition and its critics have read alternatively as sublime, aesthetic contemplation, or as a blind "suppression of the social" (Levinson, p. 37). I claim that the poem's politics of time in fact suggest yet another alternative: that the text narrates the transformation of time into a commodity in which time "seems to come to be" formless, "measured duration." 4 Where the poem's "abundant recompense" has been taken as the "happy detachment" of "enduring values" (Levinson, p. 48), I suggest it represents equally an unhappy mutation of modern historical experience: the impoverished standardization of the commodity form. Assuming the interrelation of text and context, and the causal relation between commodification and modernity, I suggest that "Tintern Abbey"'s politics of time in fact demonstrates the poet's historiographic consciousness of and engagement with modernity.

The romantic critical tradition has read Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" as a poem about aesthetic contemplation, and about the "personal myth"5 of memory as salvation. In this line of thinking, the poet's aesthetic contemplation entails both an objective focus on the natural setting of the Wye Valley, the Abbey's surroundings, and a subjective focus on perception and imagination, between what the "eye, and ear. . . half create, and what perceive" (lines 105-7). The poet's use of memory details a shift from past to present, from the loss of childhood's "glad animal movements" (line 74) to the "abundant recompense" of a mature imaginative sensibility. Likewise, it details another shift from present to future, a projected continuity wherein the poet's sister Dorothy represents for him a remembered existence even in his anticipatory absence; toward this end, the poem concludes in his final entreaty to her:

    with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations!

(lines 144-6)

Famously reacting to this Arnoldian-inspired tradition, Levinson's "Insight and Oversight: Reading 'Tintern Abbey'" seeks to move beyond the traditional binaries of mind and nature by introducing a third function, history. Where she asserts the preeminence of the historical, however, her valorization of history relies on key temporal distinctions, for example where she claims that the poet's "discontinuous, inauthentic present" (p. 37) signifies [End Page 694] two related forms of historical exclusion: the poet's "blindness" concerning the "degree to which the subjective eye—the individual 'I'—is constituted by its...


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