"Tintern Abbey" is probably the most famous poem by one of the most famous British Romantic poets. William Wordsworth was writing during the British Romantic period (critics always disagree about how exactly to define the beginning and end of the Romantic period, but suffice to say that it was from around 1785-1820). The Romantic period wasn't so named because the poets wrote a lot about love, but because they were interested in Nature, Beauty, Truth, and all kinds of emotions that you could capitalize to mark as Very Important. The Romantics included poets, novelists, and even some philosophers and other non-fiction writers. In short, it was a complicated and many-sided movement.
But, for our purposes here, we're going to focus on it as a literary movement. There are six principal poets associated with the movement: William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. The first three (Blake, Coleridge, and Wordsworth) get the credit for starting the movement, while the last three (Byron, Shelley, and Keats), who were younger, get the credit for carrying the movement forward.
So our man Wordsworth was just one of many poets and writers producing work during this relatively short period, but he stands out for a lot of reasons. First of all, he was one of the people who really got the movement rolling. William Blake had already published his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience (in 1789 and 1794), but honestly, no one really read them besides his close friends until well after his death. Wordsworth, on the other hand, was a popular and commercial success, even during his lifetime. In 1798, he published a slim little collection of poems called Lyrical Ballads with his friend and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge only contributed a few poems to the volume (including "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "The Nightingale"). The majority of the poems in the volume were by Wordsworth, and concluded with the oh-so-famous "Tintern Abbey."
And… boom. The Romantic movement really kicked off. The Lyrical Ballads were a huge hit, and the "Preface" that Wordsworth wrote at the beginning of the volume turned into a kind of poetic manifesto about what he and Coleridge were trying to do, poetically speaking. He said that they wanted to write using "the real language of men," instead of the highfalutin language that poets have been using since Day One. He also said he wanted to do away with the over-the-top metaphors and figurative language that poets so often use. Again, this was because he claimed that real people never actually talk that way. (What, don't you use elaborate extended metaphors all the time?)
But the Lyrical Ballads weren't just revolutionary in terms of the language they used; they also changed the whole idea of what poetry could and should be about. Instead of writing about kings, queens, dukes, and historical or mythological subjects, Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote most of the poems in Lyrical Ballads about common people, like shepherds and farmers. Some of the poems are even about the mentally ill or the mentally disabled, like "The Mad Mother," "The Idiot Boy," and "The Thorn."
"Tintern Abbey" is a little bit different in that it's about the poet himself, rather than a shepherd or distraught mother, but it is still representative of a lot of the changes Wordsworth wanted to make to the way poetry was written. It's written about common things (enjoying nature during a walk around a ruined abbey with his sister), and it uses a very conversational style with relatively simple vocabulary. It also introduces the idea that Nature can influence, sustain, and heal the mind of the poet. This idea also gets developed in The Prelude, a long, semi-autobiographical poem that Wordsworth worked on in some form for his whole life.
Before William Wordsworth wrote "Tintern Abbey" and the rest of the Lyrical Ballads, literature, and especially poetry, was written pretty exclusively for and about rich people. Sure, there are a few exceptions, but that was the general trend. Wordsworth's mission (not unlike Shmoop's) was to open up literature and to make it more accessible and enjoyable to normal, everyday people.
At first glance, "Tintern Abbey" might seem to have no possible relation to your life. It's about a guy reminiscing about a walk he took with his sister five years before. Well, not entirely. That's the excuse for writing, but it's not what the poem is about.
"Tintern Abbey" is about the ways that we change over time, and the ways that we try to figure out just when and how and why we've changed. In short, it's about trying to square the person you used to be with the person you've become. So, if you've ever stopped and asked yourself when you became the person you are, or wondered how or why your memories don't measure up with the facts, this is a poem for you.