It is two hundred and seventeen years since Wordsworth visited Tintern Abbey for the second time, five years after his first visit, and then composed his celebrated Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey; there have been some changes at the Abbey since. The vegetation that in Wordsworth’s time grew in and on the ancient walls has been cleared away, for it would eventually have ruined the ruins. But that, as you might have guessed, is not the greatest change.
I doubt that in 1798, the date of the poem, there would have been a notice informing him that ancient monuments can be dangerous, followed by an enumeration of the various hazards consequent upon visiting them, with little schematic pictures of these hazards to aid those lacking in reading comprehension. For example, there were “uneven, steep or narrow stairs” with a man falling backwards to the ground. Another man fell forwards down the “Unexpected drops,” and a second man backwards because of “Uneven and slippery surfaces.” Then there was a man who hit his head on the “Low headroom,” clutching it in pain afterwards, and another man clutching his head because he had failed to take account of advice to “Let your eyes adjust to the darkness.”
I regret that the notice impeded my Wordsworthian reverie. Sublimity wasn’t in it. Not “elevated thoughts; a sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused,” but rather a naggingly jejune question: exactly how many visitors a year are injured at Tintern Abbey? How many, for example, fall down “unexpected drops” and have to be rescued, or hit their heads on “low headroom” and suffer concussion? And then, because I am a doctor who is now enjoined to practice according to the scientific evidence, another unromantic question occurred to me: what is the evidence that a notice informing people of the hazards actually reduces the number of injuries?
I didn’t ask the very nice lady at the squat ugly gate taking entrance fees how many people had been injured in (or is it by?) the Abbey while she had been on duty: she would have thought I was mad, possibly dangerously so. (Another necessary sign? Beware of visiting madmen.) But even if the answer had been “None,” that would not have settled the matter, for it might have been argued that it was the notice—that I observed no one except me reading—that was the cause of this happy outcome.
Therefore the following experiment suggested itself to my mind: the notice should be displayed for a period and then taken down for a similar period, the experiment to last two years so that the results could be controlled for the season and weather, the muddiness of the ground and so forth. Of course, no experiment of this nature could be quite perfect, or establish answers beyond peradventure: one can never control for all the possible variables. “Further research” (and further funding) is always called for, but at least my experiment would give a first approximation to an answer.
Having had such thoughts aroused in me by Tintern Abbey, they continued for a time as if on rails: not “thoughts of deep seclusion” but of health and safety. Where were the defibrillators? I looked around and saw none. And what of wheelchair access? Again none. No models of the Abbey, either, for blind visitors to feel, as there are now cloth pictures below the paintings in some galleries for them to feel. I know that a few people might object on grounds of diminished beauty, but what is beauty to compare with health, safety, and equal opportunity? How many ecstatic transports by beauty are equal to one life saved? What if it were your life saved, what would you think then?
Further to reduce the sublimity of one’s thoughts, there is the car park that takes up one side of the Abbey grounds. I shouldn’t complain, perhaps, because I myself had come by car, though if the car park had been located a mile away instead of being immediately adjacent to the Abbey I should have been happy to walk, but it was all the others who had come by car that I really objected to. And I am afraid that, against all my principles and better judgment, I entered after lunch the kitsch gift shop in front of the Abbey and bought some Tintern Abbey fudge, both rum raisin and what was called “classic,” and ate too much of it too quickly, feeling slightly sick immediately afterwards. My only excuse was that the bag it came in did not warn me in advance that eating too much fudge too quickly could make you feel sick: though frankness compels me also to admit that this was not the first time in my life that such a thing had happened to me. I am, alas, a modern man, not very different from my peers.
Lost in the ruins themselves, however, some semblance of Wordsworth’s ecstasy at escaping “the fever of the world” in the valley of the “sylvan Wye” returns. Ruins, even of undistinguished buildings in grubby surroundings, are inherently thought- or emotion-provoking; few are totally unsusceptible to their intimations of mortality, to adapt slightly another Wordsworthian phrase. But dull would he be of soul—Wordsworth again—who would remain unmoved by these remains of a thirteenth-century Cistercian abbey, in whose precincts men renounced the world for prayer and contemplation. As one looks at the stonework tracery—could we produce the like today?—and the woods beyond that are framed in that tracery, one almost hears the silence interrupted only by the monks’ chant, the birds, and the “sweet inland murmur” of the river nearby.
Almost, but not quite. The world is too much with us, not only getting and spending, as Wordsworth put it, but by the noises it makes. The Duke of Wellington, who was born and died within a year or two of Wordsworth, regretted the coming of the railways (there was a station at Tintern, no longer in use, and trippers now have to come by motor vehicle) because he thought they would enable the lower classes to move about, “unnecessarily” in his opinion.
We laugh now at what the Duke said: at least we laugh if we are not infuriated or appalled by it. Who was he to say whether or not another person’s journey was necessary? What about labor mobility, allowing a man otherwise unemployed easily to move to where work is available? Should he be kept immobile merely to preserve the beauty of the countryside for those capable of appreciating it? And why should he not appreciate it himself, merely because he is of the lower class?
But at Tintern I could not quite avoid Wellingtonian sentiment insinuating itself into my mind (without, of course, applying it to myself), partly conjured by Wordsworth’s poem:
And now, with gleams of half-extinguish’d thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity . . .
For the fact is that, at Tintern, the air is never quite free of traffic noise, no doubt the louder for its being in a valley, a single car disturbing the peace a minute at a time, for you can hear the roar of the tires on the tarmac a long way off as it approaches and recedes. Not “the still, sad music of humanity,” but the perpetual noise of mass society—of which, I admit, I am a full member.
The private car is supposed to be a symbol of personal liberty, as were the railways once so regretted by the Duke. No doubt the symbolism is partially accurate, but in a small and densely populated country such as England, the profusion of motor vehicles—34.6 million, giving an average traffic density more than five times greater than that of the United States—has not had a beneficial aesthetic influence on the country, to say the least. A larger and larger number of people travel to see less and less: aesthetically, the country is an ass’s skin, contracting and contracting, to borrow Balzac’s image. The exigencies of travel (I include myself in these strictures) spread the most dispiriting mess everywhere, and little remains untouched.
Nor does travel to that little untouched mean that people appreciate it. I arrived at Tintern in an agitated state of mind, caused not as in Wordsworth’s case by “the fretful stir unprofitable,” but by the immense quantity of litter strewn along the side of the road practically the whole of the way from my home, about seventy miles through the still-beautiful countryside of Shropshire, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, and Monmouthshire. The “hedge-row, hardly hedge-rows, little lines/ Of sportive wood run wild” are now also long, extended litter bins into which people from their cars sling bottles, cans, wrappers, and plastic bags (that catch in the hedges and flap in the wind), either not caring whether they remain there or assuming that someone else will clean up after them, as infants do if not corrected.
It does not take many steps of the imagination to see in this littering a phenomenon of deepest political and social significance: both the littering in the first place and the failure to do anything about it, indeed the lack of general or publicly expressed concern about it, despite the private anguish of innumerable citizens.
The failure of the public authorities to keep roadsides clean as once they did is but a single instance of the growing incompetence and moral corruption of the British public administration, itself a consequence of national decomposition. Though nearly a half of the British economy is in the public sector, so elementary a duty as cleaning up litter is quite beyond it, and the bloated administration has allowed matters to go so far that they would be reparable only by a colossal effort.
But what of the people themselves who litter? There must be thousands, millions of them. What is going through their minds as they hurl the packaging of their refreshments into the still-exquisite beauty of the Wye Valley, on to “the banks of this delightful stream”? Either they don’t care, or they don’t see: and, if they don’t see, is it because the real world is now less important to them, psychologically less real, than the virtual world in which they increasingly live and move and take their being? And why so much need for refreshment in the first place? What permanency of appetite makes it so imperative for them to carry food and drink in their vehicles when they are seldom more than a few minutes from a shop, cafe, or restaurant?
One might have hoped, at least, that litter and littering found no intellectual defenders, but not so. Writing in the Guardian newspaper a few days before my trip to Tintern, an academic historian and journalist named Kathryn Hughes criticized a woman called Kirstie Allsopp who had seen a man throw litter from his car and then put the number of his license plate on Twitter. I am not myself in favor of this kind of public denunciation, but such was only part of the criticism the author of the article leveled at the Twitterer:
It strikes me that behind Allsopp’s apparently commonsense approach to people who litter the streets lies the toxic conviction that her values are the right ones, the ones by which the rest of us should live.
In other words, it is a matter of genuine debate whether people should litter the streets and countryside or not: perhaps littering is right, or at least not wrong, after all.
The writer continued in best philosophical or academic style:
To adapt the anthropologist Mary Douglas’s classic formulation of dirt, litter is merely matter out of place. Restore it to its rightful surroundings—the wastepaper basket, the street bin, the recycling box—and order is resumed.
And then comes the clinching argument:
But who decides what that proper place is? Kirstie Allsopp, apparently, and anyone else who feels that their values are so obviously the right ones that it gives them the moral authority to take the law into their own hands when they come across someone who thinks differently.
Setting aside the ethics of the Twittering in such a case, the author wants to leave us with a radical doubt as to whether littering is wrong. Perhaps it is ethically permissible to throw your cans and bottles “Among the woods and copses . . . with their green and simple hue.”
Certainly, when I have asked litterers to desist, some of them have suddenly turned moral philosopher and asked me for the Cartesian point from which I infallibly deduce that littering is wrong. They have been treated all their lives to arguments such as that of Kathryn Hughes and though they might never have read her they will certainly be able to produce her argument exactly.
For the upper-middle-class Hughes, Allsopp’s real sin was her “smug middle-class morality.” Hughes failed to appreciate that this implied that, for her, proletarians, ex officio, are messy and dirty. In other words, she has looked on the British lower orders as did the Duke of Wellington and pronounced them, as he did, the scum of the earth. Her main difference with the Iron Duke is that she professes to see nothing wrong with being the scum of the earth, though of course she doesn’t really believe this. She only writes it in the Guardian.
Alas, I am more different from Wordsworth than is she from the Duke of Wellington. I cannot say:
Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration . . .
No: the world is too much with me.