Study Guide: The Romantic "Conversation Poem"

Frost at Midnight / This Lime Tree Bower My Prison / Tintern Abbey

All three poems are examples of the Romantic "Conversation Poem"

Frost at Midnight

He is awake, late at night. Winter. Infant son sleeping near fire. He catches a glimpse of a piece of ash fluttering in the fireplace grate (an old English superstition says this is a sign that a visitor will arrive). Gets him thinking. Reminds him of the time when he was a boy, sent away to school in London, seeing the same vision. Recalls how hard it was to grow up in the city, away from home in the country and his sister who he played with.

Following this "flashback," turns to his son, says how happy he is that child will grow up in the natural world. Attempts to describe the powerful, healing, guiding force of nature. (Note: Most difficult part of the poem; try to read carefully and decipher: what is the nature of Nature? what does it do for us? how?)

Last stanza:
Describes how "all the seasons of the year" - first summer, then spring, finally winter - will bring new joys for his son to experience, as they once did for him. Notice how the last stanza regresses back toward winter, leading him and us back to the present. Ends with same scene it began with, feels different now.

This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison

A little background: true story.
Friends from London (Charles and Mary Lamb) are visiting the Coleridge's country home. They plan to go on a hike to a lovely spot by a waterfall. Coleridge's wife is heating milk and spills a pan on his foot, burning him. He can't walk on it, so he has to stay behind when they go on the hike.

Poem opens with him sitting by himself in the garden, under a lime-tree. Feeling sorry for himself because he is missing out on all the great things they're seeing. Remembers being in places they will visit, and describes the powerful effect that these scenes have had on him. Glad that they will experience what he has experienced. Most grateful that Charles, who is a city-dweller, will have the opportunity to experience Nature this way and gain from it what he has gained (do you see the similarity to Frost at Midnight?)

He continues to imagine what they're seeing: the sun setting, lighting up the clouds; the flowers; the light in the sky; the landscape almost making the presence of God visible. Happy for them. Then notices that all the while, he too has been surrounded by scenes of natural beauty: the garden, the sun shining on the leaves, the ivy twining in the trees, the bees humming among the flowers. . .realizes that the healing, consoling, revealing power of Nature is always with him, expanding and enriching life ("No plot so narrow, be but Nature there"), offering consolation. He doesn't even feel so bad about missing out on what he imagined earlier.

In this newfound state of enlightenment, he notices a bird ("rook") flying overhead, towards his absent friends, and he blesses it, knowing that they will soon see it, and experience it as he has (notice the similarity to the ending of Tintern Abbey below).

Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey

background : Describes event that took place on a walking tour of western England with sister Dorothy. Climbing in the hills above the Wye River valley, they came over a ridge and saw the valley below, with the ruined medieval church of Tintern Abbey visible in the distance. Wordsworth had visited the place once before, 5 years ago, and now he's back. The memory of the place had always been important to him. It has had an effect on him, and it still does, but the effect is different now because he is different. The poem is about those changes and the power of places like this to affect us and influence our lives.

lines 1-50
Description of the scene as it appears to him now, just as it did five years ago - the valley with the river below, the cliffs, the fields and farms, and the humble farm houses. At line 21, he states that even though he has been away, memory of this vision of it was always with him.

In lines 23-49 he speaks of three "gifts" that memory of this scene has given him. First, it has been a comfort to him in the midst of dark hours (compare Frost at Midnight). Second (coming in at the end of line 30 and through line 35), he speaks of "feelings of unremembered pleasure" and says these have most likely, without him even realizing it, made him a better person. Feels he owes whatever is good in him to the good he has received from this place.

Finally, at the end of line 35, he speaks of a particular mood or feeling, quite mysterious, that sometimes comes over him - a moment of transcendence in which all of the burdens of life are lightened and a kind of spiritual calm, peace, and awareness of the true "life of things" is revealed. This too he considers a "gift" from this place. Read lines 35-49 carefully.

Lines 50-65
Recognizes that having seen this place has always helped him in past; hopes that now, seeing it again, it will help him in other ways in the future (what he calls "life and food for future years.")

Lines 65-83
This is the "flashback sequence" in the poem. Recalls seeing the place five years ago, during a troubled time of his life. At that time he was not so much seeking comfort as fleeing from the pain of life. He says in line 71-74 that nature had always been his only comfort, even as a boy, and 5 years ago, in his most troubled hours, he sought its comforts desperately. Lines 75-83 describe this desperate need and how this place appeared to him in that state of mind.

Lines 83-110
Back in the present. He is calmer, more at peace, viewing the scene now in a more mature way. Recognizes that it has lost some of the passionate intensity it had before, but he also senses that there is something new for him here now. At lines 87-110 ("For I have learned...") he attempts to define it. Describes true power of nature - why it was able to do what it did 5 years ago, and why it will always have this effect. By lines 109-110 he is calling nature "The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, / The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul / Of all my moral being." Please read this section carefully.

Lines 110-146
At line 113 the poet turns to address his companion (in real life, his sister Dorothy, but expressed here as "thou" - that means you, too!). He is moved by the hope and realization that she, seeing the scene for the first time, will receive from it what he did when he first encountered it. This section is a powerful statement of the philosophy of nature that Wordsworth, Coleridge, and other Romantic followers sought to evoke.

Lines 146-end
Finally, he closes with the thought that one day, perhaps when he is long gone, she will revisit this place, as he is revisiting it now; perhaps she too will feel then what he feels now, and so their lives will remain connected through the mystic power of this place.