Research Articles

‘Uncertain notice’: Unearthing Wales in William Wordsworth’s ‘Simon Lee’ and ‘Tintern Abbey’



One of the defining attributes of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s 1798 Lyrical Ballads was the poets’ focus on subjects of ‘low and rustic life’, and especially on the potentials for enhanced human understanding accessed through the language of people of such social stations. This essay examines Wordsworth’s ‘Simon Lee’ and ‘Tintern Abbey’, two entries set in Wales that in contrast to the collection’s manifesto do not feature the voices of the local inhabitants. Recent scholarship has effectively compounded the Welsh locals’ status: in addition to the comparatively little consideration given to the Welsh social history that would cover these topics, scholars have also at times re-set the poems in England, and even suggested that the Welsh inhabitants actually symbolise or otherwise represent English people. Minimising, disregarding, and altering the poems’ Welsh settings limits, and even misshapes, any meaningful poetic analysis. I argue that in each poem a deep understanding of the local cultural histories of the respective Welsh setting – Cardiganshire in ‘Simon Lee’ and Monmouthshire in ‘Tintern Abbey’ – produces a more comprehensive appreciation of the poems themselves. Furthermore, rather than acting as signs of a people unchanged since antiquity (another consensus among many literary scholars), these poems’ muted Welsh residents record the results of far-reaching social change, specifically the loss of traditions, community life, and economic stability. Such an approach enhances our understanding of wider contexts, including: Wordsworth’s authorship; Romantic Wales; the Welsh in the English imagination; and eighteenth-century Wales. I demonstrate these points by incorporating primary materials to complement my accounts of each poem, including contemporary histories of Cardiganshire in my examination of ‘Simon Lee’, and English poems of the period on Tintern Abbey and Monmouthshire in my examination of ‘Tintern Abbey’.

Keywords: British Romanticism, Lyrical Ballads, poetry, Cardiganshire, William Wordsworth, Monmouthshire, poverty, industry, eighteenth-century Wales

How to Cite: Jones, M. C. (2023) “‘Uncertain notice’: Unearthing Wales in William Wordsworth’s ‘Simon Lee’ and ‘Tintern Abbey’”, International Journal of Welsh Writing in English. 9(1). doi: