Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Art of Happiness 15

Peele Castle by Sir George Beaumont
Let me here quote, in full, a poem entitled Elegiac Stanzas by William Wordsworth and then make some comments afterwards:

Elegiac Stanzas

I was thy neighbor once, thou rugged Pile!
Four summer weeks I dwelt in sight of thee:
I saw thee every day; and all the while
Thy Form was sleeping on a glassy sea.

So pure the sky, so quiet was the air!                    
So like, so very like, was day to day!
Whene'er I looked, thy Image still was there;
It trembled, but it never passed away.

How perfect was the calm! it seemed no sleep;
No mood, which season takes away, or brings:             
I could have fancied that the mighty Deep
Was even the gentlest, of all gentle Things.

Ah! THEN, if mine had been the Painter's hand,
To express what then I saw; and add the gleam,
The light that never was. On sea or land,               
The consecration, and the Poet's dream;

I would have planted thee, thou hoary Pile,
Amid a world how different from this!
Beside a sea that could not cease to smile;
On tranquil land, beneath a sky of bliss.                

Thou shouldst have seemed a treasure-house divine
Of peaceful years; a chronicle of heaven;--
Of all the sunbeams that did ever shine
The very sweetest had to thee been given.

A Picture had it been of lasting ease,                   
Elysian quiet, without toil or strife;
No motion but the moving tide, a breeze,
Or merely silent Nature's breathing life.

Such, in the fond illusion of my heart,
Such Picture would I at that time have made:             
And seen the soul of truth in every part,
A steadfast peace that might not be betrayed.

So once it would have been,--'tis so no more;
I have submitted to a new control:
A power is gone, which nothing can restore;              
A deep distress hath humanized my Soul.

Not for a moment could I now behold
A smiling sea, and be what I have been:
The feeling of my loss will ne'er be old;
This, which I know, I speak with mind serene.  
Then, Beaumont, Friend! who would have been the Friend,
If he had lived, of Him whom I deplore,
This work of thine I blame not, but commend;
This sea in anger, and that dismal shore.

O 'tis a passionate Work!--yet wise and well,            
Well chosen is the spirit that is here;
That Hulk which labors in the deadly swell,
This rueful sky, this pageantry of fear!

And this huge Castle, standing here sublime,
I love to see the look with which it braves,             
Cased in the unfeeling armor of old time,
The lightning, the fierce wind, and trampling waves.

Farewell, farewell the heart that lives alone,
Housed in a dream, at distance from the Kind!
Such happiness, wherever it be known,                    
Is to be pitied: for 'tis surely blind.

But welcome fortitude, and patient cheer,
And frequent sights of what is to be borne!
Such sights, or worse, as are before me here.--
Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.

(A wonderful PowerPoint Presentation can be accessed here for an English Lit, Music or even a Human Development class on coping with grief.)


The above poem is a really wonderfully measured and balanced poem from the pen of the great William Wordsworth. (1770 – 1850)  While I will make some comments here about the poem itself from a literary point of view, the tenor and purpose of my comments are directed towards the poet's wonderfully mature acceptance of the death by drowning of his brother, Captain John Wordsworth, when his ship the East India Company's The Earl of Abergavenny was lost in 1805.  The poet can no longer see things wholly idealized anymore, because if I may anachronistically quote W.B. Yeats' words that "All is changed, changed utterly" which, of course, he used in a far different context.  Yet his words are so true for Wordsworth or for anyone who has been bereaved.  Like any human being, he has been devastated and has suffered his own spiritual shipwreck and his life is truly changed utterly!  Yet, after a year's grieving, his brother's death has revealed to him, however, the ennobling virtue of grief. Thus, a personal loss can be converted into human gain.  It is also worth remembering that Wordsworth wrote this wonderful elegy after viewing a painting, by Sir George Beaumont (1753–1827), of Peele Castle in a storm. The poet had lived near the castle for a month some years before.

This poem was composed a year after the shipwreck of The earl of Abergavenny - 1806.  Wordsworth indicated in a letter that he had first seen the picture of Peele Castle when staying at the house of the painter, Sir George Beaumont, in London in April of 1806. Sir George was a wealthy landowner and an admiring friend of Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.   He also had a fair reputation in his day as a landscape painter. Peele Castle is on the coast of Lancashire, near the village of Rampside where Wordsworth had spent a month his time visiting a cousin in 1796.

In this poem, Wordsworth utilizes three nature-related subjects (after all, nature is central to the Romantic sensibility) — the wind, the sea, and the sun—in "Elegiac Stanzas," and these topics also show up in other great works by the poet with similar descriptions that reveal Wordsworth's personal emotions connected with them. The poet-viewer-critic wishes that the painter of Peele Castle had given the scene a somewhat brighter and more peaceful setting, rather than a dismally dark, stormy and almost desperate aspect, and he demonstrates through this image his fondness for the light of the sun.   As I have said above, he had spent a month living nearby the castle and he had noticed how the place attracted "the sweetest" sunbeams.   In this poem, our great Romantic poet wishes that Beaumont had depicted this in his painting instead of the stormy darkness.

This sweet light, I recall, also appears in "Lines Composed upon Westminster Bridge" and "The Wanderer." In "Westminster Bridge," Wordsworth writes that "Never did the sun more beautifully steep/ In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill," when describing the morning light in the city. Here also, the narrator/viewer/poet looks at the light as a wonderfully happy part of nature. In "The Wanderer" Wordsworth writes that the wise man "beheld the sun/ Rise up, and bathe the world in light!" Within both of these pieces as well as in "Elegiac Stanzas," the sunlight gives a peaceful and joyous impression to both the narrator/poet/viewer/critic and the reader. The writer seeks to establish a warm, gentle ambiance in "Elegiac Stanzas."  

In this great elegy the wind blows fierce and strong. The painter's menacing wind disturbs the poet/viewer because he does not remember Peele Castle that way. The wind, I hasten to add, especially the stormy kind conjures up the power of nature.  Now the power of nature is often cruel as we know all too well.  I'm reminded here of the power of the storm scene in the wonderful tragedy King Lear by Shakespeare.  Also the stormy wind reminds the poet/viewer of the painting that his own dear brother, Captain John Wordsworth had perished in a shipwreck on the stormy seas.

The sea often tends to be depicted as an animal in works by Wordsworth, and is evidenced here in "Elegiac Stanzas" this way as well:

How perfect was the calm! it seem'd no sleep;
No mood, which season takes away, or brings:
I could have fancied that the mighty Deep
Was even the gentlest of all gentle Things.

However, it is to the coping with grief element of this poem that I really wish to comment on.  Without a shadow of a doubt our Romantic poet has dealt with his grief over the tragic loss at sea of his beloved brother John.  Read this poem slowly aloud, or, better still hit the link above and read the words aloud while playing the PowerPoint Presentation above at a high volume as the author of the presentation suggests.  Then, let the words seep into your heart meditatively.  Indeed, you will soon realise that indeed the poet/viewer has accepted, though not forgotten, the loss of his brother.  The stormy sea is a metaphor for the trials and tribulations of life, but after every storm there comes the calm.  Likewise, after every grief, properly coped with, comes the calm of acceptance.  The calm of acceptance is metaphorically expressed in the tranquil sun on a still ocean.  And so, having meditatively mulled over and pondered this wonderfully potent elegy, we can say, with the poet, the healing words of the final stanza:

But welcome fortitude, and patient cheer,
And frequent sights of what is to be borne!
Such sights, or worse, as are before me here.--
Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.

Also the stanza where he mentions his own loss or grief directly is very powerful indeed, and I will quote it in full here so that we can remind ourselves of the depth of the poet's loss and the inevitable depth of our own losses in life:

So once it would have been,--'tis so no more;
I have submitted to a new control:
A power is gone, which nothing can restore;
A deep distress hath humanized my Soul.

That the poet is transformed by the healing powers of nature is without doubt as is evidenced in the lines: "I have submitted to a new control."  Indeed, things are changed, radically and painfully so - John Wordsworth is dead and is no more, as he says in the line "A power is gone, which nothing can restore," and yet there is a deep healing at work in his soul, something ennobling and humanising at work as nature heals his grief: "A deep distress hath humanised my soul."

My fervent wish for any readers of this blog is that when it becomes your turn, or indeed mine, to suffer more in this life that we may take heart from these wonderfully healing words of the great William Wordsworth.

An interesting website to peruse on similar Ekphrastic Poetry is this one here

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