Friday, May 31, 2013

Master Drawings II: Tintern Abbey

On the occasion of the Ashmolean's exhibition, Master Drawings (May 25th-August 18th, 2013), in Oxford. Pictures selected from the Guardian's slideshow of May 24.

In the face of JMW Turner's portrait of the inner arches of the Cistercian abbey on the banks of the Wye river, it would seem obvious to discuss Wordsworth's poem from the dawn of English Romanticism; but since the feeling prevails that I am not in the right position to treat it justly yet, here is an alternative.

To address the artistic aspect first, Turner's depictions of Tintern Abbey are predominantly sown over London — in the British Museum and in the Victoria and Albert Museum as well as in the Tate. This painting may be from the Tate but the Ashmolean's (Transept of Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire, which was first exhibited c. 1795) is highly similar; only the Ashmolean one is framed so that the dark interior side of an archway gives the edifice a brooding mood, plunged inside instead of portrayed from a discreeter distance. Obviously it's from Turner's most civilized early period; he revisited the subject peripherally in 1828 and produced something far more diffuse.

Illustration: The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window (1794), by J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851)
(pencil and watercolour on paper, 3.58 × 2.55 cm, in the Tate Gallery, London)
[Source: Wikipedia]


Illustration: "Tintern Abbey (Welsh: Abaty Tyndyrn) was founded on May 9, 1131. This is a view of the ruins from the East just as the sun rises over the hills. The inner courtyard is in view." by Saffron_Blaze of Flickr (May 31, 2011) [via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 licence]


Illustration: "Tintern Abbey from hillside above road by W.A. Call. Monmouth Museum" ("Date unknown"; since Wikipedia article on Tintern Abbey states that the picturesque ivy was cleared in 1914, it must have been taken afterwards. The photographer lived from 1868 to 1965.) [via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 licence]

But, to turn from Tintern Abbey specifically to William Wordsworth and associations with his poetry:


Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

EARTH has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!


Though Canaletto's earlier painting of the bridge is very beautiful indeed, and it is the same edifice which Wordsworth would have seen as well as the same configuration of the Thames' banks before their modernization due to the Great Stink in 1858 (though, to be honest, I don't know how or if that stretch of the river in fact changed), the charm of Westminster Bridge and its outlook in more recent times has rather passed me by. That, however, is a stupid subjective judgment, and here are pictures so you can judge for yourself. ('Smokeless' air is nonetheless an unlikely prospect in a smoggish urban conurbation nowadays.) But in general terms the scene sounds lovely and the description is easy to apply to places whose picturesque quality one finds less complicated. If — for example — one substitutes the Wye for the Thames and rowboats for ships and cottages for towers, etc., it suits the Abbey, too.

The poem itself was published in 1807 as part of Poems, in Two Volumes. It is, I think, very 'catchy'; at any rate, the first to seventh or eighth lines revolved around my head after we 'took' the poem in Grade 12. Mr. S. singled out the last two lines for special consideration, since they mark a climax of exuberance and the interjection lends it an immediacy which the more formal 18th century style of poetry may not have tolerated. I think that they torpedo the poem — though 'mighty heart' has welcome comedic value — but then it's easy enough to appreciate what one likes and ignore the rest.

Strangely enough, or not so strangely considering that it is grouped under the same Anglomania theme in a poetry anthology which I have somewhere in my room at present, "Composed upon Westminster Bridge" reminds me of Shakespeare's famous lines for John of Gaunt in Richard II (Act II, Sc. I):

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of Majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise;
This fortress built by Nature for herself,
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed, and famous by their birth.


'Transept of Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire', Joseph Mallord William Turner | Tate
The picture itself.

Tintern Abbey gallery [Wikimedia Commons]
Photographs and drawings of Tintern Abbey, UK.

Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798 | Representative Poetry Online [University of Toronto]
Annotated text.

Tintern Abbey [Wikipedia]
A précis of the building's history. N.B. Wales's (and Turner's and Wordsworth's) Tintern Abbey has the same name as the Tintern Abbey in County Wexford, Ireland, but is obviously not exactly the same thing and it has an article of its own.

520. Upon Westminster Bridge. William Wordsworth. The Oxford Book of English Verse
Text of the poem at Hopefully it's copyright-free since I, er, copied it for this post.

Richard II (play) [Wikiquote]
Text of various passages from the Shakespearian drama, including the "This royal throne of kings," etc. passage which I quoted.

Extra reading: Criticism of Wordsworth's Poems
Commentary: Francis Jeffrey on William Wordsworth and further Commentary [Spenser and the Tradition: English Poetry 1579-1830, Virginia Tech]
In which an old-school poetry critic, a contemporary of Wordsworth, rages against the dying of the light in general, and Wordsworth in particular, for the Edinburgh Review. That Wordsworth was not too fond of Francis Jeffrey either may be proved by a passage in a letter in which he calls him a "depraved Coxcomb," "greatest Dunce" in Great Britain and "assuredly the Man who takes most pains to prove himself so." (From Francis Jeffrey, Philip Flynn, ed., via Google Books, 160.)

The works of Lord Byron complete in one volume - Baron George Gordon Byron Byron [Google Books]
A short criticism of Wordsworth's Poems, in Two Volumes, by the fellow poet. Its clear and brief prose offers an interesting contrast to the writing style, as far as I've read it, of contemporaneous critics, and there are a few lusty insults thrown in which lend it more stimulation; but Byron does not mention "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge" specifically either.

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