n emphasizing the role played by his own powers of perception, Coleridge exemplifies a major strain in English Romanticism. God brings Moses to Mt Pisgah and there permits him to look at the Promised Land of his people, and, similarly, in the Miltonic extension of the Pisgah sight, God also has Adam brought to "a hill/ Of Paradise the highest" from where the father of mankind receives a divinely sponsored vision of the future that compensates, to some degree, for the loss of Eden. Ruskin, like the writers of Evangelical hymns, speaks as though he too receives his sight of heaven in the presence of God. But despite the fact that Coleridge devotes the last two-thirds of his poem to urging the mountain and other elements of the neighboring scene to "Utter forth God, and fill the hills with praise," his Pisgah sight does not seem to take place in the presence of God. His deity seems to reside either hidden or at one remove from this natural landscape. Unlike Ruskin and Newman, Coleridge does not encounter some fact of nature which turns out to be a divinely instituted symbol capable of furnishing a sight of heaven. Instead, this poet encounters Mont Blanc, and after it blends with his "Thought,/Yea, with my Life and Life's own secret joy," he finds that his soul 'swelled vast to Heaven." Having been enraptured, he returns to something like his usual perception of things and urges the landscape to speak forth the God who created it. The very fact that in the course of his address to the landscape he appropriates the voice of God in the whirlwind from the Book of Job suggests how much perhaps, of the divine role he has had to assume in this endeavor. Part of the difference between Ruskin and Coleridge's mountain visions lies in the fact that Ruskin writes as a visionary and Coleridge as a mystic; that is, the author of Modern Painters casts his experience in the form of a detailed visually patterned scene, while the poet attempts to describe changes taking place in his soul. The most important point of difference, however, appears in the fact that Ruskin writes under the belief that God is present at his Pisgah sight, whereas Coleridge does not.
Although orthodox Pisgah sights have the direct sanction and sponsorship of God, characteristically romantic and modern ones seek the same education, solace, and reward in His absence. As M. H. Abrams has pointed out, such transference of Christianity's ideas to relatively secular matters provides a central theme of British and German Romanticism.
The tendency in innovative Romantic thought (manifested in proportion as the thinker is or is not a Christian theist) is greatly to diminish, and at the extreme to eliminate, the role of God, leaving as the prime agencies man and the world, mind and nature, the ego and the non-ego, the self and the not-self, spirit and the other, or (in the favorite antithesis of post-Kantian philosophers) subject and object.... The notable fact, however, is that this metaphysical process does not delete but simply assimilates the traditional powers and actions of God, as well as the overall pattern of Christian history.... In this grandiose enterprise, however, it is the subject, mind, or spirit which is primary and takes over the initiative and the functions which had once been the prerogatives of deity. [Natural Supernaturalism, 91-92]
Furthermore, according to Abrams, post-Kantian philosophical systems share a characteristic "plot form" which "parallels the exemplary Iyric form which Wordsworth, following the instance of Coleridge's Frost at Midnight, established in Tintern Abbey: an individual confronts a natural scene and makes it abide his question, and the interchange between his mind and nature constitutes the entire poem, which usually poses and resolves a spiritual crisis." Attempting, in the absence of a deity, to reproduce or reinterpret a structure originally based upon the coming together of man and God has certain obvious problems, the most basic of which is that one party must do all the work.
Although the leading figures of the first Romantic generations for a time believed they were up to such a task, few in the generations which followed had such grandiose conceptions of man and poet. Most of the artists and writers who employed typology during the reign of Victoria retained some form of Christian belief and hence prove extremely conservative within the context of Romanticism as defined by Professor Abrams. Those like Rossetti, Swinburne, and George Eliot, whose major works were written while they were non-Christians, had, however, a knowledge of typology and the habits of mind associated with its use at earlier stages in their careers. In relation to the Pisgah sight the religious condition of Victorian authors produced two very different effects: those with relatively firm belief employ the orthodox and extended forms of this type to describe dying visions or to create images which are windows into eternity; those without such belief, unable to pursue the grandiose enterprise of the early Romantics, employ the Pisgah sight and its analogue, the prospect, for the ironies potential in the situation, and even believers, such as Tennyson, will use them in this way when dramatizing troubled faith.
For example, Tennyson closes Idylls of the King by granting Bedivere, the last of Arthur's knights, a consolatory vision which is yet tinged with ironies. Bedivere is directly assisted by no divine or angelic voice, and his mount of vision is appropriately an iron crag in a wasteland. Having loyally obeyed his dying king at last, he finds that both the words and the higher faith which he has never been able to comprehend now spontaneously come to him, bringing comfort. Turning from the water on which Arthur has begun his voyage to Avilion, the good knight slowly climbs an "iron crag," which Tennyson transforms into a mountain of vision, to catch a last sight of the departing boat. As he climbs, this knight, who had once so easily discounted tales of Arthur's miraculous origin, cries out: "He passes to be King among the dead,/ And after healing of his grievous wound/ He comes again." Though mixed with doubt, which for Tennyson is the condition of all belief, this faith comes as a consolation and reward for Bedivere. Building to a climax of vision, Tennyson next permits the last survivor of the Round Table to have two more experiences that will support his faith in the difficult times to come. First,
from the dawn it seemed there came, but faint
As from beyond the limit of the world,
Like the last echo born of a great cry,
Sounds, as if some fair city were one voice
Around a king returning from his wars.
Thereupon he climbs once more, as Tennyson ends The Idylls of the King with a vision of the rising sun which intentionally echoes Moses's vision from Mt Pisgah and Adam's vision of the future in Paradise Lost.
Thereat once more he moved about, and clomb
Even to the highest he could climb, and saw,
Straining his eyes beneath an arch of hand,
Or thought he saw, the speck that bare the King,
Down that long water opening on the deep
Somewhere far off, pass on and on, and go
From less to less and vanish into light.
And the sun rose bringing the new year.
Like Tennyson's own mystical experience in In Memoriam, the sight of Arthur moving toward Avilion is stricken through with doubt even as it occurs; and yet it still suffices to provide faith for life. [See Carlisle Moore, "Faith, Doubt, and Mystical Experience in 'ln Memoriam,'" Victorian Studies, 7 (1963): 155-69; and George P. Landow, 'Closing the Frame: Having Faith and Keeping Faith in Tennyson's "The Passing of Arthur" ', Bulletin of the Rylands Library, 56 (1974): 423-42.] Good Sir Bedivere, the first made and last left of Arthur's men, has managed to keep faith with his lord after great trials, and as a reward he becomes aware of mystical and magical dimensions of existence which before were beyond his ken. Most important, his experiences on the mountain crag, however mysterious they may be to him, yet give him faith to live in a faithless age. "The Passing of Arthur," while making it clear how the Round Table failed, offers some cause for hope when it presents the trials, conversion, and Pisgah sight of the ordinary man, Bedivere.
Although the content of Bedivere's vision is inherently ambiguous, Tennyson is still using the high vantage point in a completely traditional manner. Bedivere does not see Arthur enter heaven but Avilion, and he is not himself dying -- though he has lost his former defining role and purpose as Arthur's knight. None the less, he clearly receives a privileged spiritual vision from this mountain height, and so the general features of the Pisgah sight are either present or suggested by analogues, such as Arthur's isle of rest.
In contrast, when Matthew Arnold's protagonist reaches a mountain height in "Empedocles on Etna" (1852), his vision is screened by the volcano's vapour, and rather than receiving a Pisgah sight, the philosopher remains conscious only of his own spiritual fatigue, isolation, and longing for release. Such uses of cloud or fog to symbolize a spiritual condition- particularly man's inability to reach beyond his limitations and attain spiritual truth -- are, of course, common in literature. For example, the world which had been clear and sunlit during Arthur's first battle becomes foggy and darkened during his last one in "The Passing" as
A deathwhite mist slept over sand and sea:
Whereof the chill, to him who breathed it, drew
Down with his blood, till all his heart was cold
With formless fear; and even on Arthur fell
Confusion, since he saw not whom he fought.
For friend and foe were shadows in the mist,
And friend slew friend not knowing whom he slew. (95-101)
And saddest were "the shrieks/ After the Christ, of those who falling down/ Looked up for heaven, and only saw the mist" (110-12).
As one might expect, devotional poets make use of the same image. Thus, James Montgomery's "For ever with the Lord!" (1853) first presents the implicit Pisgah sight which occurs when "faith's foreseeing eye" glimpses the "golden gates" of "The bright inheritance of saints,/Jerusalem above"; after which it laments, "Yet clouds will intervene,/ And all my prospect flies." Similarly, Toplady's "I saw, and lo! a countless throng" (1759-74), which begins with the speaker's yearning for a vision of heaven, mentions also that too 'soon the clouds return" as
Damp vapours from the valley rise,
And hide the hill of Sion from my view.
Standing on his mountain, Empedocles's beclouded spirit finds no divine sponsor, since he has grown beyond gods, and he hence receives no vision of the future, since he has come after any possible future. "No, thou art come too late, Empedocles," he tells himself, "And the world hath the day, and must break thee,/ Not thou the world" (2, 16-18). Like Moses, Empedocles possesses much knowledge and wisdom in advance of his time, but he does not lead his people, and those two contemporaries who recognize something of his abilities do not really understand him. He has, in other words, no people, no Aaron, and no Joshua. When the seer comes to the top of the mountain to die, to achieve final rest, he must die without consolation .
Since Arnold's poem contains so many ironic intonations of the Pisgah-sight structure, it seems possible that he consciously intended these echoes of the last moments of another, greater sage; but one of the problems we encounter in thus tracing extended secularized types through the literary tradition is that unless they are surrounded by other types or contain language quoted from the biblical text, we cannot be certain that any particular example is an extended type rather than a purely secular analogue. We are here exploring the hazy, ill-defined borders between religious and secular discourse in an age when these territories continually shifted -- within the entire culture, within economic and social classes, and within the life and experience of the individual. In exploring these territories, we encounter the entire problem of the Victorian audience. Whereas the student of the seventeenth century can assume that Milton's audience, or audiences, were aware of typology, the student of twentieth-century culture has to assume that such knowledge is found only in Evangelical popular culture and the work of specialists. The problem for the student of Victorian thought and the arts is to determine to what extent typology remains the property of "high culture" as well as "low," and for how long. One obvious approach to such a desired archeology of ideas lies in identifying the materials particular authors both read and drew upon for their writings; and in the case of certain authors, such as Ruskin, Browning, Newman, Keble, Hopkins, and Eliot, the results are easy to obtain. Another approach lies in a more complete investigation than has been possible in these pages of various elements of Victorian popular culture. We have examined hymns and sermons, like those of Spurgeon, which constitute a part of such culture, and for a more complete picture it will also be necessary to investigate middle- and working-class autobiography, political writings, and literature aimed particularly at the poor and less educated. Of course, even after these and other approaches have been clearly established, they will not necessarily lead us to a promised land in which every image and every work fits neatly into its assigned category, but the student of the last century's ideas and culture will have a much more accurate notion of how various segments of that image's or work's audience would have perceived it.
Last modified 4 April 2015