winburne's "Evening on the Broads" (1880) exemplifies a prospect poem with a particularly problematic relation to the tradition of the Pisgah sight. Indeed, if the poet alludes to this type, he does so even more distantly than does Arnold. Here we cannot solve the problem of the author's intention by reference to either his knowledge or audience, since we already know that Swinburne, the aggressive atheist, frequently employs secularized and ironic typological allusions that would have been immediately recognized by most of his readers. Therefore, perhaps it is best to consider "Evening on the Broads" [text of poem] as a secular analogue to the Pisgah sight and use it to determine the nature of an extreme counter-example to the situation, structure, and imagery of the type.
Swinburne's poem takes place at that instant immediately before sunset when the sun apparently hovers above the horizon before plunging the world into darkness with its disappearance. Swinburne, who is the poet of borders and transition states, stands at the point where sea and land meet and contemplates the transition from light to dark, making that transition a metaphor for his spiritual state.10 Whereas the Pisgah sight and traditional prospect take place high on a mountain, the traditional location of moments of revelation, "Evening on the Broads" unfolds with the speaker-narrator standing upon a sandbank. God gave Moses the Commandments on Horeb and his view of the Promised Land on Pisgah; at God's command, Michael leads Adam to the highest point in Paradise and there he receives a vision of the future. Similar experiences of revelatory vision occur to Petrarch on Mount Ventoux, Dante on the mount of Purgatory, Spenser's Red Cross Knight on the mount of Contemplation, Rousseau's St Preux in the Valois, Wordsworth on Mount Snowdon, and Coleridge, Shelley, and Ruskin in the Alps. In contrast, Swinburne stands on a low rise between two bodies of water, and his spatial position turns out to be emblematic of his vision of bleakness which contains no promised land. Like the speakers in Heine's "Fragen" (1827), Amold's "Dover Beach" (1867)
Mallarmé's "Brise Marine" (1887), Pessoa's Ode Maritima (1915), and so many other works of the past hundred or so years, Swinbume descends to the level of the sea; and, like so many other would-be visionaries, day dreamers, and questers at sea level, he discovers that his prospect includes shipwreck.
Swinburne attempts a complete fusion or interpenetration of speaker and landscape, for, as Bruce Redford has pointed out, he "dissects his tortured mind in terms of the natural phenomena, the sun, the lagoon, and the wind, on which he broods."11 We later discover that the speaker is standing upon a sand bank with a salt lake at his back as he looks across the ocean. When the poem opens, however, all we discover is an apparently shipwrecked sun hovering above a wasteland:
Over two shadowless waters, adrift as a pinnace in peril,
Hangs as in heavy suspense, charged with irresolute light,
Softly the soul of the sunset upholden awhile on the sterile
Waves and wastes of the land, half repossessed by the night.
This introductory sentence sets forth the symbolic topography of the poem and introduces its chief images which are those of shipwreck, darkness and light, and the wasteland. Redford explains:
These image systems simultaneously reflect and communicate the poem's central themes: indecision, weariness, angst, and a pervasive death-wish.... The preliminary quatrain dramatizes the speaker's lack of balance, structure expressing thought. The syntax underlines the twin themes of division and anxious ambiguity: participial phrases float free from the central core of subject-verb-predicate, "the soul of the sunset hangs softly," itself split up and adrift in the quatrain as a whole.
After sketching in the content of the vision -- what he sees Swinburne probes his metaphor again and again, denying and then affirming the likeness of the sunset to shipwreck. It soon becomes apparent that although the speaker purports to be describing the exterior world, he is doing so in terms that make his description an image of himself, an elaborate paysage interieure of a man and an age suspended between past and future, day and night, life and death and fearing both. Thus, although "Evening on the Broads" does not contain a literal deathbed scene or dying vision, its fusion of the speaker with the hesitantly dying day creates much the same effect as this one component of the Pisgah sight.
As the poem unfolds, Swinburne, who has made time stand still by expanding the instant of sunset, paints a wasteland waiting to be inspirited. Drawing upon the imagery of the Gospel of St John and of Genesis, the poem leads up to the return of chaos and night as though the spirit will move once again upon the face of the deep; but in a final irony no such creative inspiriting takes place, for the only wind that blows upon the waters is masterless. In "Evening on the Broads" the isolated and troubled speaker looks out from his mountain of vision and receives only a prospect of universal death.
His attempt to commence a perceptual, visionary voyage brings him only an encounter with himself in a view of metaphorical shipwreck.
Swinburne's dark landscape meditation reminds us how much the nature of the perceived object in such works can vary. Depending upon the spiritual condition of the figure standing on mountain or shore, the Pisgah sight and its secular analogues may take the form of Christ, a true promised land, a true but transitory vision, a natural object which serves as either a symbol of eternity or an escape into it, a mere hidden reef or other dangerously illusory goal, self-reflection or self-encounter, or simply the blackness or blankness of an essentially opaque nature. Since Moses alone could literally see the Promised Land of Canaan from Mt Pisgah, all later applications of this structure must solve the problem of how to find suitable equivalents to that literal geographical vision. What is so compelling about the vision that Moses received on Mt Pisgah is how close it comes to joining present and future, desire and fulfillment. If it were any closer, the prospect would no longer be in the future at all. It would be something presently enjoyed and would lose most of its appeal. By turning the Pisgah sight into an essentially spiritual, atemporal situation, Christian authors often try to make up for the new temporal distance of fulfillment with reassurance that one can escape time at any time.
Would-be voyagers and visionaries without belief also try to escape present time, but, as the example of Swinburne reveals, they abandon attempts to reach some objectively existing eternity and withdraw into the self. Meditation and reverie become the vehicles of the inward voyager who usually journeys without hope.12 The image seen from the mountain is essentially an image of hope and faith -- an image, that is, of matters not present in either physical or chronological senses. Even Moses does not possess or fully experience what he observes. To reach something not present one must move across or through time, and for this defining human situation the ancient topos of the ship voyage presents an obvious metaphor13 But for Baudelaire's "Le Voyage" (1859), Arnold's "A Summer Night" (1852), and so many of Swinburne's poems, the idea of voyage immediately brings to mind the possibility of shipwreck: hope calls into being ideas of failure, and the search prompts one to envisage a prospect of disaster.14 Indeed, except for Coleridge's assurance that some supematural force validates his discovery of self in a vision of the mountain, his landscape meditation is not very different from that one Swinburne composed almost eighty years later. All turns on that supposed supernatural link or authentication, for without it the mind of the poet remains a visionary castaway trapped on a Crusoe island of self. No matter how -- or where -- it attempts to explore, the imagination ends up exploring the self if it does not have such a divinely guaranteed way up and way out. Christian poets who employ the Pisgah sight and its analogues found their enterprises on the assumption that some divine factor binds together man looking and what man perceives. Without such a guarantee, the poet encounters the threat of radical solipsism; and, as Abrams, Bloom, and Hartmann have argued, the exploration of this problem constitutes the core of a major tradition in European, British, and American literature.15
Even those Victorian authors who do not concern themselves with such problems occasionally draw upon the Pisgah sight as a means of conveying the difficulties of the artistic imagination. For example, both Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband Robert emphasize that the poet, like Moses, is set apart from other people. The prophet is literally exalted -- raised above -- other men because his Pisgah sight, like his earlier reception of the Law, takes place on a mountain height, and both Brownings take this physical condition to represent the essential isolation from other men which is the condition of prophet and poet. Whereas Donne and Milton had employed Moses as a figure for the divinely inspired poet as a means of claiming special status for their own works, these Victorian poets do so to underline the ironies and costs of their position. When Robert Browning compares himself to Moses in "Pisgah Sights" he does so, for example, to state that since the divinely inspired vision comes just before death, it comes too late to communicate; and in earlier poems that use Moses as a figure for himself as poet, such as "One Word More" (1855), he had long stressed that the poet's vision separated him from those for whom it was intended. Like Baudelaire in "L'Albatross" (1859), Browning believes that the poet's vision, that which makes him a poet, makes it hard for him to feel comfortable with other men who do not understand him. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning asks in Aurora Leigh (1856):
Who, getting to the top of Pisgah-hill,
Can talk with one at bottom of the view,
To make it comprehensible?
The Romantic conception of the artist as an inevitably isolated figure received added life and appeal during the Victorian period when so many self-conscious prophets and sages were torn by the occasionally opposing pressures of self and audience.16
John Ruskin, who frequently felt the painful position of the isolated prophet, employs another element in the Pisgah-sight structure -- the perceiver's separation from the land of promise -- when telling the tale of his own life. In Deuteronomy God solaces Moses with a distant vision of the Promised Land, and so the sight of the unreachable goal becomes an image, an example, of divine mercy. But the very fact that Moses finds himself in a situation in which he is told, in effect, "look but don't touch" has obvious potential for ironic commentary upon man's ability ever to achieve his goals. When poets therefore take the Pisgah sight as a paradigm of either human existence or the human imagination, they suggest that the best man can hope to do is catch sight of an unobtainable goal. 17
Thus, Newman's "Day-Labourers" (1833), which appears as "The Prospects of the Church" in The Lyra Apostolica (1836), argues that "E'en Moses wearied upon Nebo's height" and that, therefore, only Christ, "of GOD's messengers to man,/ Finish"d the work of grace, which he began" . In contrast, Ruskin concerns himself in his autobiography Praeterita (188~8), not with failed goals, but with the cost of learning to see with the cleared eye of an artist and prophet. He therefore arranges his autobiography in a series of juxtaposed Paradises Lost and Pisgah sights, thus implying that vision has been his reward or consolation for loss of Edenic childhood joy. Ruskin includes a series of deaths and losses in the first part of Praeterita, and, having lost so much to death and time -- so many people, so many objects, so many sources of joy -- he implies that he gains reward only in the ability to see. Throughout Praeterita Ruskin presents the many stages through which he passed as he ascended his ladder of vision. Some of these stages take the form of descriptions of how experiences at Norwood and Fontainbleau taught him to draw and hence see better; but many of the most important ones, such as his first sight of the Alps, take the form of visionary glimpses of a distant paradise which are presented as Pisgah sights. But the cost is that Ruskin, who presents himself as the Spectator of his own life, must always remain at a distance from the promised land that exists only as an image and not as a reality. Like the Lady of Shalott, Ruskin can weave his tapestries only by contenting himself with images.
Last modified 4 April 2015