These lines describe a train journey from London to Folkestone on 27 September 1849. It was the end of a decade of remarkable expansion, when railways had developed from isolated lines to a national network, and the novelty of moving at speed through the countryside is evident in this poetry. Ironically though, the writer - twenty-one-year-old Dante Gabriel Rossetti - was heading into the past, to see the medieval architecture and paintings of Paris, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp. He was accompanied on the trip by William Holman Hunt and addressed his verse letters home to the recently formed Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Among these are poems inspired by the places they visited - Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Field of Waterloo etc. - but they are interspersed by accounts of the journey itself and the embodied experience of moving through landscape. Rossetti, as a painter, was also fascinated by the way the carriage windows framed what was visible, and how the railway line itself recomposed its surroundings. The reference in the lines above to wires and clouds reminds me of what I wrote here last week about Fog Lines. I will reproduce a few more examples of this landscape-in-motion poetry here. The full set of poem can be read at the Rossetti Archive.A constant keeping-past of shaken trees,
And a bewildered glitter of loose road;
Banks of bright growth, with single blades atop
Against white sky; and wires—a constant chain—
That seem to draw the clouds along with them
(Things which one stoops against the light to see
Through the low window; shaking by at rest,
Or fierce like water as the swiftness grows);
And, seen through fences or a bridge far off,
Trees that in moving keep their intervals
Still one 'twixt bar and bar; and then at times
Long reaches of green level, where one cow,
Feeding among her fellows that feed on,
Lifts her slow neck, and gazes for the sound.
Having reached Folkestone and sailed the 'the iron-coloured sea' to Boulogne, the travellers took a train to Amiens and thence to Paris.
From Paris they made an excursion by train to Versailles.The sea has left us, but the sun remains.
Sometimes the country spreads aloof in tracts
Smooth from the harvest; sometimes sky and land
Are shut from the square space the window leaves
By a dense crowd of trees, stem behind stem
Passing across each other as we pass:
Sometimes tall poplar-wands stand white, their heads
Outmeasuring the distant hills.
At the end of their stay in Paris, they took the train to Belgium. Rossetti struggled to sleep (insomnia would plague him in later life) and there were several stops at stations where he looked in some wonder at the train itself. 'The mist of crimson heat / Hangs, a spread glare, about our engine's bulk.' The landscape they passed on this journey was anything but picturesque.The wind has ceased, or is a feeble breeze
Warm in the sun. The leaves are not yet dry
From yesterday's dense rain. All, low and high,
A strong green country; but, among its trees,
Ruddy and thin with Autumn. After these
There is the city still before the sky.
Versailles is reached. Pass we the galleries
And seek the gardens...
A sky too dull for cloud. A country lain
In fields, where teams drag up the furrow yet;
Or else a level of trees, the furthest ones
Seen like faint clouds at the horizon's point.
Quite a clear distance, though in vapour. Mills
That turn with the dry wind. Large stacks of hay
Made to look bleak. Dead autumn, and no sun.
The smoke upon our course is borne so near
Along the earth, the earth appears to steam.
Blanc-Misseron, the last French station, passed.
We are in Belgium.
J. M. W. Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844
From Brussels they travelled to the old cities of Flanders. In Bruges Rossetti felt himself close to Van Eyck and Memling, listening to the same bells that had rung through the city when they were at work in the fifteenth century (perhaps he was thinking of the passage in Victor Hugo that I quoted earlier this month?) I will end this selection of quotations with lines that refer to the title of Turner's famous painting, first exhibited five years earlier. Writing recently in the LRB, Inigo Thomas says that John Ruskin, the great champion of the Pre-Raphaelites, 'never wrote a word about Rain, Steam and Speed, and he was never convinced that any train, or any idea of the ‘scientific people’, as he scornfully described them, was worthy of artistic representation.' In 1849 Ruskin was yet to meet Rossetti and you wonder what he would have made of these railway journey poems. They were only published decades later, two years after Rossetti's death, and given by his brother the rather prosaic title, 'A Trip to Paris and Belgium'.
The country swims with motion. Time itself
Is consciously beside us, and perceived.
Our speed is such the sparks our engine leaves
Are burning after the whole train has passed.
The darkness is a tumult. We tear on,
The roll behind us and the cry before,
Constantly, in a lull of intense speed
And thunder. Any other sound is known
Merely by sight. The shrubs, the trees your eye
Scans for their growth, are far along in haze.
The sky has lost its clouds, and lies away
Oppressively at calm: the moon has failed:
Our speed has set the wind against us. Now
Our engine's heat is fiercer, and flings up
Great glares alongside. Wind and steam and speed
And clamour and the night. We are in Ghent.