Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Avalanche in the Grisons

Whilst Samuel Palmer was appending poetic quotations to his rural scenes, J.M.W. Turner was thinking about the relationship between poetry and painting and adding verse to his exhibited works. A nice example of his use of poetry is Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage – Italy (1832) which had as its caption Byron’s lines:
‘… and now, fair Italy!
Thou art the garden of the world.
Even in thy desert what is like to thee?
Thy very weeds are beautiful, thy waste
More rich than other climes’ fertility:
Thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin graced
With an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced.’

The sculptor Richard Westmacott described this painting as ‘the most magnificent piece of landscape poetry that was ever conceived.’

John Gage has discussed the use Turner made of poetry – both by established writers and his own work (see J.M.W.Turner: ‘A Wonderful Range of Mind’ chapter 7). The verse tends to be used to amplify the allegorical or historical content of the landscapes, thus helping to raise them above the level of mere topography. This can be rather off-putting, although there are effective examples, such as the Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons (1810) which was exhibited with Turner’s lines
The downward sun a parting sadness gleams,
Portenteous lurid thro’ the gathering storm;
Thick drifting snow on snow,
Till the vast weight bursts thro’ the rocky barrier;
Down at once, its pine clad forests,
And towering glaciers fall, the work of ages
Crashing through all! Extinction follows,
And the toil, the hope of man – o’erwhelms.

Turner’s poetry didn’t really need to describe the landscape itself so it is not surprising that the main purpose was to draw out moral points, as in the last line above. However, there are some examples of purely descriptive verse, as in these unpublished lines to complement a view of Minehead, Somersetshire (c1820) (‘welkin’ is an archaic term for the sky):
In oranges, reds and golden glows the rich welkin cheek,
Blue claims but little share in the sky,
While distant hills maintain the powerful dye
In all its changes, even the russet down embrowned
By midday sun, or rock or mossy crownd;
And as [?] sunk hamlet smoke assumes a tone
That, true to nature, art is proud to own…

This poetry is clearly still very much that of a painter and it is hard to argue that it could stand alone without the image. Gage downplays the temptation to compare Turner’s verse to his celebrated Romantic contemporaries, seeing him rather as one of the many artist-poets at that time: Henry Fuseli, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Henry Tresham, Richard Westall, Thomas Gisborne, Charles Lock Eastlake, Martin Archer Shee…

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