Caves and Cliffs: The Wordsworth Picture Poems of 1818

By Tim Fulford
William Westall (1781-1850) was already a much-travelled man when Robert Southey first introduced him to Wordsworth sometime before 1818. Although he was still little-known, he had voyaged to Australia’s uncharted shores and made some of the first portraits of aboriginal people. He had been to China, taking part in the first diplomatic mission allowed into the country; he had explored India, sketching as he went.

He came to the Lake District as an artist experienced in many landscapes and master of many techniques—the oil painting, the watercolour sketch, the new aquatint process that allowed engravings to represent light and shade as never before. His meeting with Wordsworth turned out to be significant for both artist and poet: Westall was encouraged to depict the landscapes that mattered in Wordsworth’s poems; Wordsworth was galvanised into writing a new pictorial kind of verse.

Initially, the impetus came not from Westall’s Lakeland sketches, but from his engravings of a nearby region that Wordsworth had toured with his sister in 1799. The gorges, caverns and waterfalls of Yorkshire had enchanted Wordsworth then; in 1818 he re-encountered them in the form of Westall’s book of engavings, Views of the Caves near Ingleton, Gordale Scar, and Malham Cove, in Yorkshire. Among these magnificent aquatints was an image of Gordale Scar.

In the manner of Turner and Girtin, the vast cleft is painted from a low position, so the cliffs seem heightened; the air is full of cloud and mist, so the gorge seems mysterious; there are violent contrasts of light and shade, so the rocks appear threatening.

As well as Gordale Scar, Westall depicted Malham Cove an enormous inland basin featuring a massive tiered cliff, from the bottom of which a subterranean river issues.
Fig 11 malham cove
This strange arena, and the nearby caves, were romantic evocations of nature’s awe-inspiring majesty; Westall’s mastery of aquatint allowed him to render cliffs and clouds in a dynamic relationship of tones, the static rock played upon by seemingly moving shadows.

Wordsworth saw Westall’s Views soon after publication and was sufficiently impressed to write three sonnets in response to them. These were printed the following year in Blackwood’s Magazine, one being a response to the view of Gordale:

AT early dawn, or when the warmer air
Glimmers with fading light, and Shadowy Eve
Is busiest to confer and to bereave,
At either moment let thy feet repair
To Gordale chasm, terrific as the lair
Where the young Lions couch; for then by leave
Of the propitious hour, thou may’st perceive
The local Deity, with oozy hair
And mineral crown, beside his jagged urn,
Recumbent!—Him thou may’st behold who hides
His lineaments from day, yet there presides,
Teaching the docile Waters how to turn;
Or if need be, impediment to spurn,
And force their passage tow’rd the salt sea tides.

This Ovidian poem conjures up local spectres inhabiting the gorge in response to the brooding menace of Westall’s picture, as if the engraving so concentrated Wordsworth’s vision on the spot that he felt able to find the god in the stone, or see into the life of things.

The second sonnet described Westall’s picture of Malham Cove:

WAS the aim frustrated by force or guile,
When Giants scoop’d from out the rocky ground,
Tier under tier this semicirque profound.
Giants—the same who built in Erin’s Isle
That Causeway with incomparable toil!
Oh! had the Crescent stretched its horns, wound
With finished sweep, into a perfect round,
No mightier Work had gained the plausive smile
Of all-beholding Phoebus! but, alas!
Vain earth! false world! Foundations must be laid
In Heaven; for, ’mid the wreck of IS and WAS,
Things Incomplete and purposes betrayed,
Make sadder transits o’er Truth’s mystic glass
Than noblest objects utterly decayed.

It’s notable that the poem is impersonal: Wordsworth does not describe his own experience of the place or speak in the first person. He is not present in the scene because he is looking at its artistic representation—hence the emphasis on the tiered cliff, which Westall’s low point of view makes into a looming presence in the engraving. Indeed, Wordsworth alludes to the fact he is writing about a picture, taking his terminology from the visual aids that picturesque artists used to arrange perspective and colour. ‘Truth’s mystic glass’ (changed in later editions to ‘thought’s optic glass’) treats the poet’s knowledge as a matter of trained vision, as if the observing narrator, looking through Westall’s painterly eyes, is seeing the true meaning of the scene in a crystal ball or a magic Claude glass—an optical aid to insight as well as to sight. As in the Gordale sonnet, however, Wordsworth does not replicate the picture in words but uses it as a point of departure, animating the static image by introducing a temporal dimension. The cove, he thinks, is the remains of an excavation made by the giants (who rebelled against the immortals in Greek myth). The sublime scene, however strongly Westall renders its solidity, is turned into a trace of prehistory. The picture makes Wordsworth speculate on cause and effect, creation and decay, past and present: powerful though the cove is, its incompleteness is what he most notices. Indeed, this incompleteness makes its very profundity pathetic: for all its size it reminds the viewer of the vanity of earthly wishes and futility of mortal efforts, be they ever so gigantic. Wordsworth draws a gloomy moral conclusion: the cove is the wreck of unfounded ambition; only that which is founded upon heaven can be soundly completed, and even that, though ‘nobler,’ sadly decays.

Wordsworth responds to Westall’s depiction of an underground river in the remaining sonnet of the three, and there also his impulse is to put the picture into temporal motion, so that, above and below ground, the landscape discloses dynamic forces which link the natural and the spiritual:

PURE Element of Waters! Wheresoe’er
Thou dost forsake thy subterranean haunts,
Green herbs, bright flowers, and berry-bearing plants,
Start into life and in thy train appear:
And, through the sunny portion of the year,
Swift insects shine thy hovering pursuivants:
And, if thy bounty fail, the forest pants;
And Hart and Hind and Hunter with his spear,
Languish and droop together! Nor unfelt
In Man’s perturbed soul thy sway benign;
And haply far within the marble belt
Of central earth, where tortured spirits pine
For grace and goodness lost, thy murmurs melt
Their anguish, and they blend sweet songs with thine!
Fig 12 Waterfall in Weathercote Cave
Here Wordsworth is the Romantic Ecologist, portraying the utter (inter)dependence of man, animal, and plant upon the water cycle, which comprehends, as well as the earth’s surface, its centre (where some geologists thought there existed vast waters). Westall’s yawning chasm takes him on an imaginative journey into Dantean circles of hell, where he envisages even the damned souls being soothed by nature’s lifegiving water: the earth is a spiritual as well as material ecosystem, a ‘one life within us and abroad’.

Taken together, the three sonnets reveal that Wordsworth’s response to Westall’s pictures was a deeply philosophic one, concerned with central questions about heaven and earth, matter and spirit, a picturesque in which the static illustration of the beauty spot serves to freezeframe nature’s forces in action, giving the poet pause—allowing him to stand aside from the petty concerns that occupy his everyday consciousness. From the frozen moment created by the artist, he gains an opportunity to scrutinise what comes before and after the image and to intuit the invisible powers that have created the visible scene. This is a response to the ‘optic glass’ of the artist that is far more searching than the discussions of aesthetic effect made by picturesque theorists William Gilpin, Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight: it makes a tourist view the occasion for a profound and metaphysical apprehension of the world. It ensures that the artist’s images cannot be used merely for the consumption of landscape as a commodity: the ekphrastic verse forces the reader to think, both about what has made the scene he views and about what is at stake in the process of viewing.
Westall realised that his engravings had spawned some significant new poems, and was quick to pass manuscripts of the sonnets, unbeknownst to their author, to Blackwood’s. Wordsworth was annoyed at this breach of trust, but it was appropriate that the Views and the poems were announced together, for he could not have written as he did if he had not been deeply impressed by Westall’s pictures. And as it turned out, the publication was an augury of what was to come, since, sparked by what Westall’s Views had allowed him to achieve, Wordsworth went on to write more verse in the same vein—impersonally voiced responses to tourist sights that were familiar to readers from watercolours and prints.

It was a departure in which Wordsworth became a different poet, less a sublime egotist exploring his own youth or a balladeer voicing the rural community, more a picturesque poet whose topographic verse offered a virtual experience of named places as a starting point for investigation of the poet’s relationship to the history of the nation. After 1818, Wordsworth framed his poetry collections as verse tours—poetic kindred of prose guidebooks that offered verbal illustrations of beauty spots. He had become a poet who saw like a painter—as if the static, composed, snapshot view allowed him to intuit the traces of human history in a present-day place, or as if viewing landscape through pictures made him, like an archaeologist inspecting aerial photos, able to decipher the past and its legacy.

This excerpt from Tim’s book The Late Poetry of the Lake Poets (2103) is published by permission of Cambridge University Press.
Tim Fulford fell in love with Wordsworth’s poetry during an icy winter in Oslo in 1980, when the first books of The Prelude transported him back to the Lakeland fells he’d been walking since the age of thirteen. He’s been writing about Wordsworth, off and on, ever since. A professor at De Montfort University, Leicester, his most recent book is The Late Poetry of the Lake Poets (Cambridge, 2013). He’s a co-editor of the Letters of Robert Southey and also of the Letters of Humphry Davy. His next book, Romantic Poetry and Literary Coteries will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015.

1. ‘Three original sonnets of Wordsworth; suggested by Westall’s Views of the caves in Yorkshire’, Blackwoods Edinburgh Magazine, 4 (1819), 470-71.
2. Cf. the illuminating discussion of the sonnet’s revisionary relationship to Wordsworth’s early work in William H. Galperin, Revision and Authority in Wordsworth: the Interpretation of a Career (Philadelphia, 1989), pp. 12-13.