Wordsworth’s “Elegiac Stanzas” is a textbook ekphrastic poem, reflecting on a painting of a castle perched over a stormy sea. Wordsworth himself, according to the note, spent a month across the water from the castle, during which period the water was glassy in its stillness. Though a sailor might disagree, to a poet, the scene must have been picturesque; twelve years later, Wordsworth has lost a brother to a shipwreck and seen a painting of the same scene, this time with the castle lashed by waves that seem to be pulling it down with them. Wordsworth writes,
Ah! Then, if mine had been the Painter’s hand,
[. . .]
I would have planted thee, thou hoary Pile
Amid a world how different from this!
Beside a sea that could not cease to smile;
On tranquil land, beneath a sky of bliss.
Wordsworth’s brother did not die as the result of a storm; Wikipedia instead notes that the Earl of Abergavenny wrecked on a sandbar as the result of an incompetent pilot. The water there is shallow enough to leave masts protruding, and the wreck had to be blown up in order to prevent its becoming a hazard to other vessels; the ship went down probably within sight of shore and, according to a near-contemporary engraving of the event, in clear weather. The stormy sea, as deadly as it can be, was not an agent in Wordsworth’s bereavement. His fixation on it is therefore strange to me. If his had been the painter’s hand, and he could change whatever he liked, why would he eliminate bad weather? Why not invisible hazards lurking just below the surface? My best guess is that Wordsworth considers a storm-tossed sea an ignominious grave, as he would prefer an “Elysian quiet, without toil or strife”, but that notion is undermined by how he chooses to describe the painting: “the deadly swell” threatens to swamp the laboring hulk beneath a “rueful sky” in a “pageantry of fear” (47-48). Over and over again, Wordsworth makes the storm out to be the enemy, and I would love to know if anyone else caught something I didn’t — I’m stumped.