If mine had been the Painter’s hand . . .

Sir George Beaumont’s “Peele Castle in a Storm.”
An 1808 illustration of the actual sinking.

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.

Traces of Dorothy Wordsworth

I read “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tinturn Abbey . . .” for the first time during my senior year of high school, and today was the first time I have read it since. I remember my surprise the first time around: I entered the poem anticipating a love letter to some picturesque ruins, and had my expectations perfectly satisfied until around line 115, when I discovered that the heart of the poem was Dorothy, William’s sister. In the intervening three years, my memory distorted to prioritize the surprise, and when I saw the poem on this class’s syllabus, I remembered it as “the poem in praise of Wordsworth’s sister, set in some mountains that he thinks of fondly due to their association with her.” This time around, though, I was surprised almost from the beginning: there is much less of Dorothy than I’d remembered in this poem. In fact, halfway through, I began doubting that I had remembered the right poem at all.

In isolation, I would not have thought much of it: for three years, in fact, I had thought of “Lines . . .” as a powerful testament to Wordsworth’s love for his sister. Within the context of Wordsworth’s other work, though, I look more critically upon this piece: given how much of his work was inspired by or directly drawn from Dorothy’s journals without credit given, it seems inadequate for Wordsworth to merely praise the memories that her voice and eyes evoke in him. There is no acknowledgement of her role as the deeply eloquent chronicler of their lives: Dorothy is a prop, a repository for memory, and nothing more. Even in the final line, ending with the claim that he loves the setting “for thy sake!”, Dorothy must share that honor with the inherent beauty of the landscape, and the whole compliment is wrapped up in the assumption that “Nor wilt thou forget”. I understand that an itemized list of Dorothy’s merits hardly belongs in a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” but it seems strange and somewhat disrespectful to me that, of all the feelings overflowing a few miles above Tinturn Abbey on the banks of the Wye, gratitude apparently did not make the list.

Letterpress Printing and Devilry

As a printer’s devil myself, I was delighted to find in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” yet another link between letterpress printing and Satan. Twice, Blake refers to the acid used to etch metal plates as corrosive Hellfire, and note eight on page 165 discusses briefly the likely origin of the term “printer’s devil.”

The link between the two is stronger than acid-bath etching or ink stains on fingers, though: when Johannes Gutenberg first made public his system of moveable type, the near-immediate backlash was that the product was devilishly perfect. Scribes made mistakes, thereby demonstrating humility before God: a printing press creates clean, functionally identical products with comparative ease, and was considered reminiscent of the pride and arrogance of Satan.

The type itself, an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony, is born of fire, melted and cast into individual sorts, again with prideful precision; then, when it has outlived its usefulness, due to wear, damage from being dropped, or simply having been separated from its font, it is placed in the “hellbox,” where it waits to be melted down and reborn.

Letterpress printing even has its own patron demon, Titivillus, responsible for everything from a “q” being tossed in with the “p”s or a line of type going missing somewhere along the way to, in a seventeenth century edition of the Bible, the word “not” being omitted from “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

I think it would amuse Blake that Titivillus originally haunted scribes and was blamed for their mistakes, the same mistakes that would later be viewed as holy once an alternative came into play. Just as the “just man” must be governed by both reason and passion, prudence and energy, soul and body, so was Blake’s own trade beset by contradiction: its mistakes were demon’s work, while its successes were unholy hubris.