William Gilpin, from Observations on the River Wye

[Click on image to enlarge] Gilpin's Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, &c. Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; Made in the Summer of the Year 1770 initially appeared in 1782, went through five editions before the turn of the century, and was known on the Continent in French translation. It was the first in a series of five widely used guidebooks by the "Vicar of Boldre near Lymington"; the Wordsworths are thought to have carried this one with them when they visited the Wye and Tintern Abbey in July 1798. For all his emphasis on "the picturesque," Gilpin gives us a good idea of what the Wordsworths would actually have seen on their visit. His descriptions of "the poverty and wretchedness of the inhabitants" living among the ruins, a "great iron-works" introducing "noise and bustle into these regions of tranquillity" half a mile away, and the "oozy and discoloured" waters downstream (which some modern critics, probably wrongly, translate as industrial pollution) have prompted political readings of Tintern Abbey, making much of the fact that Wordsworth nowhere mentions any of these very unpicturesque elements of the landscape in his famous lines "written a few miles above" — i.e., upstream from — the situation of the abbey (NAEL 8, 2.258–62).

"Picturesque" in Gilpin's title means "like a painting" — especially a painting by Claude Lorrain. Gilpin's series of illustrated tourbooks in the 1790's codified picturesque landscape as irregular in line, rough and rugged in texture, intricate in detail, and sharply contrasting in light and shadow.

 

* * * During the whole course of our voyage from Ross, we had scarcely seen one corn-field. The banks of the Wye consist almost entirely either of wood or of pasturage; which I mention as a circumstance of peculiar value in landscape. Furrowed-lands and waving-corn, however charming in pastoral poetry, are ill-accommodated to painting. The painter never desires the hand of art to touch his grounds. — But if art must stray among them; if it must mark out the limits of property, and turn them to the uses of agriculture, he wishes that these limits may, as much as possible, be concealed; and that the lands they circumscribe may approach as nearly as may be to nature; that is, that they may be pasturage. Pasturage not only presents an agreeable surface; but the cattle which graze it add great variety and animation to the scene.

The meadows below Monmouth, which ran shelving >> note 1 from the hills to the water-side, were particularly beautiful, and well-inhabited. Flocks of sheep were everywhere hanging on their green steeps; and herds of cattle occupying the lower grounds. We often sailed past groups of them laving their sides in the water; or retiring from the heat under sheltered banks.

In this part of the river also, which now begins to widen, we were often entertained with light vessels gliding past us. Their white sails passing along the sides of woodland hills were very picturesque.

In many places also the views were varied by the prospect of bays and harbours in miniature, where little barks lay moored, taking in ore and other commodities from the mountains. These vessels, designed plainly for rougher water than they at present encountered, shewed us, without any geographical knowledge, that we approached the sea.

From Monmouth we reached, by a late breakfast-hour, the noble ruin of Tintern-abbey, which belongs to the Duke of Beaufort; and is esteemed, with its appendages, the most beautiful and picturesque view on the river.

Castles and abbeys have different situations, agreeable to their respective uses. The castle, meant for defence, stands boldly on the hill; the abbey, intended for meditation, is hid in the sequestered vale. * * *

Such is the situation of Tintern-abbey. It occupies a great eminence in the middle of a circular valley, beautifully screened on all sides by woody hills, through which the river winds its course; and the hills, closing on its entrance and on its exit, leave no room for inclement blasts to enter. A more pleasing retreat could not easily be found. The woods and glades intermixed; the winding of the river; the variety of the ground; the splendid ruin, contrasted with the objects of nature; and the elegant line formed by the summits of the hills which include the whole, make all together a very enchanting piece of scenery. Every thing around breathes an air so calm and tranquil, so sequestered from the commerce of life, that it is easy to conceive a man of warm imagination, in monkish times, might have been allured by such a scene to become an inhabitant of it.

[Click on image to enlarge] No part of the ruins of Tintern is seen from the river except the abbey-church. It has been an elegant Gothic pile; but it does not make that appearance as a distant object which we expected. Though the parts are beautiful, the whole is ill-shaped. No ruins of the tower are left which might give form and contrast to the buttresses and walls. Instead of this a number of gable-ends hurt the eye with their regularity, and disgust it by the vulgarity of their shape. A mallet judiciously used (but who durst use it?) might be of service in fracturing some of them; particularly those of the cross aisles, which are both disagreeable in themselves, and confound the perspective.

But were the building ever so beautiful, encompassed as it is with shabby houses, it could make no appearance from the river. From a stand near the road it is seen to more advantage.

But if Tintern-abbey be less striking as a distant object, it exhibits, on a nearer view (when the whole together cannot be seen) a very enchanting piece of ruin. The eye settles upon some of its nobler parts. Nature has now made it her own. Time has worn off all traces of the chisel: it has blunted the sharp edges of the rule and compass, and broken the regularity of opposing parts. The figured ornaments of the east-window are gone; those of the west-window are left. Most of the other windows, with their principal ornaments, remain.

To these were superadded the ornaments of time. Ivy, in masses uncommonly large, had taken possession of many parts of the wall; and given a happy contrast to the grey-coloured stone of which the building is composed: nor was this undecorated. Mosses of various hues, with lichens, maiden-hair, penny-leaf, and other humble plants, had over-spread the surface, or hung from every joint and crevice. Some of them were in flower, others only in leaf; but all together gave those full-blown tints which add the richest finishing to a ruin.

Such is the beautiful appearance which Tintern-abbey exhibits on the outside, in those parts where we can obtain a nearer view of it. But when we enter it we see it in most perfection; at least if we consider it as an independent object, unconnected with landscape. The roof is gone; but the walls, and pillars, and abutments which supported it are entire. A few of the pillars indeed have given way; and here and there a piece of the facing of the wall; but in corresponding parts one always remains to tell the story. The pavement is obliterated: the elevation of the choir is no longer visible: the whole area is reduced to one level, cleared of rubbish, and covered with neat turf, closely shorn; and interrupted with nothing but the noble columns which formed the aisles and supported the tower.

When we stood at one end of this awful piece of ruin, and surveyed the whole in one view — the elements of air and earth, its only covering and pavement; and the grand and venerable remains which terminated both; perfect enough to form the perspective, yet broken enough to destroy the regularity — the eye was above measure delighted with the beauty, the greatness, and the novelty of the scene. More picturesque it certainly would have been, if the area, unadorned, had been left with all its rough fragments of ruin scattered round; and bold was the hand that removed them: yet as the outside of the ruin, which is the chief object of picturesque curiosity, is still left in all its wild and native rudeness, we excuse, perhaps we approve, the neatness that is introduced within: it may add to the beauty of the scene; to its novelty it undoubtedly does.

Among other things in this scene of desolation, the poverty and wretchedness of the inhabitants were remarkable. They occupy little huts, raised among the ruins of the monastery, and seem to have no employment but begging; as if a place once devoted to indolence could never again become the seat of industry. As we left the abbey, we found the whole hamlet at the gate, either openly soliciting alms, or covertly, under the pretence of carrying us to some part of the ruins, which each could shew; and which was far superior to anything which could be shewn by anyone else. The most lucrative occasion could not have excited more jealousy and contention.

One poor woman we followed, who had engaged to shew us the monks' library. She could scarcely crawl; shuffling along her palsied limbs and meagre contracted body by the help of two sticks. She led us through an old gate into a place overspread with nettles and briars; and pointing to the remnant of a shattered cloister, told us that was the place. It was her own mansion. All indeed she meant to tell us was the story of her own wretchedness; and all she had to shew us was her own miserable habitation. We did not expect to be interested as we were. I never saw so loathsome a human dwelling. It was a cavern loftily vaulted between two ruined walls, which streamed with various coloured stains of unwholesome dews. The floor was earth, yielding through moisture to the tread. Not the merest utensil or furniture of any kind appeared, but a wretched bedstead, spread with a few rags, and drawn into the middle of the cell to prevent its receiving the damp which trickled down the walls. At one end was an aperture, which served just to let in light enough to discover the wretchedness within. — When we stood in the midst of this cell of misery, and felt the chilling damps which struck us in every direction, we were rather surprised that the wretched inhabitant was still alive, than that she had only lost the use of her limbs.

The country about Tintern-abbey hath been described as a solitary, tranquil silence; but its immediate environs only are meant. Within half a mile of it are carried on great iron-works, which introduce noise and bustle into these regions of tranquillity.

The ground about these works appears from the river to consist of grand woody hills, sweeping and intersecting each other in elegant lines. They are a continuation of the same kind of landscape as that about Tintern-abbey, and are fully equal to it.

As we still descend the river, the same scenery continues: the banks are equally steep, winding, and woody; and in some parts diversified by prominent rocks, and ground finely broken and adorned.

But one great disadvantage began here to invade us. Hitherto the river had been clear and splendid, reflecting the several objects on its banks. But its waters now became oozy and discoloured. Sludgy shores too appeared on each side, and other symptoms which discovered the influence of a tide. * * *


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