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The Mountain Sublime from the Enlightenment to Romanticism: The Bard in Thomas Gray and John Martin 1

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The Mountain Sublime from the Enlightenment to Romanticism: The Bard in Thomas Gray and John Martin 1
Robert Baldwin

Associate Professor of Art History

Connecticut College
This essay was written on Sunday, Oct, 23, 2010. Please put Martin’s The Bard on the screen when reading this.

John Martin’s The Bard (1817) takes up a poem written sixty years earlier by that leading example of gentle and refined Enlightenment musing and picturesque landscape, Thomas Gray. In his most popular poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1750), Gray developed a pastoral tribute to the simple virtue and happiness found in the English countryside “far from the maddening crowd”. A few lines help set the stage for his very different landscape poem, The Bard while reminding us of the strong vogue for pastoral culture and picturesque in eighteenth-century literature and landscape art.

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,

The plowman homeward plods his weary way,

And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,

And all the air a solemn stillness holds,

Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,

And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds:

. . .

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,

Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;

Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile

The short and simple annals of the poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,

Awaits alike th' inevitable hour.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

. . .

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,

Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;

Along the cool sequester'd vale of life

They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

In Gray’s Elegy, great human accomplishments crumble to dust as the poet sits alone at dusk in the village graveyard and reflects on the little gravestones, simple lives and quiet virtues of the villagers. While Renaissance court poetry might have risen up heroically to triumph proudly – as literature - over the human mortality it contemplated, Gray exploits his location in a pastoral graveyard to absorb poetry into a humble, middle-class meditation on the finality of death. Instead of rising gloriously into an eternal life of the mind and a secular immortality achieved through art as seen in the courtly tombs of Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel, Gray’s poetry sinks with “pastoral” modesty, humility, and Stoic resignation into a sad but tranquil acceptance of death.

It is that poem’s sharp and illuminating contrasts to Gray’s later poem, The Bard (1757), which make it useful to set the stage for discussing bardic landscapes from Gray to John Martin (1817).. Spurning the peaceful pastoral setting surveyed in his Elegy, Gray’s Bard chose the wild landscape of the Welsh highlands while moving far away in time to the “primitive” gloom of the late thirteenth century when the Edward I, King of England, invaded and annexed Wales. While Gray’s Elegy offered quiet contrasts between the political ambition of the city and the simple life of the English countryside, his Bard sharply opposed a brutal and corrupt political ambition to a timeless world of poetic virtue and genius. Gray’s figured this genius an old yet robust Welsh bard who stood defiantly high on a Welsh mountain where he raged against the tyranny of Edward I and the invading armies seen far below. If the Elegy put poetry in pastoral tension with the modern city, the Bard transformed this into a deadly struggle by recalling the obscure Welsh legend that Edward I ordered the death of every Welsh poet. Gray repeated this legend in a note accompanying his poem.
"This ode is founded on a tradition current in Wales that Edward the First, when he completed the conquest of that country, ordered all the bards that fell into his hands to be put to death." 2
In his private notebooks, he offered the following prose summary.
The army of Edward I., as they march through a deep valley, and approach Mount Snowdon, are suddenly stopped by the appearance of a venerable figure seated on the summit of an inaccessible rock, who, with a voice more than human, reproaches the king with all the desolation and misery which he had brought on his country; foretells the misfortunes of the Norman race, and with prophetic spirit declares that all his cruelty shall never extinguish the noble ardour of poetic genius in this island; and that men shall never be wanting to celebrate true virtue and valour in immortal strains, to expose vice and infamous pleasure, and boldly censure tyranny and oppression. His song ended, he precipitates himself from the mountain, and is swallowed up by the river that rolls at its feet."
Here is the opening of the poem and its final lines. I have omitted the tedious and obscure middle section where the bard condemns centuries of Planatagenet monarchs before suddenly and, within the dynamic of the poem, inexplicably extolling Queen Elizabeth.
I. 1.
"Ruin seize thee, ruthless King!

Confusion on thy banners wait;

Tho' fann'd by Conquest's crimson wing,

They mock the air with idle state.

Helm, nor hauberk's twisted mail,

Nor e'en thy virtues, Tyrant, shall avail

To save thy secret soul from nightly fears,

From Cambria's curse, from Cambria's tears!"

Such were the sounds that o'er the crested pride

Of the first Edward scatter'd wild dismay,

As down the steep of Snowdon's shaggy side

He wound with toilsome march his long array.

Stout Gloster stood aghast in speechless trance:

"To arms!" cried Mortimer, and couch'd his quivering lance.

I. 2.
On a rock whose haughty brow

Frowns o'er old Conway's foaming flood,

Rob'd in the sable garb of woe,

With haggard eyes the poet stood

(Loose his beard, and hoary hair

Stream'd, like a meteor, to the troubled air),

And with a master's hand, and prophet's fire,

Struck the deep sorrows of his lyre.

"Hark, how each giant oak, and desert cave,

Sighs to the torrent's awful voice beneath!

O'er thee, O King! their hundred arms they wave,

Revenge on thee in hoarser murmurs breathe;

Vocal no more, since Cambria's fatal day,

To high-born Hoel's harp, or soft Llewellyn's lay.

I. 3.
"Cold is Cadwallo's tongue,

That hush'd the stormy main;

Brave Urien sleeps upon his craggy bed;

Mountains, ye mourn in vain

Modred, whose magic song

Made huge Plinlimmon bow his cloud-topt head.

On dreary Arvon's shore they lie,

Smear'd with gore, and ghastly pale:

Far, far aloof th' affrighted ravens sail;

The famish'd eagle screams, and passes by.

Dear lost companions of my tuneful art,

Dear as the light that visits these sad eyes,

Dear as the ruddy drops that warm my heart,

Ye died amidst your dying country's cries--

No more I weep. They do not sleep.

On yonder cliffs, a grisly band,

I see them sit, they linger yet,

Avengers of their native land:

With me in dreadful harmony they join,

And weave with bloody hands the tissue of thy line.
. . . [The poem continues with more verses spoken by the Bard condemning Edward I’s successors in the Plantaganet line of English kings. Without explanation, this history of the English monarchy suddenly turns positive with the rise of the Protestant Tudors, especially Queen Elizabeth. After promising the return of Welsh poetic glory and virtue, the Bard ends the poem by jumping to his death.]

III. 3

. . .
Fond impious man, think'st thou yon sanguine cloud,

Rais'd by thy breath, has quench'd the orb of day?

To-morrow he repairs the golden flood,

And warms the nations with redoubled ray.

Enough for me; with joy I see

The different doom our fates assign.

Be thine despair, and sceptred care;

To triumph, and to die, are mine."

He spoke, and headlong from the mountain's height

Deep in the roaring tide he plung'd to endless night.

The Bard was not well received. Educated critics like Samuel Johnson complained about its many historical misrepresentations and found fault with its language, which seemed derivative. 3 For the general public, the oblique reference to so many distant historical events was of no poetic interest. The condemnation of an English king, however remote in time and religious belief (Catholic) and however obscure historically, may have also undermined the poem’s reception. Gray tried to minimize this by moving from the bad Platagenet kings to the good Tudor monarchs but this only added another gratuitous historical excursion while adding an inconsistent note of political flattery.). In any case, the antithesis between power and poetry, politics and individual artistic vision was too extreme for contemporary audiences in 1757. So was the idea of poetic genius committing suicide instead of quietly contemplating death in the picturesque serenity of a Christian graveyard.
All that was to change over the next four decades. Between 1760 and 1765, the Scottish poet James Macpherson published English translations of what he claimed was a lost Gaelic epic written by a hitherto unknown poet, Ossian. He continued “translating” these lost writings until 1865 when he published The Works of Ossian. Although these poems were immediately denounced as forgeries by conservative critics like Samuel Johnson, they were widely accepted throughout Europe as authentic epics of a lost, medieval, bardic past. Their popularity capitalized on the new rise of the Gothic sensibility and the sublime, both of which featured Macpherson’s sublime landscapes of the medieval Scottish highlands.
The new popularity of Ossian and other medieval Scottish bards inspired an artistic interest in the heroic bard, invariably male, elderly, and placed in sublime landscapes far from the pastoral countryside. Some of these images depicted Ossian. Others celebrated more generic bards from the medieval past. 4 In the same years, late eighteenth-century artists took a new look at Gray’s Bard which was engraved in England three times between 1775 and 1800. With each work of art, the composition grew more sublime, heroic, and dramatic. 5

The Rise of Romanticism

With the rise of Romanticism after 1790 and a new willingness to place worldly ambitions and poetic genius in sharp and often tragic opposition, the suicide of Gray’s bard now worked in his favor. So did the idea of his solitary genius, perched high in a sublime mountainous landscape from which he surveyed a lower world. In the writings of William Blake, the heroic vision of the solitary bard – Blake’s preferred term for “poet” – was simultaneously a force of nature and a towering vision which rose above the confused world. Blake’s Songs of Experience (1789) famously began by setting the voice of this distinctly modern, Romantic bard amidst a primeval and pristine landscape.

Hear the voice of the Bard,

Who present, past, and future, sees;

Whose ears have heard

The Holy Word

That walked among the ancient trees;
Calling the lapsed soul,

And weeping in the evening dew;

That might control

The starry pole,

And fallen, fallen light renew!
'O Earth, O Earth, return!

Arise from out the dewy grass!

Night is worn,

And the morn

Rises from the slumbrous mass.
'Turn away no more;

Why wilt thou turn away?

The starry floor,

The watery shore,

Is given thee till the break of day.'
The song-cycle ended with a separate song on the higher genius of the bard himself. Here Blake abandoned the modest and quiet musings of Gray’s pastoral elegy as well as the spirited political criticism of his later bard. In their place came a very different kind of Romantic poet defined in medieval terms yet presented in strikingly modern terms. The Romantic bard claimed a distinctly modern individuality and spiritual-intellectual freedom no less revolutionary than the individual citizen’s voice unleashed that very year in the French Revolution. And yet the bardic voice did not offer a republican redemption found in fraternity and civic participation. Intensely utopian and spiritual, the bardic voice hailed itself as the sole spiritual guide capable of leading a new generation out of a universal, worldly darkness and confusion into the light of truth.


Youth of delight! come hither

And see the opening morn,

Image of Truth new-born.

Doubt is fled, and clouds of reason,

Dark disputes and artful teazing.

Folly is an endless maze;

Tangled roots perplex her ways;

How many have fallen there!

They stumble all night over bones of the dead;

And feel--they know not what but care;

And wish to lead others, when they should be led.
All this new Romantic praise for the bard culminated in John Martin’s The Bard (1817). While taking Gray’s poem as its starting point, this painting broke new ground in transforming the mild, more picturesque sublime of Gray’s mid-eighteenth-century poem into the apocalyptic sublime of full-blown Romanticism. This is most apparent in the immense space created by towering mountains which rise from the depths of valleys into the highest heavens and recede from peak to peak into a hazy infinity.
Ignoring the Welsh highlands, Martin clearly modeled his landscape on the Swiss Alps which had recently emerged as a major destination for English travelers thanks to the Romantic Alpine poems of Byron and Shelley, among others, and the Alpine landscapes of Koch and Turner. 6 Spurning the tranquil and majestic “Alpine sublime” developed by Koch, Martin took the more dramatic Alpine compositions of Turner and transformed them with his own, quasi-Apocalyptic fervor. In so doing, he gave Alpine landscape the emotional turmoil found in Blake and Byron. And in all this, he took Gray’s Bard into completely new territory, leaving behind all traces of eighteenth-century restraint, decorum, reason, and quiet morality.
The colossal scale of the mountains and the rushing waterfalls were now the sounding board of an equally colossal bardic voice which thundered down, Jehovah-like, from on high and which in Martin’s composition rushed outward along with the waterfall pouring into our space. Imbedded in a vast nature, poetry, music, and bardic inspiration all acquired a new universality, authenticity, and power. Although none of this would have been possible without the Enlightenment culture of “natural law” and the late Enlightenment projection of feeling into nature, Martin’s Bard has nothing in common with the tidy Alpine communal idylls of Rousseau or the tranquil Alpine village assembly quietly surveyed in Vigée-Lebrun’s Swiss Peasant Festival at Urspunnen (1808).

Set far below the bard with the miniscule soldiers of Edward I’s army (like the soldiers of Hannibal dwarfed by the mountains in Turner’s Hannibal Crossing the Alps), the beholder of Matin’s painting looks up at the aged but powerful prophet. He strides forward toward us with a powerful stance invented first by Michelangelo and brought back by the violent academic posturing of recent artists such as Fuseli and David. High above the bard, the heavens open up, conferring divine light and spiritual authority on the bard. Indebted in his posturing to the all-conquering gods or heroes of earlier history painting (Jupiter, Hercules, Theseus, Samson, Moses, etc.), he transformed the masculine rhetoric of traditional military, political, and religious power into a new poetic authority. In this way, Romanticism aestheticized traditional power while inscribing masculine rule and hierarchy into the aesthetic arena. At the same time, it conflated the aesthetic and the spiritual, turning away from traditional religious forms to the new spirituality found in nature.

1 This preliminary essay was written on Sunday, Oct 24, 2010 after reading Gray’s The Bard. Through Matthew Craske, Art in Europe, 1700-1830, Oxford 1997, p. 121, I am aware of Sam Smiles, The Image of Antiquity: Ancient Britain and the Romantic Imagination, New Haven 1994 in which bardic imagery is extensively discussed. I look forward to reading that book soon and improving my essay.

2 This passage is cited in the critical notes published in Select Poems of Thomas Gray, ed., William J. Rolfe, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1883, available on-line at

3 Here is Samuel Johnson’s critique, as quoted in the edition cited above.
"'The Bard' appears, at the first view, to be, as Algarotti and others have remarked, an imitation of the prophecy of Nereus. Algarotti thinks it superior to its original; and, if preference depends only on the imagery and animation of the two poems, his judgment is right. There is in 'The Bard' more force, more thought, and more variety. But to copy is less than to invent, and the copy has been unhappily produced at a wrong time. The fiction of Horace was to the Romans credible; but its revival disgusts us with apparent and unconquerable falsehood. _Incredulus odi_.
"To select a singular event, and swell it to a giant's bulk by fabulous appendages of spectres and predictions, has little difficulty; for he that forsakes the probable may always find the marvellous. And it has little use; we are affected only as we believe; we are improved only as we find something to be imitated or declined. I do not see that 'The Bard' promotes any truth, moral or political.
"His stanzas are too long, especially his epodes; the ode is finished before the ear has learned its measures, and consequently before it can receive pleasure from their consonance and recurrence.
"Of the first stanza the abrupt beginning has been celebrated; but technical beauties can give praise only to the inventor. It is in the power of any man to rush abruptly upon his subject, that has read the ballad of 'Johnny Armstrong,'
'Is there ever a man in all Scotland--'
"The initial resemblances, or alliterations, 'ruin, ruthless, helm or hauberk,' are below the grandeur of a poem that endeavours at sublimity.
"In the second stanza the Bard is well described; but in the third we have the puerilities of obsolete mythology. When we are told that 'Cadwallo hush'd the stormy main,' and that 'Modred made huge Plinlimmon bow his cloud-topt head,' attention recoils from the repetition of a tale that, even when it was first heard, was heard with scorn.
"The _weaving_ of the _winding-sheet_ he borrowed, as he owns, from the Northern Bards; but their texture, however, was very properly the work of female powers, as the act of spinning the thread of life is another mythology. Theft is always dangerous; Gray has made weavers of slaughtered bards by a fiction outrageous and incongruous. They are then called upon to 'Weave the warp, and weave the woof,' perhaps with no great propriety; for it is by crossing the _woof_ with the _warp_ that men weave the _web_ or piece; and the first line was dearly bought by the admission of its wretched correspondent, 'Give ample room and verge enough.' He has, however, no other line as bad.
"The third stanza of the second ternary is commended, I think, beyond its merit. The personification is indistinct. _Thirst_ and _Hunger_ are not alike; and their features, to make the imagery perfect, should have been discriminated. We are told, in the same stanza, how 'towers are fed.' But I will no longer look for particular faults; yet let it be observed that the ode might have been concluded with an action of better example; but suicide is always to be had, without expense of thought."

4 Two prints depicting bards from this period are by Clemens, Ossian (1787) and Chapman An Ancient English Wake (1794) – both located by keyword searching the British Museum’s on-line image archive for “Bard” between 1760 and 1830.

5 The prints include Smith, The Bard from Gray’s Ode (1775), Cosway, The Bard (1800), and Hollaway’s engraving after Fuseli, The Bard, c. 1800, all available on the British Museum web site.

6 By mid-century, they would eclipse the artistic glories of cultural centers like Rome and Florence and become, in some ways, the most popular destination of all for English and American travelers. With new railroads and dozens of grand hotels, Alpine travel expanded to tens of thousands of middle-class families with children who were much happier racing across Alpine meadows than suffering the tedium of endless churches and art museums.

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