William Wordsworth 

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Taken during a pedestrian tour among the Alps.

Morning in the Alps, Benjamin Williams Leader
Morning in the Alps, by Benjamin Williams Leader

Preamble     Preface    Poem

Chartreuse    Lake Como    Locarno    Via Mala    Rhine    Urseren    Uri    William Tell    more

Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes:
During the last year of my residence at Cambridge, I became acquainted with Mr Wordsworth's
Descriptive Sketches, and seldom, if ever, was the emergence of an original poetic genius above the literary horizon more evidently announced.
(Biographia Literaria vol i p74 ed 1847)

There are multiple versions of this poem, the first composed in 1791-2 and first published by Joseph Johnson in 1793. The last, substantially altered version was published in 1849-50. In fact the poem underwent a constant sequence of revisions between these two dates, and other versions were published at various points in time. Here we reproduce the 1849-50 version 

Wordsworth and his friend from college, Robert Jones, arrived in Calais on 13 July 1790 and headed south. They passed to the east of Paris, making their way to Lyons, and arriving at the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse on 4 August, in all about 900 kilometers. They next made their way to Geneva, along the north bank of Lake Geneva to Martigny and then to the Vale of Chamonix. Retracing their footsteps to Martigny, they made their way over the Simplon Pass, to Locarno and then Lake Como. Turning north, they passed through the Via Mala, and on to the Valley of Urseren. They visited Einsiedeln, Lake Constance, the falls of the Rhine, Sarnen, Lake Neufchatel and Basle, before returning to England along the Rhine, a total of more than 4000 kilometres in three months, averaging around fifty kilometres a day.

Map of Switzerland showing Wordsworth's walking tour
Map of Wordsworth's tour of Switzerland

Descriptive Sketches

Taken during a pedestrian tour among the Alps.

To the Rev. Robert Jones, Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge

Dear Sir - However desirous I might have been of giving you proofs of the high place you hold in my esteem, I should have been cautious of wounding your delicacy by thus publicly addressing you, had not the circumstance of our having been companions among the Alps, seemed to give this dedication a propriety sufficient to do away any scruples which your modesty might otherwise have suggested.
In inscribing this little work to you, I consult my heart. You know well how great is the difference between two companons lolling in a post-chaise, and two travellers plodding slowly along the road, side by side, each with his little knapsack of nencessaries upon his shoulders. How much more of heart between the two latter!

I am happy in being conscious that I shall have one reader who will approach the conclusion of these few pages with regret. You they must certainly interest, in reminding you of moments to which you can hardly look back without a pleasure not the less dear from a shade of melancholy. You will meet with few images without recollecting the spot where we observed them together; consequently, whatever is feeble in my design , or spiritless in my colouring, will be amply supplied by your own memory.

With still greater propriety I might have inscribed to you a description of some of the features of your native mountains, through which we have wandered together, in the same  manner, with so much pleasure. But the sea-sunsets, which gave such splendour to the vale of Clwyd, Snowdon, the chair of Idris, the quiet village of Bedgelert, Menai and her Druids, the Alpine steeps of the Conway, and the still more interesting windings of the wizard stream of the Dee, remain yet untouched. Apprehensive that my pencil may never be exercised on these subjects, I cannot let slip this opportunity of thus publicly assuring you with how much affection and esteem

 I am, dear Sir,Your most obedient very humble Servant,
W Wordsworth

London 1793

Argument

'Happiness (if she had been to be found on Earth) amongst the Charms of Nature - Pleasures of the pedestrian Traveller - Author crosses France to the Alps - Present state of the Grande Chartreuse - Lake of Como - Time, Sunset - Same Scene, Twilight - Same Scene, Morning, its Voluptuous character; Old Man and Forest Cottage Music - River Tusa - Via Mala, and Grison Gypsey. Valley of Sckellenen-thal - Lake of Uri, Stormy Sunset - Chapel of William Tell - force of Local Emotions - Chamois Chaser - View of the higher Alps - Manner of Life of a Swiss Mountaineer interspersed with views of the higher Alps - Golden Age of the Alps - Life and Views continued - Ranz des Vaches famous Swiss Air - Abbey of Einsiedlen and its Pilgrims - Valley of the Chamouny - Mont Blanc - Slavery of Savoy - Influence of Liberty on Cottage Happiness - France - Wish for the extirpation of Slavery - Conclusion.'

Much the greatest part of this poem was composed during my walks upon the banks of the Loire, in the years 1791, 1792. I will only notice that the description of the valley filled with mist, beginning - 'In solemn shapes' - was taken from that beautiful region of which the principal features are Lungarn and Sarnen. Nothing that I ever saw in Nature left a more delightful impression on my mind than that which I have attempted, alas, how feebly! to convey to others in these lines. Those two lakes have always interested me especially, from the bearing in their size and other features, a resemblance to those of the North of England. It is much to be deplored that a district so beautiful should be so unhealthy as it is.

1.
Were there, below, a spot of holy ground
Where from distress a refuge might be found,
And solitude prepare the soul for heaven;
Sure, nature's God that spot to man had given
Where falls the purple morning far and wide
In flakes of light upon the mountain side;
Where with loud voice the power of water shakes
The leafy wood, or sleeps in quiet lakes. 1.

9.
Yet not unrecompensed the man shall roam,
Who at the call of summer quits his home,
And plods through some wide realm o'er vale and height,
Though seeking only holiday delight;
At least, not owning to himself an aim
To which the sage would give a prouder name.
No gains too cheaply earned his fancy cloy,
Though every passing zephyr whispers joy;
Brisk toil, alternating with ready ease,
Feeds the clear current of his sympathies.
For him sod-seats the cottage-door adorn;
And peeps the far-off spire, his evening bourn!
Dear is the forest frowning o'er his head,
And dear the velvet green-sward to his tread:
Moves there a cloud o'er mid-day's flaming eye?
Upward he looks -- 'and calls it luxury:'
Kind Nature's charities his steps attend;
In every babbling brook he finds a friend;
While chastening thoughts of sweetest use, bestowed
By wisdom, moralise his pensive road.
Host of his welcome inn, the noon-tide bower,
To his spare meal he calls the passing poor;
He views the sun uplift his golden fire,
Or sink, with heart alive like Memnon's lyre;
Blesses the moon that comes with kindly ray,
To light him shaken by his rugged way.
Back from his sight no bashful children steal;
He sits a brother at the cottage-meal;
His humble looks no shy restraint impart;
Around him plays at will the virgin heart.
While unsuspended wheels the village dance,
The maidens eye him with enquiring glance,
Much wondering by what fit of crazing care,
Or desperate love, bewildered, he came there. 2.

43.
A hope, that prudence could not then approve,
That clung to Nature with a truant's love,
O'er Gallia's wastes of corn my footsteps led;
Her files of road-elms, high above my head
In long-drawn vista, rustlng in the breeze;
Or where her pathways straggle as they please
By lonely farms and secret villages.
But lo! the Alps ascending white in air,
Toy with the sun and glitter from afar. 3.

52.
And now, emerging from the forest's gloom,
I greet thee, Chartreuse, while I mourn thy doom.
Whither is fled that Power whose frown severe
Awed sober Reason till she crouched in fear?
That Silence, once in deathlike fetters bound,
Chains that were loosened only by the sound
Of holy rites chanted in measured round? 4.

La Grande Chartreuse
La Grande Chartreuse

59.
-The voice of blasphemy the fane alarms,
The cloister startles at the gleam of arms.
The thundering tube the aged angler hears,
Bent o'er the groaning flood that sweeps away his tears.
Cloud-piercing pine-trees nod their troubled heads,
Spires, rocks, and lawns a browner night o'erspreads;
Strong terror checks the female peasant's sighs,
And start the astonished shades at female eyes.
From Bruno's forest screams the affrighted jay,
And slow the insulted eagle wheels away.
A viewless flight of laughing Demons mock
The Cross, by angels planted on the aerial rock.
The 'parting Genius' sighs with hollow breath
Along the mystic streams of Life and Death2.
Swelling the outcry dull, that long resounds
Portentous through her old woods' trackless bounds,
Vallombre, 'mid her falling fanes, deplores,
For ever broke, the sabbath of her bowers. 5.

 1. fane - temple or shrine      2 .the two rivers Guiers vif (life) and Guiers mort (death)

77.
More pleased, my foot the hidden margin roves
Of Como, bosomed deep in chestnut groves.
No meadows thrown between, the giddy steeps
Tower, bare or sylvan, from the narrow deeps.
 -- To towns, whose shades of no rude noise complain,
From ringing team apart and grating wain --
To flat-roofed towns, that touch the water's bound,
Or lurk in woody sunless glens profound,
Or, from the bending rocks, obtrusive cling,
And o'er the whitened wave their shadows fling --
The pathway leads, as round the steeps it twines;
And Silence loves its purple roof of vines.
The loitering traveller hence, at evening, sees
From rock-hewn steps the sail between the trees;
Or marks, 'mid opening cliffs, fair dark-eyed maids
Tend the small harvest of their garden glades;
Or stops the solemn mountain-shades to view
Stretch o'er the pictured mirror broad and blue,
And track the yellow lights from steep to steep,
As up the opposing hills they slowly creep.
Aloft, here, half a village shines, arrayed
In golden light; half hides itself in shade:
While, from amid the darkened roofs, the spire,
Restlessly flashing, seems to mount like fire:
There, all unshaded, blazing forests throw
Rich golden verdure on the lake below.
Slow glides the sail along the illumined shore,
And steals into the shade the lazy oar;
Soft bosoms breathe around contagious sighs,
And amorous music on the water dies.

107.
How blest, delicious scene! the eye that greets
Thy open beauties, or thy lone retreats;
Beholds, the unwearied sweep of wood that scales
Thy clifs; the endless waters of thy vales;
Thy lowly cots that sprinkle all the shore,
Each with its houshold boat beside the door;
Thy torrents shooting from the clear-blue sky;
Thy towns that cleave, like swallow's nests on high;
That glimmer hoar in eve's last light, descried
Dim from the twilight water's shaggy side,
Whence lutes and voices down the enchanted woods
Steal, and compose the oar-forgotten floods;
Thy lake, that, streaked or dappled, blue or grey,
'Mid smoking woods gleams hid from morning's ray
Slow-travelling down the western hills, to enfold
Its green tinged margin in a blaze of gold;
Thy glittering steeples, whence the matin bell
Calls forth the woodman from his desert cell,
And quickens the blithe sound of oars that pass
Along the steaming lake, to early mass.
But now farewell to each and all -- adieu
To every charm, and last and chief, to you,
Ye lovely maidens that in noontide shade
Rest near your little plots of wheaten glade;
To all that binds the soul in powerless trance,
Lip-dewing song, and ringlet-tossing dance;
Where sparkling eyes and breaking smiles illume
The sylvan cabin's lute-enlivened gloom.
-- Alas! the very murmur of the streams
Breathes o'er the falling soul voluptuous dreams,
While Slavery, forcing the sunk mind to dwell
On joys that might disgrace the captive's cell,
Her shameless timbrel shakes on Como's marge,
And lures from bay to bay the vocal barge. 6.


Slavery shaking her shameless timbrel

141.
Yet are thy softer arts with power indued
To soothe and cheer the poor man's solitude.
By silent cottage-doors, the peasant's home
Left vacant for the day, I loved to roam.
But once I pierced the mazes of the wood
In which a cabin undeserted stood;
There an old man an olden measure scanned
On a rude viol touched with withered hand.
As lambs or fawns in April clustering lie
Under a hoary oak's thin canopy,
Stretched at his feet, with stedfast upward eye,
His children's children listened to the sound;
- A Hermit with his family around!  7. 

154.
But let us hence; for fair Locarno smiles
Embowered in walnut slopes and citron isles:
Or seek at eve the banks of Tusa's stream,
Where, 'mid dim towers and woods, her waters gleam.
From the bright wave, in solemn gloom, retire
The dull-red steeps, and, darkening still, aspire
To where afar rich orange lustres glow
Round undistinguished clouds, and rocks, and snow:
Or, led where Via Mala's chasms confine
The indignant waters of the Rhine,
Hang o'er the abyss, whose else impervious gloom
His burning eyes with fearful light illume. 8.


The Via Mala, Verlorenes Loch

The mind condemn'd, without reprieve, to go
O'er life's long deserts with its charge of woe,
With sad congratulation joins the train
Where beasts and men together o'er the plain
Move on - a mighty caravan of pain:
Hope, strength, and courage, social suffering brings,
Freshening the wilderness with shades and springs.
- There be those whose lot far otherwise is cast:
Sole human tenant of the piny waste,
By choice or doom a gipsy wanders here,
A nursling babe her only comforter;
Lo, where she sits beneath yon shaggy rock,
A cowering shape half hid in curling smoke!  9.

179.
When lightning among clouds and mountain-snows
Predominates, and darkness comes and goes,
And the fierce torrent, at the flashes broad
Starts, like a horse, beside the glaring road -
She seeks a covert from the battering shower
In the roofed bridge; the bridge in that dread hour,
Itself all trembling at the torrent's power.

186.
Nor is she more at ease on some still night,
When not a star supplies the comfort of its light;
Only the waning moon hangs dull and red
Avove a melancholy mountain's head,
The sets. In total gloom the Vagrant sighs,
Stoops her sick head, and shuts her weary eyes;
Or on her fingers counts the distant clock,
Or, to the drowsy crow of midnight cock,
Listens, or quakes while from the forest's gulf
Howls near and nearer yet the famished wolf.  10.


Crucifixion, Gustave Doré engraving

196.
From the green vale of Urseren smooth and wide
Descend we now, the maddened Reuss our guide;
By rocks that, shutting out the blessed day,
Cling tremblingly to rocks as loose as they;
By cells upon whose image, while he prays,
The kneeling peasant scarcely dares to gaze;
By many a votive death-cross planted near,
And watered duly with the pious tear,
That faded silent from the upward eye
Unmoved with each rude form of peril nigh;
Fixed on the anchor left by Him who saves
Alike in whelming snows, and roaring waves.


View of the Ursuren Valley

208.
But soon a peopled region on the sight
Opens - a little world of calm delight;
Where mists, suspended on the expiring gale,
Spread roof like o'er the deep secluded vale,
And beams of evening slipping in between,
Gently illuminate a sober scene: -
Here, on the brown wood-cottages they sleep,
There, over rock or sloping pasture creep.
On as we journey, in clear view displayed,
The still vale lengthens underneath its shade
Of low-hung vapour: on the freshened mead
The green light sparkles;- the dim bowers recede.
While the pastoral pipes and streams the landscape lull,
And bells of passing mules that tinkle dull,
In solemn shapes before the admiring eye
Dilated hang the misty pines on high,
Huge convent domes with pinnacles and towers,
And antique castles seen through gleamy showers.


Lake Uri, engraving

226.
From such romantic dreams, my soul, awake!
To sterner pleasure, where, by Uri's lake
In Nature's pristine majesty outspread,
Winds neigher road nor path for foot to tread:
The rocks rise naked as a wall, or stretch,
Far o'er the water, hung with groves of beech;
Aerial pines from loftier steeps ascend,
Nor stop but where creation seems to end.
Yet here and there, if 'mid the savage scene
Appears a scanty plot of smiling green,
Up from the lake a zigzag path will creep
To reach a small wood-hut hung boldly on the steep.
- Before those thesholds (never can they know
The face of traveller passing to and fro,)
No peasant leans upon his pole, to tell
For whom at morning tolled the funeral bell;
Their watch-dog ne'er his angry bark forgoes,
Touched by the beggar's moan of human woes;
The shady porch ne'er offered a cool seat
To pilgrims overcome by summer's heat.
Yet thither the world's business finds its way
At times, and tales usought beguile the day,
And there are those fond thoughts which Solitude,
However stern, is powerless to exclude.
There doth the maiden watch her lover's sail
Approaching, and upbraid the tardy gale;
At midnight listens till his parting oar,
And its last echo, can be heard no more.  11.



Waiting, painting by Nikiphoros Lytros

254.
And what if ospreys, cormorants, herons cry,
Amid tempestuous vapours driving by,
Or hovering over wastes too bleak to rear
That common growth of earth, the foodful ear;
Where the green apple shrivels on the spray,
And pines the unripened pear in summer's kindliest ray;
Contentment shares the desolate domain
With Independence, child of high Disdain.
Exulting 'mid the winter of the skies,
Shy as the jealous chamois, Freedom flies,
And grasps by fits her sword, and often eyes;
And sometimes, as from rock to rock she bounds
The Patriot nymph starts at imagined sounds,
And, wildly pausing, oft she hangs aghast,
Whether some old Swiss air hath checked her haste
Or thrill of Spartan fife is caught between the blast.  12.

270.
Swoln with incessant rains from hour to hour,
All day the floods a deepening murmur pour:
The sky is veiled, and every cheerful sight:
Dark is the region as with coming night;
But what a sudden burst of overpowering light!
Triumphant on the bosom of the storm,
Glances the wheeling eagle's glorious form!
Eastward, in long perspective glittering, shine
The wood-crowned cliffs that o'er the lake recline;
Those lofty cliffs a hundred streams unfold,
At once to pillars turned that flame with gold:
Behind his sail the peasant shrinks, to shun
The west, that burns like one dilated sun,
A crucible of mighty compass, felt
By mountains, glowing till they seem to melt.


Hannibal crossing the Alps, JMW Turner

285.
But, lo! the boatman, overawed, before
The pictured fane of Tell suspends his oar;
Confused the Marathonian tale appears,
While his eyes sparkle with heroic tears.
And who, that walks where men of ancient days
Have wrought with godlike arm the deeds of praise,
Feels not the spirit of the place control,
Or rouse and agitate his labouring soul?
Say, who, by thinking on Canadian hills,
Or wild Aosta lulled by Alpine rills,
On Zutphen's plain; or on that highland dell,
Through which rough Garry cleaves his way, can tell
What high resolves exalt the tenderest thought
Of him whom passion rivets to the spot,
Where breathed the gale that caught Wolfe's happiest sigh,
And the last sunbeam fell on Bayard's eye;
Where bleeding Sidney from the cup retired,
And glad Dundee in 'faint huzzas' expired?  13.

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