Joseph Mallord William Turner

Inscription by Turner: Draft of Poetry

1811

View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Medium
Pen and ink on paper
Dimensions
Support: 75 x 117 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Reference
D08619
Turner Bequest CXXIII 132 a

Catalogue entry

The whole page is taken up with the following lines of verse:
Exalted sat St Michael in his Chair
Full many a fathom in the c[...]ling air
Scarce can the giddy ken of mortal sight
Behold the dreadfull chasm but in fright
Forget the reason Heaven on her bestowd
And strike appalld from thir high abode
The raging waves tumultuous roard around
As on the Western side [?precipitous] abound
Cover with manacles <and [?both]> that to the tread give way
To those adventurers who dare thir slippry way
Upon the muddy steep the owner stands1
Interspersed with drawings and the printed pages of Coltman’s British Itinerary, sixty-nine pages of this sketchbook are given over wholly or partly to these verses which Turner intended as a commentary for publication with the Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England which he sketched on the 1811 West Country tour (see the introduction to the sketchbook). The first lines are on folio 18 verso (D08396), and the last on folio 207 verso (D08736; CXXIII 204a).
The previous passage, on folio 133 verso (D08616; CXXIII 130a), describes a lurid death by lightning. Here Turner begins equally dramatically, and seems to refer to St Michael’s Chair, the beacon on the roof of the church tower at the highest point of St Michael’s Mount, overlooking Mount’s Bay and Penzance towards the western tip of Cornwall. He drew this precipitous view in the Ivy Bridge to Penzance sketchbook (Tate D08936; Turner Bequest CXXV 45a), along with many other views of the steep site, and may have recalled the experience when he produced the watercolour vignette The Death of Lycidas – ‘Vision of the Guarded Mount’ (Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati), engraved in 1835 for Milton’s Poetical Works,2 with the Archangel Michael silhouetted above the distant tower.
Wilton and Turner follow Thornbury’s suggestion of ‘circling’ in the second line, but the word is unclear. Having provided a surprisingly diligent transcription of all the extensive poetry in the sketchbook thus far, Thornbury arbitrarily breaks off altogether after the fourth line, dismissing ‘these painful efforts of [Turner’s] crippled muse.’3 This passage or a version of it puzzled William Coombe, the historian commissioned to provide the letterpress for the Southern Coast, and was instrumental in the rejection of Turner’s poetry for this purpose (see the introduction to the sketchbook).4

Matthew Imms
June 2011

1
See Wilton and Turner 1990, pp.142, 174 (transcription, followed here with slight variations); previously transcribed with variations (as far as ‘but in fright’) in Thornbury 1862, II, p.28 and 1897, p.217.
2
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.451 no.1269, reproduced.
3
Thornbury 1862, II, p.29 and 1897, p.217.
4
See Gage 1980, pp.55–6 note 3
5
Wilton and Turner 1990, pp.143–4.

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