Joseph Mallord William Turner

Inscription by Turner: Draft of Poetry


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite and pen and ink on paper
Support: 115 × 88 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CVIII 20

Catalogue entry

The whole page is taken up with lines of poetry:
Must toiling Man for ever meet disgrace
And eat his hard earn’d bread with heated face
And all his acts in dull Oblivion lay
And not with honor pluck one little spray
Of Fame’s famed laurel, while in brass
Some work their honors some in Glass
Some paint some chisel out the stone
And pray to Clio for melodious tones
Some dare the restless billows to provoke
And float secure to fame in British Oak
But then the workman should be know
To all the world the effort all his own
Exulting Greece, saw the first to float
And Argo Argo strained each Grecians throat
Why not in Britain novelty is found
Why should not novelty again resound
Then try on Thamias fertile shore
Where falling waters yields their muddy store
Describe the form materials where began
The mighty frame the artificer man
Whose pregnant mind long in confusion lay1
The verse was first set down in pencil and then carefully overwritten in ink. In transcribing the first ten lines, James Hamilton describes the poem as a meditation on ‘labour, creativity and patriotism’.2
This is the first passage of a poem which runs over seven pages up to folio 26 recto (D07394); it continues on folio 21 recto (D07389). For a concordance of the extensive passages of poetry in this book, see the sketchbook Introduction.
Jack Lindsay transcribed the first sixteen lines (to ‘resound’) and creatively – but apparently incorrectly – reads the first line as ‘Must loitring Jason...’, suggesting that Turner is using Jason, who sailed on the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece, as ‘the type of shipwright’. He also quotes the last three lines, reading ‘materials’ as ‘maturely’, together with the first on folio 21 recto (as ‘Like the foundation stretched from day to day’) as ‘identify[ing] man’s creativeness ... with the formative process in nature’.3 (Lindsay’s comments on subsequent passages will be found in the relevant entries.)
Turner’s only exhibited representation of Jason was his 1802 painting (Tate N00471),4 later adapted as a Liber Studiorum design (see Tate D08106; Turner Bequest CXVI E), showing the hero approaching the dragon rather than constructing the Argo.
See Wilton and Turner 1990, p.163 (transcription, followed here with slight variations).
Hamilton 1997, p.117; see also Wilton and Turner 1990, pp.98–9, 117, 126.
Lindsay 1966, pp.64–5; see also Lindsay 1985, pp.10–11.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, p.18 no.19 pl.15.

Matthew Imms
June 2008

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