In Focus

Art and Poetry

When William Dyce visited Rome, he was astonished: ‘In truth, to me Rome was a kind of living poem, which the soul read unceasingly, with the soothed sense which poetry inspires’.1 In comparison with the bracing climate and rather more austere architecture of Aberdeen where Dyce had grown up, the warmth, colour and sheer magnificence of the Eternal City was overwhelming. To describe it as ‘a kind of living poem’, however, suggests not just the visual artist’s acute perception of the city’s distinctive appearance, but also a deep sensitivity to the overall tone, history and special atmosphere. Dyce first travelled there in 1825, a year after the poet Lord Byron’s death. Born in 1806, Dyce was only a few years younger than the poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, so recently buried at the Protestant Cemetery when Dyce made his initial visit to Rome. He was thus part of an era in which the very idea of ‘poetry’ was broad enough to encompass any imaginative response to the world, enabling Shelley to include Raphael beside Homer, Tasso and Bacon in stirring references to the ‘greatest poets’ of all time.2 Artists of the Romantic period could rise as readily as writers to the ideals articulated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817, in praise of Wordsworth’s poetry:

It was the union of deep feeling with profound thought; the fine balance of truth in observing with the imaginative faculty in modifying the objects observed; and above all the original gift of spreading the tone, the atmosphere, and with it the depth and height of the ideal world, around forms, incidents, and situations, of which, for the common view, custom had bedimmed all the lustre, had dried up the sparkle and the dewdrops.3

For Dyce to describe Rome as a ‘living poem’ would not have seemed odd to those nurtured on the grand ideals of the Romantic period, and although subsequent decades saw a diminishing faith in poetry, and indeed much else, the influence of Coleridge, Wordsworth and other stars of Dyce’s formative firmament continued to be felt. John Ruskin, for example, presenting a Victorian readership with Modern Painters (1843–60), still drew inspiration from Wordsworth, including more quotations from the elderly poet laureate than any other source. The third volume, published in 1856, was prefaced by lines from Wordsworth’s The Excursion (1814), lamenting the modern tendency to neglect the soul, which Ruskin considered as relevant to readers of the mid-century as to those four decades before. Modern painters, he suggested, should look to Wordsworth for inspiration in the fullest, most spiritual sense. Dyce’s own analogy between the experience of visiting Rome and the ‘soothed sense which poetry inspires’ could only have been made by a poetry lover, and throughout his artistic career he frequently chose subjects with literary dimensions. From his early sketch of Puck 1825 (Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums, Aberdeen) to his late portrait of George Herbert at Bemerton c.1860 (Guildhall Art Gallery, London), Dyce demonstrated his interest in poetry; but even works less obviously indebted to specific sources often suggest a deeply literary sensibility. As the Art-Union observed approvingly in 1844, he was one of the few modern British painters who considered it ‘as much their duty to read and think as to draw and paint’.4

William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858 ?1858-60

William Dyce
Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858 ?1858–60
Tate N01407

As evident in his response to Rome, Dyce was sensitive to the less tangible aspects of place, and in his mature landscapes he attempted to unite deep feeling with profound thought, truth with imagination, creating the tone and atmosphere of the ideal world through unusual choices of light, colour or expression. In Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858 ?1858–60 (Tate N01407; fig.1), the juxtaposition of sinking sunlight with a surprisingly visible cliff face forms a strange panorama for the arresting frieze of foregrounded figures. The sky is much lighter than might be expected on a late autumnal afternoon, so light in fact that the flash of the comet’s arc is noticeable only on closer inspection. From a distance, the upper sky seems clear, cloudless and almost as bright as dawn. Further scrutiny reveals the faces of the nearest figures: the two women bending in silhouette over baskets of sea shells, a third staring out to some unspecified spot beyond the left shoulder of the viewer, and, most striking of all, the small boy who gazes in the same direction, with an expression that defies easy interpretation. Light falls unaccountably upon his forehead and, high above, the comet seems to have halted above this enigmatic little man. Admittedly, the unnatural lighting may be a consequence of constructing a painting from different studies over a considerable period of time, but the cumulative effect is disconcerting. What initially looks like a family outing to the beach seems increasingly charged with an atmosphere of special significance; but quite what it signifies is hard to tell.

For art historian Marcia Pointon, Dyce’s careful depiction of Donati’s comet above the crumbling cliffs of Kent was a meditation on time, provoked by contemporary anxieties over the rapidly developing sciences of astronomy and geology.5 In this influential interpretation, the melancholy mood of Pegwell Bay is akin to Matthew Arnold’s well-known articulation of the Victorian crisis of faith in ‘Dover Beach’ (published 1867). The speaker of this poem, staring out across the calm, moonlit sea towards France, catches the ‘eternal note of sadness’ heard by Sophocles centuries before, but now magnified into the ‘long, withdrawing roar’ of religious faith.6 For Arnold, the beauty of the night was countered by a terrifying sense of abandonment on a darkling plain. Subsequent critics have reinforced this reading by drawing attention to the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 – the year between Dyce’s visit to Pegwell Bay and the public appearance of the painting. In this context, the chalk cliffs are the site of fossil evidence of the antiquity of the earth and related extinction of species, so difficult to reconcile with the older, Biblical account of God’s creation. Darwin’s magisterial account of the evolution of all life from the sea led to the irreversible ebbing of faith in many of his contemporaries.

Whether ‘Dover Beach’ is the most apt poetic counterpart for Pegwell Bay, however, is a matter for debate. Dyce’s haunting image certainly carries some of Arnold’s lyrical power in its capacity to recreate and charge with powerful feeling what might otherwise have been an unremarkable moment, but whether the emotions conveyed by Pegwell Bay are quite the same as those of ‘Dover Beach’ is less clear. As Christiana Payne has pointed out, ‘Dover Beach’ was not published until 1867, so Dyce could hardly have had Arnold’s poem in mind, and while a painting might well express a similar mood to contemporary poetry without any direct influence, there is no evidence to suggest that Dyce experienced any such crisis of faith.7 The realistic detail of Pegwell Bay also seems to affirm the reality of the seashore: it is a much more literal representation of the English coast than Arnold’s grand ‘Sea of Faith’. While this does not, of course, preclude metaphorical possibilities, both the technique and title of the painting emphasise that this is a real place with a real tide, which will, inevitably, be rushing in to fill the rock pools and submerge the mudflats later that evening. Indeed, the almost photographic depiction of the wave in the left corner of the painting suggests that the tide may be on the turn at the very moment depicted.

The specificity of Dyce’s full title suggests the depiction of a recognisable place, visited by the artist on a particular day. In this respect it is less reminiscent of ‘Dover Beach’ than of Wordsworth’s ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a tour, July 13, 1798’, which first appeared in his Lyrical Ballads (1798). Wordsworth’s celebrated definition of poetry in the preface to that collection as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, which ‘takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’, accorded well with many of his own poems, but could also be applied to Dyce’s Pegwell Bay.8 According to Wordsworth, art was not always the immediate record of feeling, but a later (often much later) recreation of the original emotional experience. These ideas had been well known since the appearance of the Preface to Lyrical Ballads in 1800, but the posthumous publication of Wordsworth’s The Prelude in 1850 offered much greater understanding of his profound exploration into the workings of memory.9

The opening book included a direct apostrophe to the poet’s ‘Unfading recollections!’10 and concluded with a tribute to

Those recollected hours that have the charm
Of visionary things, those lovely forms
And sweet sensations, that throw back our life,
And almost make remotest infancy
A visible scene, on which the sun is shining.11

This was not merely fond nostalgia for vanished youth, but the reflection of a serious artist whose entire creative being depended on ‘Invigorating thoughts from former years’.12 For Wordsworth, imaginative endeavour was driven by recollection and the task of the poet lay in finding the proper forms to embody the living memory:

                                      I would give,
While yet we may, as far as words can give,
Substance and life to what I feel, enshrining,
Such is my hope, the spirit of the Past
For future restoration.13

Dyce’s inclusion of the word ‘recollection’ in the title of Pegwell Bay has distinctly Wordsworthian overtones, especially in the context of the decade when The Prelude finally came to light. The great autobiographical poem was first published in 1850 and was then included in the new six-volume edition of Wordsworth’s poetry that appeared in 1857, the year before Dyce’s trip to Kent. Wordsworth’s death at the age of eighty unleashed a flood of biographies and new illustrated editions, stimulating a major revival of interest in his work. Dyce’s admiration for Romantic poetry is clear from his 1855 painting of Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, but it is in the landscapes of the period that his affinities with Wordsworth are most apparent. The Scene in Arran 1858–9 (Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums, Aberdeen), Glen Rosa Isle of Arran 1859 (private collection), Welsh Landscape with Two Women Knitting 1860 (Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, Cardiff) and The Highland Ferryman 1857 (fig.2) all depict mountain landscapes with distinctly Wordsworthian figures – children playing in the stream, shepherds, solitary old men or women working in traditional cottage industries.14

William Dyce, The Highland Ferryman 1857

William Dyce
The Highland Ferryman 1857

Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums, Aberdeen 

In Pegwell Bay the setting is very different, but the title signals Wordsworthian associations just as surely: ‘recollection’ tells viewers that the scene is a memory and that the clarity of the detail is meant to create not an illusion of shared present experience, but rather of a moment so intense that it has been indelibly impressed on the artist’s mind. This is the process explored again and again in The Prelude, as it traces ‘the Growth of the Poet’s Mind’. Dyce’s cameo self-portrait in the figure of the artist below the cliffs underlines the self-reflexive quality of his painting as well as suggesting that a work of art originates in experience more multifaceted than that of the instant, photographic landscape view. The scene depicts the activity of collection, but the painting overall is a work of recollection. This also helps us to understand the apparently contradictory lighting not as an error but as a direct signal of the passage of time between the original moment and its artistic recreation.

The figure of the boy, illuminated by strange light in contrast to the shaded form of his father, also recalls Wordsworth’s admiration for ‘youth’s golden gleam’ and his exploration of the debt owing to ‘simple childhood’ as the foundation of a healthy, creative mind.15 The crucial passage includes a direct contrast between the unclouded vision of the child and the dwindling certainties of the adult poet:

                             The days gone by
Return upon me almost from the dawn
Of life: the hiding-places of man’s power
Open; I would approach them, but they close;
I see by glimpses now; when age comes on,
May scarcely see at all16

Although the connections between adult and childhood perception were discussed most fully in The Prelude, Wordsworth’s concerns had long been familiar to many from the great ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’, with its succinct prefatory line: ‘The Child is father of the man’.17 If any poem is to be singled out as a companion for Pegwell Bay, it is surely this. For it is here that the importance of recollection is expressed most memorably, as the foundation not only of creative power, but of faith itself:

              But for those first affections
             Those shadowy recollections,
                          Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain light of all our day,
Are yet a master light of all our seeing
                        Uphold us, cherish us, and make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
                                    To perish never18

As literary scholar Stephen Gill has documented, religious readers of the nineteenth century, turning to Wordsworth as ‘a Spiritual Power’, found their hopes fulfilled by the ‘Intimations’ ode.19 For Wordsworth, memories of childhood were blessings and promises, putting into perspective all the pressing business of life by allowing glimpses of the eternal:

              Hence, in a season of calm weather,
                       Though inland far we be
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
                        Which brought us hither
             Can in a moment travel thither
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling ever more.20

In Robert Aris Willmott’s illustrated edition of Wordsworth’s poems, published in 1859, this stanza is divided by a seascape depicting a group of children gathering shells and seaweed, and a boy gazing out to sea.21 There is no evidence of Dyce being influenced by this illustration, but it is an illuminating example of an exactly contemporary visual translation of Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations’. Pegwell Bay can helpfully be seen in the light, rather than the shadow, of the poem.

The ode begins with a powerful lament for the lost ‘visionary gleam’ as an unavoidable consequence of adulthood, but it is only in the following stanza that childhood is explicitly presented as closer to divinity:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star
            Hath had elsewhere its setting,
                      And cometh from afar:
           Not in entire forgetfulness,
           And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
                    From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
                    Upon the growing Boy,
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
                    He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the East
          Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
                   And by the vision splendid
                   Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away
And fade into the light of common day.22

The imagery in this stanza finds many correspondences in Pegwell Bay, where the diminutive figure of William Dyce the younger stands beneath the comet, face shining from light that falls from the east, dressed in an oddly anachronistic costume for the time. Whether or not this is an image of Nature’s Priest, it is clear that the child sees something that his father cannot see, either from the artist’s standpoint under the cliffs within the picture, or at the easel, where his perspective is that of the viewer looking at his child.

The boy’s mother, considerably younger than her husband, gazing in the same direction though not similarly lit, may retain more of the vision splendid than her sisters, who are studying the marine life in the rock pools. As early reviewers recognised at once, the ladies are pursuing the contemporary craze for conchology, which reached its peak in the late 1850s, following the publication of popular works on marine life by Philip Gosse and Charles Kingsley.23 For devout naturalists, there was no tension between discovering the wonders of the sea and upholding religious belief, so the Dyce family can be seen to follow contemporary advice on seeking God through his creation – and especially his aquatic creation. Nevertheless, the women’s intense focus on a single pursuit, emphasised by their apparent obliviousness to the comet, suggests a certain narrowing of vision. The posture of the central figure, indeed, is not unlike that of William Blake’s subaquatic, essentially rational Newton 1795–c.1805 (Tate N05058). Dyce himself excelled in many fields and so any intellectual restriction was alien to him, but above all it could be observed that he aimed to achieve a visionary rather than merely material truth in his work. The contrast between the boy who gazes out to sea in awe and the fixed, earthbound scrutiny of his aunts is striking.

If Pegwell Bay does convey a sense of melancholy, then it is perhaps closer to the elegiac tone of Wordsworth, lamenting the decline of vision with age, rather than to Arnold. Dyce’s painting acknowledges the ‘Shades of the prison-house’, but still includes the figure of the mature artist, animated by the sight of sublime cliffs and the soaring comet. The comet may be destined to vanish into the night, but like the tide, its return is assured. For all the more hopeful intimations, however, Wordsworth’s outlook was never that of the unthinking optimist, and in ‘To H.C., Six Years Old’, first published in 1807, he had expressed worries as well as wonder at the power of the visionary child: ‘I think of thee with many fears / For what may be thy lot in future years’.24 Pegwell Bay presents young William Dyce at the age of six, and it would not be surprising if his father, already in his fifties and suffering from ill health, should not have felt some anxiety about his son. If the painting expresses the comforting belief that the Godlike child is father of the man, it may also acknowledge a very human concern over the future of a small boy already in danger of being left without paternal protection in a very uncertain world.