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2 - Caliban et les arts visuels / Caliban and Visuals Arts

Turner and the Mystery of the Sea

Malcolm Andrews
p. 75-94

Abstract

The great English landscape painter J.M.W.Turner was an anomalous presence in Victorian England. He and his work were admired and reviled; he was a devoted supporter of the traditional institution, the Royal Academy – a bulwark of the conservative establishment – and at the same time his radical artistry and extravagant colouring offended traditionalists; he was a respected Professor of the Academy and in his private life, living with his mistress, he could be a scruffy, gruff bohemian. He was both Prospero and Caliban, the powerful magician with paint, and the rebellious, surly Caliban. This paper traces Turner’s artistic relationship with the sea, his extraordinary understanding of its moodiness, its violence and its serenity, and it associates his art with the sea poetry of his contemporaries, Swinburne and G.M.Hopkins. Like Caliban’s profound instinctive responsiveness to natural music, Turner’s feel for the mercurial beauty and savagery of the sea found exquisite and often disturbing poetic expression.

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1In 1842 J.M.W.Turner exhibited a number of paintings at the Royal Academy, including three which particularly attracted the attention of the art reviewer for the Athenaeum. The spectacular seascape Snow Storm— Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth perplexed and infuriated the reviewer, and that will be the subject of discussion later in this paper. But the reviewer’s comments on two other paintings— of Venetian scenes—both views of shimmering stillness—brought this accolade:

  • 1 Athenaeum, 7 May 1842.

[they are] among the loveliest, because least exaggerated pictures, which this magician (for such he is, in right of his command over the spirits of Air, Fire, and Water) has recently given us. Fairer dreams never floated past poets’ eye.1

2Turner was perceived as having the powers of a wizard. He could summon loveliness and terror, Beauty and Sublimity. And yet he was a bristly, combative personality, fiercely competitive and socially abrasive. He was a strange mix of Prospero and Caliban in mid-Victorian England, and generated cultural tempests by the controversial nature of his art. His temperamental savagery and his extraordinary technical sophistication, the wild and beautiful worlds he created in his paintings - - these embody the antitheses dramatised by Shakespeare in The Tempest.

3Like Prospero, Turner, with his ‘so potent art’, ‘call’d forth the mutinous winds,/ And ‘twixt the green sea and the azur’d vault/ Set roaring war’. Like Caliban he could rail against the impositions of a conservative rule and polite convention, and his extraordinary painting The Slave Ship expressed the strongest sense of the cruelty of tyrannical subordination of the kind to which Caliban felt himself victim.

4This paper explores Turner’s powers of representation of that most elusive and challenging element, the sea. While I will not be making explicit analogies with Shakespeare’s play in the course of this exploration, what I have outlined above will, I hope, have suggested how much of Turner’s personality and achievement echoes the conflicting forces dramatized in the Tempest and its artist-protagonist.

5We begin at Margate on the tip of the Isle of Thanet—where Turner in the later 1780s went to school. That must have kindled his earliest interest in the sea and coastal scenery. He returned often to Margate, and after his father’s death in 1829, took lodgings near the sea front. Turner, according to John Ruskin, knew the colours of the clouds over the sea from the Bay of Naples to the Hebrides. When asked once where, in Europe, were the loveliest skies, he replied instantly, ‘In the Isle of Thanet.’

6Turner knew Margate over the period of its transformation from a small Georgian fishing town to a popular seaside resort, with its sea-bathing amenities and scenic attractions. Indeed Turner contributed to the promotion of those scenic attractions through his picture books, collections of prints after his paintings celebrating the picturesque coastal scenery of these places. For example, Turner’s Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England (1814-26) and his Picturesque Views in England and Wales issued through the 1830s. These views feature a number of the new seaside resorts, Margate included:

Fig.1: J.M.W. Turner, Margate , Kent : from Picturesque Views in England and Wales 1832

Fig.1: J.M.W. Turner, Margate , Kent : from Picturesque Views in England and Wales 1832

7Notice the terrace of new housing spreading along the shoreline. This is a standard picturesque composition, with its framing trees and the sea contained in the middle distance. Let’s remember this first image as a kind of benchmark for seascape compositions, because we are going to be voyaging a long way from this.

  • 2 For discussion of the painters’ representation of seaside resorts, see Andrew Hemingway, Landscape (...)

8I want to begin by lingering in this kind of environment, the early nineteenth-century seaside resort, and to explore some of the implications of these new coastal developments.2 My interest here is in thinking about changing relationships to the sea before exploring the drama of Turner’s later handling of its mystery, when we will be moving away from the shoreline out onto the open ocean.

‘The reasonable shores’3: seaside resorts and the Case of Brighton

  • 3 The Tempest, Act V, Scene 1, l.81

9The new shoreline in early 19th century Brighton boasted its genteel parades of handsome new houses in terraces and crescents, with the chain pier reaching out into the sea, and these innovations were represented in the many prints of the town and its sea-front as it became an increasingly popular and fashionable holiday destination following the Prince Regent’s patronage symobolized by the Royal Pavilion.

Fig.2: G.Hunt, Marine Parade, Brighton

Fig.2: G.Hunt, Marine Parade, Brighton

10The sea in the representations of such resorts is treated as a therapeutic amenity: it is traversed by ingenious new piers, tamed by breakwaters, and domesticated for recreation by the town’s bathing machines. Along the beach and a little way out, to pier’s end, the sea is, as it were, appropriated and modernized for a leisure culture. However, the cultural and economic transformations of these erstwhile coastal villages are still active in this period. These are still working towns. The old fishing industry, dependent on the deep sea and its all-weather dangers, co-exists with the new, comfortable, summer seaside tourist industry and its infra-structure. The presence of the old ‘survival’ industry now acquires a distinctive picturesquely coarse-grained appearance.

Fig. 3: John Constable, The Beach at Brighton, the Chain Pier in the Distance

Fig. 3: John Constable, The Beach at Brighton, the Chain Pier in the Distance

11Painters such as Constable and Turner often include this element to counterpoint the smooth-textured geometry of the modern with the weathered traditional: there it is in the foreground, the disheveled debris of the old trade implements, worn and corroded by the sea.

12The sea in such paintings rolls pretty smoothly up to the shoreline. Its feral energy is usually out of view. The dark, briny depths and the dangerous, turbulent surface on which the fisherman work their livelihood are only lightly suggested in conventional seaside views.

13However, if you look closely at the Constable in this exhibition you will see an interesting contrast in his handling of these different areas. The parade buildings, the new promenade and the Chain Pier are painted with a smooth creamy finish and with a line-and-rule precision. This is in marked contrast to the texturing of the sea, which has a rough vigour: the brush is more thickly loaded and seemingly drier. There’s some scumbling, and a looser, freer, impressionist handling of the foamy wave tops. Constable is registering a very different kind of energy.

14Turner is stimulated by this antithesis when he decides to shift his viewpoint. Take his view of Brighton of 1825, in the engraving:

Fig.4: G.Cooke after J.M.W.Turner, Brighthelmston, Sussex 1825: from Picturesque Views of the Southern Coast of England (1825).

Fig.4: G.Cooke after J.M.W.Turner, Brighthelmston, Sussex 1825: from Picturesque Views of the Southern Coast of England (1825).

15It gives a much stronger impression of the formidable world beyond the point where man’s reach ends—here the end of the Chain Pier. Here’s a new counterpoint to the stiff formalities of urban and industrial modernity—not so much the picturesquely weathered tools of the fishing trade, but the sea itself, with its muscular mobility, its volatility. Many of Turner’s coastal views are taken from out at sea. Literally and metaphorically he foregrounds the sea. Take his views of Ramsgate and Fowey Harbour:

Fig. 5: 'Ramsgate', from J.M.W.Turner, The Harbours of England (1859). With illustrative text by J. Ruskin.

Fig. 5: 'Ramsgate', from J.M.W.Turner, The Harbours of England (1859). With illustrative text by J. Ruskin.

16The giddying tilt of the fragile ship on that extraordinary pyramidal wave contrasts sharply with the stable horizontals and verticals of the pier and lighthouse. In the Fowey print the sea’s destructive force is realised in the wrecked shoal of bodies, and echoed in the stormy sky. These sea images are reaching towards the Turnerian Sublime.

The Open Sea and the Sublime

Fig. 6: J.M.W.Turner, Staffa, Fingal's Cave (1831-2). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Fig. 6: J.M.W.Turner, Staffa, Fingal's Cave (1831-2). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

17Turner visited the island of Staffa and Fingal’s Cave in 1831. He described the scene as the steamboat took them round Staffa: ‘The sun getting towards the horizon…burst through the rain-cloud, angry, and for wind.’ The painting was exhibited in 1832, and it was subsequently bought by a Mr James Lenox in 1845, and was dispatched to him in America. Lenox took a hurried look at it soon after its arrival in New York and assumed that it had got damaged in its passage across the Atlantic because it seemed so blurred here and there. He mentioned this in a letter to a friend in England. That friend, who also knew Turner, met the painter a day or two later. Turner naturally asked him if Mr Lennox liked the picture. The friend, in some embarrassment, replied ‘He thinks it indistinct’. Turner thought it might be the effect of the varnishing chilling in transport and affecting the painting’s surface; but if it proved not to be that, Turner acknowledged: ‘You should tell Mr Lenox that indistinctness is my fault.’ Indistinctness is part of Turner’s Sublime.

18Compare Staffa to those English coastal views we looked at earlier. In this seascape the land has faded to a pale, ethereal cliff-face with the vertical stratification peculiar to Staffa’s geology just visible. The sea is a dark bituminous mass; its brooding quality is picked up on the right in the arching rain-cloud, as it curves across the top of the picture. That in turn is echoed below in the trail of smoke from the steamship which curls towards the entrance to Fingal’s cave. The burst of light from the cloud’s edge pours down to the left onto the cliff-face. All the component features in the scene are woven together, dissolving one into the other.

19Fraser’s Magazine reviewed the painting when it was first exhibited: ‘ All is unison in this fine picture and impresses us with the sublimity of vastness and solitude’ (July 1832). This criticism, and especially the last phrase, invokes some of the key terms of Edmund Burke’s famous theory of the Sublime and the Beautiful formulated three-quarters of a century earlier. Because it bears so closely on the nature of the mystery of sea for Turner I would like to recap now on some of its key premises.

20The Sublime was a term that in the 18th century designated a powerful effect on the mind—one that overwhelms the mind’s rational capacity to analyse or understand. Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas on the Beautiful and the Sublime (1757 ; revised 1759) wrote : ‘The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it.’

21Here are three of the key sources for the experience of the Sublime :

Obscurity

22To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread

Infinity

23[related to Obscurity] has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect, and truest test of the sublime. [under Infinity/Obscurity—absence of boundaries—in ‘pleasing objects’] the imagination is entertained with the promise of something more… In unfinished sketches of drawing, I have often seen something which pleased me beyond the best finishing

Privation

24All general privations are great, because they are all terrible [and they include] Vacuity, Darkness, Solitude and Silence

25Staffa, according to the critic, ‘Impresses us with the sublimity of vastness and solitude’… In Staffa Vastness (of cliff, sea, and towering sky) and Solitude (the tiny vulnerable ship alone in this vastness) are two of the key sources of the Sublime corresponding to Burke’s account. The third, Obscurity, corresponds to Turner’s own signature indistinctness. When something vast is also indistinct, the imagination is stung by the instinct of self-preservation: it magnifies the potential horror. We sense a loss of control; boundaries disappear. Framing structures in the manner of Turner’s Margate view (Fig. 1) drop away; the secure landmarks (literally landmarks) dissolve. The mystery intensifies in proportion to our inability to comprehend and orientate.

26But consider also the earlier part of that review; ‘All is in unison in this fine picture’. Picturesque composition aimed for unity of a certain kind, the structural balancing of landscape’s separate components, earth, trees, lakes, mountains, sky (again, the Margate view is typical) ; but it kept the elements distinct within the frame. Turner is now aiming for something different; he starts to fuse and confuse the different elements. They unify as they dissolve, as they engage each other and blur their conventional boundaries.

27Staffa was exhibited in 1832 with these lines, quoted in the catalogue, from Walter Scott’s poem, Lord of the Isles:

  • 4 Sir Walter Scott, The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott (Paris, 1821), Vol. VI, p.86.

--- nor of a theme less solemn tells
That mighty surge that ebbs and swells,
And still, between each awful pause,
From the high vault an answer draws 4

28I suspect that what drew Turner to this particular quotation was not just the general evocation of the mighty sea, but the relation between the sea and the ‘high vault’: they are depicted as acting in concert. The mighty surge draws an ‘answer’ from the sky. Thus Turner pulls the two into unison, and underlines the process by calling in poetry. His indistinctness is the way of showing that elemental fusion. One cannot easily tell where sky ends and land or sea begin in this composition of great sweeping arcs.

Painting Water

29Turner often called in the aid of poetry to enhance his paintings, by including quotations in the catalogue for his exhibited works (as we’ve seen in Staffa). He was acutely conscious of the advantages and disadvantages of the different media. I am going to pick up on one or two of these tensions between the so-called Sister Arts—and they bear on the challenges faced by Turner in his seascapes.

30In 1771 the first President of the Royal Academy, Joshua Reynolds, gave his annual address to the Academy students and made this succinct comment on the Sister Arts:

  • 5 Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art ed R.Wark (Collier -Macmillans, 1966), p.58 (from Discourse 4).

A Painter must compensate the natural deficiencies of his art. He has but one sentence to utter, but one moment to exhibit. He cannot, like the poet or historian, expatiate.5

31The painter cannot expatiate, the writer can. What exactly is involved here? Broadly speaking, the writer can expatiate (amplify, embellish) in two ways, linearly and laterally. Linearly, the writer can develop a narrative, a sequence of linked events chronicling change. The writer can show movement, transformations—for example in developing the motion of waves as they form, build, roll and crash. The painter has to seize one arrested moment from this sequence. ‘Lateral’ expatiation might be identified with the writer’s embellishing of his or her subject by explicitly attaching emotional value, or by working up metaphor or simile ; in other words by expanding outwards imaginatively from the object in a process of metaphorical enrichment and thereby adding new aesthetic and emotional dimensions.

32Turner not only invoked passages of poetry by well- known poets as an adjunct to his paintings ; he was himself a poet. So he is acutely aware of the problems. He addresses them in one of his sketchbooks. He complains that beside the poet’s resources for generating ‘attributes or sentiments to illustrate what he has seen in nature’, the painter is shackled. Furthermore, the painter is restricted in portraying the movement of natural energy—such as the wind :

  • 6 J.M.W.Turner, Inscription by Turner: Notes on Painting in Relation to Poetry c.1809. Turner Bequest (...)

One word is sufficient to establish what is the greatest difficulty to the |painters Art to produce wavy air as some call The Wind ….the Painter to give that wind…must give the cause | as well as the effect, and without which | he would be nothing. 6

33Turner in his later work renders wind, rain and storm by showing the effects of ‘wavy air’ laden with rain, as it blurs and seems to dissolve landscape forms, as in his watercolour of the Pass of Faido descent from the Alps, here reproduced in Ruskin’s drawing from Modern Painters.

Fig. 7: John Ruskin, 'Pass of Faido' (2nd Turnerian Topography), from Modern Painters (1903), vol. 4, plate 21.

Fig. 7: John Ruskin, 'Pass of Faido' (2nd Turnerian Topography), from Modern Painters (1903), vol. 4, plate 21.

34In the Turner of the 1840s all things material aspire to the condition of water in such scenes. The mountains, the fields, the cliffs, the gorges, flow with the rhythms of the turbulent river. Moving water is a kind of ‘wavy air’; but, out in the open sea it becomes more structurally enigmatic: that is part of its mystery. Ruskin wrote of the sea’s ‘wild, unwearied, reckless incoherency.’ How do you paint incoherency? Incoherency belongs among those properties of the disorienting Sublime.

  • 7 John Ruskin, Modern Painters (George Allen, 1903) Vol I, Sect V, Ch.1, 345.

35‘It is like trying to paint a soul’, Ruskin said of the challenge of painting water, and particularly when trying to paint what he called ‘the wild, various, fantastic, tameless unity of the sea.’7 It is as difficult to describe a huge mass of water in words as it is to paint it. It is wild and tameless, but somehow a ‘unity’: there’s the enticing paradox. No wonder artists have been so often drawn to it.

36Turner was fascinated by the appearance of moving water, as was his champion John Ruskin. Ruskin and Turner knew each other over many years, and Turner saw much of Ruskin’s own artistic work. Ruskin once showed Turner a watercolour drawing he had done of the Falls of Schaffhausen.

Fig. 8: John Ruskin, Falls of Schaffhausen (1842). Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Samuel Sachs, 1919. 47. Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Fig. 8: John Ruskin, Falls of Schaffhausen (1842). Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Samuel Sachs, 1919. 47. Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College
  • 8 Letter to C.E.Norton, 1879: quoted in Robert Hewison et al eds, Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaeli (...)

37Years later Ruskin recalled: ‘That drawing of the falls of Schaffhausen is the only one [of my works] I ever saw Turner interested in. He looked at it long, evidently with pleasure, and shook his finger at it one evening, standing by the fire in the old Denmark-Hill drawing-room.’8 What had taken Turner’s special interest? It must have been the rendering of water in violent motion that struck him, and the formal boldness of Ruskin’s execution. While the parapet on the right and the rocks on the left are depicted realistically, the foam and spray are just dabbed masses, impressionist gestures, with more meticulous attention given to the water’s glassy roll in the centre. I wonder to what extent this fascination with capturing the texture of water in violent movement might have been related to the inability of the Victorian camera to cope with it? Flowing water in early photography is just a white blur.

38The sea, I’ve suggested—borrowing Turner’s phrase—is partly materialized ‘wavy air’, semi-solidified wind. As we saw in Turner’s Brighton sea, it consists of deep scallops and rearing arches of water, with ragged crests of foam, protean formations contrasting strongly with the rigid rectilinear forms of buildings along the shoreline. That is one way of suggesting movement, by activating contrasts and a clashing geometry between the forms of stable landmarks and the relative anarchy of the sea surface. But what happens when you take the land away and confront the wild sea surfaces on their own? Turner does all a painter can (it seems to me) to achieve movement and exquisite texture just with the moving sea water. Confronting his more turbulent seascape, the eye is pulled to and fro. It rocks in a fluctuating mesh of diagonals, forced to enact the experience of being pitched into the element.

The Deep Sea: Language and Mystery

39I have been considering techniques for representing in paint the material reality of the sea, of moving water. But the Sublime is virtually unrepresentable. Its essence is that it is too vast, too astonishing for the mind to embrace, comprehend. So, in this final part, I want to explore Turner’s sense of the protean, sublime mystery of the sea in closer detail. And I want to do so through comparing Turner’s graphic painterly language with the language of some Victorian poetry. I’m choosing poetry in which sea representations have a degree of experimental daring comparable with the language of Turner’s later marine paintings. I hope they will illuminate each other. Turner, as we have seen, was interested in the descriptive power of poetry, both as a critic and as a practitioner himself.

  • 9 J.D.Rosenberg, ‘Swinburne’, Victorian Studies vol 11 (1967-68), 148.

40One of the most stimulating discussions of Turner’s art and the poet’s art appears in an essay by John Rosenberg. He is exploring parallels between Turner and the late Victorian poet, Swinburne. Rosenberg remarks that both artist and poet share an ‘exultation of energy over form’. He finds: ‘Always in Swinburne the pure fluid power of wind and sea sweeps everything before it, just as the cataclysmic rush of avalanche and inundation obliterates the paltry human figures in J.M.W.Turner’s Val d’Aosta9.

Fig. 9: J.M.W.Turner, Valley of Aosta: Snow Storm, Avalanche and Thunderstorm (1836-7). Frederick T. Haskell Collection; The Art Institute of Chicago.

Fig. 9: J.M.W.Turner, Valley of Aosta: Snow Storm, Avalanche and Thunderstorm (1836-7). Frederick T. Haskell Collection; The Art Institute of Chicago.

41Turner’s full title distinguishes components that, in the painting, are tempestuously confused: one cannot tell river from avalanche, nor mountain line from cloud, nor rain squall from any of these. The lines of energy are depicted as force-fields. They amalgamate disparate forms to the point where elemental distinctions are blurred: thus a rain-squall and the line of a mountainside are rendered as one swirl, neither any longer one thing or the other. Everything is swept up into an overwhelming whole, a congregation of natural forces threatening to engulf the fugitive humans cowering in the lower corner of the scene. These, together with the dimly figured church in the distance—powerless to act as sanctuary—are the only distinctly identifiable shapes; and it is a matter of minutes, it seems, before the cataclysm effaces them too.

42How might language render this same overwhelming sense of indeterminacy as Turner’s achieves in this and in some of his sea pictures? Swinburne seems to try to match such effects in his natural description of a wrecking storm at sea. I take as an example this extract from his verse drama of 1865, Atalanta in Calydon:

  • 10 Algernon Charles Swinburne, Atalanta in Calydon and Lyrical Poems (Leipzig, 1901), p.62

  And under thee newly arisen
     Loud shoals and shipwrecking reefs,
        Fierce air and violent light;
     Sail rent and sundering oar,
        Darkness, and noises of night;
Clashing of streams in the sea,
     Wave against wave as a sword,
        Clamour of currents, and foam;
               Rains making ruin on earth,
        Winds that wax ravenous and roam
  As wolves in a wolfish horde.10

43What we have here are distinct or fairly distinct images—reefs, oar, wave, sword, foam, wolves—but the total effect is designedly one of havoc, confusion and indeterminacy : it is akin to Ruskin’s ‘incoherency’. Could you paint a picture from that? The wild medley stirs together strikingly heterogeneous components: waves and swords, winds and wolves? What are they doing together in a sea description? What is literal and what is metaphor? There’s no time to work that out. It is the dynamism of the piece, its hectic rush which is key to its effect. Images accumulate so rapidly that no single image has time to register and come into full focus before being jostled out of focus by its successor. This headlong rush and blurring seems to me something like a linguistic counterpart to Turner’s avalanche or sea-storm depictions.

44The audacity of this degree of painterly innovation was profoundly disturbing to Turner’s contemporaries. Of the Val d’Aosta the Athenaeum reviewer wrote:

  • 11 Athenaeum, 6 February 1841: quoted in Turner, 1775-1851 (Tate Gallery, 1974), 158.

He has loaded his weapon of offence with such pigments as the Quakers love, and shot a round drab, dove-colour, and dirty white, with only a patch of hot, southern red, in the foreground, to heighten, as it were, the horrors of a snow scene by a few probable touches of fire and sunshine. To speak of these works as pictures, would be an abuse of language.11

  • 12 Comments reported to John Ruskin by the Revd William Kingsley, and published in Modern Painters, vo (...)

45‘Weapon of Offence’? Turner’s technique is seen as an act of hostility. To which Turner might have replied in much the same terms as he is reported to have used when responding to equally dismissive critiques from the same journal of his Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842): ‘ I did not paint it to be understood, but I wished to show what such a scene was like… I wonder what they think the sea’s like? I wish they had been in it’12. To be in a cataclysmic event is to forfeit the kind of understanding of it that would more easily come from viewing it in relative detachment.

Fig. 10: J.M.W.Turner, Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842). © Tate, London.

Fig. 10: J.M.W.Turner, Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842). © Tate, London.

46My final comparison takes this painting Snow Storm, and sets it against a passage of poetry by the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. The mystery of the sea is the conjunction of something materially real and representable (as we saw with the techniques of water painting), and something with unfathomable depths and moods that baffle configuration (Ruskin ‘like trying to paint a soul’). Byron and Dickens called it ‘that old Image of Eternity’. In respect of the first, Hopkins shared with Turner and Ruskin a fascination with the problems of representing the sea and water generally when in motion. He made several sketches of flowing water and breaking surf and his journal contains painstaking analyses of the patterns of water’s flow, as in this Journal entry for 1872 :.

Fig. 11: G.M.Hopkins, 'Study from the Cliff above Freshwater Gate, July 23' (1863).

Fig. 11: G.M.Hopkins, 'Study from the Cliff above Freshwater Gate, July 23' (1863).

The curves of the returning wave overlap, the angular space between them is smooth but covered with a network of foam. The advancing wave already broken, and now only a mass of foam…the eyes have before them a region of milky surf but it is hard for them to unpack the huddling and gnarls of the water’. (Hopkins Journal entries, 1863 and 1872)

Pattern and anarchy

47In respect of the second more elusive part of the mystery, the sea has some affinity with Hopkins’s sense of the sacred mystery of the Catholic Church. By that word mystery Hopkins said meant not mystery in the conventional meaning—‘an interesting uncertainty’—but mystery as ‘an incomprehensible certainty’. That comes nearer to what I think the sea meant for Turner.

48How does Hopkins come close to Turner then? Turner was very particular about the way his landscapes and seascapes were received. He knew that for maximum effect his vortex compositions had to hang directly at eye level. He was also impatient, as we’ve seen, with people who felt they should be able to understand his paintings. The comparison with Hopkins is interesting. In conventional poetry, a poem’s meaning emerges sequentially, sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase; the developing richness of the experience is rendered cumulatively. In Hopkins’s poetry meaning explodes at unpredictable moments during the reading of the text, and can be lost if one relies on the steadily unfolding system of one-to-one reference, where words and phrases are relatively uncontroversial units of signification. Hopkins wrote in a letter of 8 October 1879: ‘either the meaning to be felt without effort as fast as one reads or else, if dark at first reading, when once made out to explode’. His verse, as he said, was ‘less to be read than heard’ (21 August 1877).

49The intensity of effect managed by Hopkins’s language, and its analogy with Turner’s graphic language may be seen in stanza 13 from his poem The Wreck of the Deutschland. The poem was written in response to a dreadful shipwreck in the North Sea in December 1875. The ship carrying a group of nuns driven into exile from Germany. On its second day out from the port of Bremen, the Deutschland ran into a terrible storm:

          Into the snows she sweeps,
          Hurling the haven behind,
     The Deutschland, on Sunday, and so the sky keeps,
          For the infinite air is unkind,
And the seas flint-flaked, black-backed in the regular blow,
Sitting Eastnortheast, in cursed quarter, the wind;
     Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivellèd snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.

  • 13 The Atheneaum, 14 May 1842.

50The lethal attributes of the storm and the sea are compressed into the natural description ; cause and effect are verbally fused—the unkind air, the unfathering deeps. The compression is there in the increased use of compound words where startling partnerships are cemented: ‘flint-flaked’, ‘white-fiery’. The diction is disconcerting, but equally disconcerting is the syntax. Syntax and diction run straight into the storm and are buffeted about. But we should not try to unpick its rhetoric in this way. The Athenaeum reviewer of Snow Storm (14 May 1842) was baffled by the painting’s concentrated confusion: Where the steam-boat is—where the harbour begins, or where it ends—which are the signals, and which the author in the Ariel...are matters past our finding out.13

51‘I did not paint it to be understood,’ said Turner: ‘ but I wished to show what such a scene was’. Just like Turner, Hopkins does not mean you to pause and construe his language. He wants you to be caught up in it, partly uncomprehendingly, and to experience ‘what such a scene was’.

52Hopkins, as we have seen, was very concerned about the appropriate way to approach his poetry, with the ear as much as with the eye and mind. We sense his sea storm as much, if not more, in the verse’s auditory power as in its rhetorical formulation: the roughened sea sounding out the plosives of line 5; the tempestuous flailing of the wind and snow enacted in the alliteration and assonance of the penultimate line. It is generating something like a verbal simulacrum of the hideous disorientation of the storm. Like Hopkins’s description, Turner’s seascape reproduces iconically within its structure the Sublime, unfocussable experience of ‘whirlwind-swivellèd snow’, in its arcing, vortical onslaught on the spectator.

53For both painter and poet there is something extraordinarily visceral about their response. The compound words and the clotted syntax in Hopkins thrust themselves at the reader. They seem to me to give language a peculiarly obtrusive materiality and volume of its own—a language equivalent to those thick blobs and streaks of pigment that rise like welts from Turner’s later oils. Hopkins, in effect, produces a kind of verbal impasto.

54Both painter and poet are testing to its limits the magnificent wild incoherency that Ruskin felt was at the heart of the mystery of the sea. It is a matter formally of reproducing the experience of incoherency in the face of nature’s mighty forces. The mystery of the sea, that unpaintable ‘soul’, is to be rendered by breaking with convention and risking glorious incomprehension.

55The sea’s mercurial nature, its fluctuation between gentle welcoming calm and destructive violence—those antitheses played out in The Tempest—is very evident if we bring together the locations featured at the beginning and end of this talk. The Deutschland and its passengers met their end in a ferocious storm on a treacherous sandbank called the Kentish Knock; that wrecking sandbank is only about 15 miles out to sea from the placid beach at Margate where Turner learnt to cherish those Thanet skies.

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Bibliography

Hemingway, Andrew, Landscape Imagery & Urban Culture in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Hewison, Robert et al eds, Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, London: Tate 2000.

Hopkins, G.M., Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose, ed. W.H.Gardner, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963.

Reynolds, Joshua. Discourses on Art, ed R.Wark, Collier - Macmillans, 1966.

Rosenberg, J.D., "Swinburne", Victorian Studies vol 11, 1967-68.

Ruskin, John, Modern Painters, George Allen, 1903.

Scott, Sir Walter, The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott, Paris, 1821.

Shakespeare, William, The Tempest, Oxford: World’s Classics, 1987.

Swinburne, Algernon Charles, Atalanta in Calydon and Lyrical Poems, Leipzig, 1901.

Turner, J.M.W., Picturesque Views in England and Wales, 1832.

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Notes

1 Athenaeum, 7 May 1842.

2 For discussion of the painters’ representation of seaside resorts, see Andrew Hemingway, Landscape imagery & urban culture in early nineteenth-century Britain (Cambridge University Press, 1992), Ch.8. I am much indebted to Hemingway’s ideas on the artistic treatment of these motifs.

3 The Tempest, Act V, Scene 1, l.81

4 Sir Walter Scott, The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott (Paris, 1821), Vol. VI, p.86.

5 Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art ed R.Wark (Collier -Macmillans, 1966), p.58 (from Discourse 4).

6 J.M.W.Turner, Inscription by Turner: Notes on Painting in Relation to Poetry c.1809. Turner Bequest CVIII 50a: Tate Gallery.

7 John Ruskin, Modern Painters (George Allen, 1903) Vol I, Sect V, Ch.1, 345.

8 Letter to C.E.Norton, 1879: quoted in Robert Hewison et al eds, Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites Tate 2000, 65.

9 J.D.Rosenberg, ‘Swinburne’, Victorian Studies vol 11 (1967-68), 148.

10 Algernon Charles Swinburne, Atalanta in Calydon and Lyrical Poems (Leipzig, 1901), p.62

11 Athenaeum, 6 February 1841: quoted in Turner, 1775-1851 (Tate Gallery, 1974), 158.

12 Comments reported to John Ruskin by the Revd William Kingsley, and published in Modern Painters, vol 5 (1860), Ch.xii, para 4, fn 1.

13 The Atheneaum, 14 May 1842.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig.1: J.M.W. Turner, Margate , Kent : from Picturesque Views in England and Wales 1832
URL http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/docannexe/image/676/img-1.png
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Title Fig.2: G.Hunt, Marine Parade, Brighton
URL http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/docannexe/image/676/img-2.png
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Title Fig. 3: John Constable, The Beach at Brighton, the Chain Pier in the Distance
URL http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/docannexe/image/676/img-3.png
File image/png, 1.9M
Title Fig.4: G.Cooke after J.M.W.Turner, Brighthelmston, Sussex 1825: from Picturesque Views of the Southern Coast of England (1825).
URL http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/docannexe/image/676/img-4.png
File image/png, 988k
Title Fig. 5: 'Ramsgate', from J.M.W.Turner, The Harbours of England (1859). With illustrative text by J. Ruskin.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/docannexe/image/676/img-5.jpg
File image/jpeg, 56k
Title Fig. 6: J.M.W.Turner, Staffa, Fingal's Cave (1831-2). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/docannexe/image/676/img-6.jpg
File image/jpeg, 204k
Title Fig. 7: John Ruskin, 'Pass of Faido' (2nd Turnerian Topography), from Modern Painters (1903), vol. 4, plate 21.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/docannexe/image/676/img-7.jpg
File image/jpeg, 92k
Title Fig. 8: John Ruskin, Falls of Schaffhausen (1842). Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Samuel Sachs, 1919. 47. Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College
URL http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/docannexe/image/676/img-8.jpg
File image/jpeg, 52k
Title Fig. 9: J.M.W.Turner, Valley of Aosta: Snow Storm, Avalanche and Thunderstorm (1836-7). Frederick T. Haskell Collection; The Art Institute of Chicago.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/docannexe/image/676/img-9.jpg
File image/jpeg, 92k
Title Fig. 10: J.M.W.Turner, Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842). © Tate, London.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/docannexe/image/676/img-10.jpg
File image/jpeg, 424k
Title Fig. 11: G.M.Hopkins, 'Study from the Cliff above Freshwater Gate, July 23' (1863).
URL http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/docannexe/image/676/img-11.jpg
File image/jpeg, 209k
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References

Bibliographical reference

Malcolm Andrews, « Turner and the Mystery of the Sea », Caliban, 52 | 2014, 75-94.

Electronic reference

Malcolm Andrews, « Turner and the Mystery of the Sea », Caliban [Online], 52 | 2014, Online since 22 April 2015, connection on 24 February 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/676 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/caliban.676

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About the author

Malcolm Andrews

University of Kent

By this author

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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