John Wordsworth on Snowdon: The elegiac sublime and the spectacle of woe

Michael David Raymond, Fordham University


William Wordsworth was mourning for his brother, John Wordsworth, when he finished The Prelude (1805). However, historical particularities related to that tragic event and his subsequent mourning appear lacking in Book 13—a book begun before but finished after John's sudden demise. This generally accepted viewpoint is tested here, since I argue that the poem augments itself with interior ruminations with the figure of John in the mist on Snowdon. If true, this metaphoric musing alters the ultimate significance of the Snowdon episode. This “lonely mountain” becomes, in part, the symbol of Wordsworth's own struggle to overcome the darkness of death—the elegiac sublime—and the stress over vocation and worth in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. John has a part to play. I coupled these two abstract concepts, elegy and sublimity, to represent a powerful synthesis of emotions and images in which death, terror, guilt, absence and dislocation occupy significant space within the speaker's thoughts. Their synthesis appears for the most part on Snowdon as the apophatic figurations of denial and negation. When Wordsworth finished Book 13 in 1805, he was clearly a man responding to tension, loss and mortality. Two narratives emerge then on Snowdon—the self-fashioning history of a poet preparing to write The Recluse juxtaposed with an unwitting, internal and personal need to cope with death and nightmare anxieties of desertion, and the subsequent necessity to validate his own life. To relieve that anxiety, Wordsworth formulated an unconscious transfer of intense feelings or displacement that come to life as recurrent and symbolic metaphors in his verse. As a result, something of greater consequence (deep-seated sorrow over the loss of loved ones) becomes sublimated into his elegiac poetry. This conversion of raw emotions into poetic form brings out perhaps unconscious yet therapeutic subtleties structured around the psychic process of conflict and recovery. Silence and absence have meaning here, and they too become the ghostly figurations for the subject at hand—death, fear of death, and one's ultimate rescue or deliverance from a world of death.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Raymond, Michael David, "John Wordsworth on Snowdon: The elegiac sublime and the spectacle of woe" (2008). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3353777.