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This is one of the most beautiful and best-finished plates of the series, and Turner has taken great pains with the drawing; but it is sadly open to the same charges which were brought against the Dover, of an attempt to reach a false sublimity by magnifying things in themselves insignificant. The fact is that Turner, when he prepared these drawings, had been newly inspired by the scenery of the Continent; and with his mind entirely occupied by the ruined towers of the Rhine, he found himself called upon to return to the formal embrasures and unappalling elevations of English forts and hills. But it was impossible for him to recover the simplicity and narrowness of conception in which he had executed the drawing of the Southern Coast, or to regain the innocence of delight with which he had once a.s.sisted gravely at the drying of clothes over the limekiln at Comb Martin, or penciled the woodland outlines of the banks of Dartmouth Cove. In certain fits of prosaic humorism, he would, as we have seen, condemn himself to delineation of the parades of a watering-place; but the moment he permitted himself to be enthusiastic, vaster imaginations crowded in upon him: to modify his old conception in the least, was to exaggerate it; the mount of Pendennis is lifted into rivalship with Ehrenbreitstein, and hardworked Falmouth glitters along the distant bay, like the gay magnificence of Resina or Sorrento.
This effort at sublimity is all the more to be regretted, because it never succeeds completely. Shade, or magnify, or mystify as he may, even Turner cannot make the minute neatness of the English fort appeal to us as forcibly as the remnants of Gothic wall and tower that crown the Continental crags; and invest them as he may with smoke or sunbeam, the details of our little mounded hills will not take the rank of cliffs of Alp, or promontories of Apennine; and we lose the English simplicity, without gaining the Continental n.o.bleness.
I have also a prejudice against this picture for being disagreeably noisy. Wherever there is something serious to be done, as in a battle piece, the noise becomes an element of the sublimity; but to have great guns going off in every direction beneath one's feet on the right, and all round the other side of the castle, and from the deck of the ship of the line, and from the battery far down the cove, and from the fort on the top of the hill, and all for nothing, is to my mind eminently troublesome.
The drawing of the different wreaths and depths of smoke, and the explosive look of the flash on the right, are, however, very wonderful and peculiarly Turneresque; the sky is also beautiful in form, and the foreground, in which we find his old regard for washerwomen has not quite deserted him, singularly skillful. It is curious how formal the whole picture becomes if this figure and the gray stones beside it are hidden with the hand.
This drawing has always been interesting to me among Turner's sea pieces, on account of the n.o.ble gathering together of the great wave on the left,--the back of a breaker, just heaving itself up, and provoking itself into pa.s.sion, before its leap and roar against the beach. But the enjoyment of these designs is much interfered with by their monotony: it is seriously to be regretted that in all but one the view is taken from the sea; for the spectator is necessarily tired by the perpetual rush and sparkle of water, and ceases to be impressed by it. It would be felt, if this plate were seen alone, that there are few marine paintings in which the weight and heaping of the sea are given so faithfully.
For the rest it is perhaps more to be regretted that we are kept to our sea-level at Sidmouth than at any other of the localities ill.u.s.trated.
What claim the pretty little village has to be considered as a port of England, I know not; but if it was to be so ranked, a far more interesting study of it might have been made from the heights above the town, whence the ranges of dark-red sandstone cliffs stretching to the southwest are singularly bold and varied. The detached fragment of sandstone which forms the princ.i.p.al object in Turner's view has long ago fallen, and even while it stood could hardly have been worth the honor of so careful ill.u.s.tration.
As an expression of the general spirit of English coast scenery, this plate must be considered the princ.i.p.al one of the series. Like all the rest, it is a little too grand for its subject; but the exaggerations of s.p.a.ce and size are more allowable here than in the others, as partly necessary to convey the feeling of danger conquered by activity and commerce, which characterizes all our northerly Eastern coast. There are cliffs more terrible, and winds more wild, on other sh.o.r.es; but nowhere else do so many white sails lean against the bleak wind, and glide across the cliff shadows. Nor do I know many other memorials of monastic life so striking as the abbey on that dark headland. We are apt in our journeys through lowland England, to watch with some secret contempt the general pleasantness of the vales in which our abbeys were founded, without taking any pains to inquire into the particular circ.u.mstances which directed or compelled the choice of the monks, and without reflecting that, if the choice were a selfish one, the selfishness is that of the English lowlander turning monk, not that of monachism; since, if we examine the sites of the Swiss monasteries and convents, we shall always find the snow lying round them in July; and it must have been cold meditating in these cloisters of St. Hilda's when the winter wind set from the east. It is long since I was at Whitby, and I am not sure whether Turner is right in giving so monotonous and severe verticality to the cliff above which the abbey stands; but I believe it must have some steep places about it, since the tradition which, in nearly all parts of the island where fossil ammonites are found, is sure to be current respecting them, takes quite an original form at Whitby, owing to the steepness of this rock. In general, the saint of the locality has simply turned all the serpents to stone; but at Whitby, St.
Hilda drove them over the cliff, and the serpents, before being petrified, had all their heads broken off by the fall!
I have had occasion,[W] elsewhere, to consider at some length, the peculiar love of the English for neatness and minuteness: but I have only considered, without accounting for, or coming to any conclusion about it; and, the more I think of it, the more it puzzles me to understand what there can be in our great national mind which delights to such an extent in bra.s.s plates, red bricks, square curbstones, and fresh green paint, all on the tiniest possible scale. The other day I was dining in a respectable English "Inn and Posting-house," not ten miles from London, and, measuring the room after dinner, I found it exactly twice and a quarter the height of my umbrella. It was a highly comfortable room, and a.s.sociated, in the proper English manner, with outdoor sports and pastimes, by a portrait of Jack Hall, fisherman of Eton, and of Mr. C. Davis on his favorite mare; but why all this hunting and fishing enthusiasm should like to reduce itself, at home, into twice and a quarter the height of an umbrella, I could not in any wise then, nor have I at any other time been able to ascertain.
[W] _Modern Painters_, vol. iv. chap. 1.
Perhaps the town of Deal involves as much of this question in its aspect and reputation, as any other place in Her Majesty's dominions: or at least it seemed so to me, coming to it as I did, after having been accustomed to the boat-life at Venice, where the heavy craft, ma.s.sy in build and ma.s.sy in sail, and disorderly in aquatic economy, reach with their mast-vanes only to the first stories of the huge marble palaces they anchor among. It was very strange to me, after this, knowing that whatever was brave and strong in the English sailor was concentrated in our Deal boatmen, to walk along that trim strip of conventional beach, which the sea itself seems to wash in a methodical manner, one shingle-step at a time; and by its thin toy-like boats, each with its head to sea, at regular intervals, looking like things that one would give a clever boy to play with in a pond, when first he got past petticoats; and the row of lath cots behind, all tidiness and telegraph, looking as if the whole business of the human race on earth was to know what o'clock it was, and when it would be high water,--only some slight weakness in favor of grog being indicated here and there by a hospitable-looking open door, a gay bow-window, and a sign intimating that it is a sailor's duty to be not only accurate, but "jolly."
Turner was always fond of this neat, courageous, benevolent, merry, methodical Deal. He painted it very early, in the Southern Coast series, insisting on one of the tavern windows as the princ.i.p.al subject, with a flash of forked lightning streaming beyond it out at sea like a narrow flag. He has the same a.s.sociation in his mind in the present plate; disorder and distress among the ships on the left, with the boat going out to help them; and the precision of the little town stretching in sunshine along the beach.
I have put this plate last in the series, thinking that the reader will be glad to rest in its morning quietness, after so much tossing among the troubled foam. I said in the course of the introduction, that nothing is so perfectly calm as Turner's calmness; and I know very few better examples of this calmness than the plate before us, uniting, as it does, the glittering of the morning clouds, and trembling of the sea, with an infinitude of peace in both. There are one or two points of interest in the artifices by which the intense effect of calm is produced. Much is owing, in the first place, to the amount of absolute gloom obtained by the local blackness of the boats on the beach; like a piece of the midnight left unbroken by the dawn. But more is owing to the treatment of the distant harbor mouth. In general, throughout nature, Reflection and Repet.i.tion are _peaceful_ things; that is to say, the image of any object, seen in calm water, gives us an impression of quietness, not merely because we know the water must be quiet in order to be reflective; but because the fact of the repet.i.tion of this form is lulling to us in its monotony, and a.s.sociated more or less with an idea of quiet succession, or reproduction, in events or things throughout nature:--that one day should be like another day, one town the image of another town, or one history the repet.i.tion of another history, being more or less results of quietness, while dissimilarity and non-succession are also, more or less, results of interference and disquietude. And thus, though an echo actually increases the quant.i.ty of sound heard, its repet.i.tion of the notes or syllables of sound, gives an idea of calmness attainable in no other way; hence the feeling of calm given to a landscape by the notes of the cuckoo. Understanding this, observe the anxious _doubling_ of every object by a visible echo or shadow throughout this picture. The grandest feature of it is the steep distant cliff; and therefore the dualism is more marked here than elsewhere; the two promontories or cliffs, and two piers below them, being arranged so that the one looks almost like the shadow of the other, cast irregularly on mist. In all probability, the more distant pier would in reality, unless it is very greatly higher than the near one, have been lowered by perspective so as not to continue in the same longitudinal line at the top,--but Turner will not have it so; he reduces them to exactly the same level, so that the one looks like the phantom of the other; and so of the cliffs above.
Then observe, each pier has, just below the head of it, in a vertical line, another important object, one a buoy, and the other a stooping figure. These carry on the double group in the calmest way, obeying the general law of vertical reflection, and throw down two long shadows on the near beach. The intenseness of the parallelism would catch the eye in a moment, but for the lighthouse, which breaks the group and prevents the artifice from being too open. Next come the two heads of boats, with their two bowsprits, and the two masts of the one farthest off, all monotonously double, but for the diagonal mast of the nearer one, which again hides the artifice. Next, put your finger over the white central figure, and follow the minor incidents round the beach; first, under the lighthouse, a stick, with its echo below a little to the right; above, a black stone, and its echo to the right; under the white figure, another stick, with its echo to the left; then a starfish,[X] and a white spot its echo to the left; then a dog, and a basket to double its light; above, a fisherman, and his wife for an echo; above them, two lines of curved shingle; above them, two small black figures; above them, two unfinished ships, and two forked masts; above the forked masts, a house with two gables, and its echo exactly over it in two gables more; next to the right, two fishing-boats with sails down; farther on, two fishing-boats with sails up, each with its little white reflection below; then two larger ships, which, lest his trick should be found out, Turner puts a dim third between; then below, two fat colliers, leaning away from each other, and two thinner colliers, leaning towards each other; and now at last, having doubled everything all round the beach, he gives one strong single stroke to gather all together, places his solitary central white figure, and the Calm is complete.
[X] I have mentioned elsewhere that Turner was fond of this subject of Scarborough, and that there are four drawings of it by him, if not more, under different effects, having this much common to the four, that there is always a starfish on the beach.
It is also to be noticed, that not only the definite repet.i.tion has a power of expressing serenity, but even the slight sense of _confusion_ induced by the continual doubling is useful; it makes us feel not well awake, drowsy, and as if we were out too early, and had to rub our eyes yet a little, before we could make out whether there were really two boats or one.
I do not mean that every means which we may possibly take to enable ourselves to see things double, will be always the most likely to insure the ultimate tranquillity of the scene, neither that any such artifice as this would be of avail, without the tender and loving drawing of the things themselves, and of the light that bathes them; nevertheless the highest art is full of these little cunnings, and it is only by the help of them that it can succeed in at all equaling the force of the natural impression.
One great monotony, that of the successive sigh and vanishing of the slow waves upon the sand, no art can render to us. Perhaps the silence of early light, even on the "field dew consecrate" of the gra.s.s itself, is not so tender as the lisp of the sweet belled lips of the clear waves in their following patience. We will leave the sh.o.r.e as their silver fringes fade upon it, desiring thus, as far as may be, to remember the sea. We have regarded it perhaps too often as an enemy to be subdued; let us, at least this once, accept from it, and from the soft light beyond the cliffs above, the image of the state of a perfect Human Spirit,--
"The memory, like a cloudless air, The conscience, like a sea at rest."