The picturesque, in its simplest form, is ‘that which is fit for painting,’ but by what model do we define the picturesque? William Gilpin, in his Three Essays describes the idea of the picturesque. There is a certain amount of “roughness” to what should be painted. Rather than the perfect, the smooth, the elegant and flowing, the picturesque has a rugged and imperfect quality to it. The ruin is more acceptable than the newly constructed building. The overgrown woods is more pleasing than the trimmed garden. This idea of “roughness” in the picturesque is to bring some interest to the painting; surely, the trimmed garden is pleasing to look at as you walk through it, but it doesn’t capture your attention when it is painted on canvas.
This seems obvious. All forms of art try to capture the attention; visual, audio, and, last but not least, the literary arts. During this time period many poets were influenced by the ideas of the beautiful, the picturesque, and the sublime, and William Wordsworth is no exception. In his poem “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth paints a picture of woods and cliffs, and buildings overgrown by nature’s unknown bounds. The first stanza has a very vivid description of the narrator’s surroundings:
“Once again / Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs, / Which on a wild secluded scene impress / Thoughts of a more deep seclusion; and connect / The landscape with the quiet of the sky. / The day is come when I again repose / Here, under this dark sycamore, and view / These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts, / Which, at this season, with their unripe fruits, / Among the woods and copses lose themselves, / Nor, with their green and simple hue, disturb / The wild green landscape. Once again I see / These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines / Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms / Green to the very door” [lines 4-18].
I duplicated most of the stanza here to illustrate how Wordsworth uses the ideas of Gilpin’s picturesque to add a visual interest to his poem. Rather than rolling, smooth hills, there are “steep” and “lofty” cliffs, which give a striking vision of a stark drop, of rocks and treacherous climbs. There are “tufts” of orchards, which give the impression of scattered clusters, rather than a cohesive whole. The unripe fruit brings to mind the unfinished, the continuing journey, rather than some perfect conclusion. The word “wild” is used several times, to describe what the reader may otherwise think simple and orderly; the hedge-row, and the green landscape. The third stanza also has some vivid nature imagery; “the tall rock, / The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood” [lines 78-79], and here, Wordsworth is juxtaposing the original serene and calm at the landscape with a kind of blissful horror at these different surroundings. I feel confident in using the term sublime to describe this “Haunted…passion” [line 78] the narrator feels at the woods and the mountains, in part because he used the term himself earlier in the poem, in the second stanza [line 48], to describe how he felt about remembering the vivid landscape while he was away from it, and also in the third stanza [line 96] to describe “A presence that disturbs [him] with joy / Of elevated thoughts” [lines 95-96], a strange mix of emotions that ultimately he defines as “joy” which he feels at the sight of the landscape. Another characteristic of the picturesque as described by Gilpin is the picturesque travel; traveling to find the picturesque. Wordsworth states that he “came among these hills; when like a roe / [He] bounded over the mountains, by the sides / Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams, / Wherever nature led” [lines 68-71]. Also, when Wordsworth describes the landscape, we only see the most picturesque parts of it; there is none of this “how nature truly is” business. Is the hedge-row really wild, are the orchards truly in tufts? Or is it, as Gilpin put in his third essay On The Art of Sketching Landscape, an adorned sketch of what is truly seen? This adorned sketch is what nature should look like, according to the picturesque; for in nature we do not find all perfect, smooth, and elegant, but neither do we find the exact ruggedness, imperfection, and wild foliage that is depicted as “pleasing” in the idea of the picturesque.
For these many reasons—the wording of the poem, what is described, the feelings portrayed and the values instilled—I believe that “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey” certainly follow the guidelines, and possibly epitomize, the idea of the picturesque.