Millennial Themes in The Prelude and Mont Blanc
On reading Book VI of Wordsworth's thirteen-part version of The Prelude, I was particularly struck by the passage in which, following his crossing of the Alps, the poet describes "the sick sight / And giddy prospect of the raging stream" (VI. 564-565) of the Arve Ravine as both an apocalyptic foreboding and an expression of millennial unity in his theory of the One Mind:
The unfettered clouds and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light,
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of eternity,
Of first, and last, and midst, and without end.
The unity of God, man, and nature is of course a common theme in Wordsworth's poetry, having been given equally memorable treatments in Tintern Abbey and elsewhere, but it was the seemingly paradoxical sentiment of this passage from The Prelude that made such a strong impression on me. As John Beer points out in his article "Romantic Apocalypses," "Although traditionally the apocalypse and the millennium have gone together, recently, the first, with its sense of doom, has been more prominent" (109). To a reader who has lived through the passing of both a new century and a new millennium, the phrase "Characters of the great Apocalypse" tends to evoke feelings of eschatological anxiety, and to suggest the fragility and transience of the landscape Wordsworth is attempting to describe. It is easy to forget that Wordsworth used the term in its original sense of "simply 'revelation,' the name given to the English version in the New Testament" (Beer 109); and that in its evocations of Pope's Essay on Man and Milton's Paradise Lost (Wu 392, n. 18), the passage is meant to express eternity rather than finitude; harmony rather than destruction.
The time in which Wordsworth and the other Romantics wrote was itself at the turn of a century, and the events of the French Revolution - and later, the Napoleonic War - also served to aggravate apocalyptic/millennial thinking, in both senses. The initial promises of the overthrow of the monarchy to bring about a unified 'millennial' society soon gave way to "the lurking destructive potentialities [that] became evident with the Reign of Terror" (Beer 110) and the declaration of war between Britain and France - in which people known to Wordsworth had become involved, many losing their lives in the process. The journey retold in Book VI of The Prelude was one Wordsworth had made in 1790, when he was twenty years old, when the turn of the century was still ten years away, and when the Revolution was still in its earlier, more optimistic phases. As he had also done in Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth uses his memories of the travels of his younger days to reflect upon the changes in his life since those days, as well as to express his belief in "The universal reason of...