“‘[I]f mine had been the Painter’s hand’: Reflecting on the Holidays in a Time of Mourning"

William Wordsworth opens “Elegiac Stanzas” (1807) by looking at George Beaumont’s Peele Castle in a Storm (1805) and admitting that he naïvely idealized nature and life prior to his brother John’s death—that “deep distress [which] hath humaniz’d [his] Soul” (36). Wordsworth states that he deceived himself about the reality of “thou rugged Pile” (1) so much that, if his “had been the Painter’s hand” as a younger man, he would have “add[ed] the gleam, / The light that never was” (14-15), and placed the castle “beside a sea that could not cease to smile” (19). Beaumont’s painting thus becomes an occasion for Wordsworth to reflect on his younger self and on his approach to art; through metaphor and ekphrasis, Wordsworth casts his former pastoral visions of a Golden Age as delusions and projects himself as a weather-beaten castle riding out the storm of his brother’s death.

The poem importantly ends, not only with intimations of the philosophic mind that Wordsworth expands upon in his famous “Ode,” which he situates after “Elegiac Stanzas” and uses to bookend the 1807 Poems, In Two Volumes, but also—and more important—with a statement of hope that transcends the terrific storm enveloping a painting that represents Wordsworth’s suffering soul. It is a hope that Wordsworth invites us to share by using the first-person plural “we” for the first time in the poem’s last line, and enables us to see ourselves as castles under similar attack from the terrible storms of life that darken our once seemingly endless days of peace.
Wordsworth’s “Elegiac Stanzas” would hardly seem an appropriate subject considering the holiday season—when people are visiting family, re-connecting with friends, or enjoying a cup or two “of cheer”—but the poem has consoled me in what has been a dark winter of my life. As a native of Buffalo, New York, I have always held irrepressibly idyllic views of the winter season: I enjoy feeling the bitter chill of a winter’s day and later warming up with a hot drink next to a fireplace or heater; I like shoveling, making snowmen, and having snowball fights; I love watching children scream with delight as they open presents containing their favorite toys. I have what Wallace Stevens would call “a mind of winter” (“The Snow Man” 1), for my winter never had its discontents and was the icy equivalent to Wordsworth’s endless summer’s day. I cannot recall a single winter’s day that I felt sorrow—until recently.
Someone near and dear to me died of a stage iv glioblastoma, an incurable form of brain cancer, at the age of 50 on December 9, 2016. Eva did not die quickly but rather suffered grueling torment as her brain slowly deteriorated, leaving her with no motor skills beyond the ability to drink small amounts of fluid and even less food. As her child told the small crowd at Eva’s recent funeral, “Eva was taken from us before we were ready; she was taken from us during a time of giving.” Since that day I have felt “[a] deep distress . . . humaniz[e] my Soul” (35). Trees barren of leaves, which once awed me with their complex branch systems and intertwined connections, now remind me of Tennyson’s “nature, red in tooth and claw” (In Memoriam A.H.H. lvi.xv), or of the “hideous night” that Shakespeare describes in his famous sonnet on death (“Sonnet 12” 2). What once was a season of cheer has transmuted into a time of grief.
Although I feel great pain for the loss of Eva, I have not lost hope. Discussing his newfound “fortitude” after his brother’s death, Wordsworth declares, “Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.” The double negative that precedes hope illustrate how close suffering comes to canceling it. Taken together, the double negative is less a declarative statement and more what Tennyson describes as “faintly trust[ing] the larger hope” (In Memomoriam A.H.H. lv.xiv). We suffer and we mourn because life, like the seasons, marches toward a winter that is far bleaker than I once envisioned it. Yet not without hope do I trust in the promise of tomorrow, of the return of spring, of friendship, of a meaningful life. With what has been a tumultuous year for many coming to a close, I, echoing Wordsworth, invite everyone to embrace hope and to work toward making tomorrow better so that together we can steel ourselves against the inevitable storms promised by life. Let us ring in the New Year together with “patient chear” (57).