THE ENCHANTING POETRY AND MUSIC INSPIRED BY THE MAJESTIC SPLENDOUR OF THE ALPS
The Alps constitute one of the largest and highest mountain ranges in the world, stretching approximately 1,200 kilometres across eight countries namely Switzerland, Austria, Germany, France, Italy, Liechtenstein, Monaco and Slovenia. The Alps are one of the most popular tourist destinations in the entire globe attracting over 120 million visitors a year. From time immemorial, poets and music composers have found refuge and relaxation in the chocolate-box scenery of the Alps.
As an indefatigable lover of nature and an ardent lover of poetry, and in particular English poetry, I am drawn irresistibly to the most enchanting poetry inspired by the majestic splendour of the Alps. In March,1729, the prodigious 18th century Swiss doctor, botanist, physiologist, naturalist and poet Albrecht von Haller, often hailed to as ‘the father of modern physiology’, wrote his monumental poem ‘Die Alpen’ or ‘The Alps’. The poem was first published in 1732 in a small volume entitled ‘Versuch Schweizerischer Gedichten’ or ‘Attempt Swiss Poems’. The poem took Europe by storm and according to the titanic German writer, statesman and philosopher Johann Wolfgang (von) Goethe marked ‘the beginning of a national German literature’. The poem’s themes dwelling on the beauty of the mountains were unique inasmuch as it was the first time that such sentiments were candidly expressed in German literature which revolutionised attitudes towards the Alpine landscape and laid the foundations for the modern view of mountains and the evolving tourism. ‘The Alps’ was translated into several languages and was in great demand all over the world and particularly amongst the Swiss living abroad. The poem opened the eyes of Haller’s contemporaries in different countries of the world to the matchless beauty of the Alps. It is a work not only of poetry but also of edification, as Haller added a number of useful footnotes for the benefit of rudimentary readers. An elderly General of the French King’s Swiss Guard, known as ‘Cent Suisses’ or ‘Hundred Swiss’, reportedly burst into tears when he read it for the first time. The poem is at once gripping :
‘For glitt’ring pomp and wealth let mortals strive,
For all that Nature gave, or Art has found;
Direct to Heav’n the tortur’d waters drive,
And press with Grecian domes the lab’ring ground;
Let them with gold their polish’d tables pile,
With Persian tapestry their walls adorn;
Let the lute’s soothing sound to sleep beguile,
And trumpet’s lordly clangor wake at morn:
Yet can their eager toils no pleasure gain,
And poor ‘mid all their pomp and wretched they remain.
Though wealth and honour wait on Clive’s command,
He sighs for peace amid his splendid state;
Against himself he arms his frantic hand,
And seeks sad refuge in a guilty fate.
The cot has ev’ry bliss the palace knows;
The prince his sceptre tires, his crook the swain;
The wretch, whose soul with mad ambition glows,
Imperial guards protect from care in vain.
If peace and safe content his dwelling crown,
Sleeps he with less repose, who knows no bed of down?
Blest was that golden age, so sweetly sung,
From hapless man too early snatch’d away;
Not that with ceaseless spring the world was young,
And cutting blasts ne’er made the flow’rs decay;
Not that spontaneous rose the yellow blade,
And milk and honey flow’d from ev’ry rock,
That ‘mid the wolves the lamb securely stray’d,
And no gaunt lion scar’d the tender flock;
But that by no unbounded wish possest,
Man sigh’d not yet for gold, nor deem’d abundance blest.
Ye sons of Nature! still with you abide
Those goodly days; for ‘mid your barren soil,
Estrang’d from tinsel vanity and pride,
Want is your happiness, your pleasure toil:
Such fair effects to man does virtue bring;
And though in frozen clouds your thirst you slake;
Though tedious winters nip the tardy spring,
And chilling snows your valley’s ne’er forsake;
Yet does the savage clime your bliss increase,
While manners pure from guilt mark all your days with peace.
Then praise high Heav’n, that to your land denied
Riches, true source of ev’ry vice and ill;
While torrents wait on luxury and pride,
The heart of unaspiring want is still.
Wood were her temples, pulse her warrior’s feast,
When Rome from ev’ry war triumphant came;
At length when wholesome moderation ceas’d,
Weak was her arm, her glory but a name:
While pure simplicity and temp’rance reign,
Oh bless your happy lot, nor pant for cursed gain.
Though Nature spread with stones the barren land,
The plough yet tames your soil, and harvests grow;
And mighty mountains, rais’d at her command,
Protect you still from man, man’s fiercest foe.
Milk is your food, pure rills your wholesome draught,
More sweet than fev’rish wine, that glows in gold;
With crackling ice alone your hills are fraught,
Mines, which Peru with envy might behold!
Where Freedom reigns, ev’n labour is repose,
Bare rocks are strewn with flow’rs, and soft the north-wind blows.
O blest privation of destructive joys!
Wealth has no bliss to want like yours unknown;
No vain opinion e’er your peace destroys,
But smiling concord marks you for her own.
Pure are your pleasures, unalloy’d with dread,
For death, tho’ life is sweet, has no alarm;
True Reason is your guide, by Nature led,
That seeks the needful, counts all else for harm:
Whate’er sublimer moralists command,
Untaught in thee prevails, O artless, happy land.
T’ ennoble vice and lay poor virtue low,
Here pride no diff’rence makes, confounding right;
No restless tedium bids your hours move slow,
Since labour marks your day, and peace your night.
No wild ambition here the great o’erthrows,
The morn ne’er rises on a wretch unblest;
Impartial liberty on all bestows
With equal hand, contentment, toil, and rest;
And here no pining heart its fortune hates;
You eat, you sleep, you love, and thank the bounteous fates.
Here Learning barters not her paper store,
Nor measures land and sea from pole to pole;
She chains not reason in scholastic lore,
Nor teaches planets in their orb to roll.
Thy sons, O Wisdom, boast but little good,
They scan the world, yet to themselves are blind;
By them is pleasure poison’d, not subdu’d,
And life is dull to feelings too refin’d.
Here all live well, by simple Nature led;
Alone the heart directs and not the toiling head.’
The honorific English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s truly moving poem ‘The Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ was conceived and written by the poet during a boating excursion with another legendary English poet George Gordon Byron, popularly known as Lord Byron, on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in June 1816. The awesome scenic beauty of the Alps and the lake resulted in Shelley elevating what he called ‘Intellectual Beauty’ to the ruling principle of the universe. The Alpine scenery was novel to Shelley and indefinably appealing. He was profoundly moved by it, and the poem, he wrote to the renowned English writer, essayist and critic James Henry Leigh Hunt, was ‘composed under the influence of feelings which agitated me even to tears.’ Shelley, who had relinquished Christianity on his own accord, had at last found something overwhelmingly celestial which he could wholeheartedly adore and derive inspiration from! Another notable English Romantic poet William Wordsworth was still a student at Cambridge University when he developed a penetrating passion for the Alps whilst reading the works of the revolutionary French philosopher, writer, and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Wordsworth was a forerunner to the surge of Romantics who travelled to the Alps to behold the grandeur of mountain landscapes and glorify them. In 1790, he discovered the lofty Alpine scenery and was smitten by the sight of the magnificent landscapes before him. Upon his return to England, Wordsworth was imbued with the magical power of the Alps, to which he dedicated one of his most enchanting poems ‘Prelude” in which he vividly described the souvenirs, still afresh in his mind, of his ascents to the pristine Alpine peaks. This web link will take readers straight to the poem which is very long but most enchanting :
On 29th August,1816, Lord Byron left for an expedition to the Swiss Alps. He saw his maiden avalanche, heard the rumbling of ice springs below him and slid precariously down the ridge of a glacier. In September, he reached the Bernese Oberland, which he effusively described as ‘the district famous for cheese, liberty, property and no taxes’. He maintained an Alpine journal in which he recorded meticulously all the wonderment he experienced. After crossing Lake Thun, surrounded by a fabulous mountain scenery, he arrived at the idyllic resort town of Interlaken and ‘entered upon a range of scenes beyond all description or previous conception’. He gazed in wonder at the Jungfrau mountain, the valley of Lauterbrunnen and the Staubbach Falls. He scaled the Wengen mountain and recorded, ‘On one side, our view comprised the Jungfrau, with all her glaciers; then the Dent d’Argent [the Silberhorn] shining like truth; then the Little Giant [Kleine Eiger]; and the Great Giant [Grosse Eiger] and last, not least, the Wetterhorn… On the other, the clouds rose from the opposite valley, curling up perpendicular precipices like the foam of the ocean of hell during a spring tide.’ He rhapsodised about the fascinating town of Grindelwald and its glaciers ‘like a frozen hurricane’. Later he saw the Reichenbach Falls, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic hero Sherlock Holmes would a century later fight to his epic fictional death with the dreaded Professor James Moriarty. Enthused with a new Wordsworthian passion for nature and its mystic power to captivate the human mind, he penned ‘Manfred’, a three-act ‘dramatic poem’ about a reclusive demi-god and magician who lived on a secluded mountain. Byron was also inspired to write ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’ after a visit to Château de Chillon, a medieval fortress built next to the lake, famous for its fairytale turrets and labyrinth of courtyards and stairways.
In 1909, Henry Jackson Van Dyke, the internationally acclaimed American author, educator and clergyman wrote ‘Twilight in the Alps’. The poem compares the time of ‘Twilight in the Alps’ to a spectacularly bewitching woman. Dyke visualises cattle returning home after grazing in the day and the melodious chimes of church bells. The poem, in the form of a sonnet, is a beautiful incarnation of nature :
‘I love the hour that comes, with dusky hair
And dewy feet, along the Alpine dells
To lead the cattle forth. A thousand bells
Go chiming after her across the fair
And flowery uplands, while the rosy flare
Of sunset on the snowy mountain dwells,
And valleys darken, and the drowsy spells
Of peace are woven through the purple air.
Dear is the magic of this hour: she seems
To walk before the dark by falling rills,
And lend a sweeter song to hidden streams;
She opens all the doors of night, and fills
With moving bells the music of my dreams,
That wander far among the sleeping hills.’
From poetry to music is a short but inevitable step. The monumental tone poem ‘An Alpine Symphony’ by the towering German composer Richard Strauss depicts the experiences of eleven hours (from twilight just before dawn to the following nightfall) spent climbing an Alpine mountain. And here’s the link to the work specially for readers, as played by the reputed Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of the amazing Dutch conductor Bernard Johan Herman Haitink:
The Alps also inspired the awe inspiring music of the mighty German composer, theatre director, polemicist and conductor Richard Wagner. I am highly emboldened to commend to readers the soul stirring ‘Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla’ from his redoubtable music drama ‘Das Rheingold’ or ‘The Rhine Gold’, that will instantly transport them to the grandiose splendour of an Alpine mountain castle across a magical rainbow bridge that stretches to the gate of the castle amidst the deafening roar of thunder.
Advocate,Supreme Court of India
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