16 February 2009

Humans in Nature: Travels on the Rhine

By Sandra Schwab

In 1795. Anne Radcliffe wrote about her journey along the Rhine:
Sometimes, as we approached a rocky point, we seemed going to plunge into the expanse of the water beyond; when, turning the sharp angle of the promontory, the road swept along an ample bay, where the rocks, receding formed an amphitheatre, [...] then [...] we saw the river beyond [...] assume the form of a lake, amidst wild and romantic landscapes."
Anne Radcliffe, Journey Made in the Summer of 1794, through Holland and the Western Frontier of Germany with a Return down the Rhine, 1795
Anne Radcliffe belonged to the first wave of Rhine tourists. During the Napoleonic Wars, travelling came more or less to a halt, but immediately afterwards the second wave of British tourists arrived on the banks of Father Rhine. There were so many of them that later in the century the writer Thomas Hood remarked:
It is a statistical fact that since 1814 an unknown number of persons have been more or less abroad, and of all the Countries in Christendom, never was there such a run as on the Banks of the Rhine. It was impossible to go into Society without meeting units, tens, hundreds, thousands of Rhenish tourists. What a donkey they deemed him who had not been to Assmannshausen!
One of the most popular, if not the most popular, literary text about a Rhine journey was Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. In Canto III, stanza XLVI, Byron writes:
...Maternal Nature! ...who teems like thee,
Thus on the banks of thy majestic Rhine?
There Harold gazes on a work divine
A blending of all beauties; streams and dells,
Fruit, foliage, crag, wood, cornfield, mountain, vine,
And chiefless castles breathing stern farewells
From gray but leafy walls, where Ruin greenly dwells.
Byron goes on to describe the picturesque view of ruins and hills clothed with forest or vine. Some places he even lists by name:
The castled crag of Drachenfels
Frowns o'er the wide and winding Rhine,
Whose breast of water broadly swells
Between the banks which bear the vine,
And hills all rich with blossom'd trees,
And fields which promise corn and wine,
And scatter'd cities crowning these;
Whose far white walls along them shine..."
British tourists would drag a copy of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage along on their travels on the Rhine from then on, so they could trace Childe Harold's steps. This becomes obvious in the Shelleys' History of a Six Weeks Tour, from 1817:
The part of the Rhine down which we now glided, is that so beautifully described by Lord Byron in his third Canto of CHILDE HAROLD. We read these verses with delight, as they conjured before us these lovely scenes with the truth and vividness of painting, and with the exquisite addition of glowing language and warm imagination. We were carried down by a dangerously rapid current, and saw on either side of us hills covered with vines and trees, craggy cliffs crowned by desolate towers, and wooded islands, where picturesque ruins peeped from behind the foliage, and cast shadows of their forms on the troubled waters, which distorted without deforming them.
Mary Shelley also chose the Rhine as one of the settings of her 1818 gothic novel Frankenstein
The course of the Rhine below Mainz becomes much more picturesque. The river descends rapidly and winds between hills, not high, but steep, ad of beautiful forms. We saw many ruined castles standing on the edges of the precipices, surrounded by black woods, high and inaccessible.
Apart from the writers, British painters, too, chose the Rhine and its legends as subjects for their art. Among artists were Turner and Waterhouse, and they, of course, made the sights and legends of the Rhine even more famous.

If you'd like to find out more about travels on the Rhine, check out the background information to CASTLE OF THE WOLF on Sandra's website.

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