Monday, April 14, 2008

substantial vapours

William Beckford, a letter home.
From the Summit of the Mountain Saleve.
9. o'clock Sept. 15th, 1777.

From whence do you think I date this letter? Not from a neat precise study, with a mahogany inlaid table, nicely lined with baze and placed in a central situation, having two quires of gilt paper on my right hand, a silver ink-stand at my elbow, an almanack in a superb case, pens, pounce, wafers, dutch wax and all other implements, in abundance. Not one of these circumstances. On the summit of a lofty mountain, I gaze at an assemblage of substantial vapours, which hover above, beneath and around me. This very sheet of paper which, barring accidents, I trust you will receive, is cast carelessly on a rugged fragment, mouldered from the peak of the mountain, or torn from the bosom of its native rock, by the hand of an ancient Helvetian in defence of his liberty. A cot awkwardly put together just screens my head from the wet vapour, which seems to have fixed its residence on these extensive eminences. A flock of goats, and a peasant, that looks as if he descended from Pan in a right line, stare at me with all their eyes and all their horns. Full five hours have I waited the dissipation of this fog; but hark! a sullen rustling amongst the forests far below which are intirely concealed by mists, proclaims that the north wind is arisen. Look! the blasts begin to range thro' the atmosphere! what majesty in those volumes of gray cloud that sweep along, directing their course Eastward! Mark! they are succeeded by curling volumes of blueish grey, like the smoke of a declining volcano. How gently they bend and then fly downwards in a misty haze. What are those objects just emerging? horrid forms, like crucified malefactors, start from the gloom, another blast discovers them in the shape of weather beaten oaks, whose fantastic branches have stood the brunt of tempests for ages. A gleam of pale yellow light mellows the white surface of the boundless cloud ; before my eyes it gives way; it seems to rock, it opens and discloses a long line of distant alps; but another cloud fleets from the north and closes the faint glimpse, which waves a moment and again opening, not only the alps, but the summits of the woods appear. The sun struggles with the vapours, the clouds chase one another; the white cloud so universal a moment ago is broken, it fleets, it dissipates; the beams pierce the vapours on every side; long streaks of azure sky, partial prospects open like an heaven; rivers and extensive regions all unfold; my senses are confounded, I know not where to fix my sight. See! the lake appears, in all its azure glory. A boundless scene is unveiled, the creation of an instant. Objects crowd too swiftly for me to continue, I must abandon my pen and gaze. Five hours are elapsed! Hours of wonder and gratitude! I have been steeped in those sensations which arise from the contemplation of the great objects of nature. 7. o'clock eve: The mellow tints of the evening begin to prevail. I shall wait the moon ere I descend the mountain half past 8. Night draws on, the stars glow in the firmament. From the promontory of a rock I overlook a vast extent of inhabited country. The lights glimmer in a thousand houses like the reflection of the stars. The moon appears. Farewell, I must descend the mountain.

-from The Life and Letters of William Beckford of Fonthill by Lewis Melville (London: William Heinemann, 1910)

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