Remembering the Sublime: Travels Through the Rhineland

Khagan Parker

On mountain peak
the gods' abode;
resplendent shines
the proud-standing hall!
(From Wagner's Das Rheingold, qtd. in Evensen)

My friend dropped me off at the Köln Hauptbahnhof under the warm summer afternoon. The train station was nearly under the shade of the Kölner Dom, the great Gothic cathedral of Köln. I had first seen the Dom at night when it was partially illumed by floodlights and the moon, though most of it remained in shadows. The twin black spires hung over me and I stood, marveling underneath the 600 year old Gothic spectacle without knowing fully what I was experiencing. But between the midnight and the 500 foot sooty towers I was compelled to pause and reflect some of the cathedral's light.

In the train station I marveled at the schedule board as it fluttered rhythmically when its times changed. I boarded a train for Mannheim and it rolled out of Köln into the countryside of the Rhineland. The countryside was definitely different from what I was used to in Canada and I did enjoy the pleasant scenery. But I must admit that I was not wholly concerned with taking in the splendor and that my memory of my travel down the Rhine is limited (it was only a two hour journey by train after all). However, I found that the more Romantic descriptions of the Rhine I read the more my memory was restored. Also, as I read I begin to understand my experience differently and new sensations on those old memories are evoked.

The day was perfect for travel: the weather was warm but not uncomfortable, and the sky was a matte cerulean though it was speckled throughout the journey with cirrus and cumulus clouds. As far as I can remember, the train followed the Rhine for most of the journey to Mannheim where I caught another train to Heidelberg and continued down the Rhine. As I searched through the Romanticism CD-ROM I found Ann Radcliffe's A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 through Holland and the Western Frontier of Germany, with a Return Down the Rhine. From the extracts on the CD-ROM I realized that I too had traveled through many of the places she describes: Koblenz, St. Goar, Bacharach, Bingen, Kaub, etc. Though I never knew the names of the towns and villages I passed I am sure that I have passed through many of these places from Radcliffe's descriptions alone.

Mary Shelley describes my most lucid memory of the Rhine quite well in History of a Six Week's Tour: "Suddenly the river grew narrow, and the boat dashed with inconceivable rapidity round the base of a rocky hill covered with pines; a ruined tower, with its desolated windows, stood on the summit of another hill that jutted into the river." She also speaks of "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 the shadows of their forms on the troubled waters, which distorted without deforming them." However, Shelley speaks of "shadows" and "troubled waters," which I was not immediately aware of during my journey. Radcliffe echoes this understanding of the Rhine: "There, expanding with a bold sweep, the river exhibits, at one coup d'oeil, on its mountainous shores, six fortresses or towns, many of them placed in the most wild and tremendous situations; their antient and gloomy structures giving ideas of the sullen tyranny of former times. The height and fantastic shapes of the rocks, upon which they are perched, or by which they are overhung, and the width and rapidity of the river…formed one of the sublimest scenes we had viewed" (Radcliffe 305). I can remember the fortresses perched about the river quite well, many of them overlooking an entire valley, with their ruined towers nestled between what I thought innocuous countryside. But I never felt as though I had experienced a sense of the sublime at that moment.

My memories of the Rhine are associated with a peaceful journey across a beautiful countryside. However, as I discovered of the literature of the Rhine, I discovered a terrifying sublimity present in the green hills and blue sky. The very name Rhine comes from the Celtic word "renos" which means "raging flow" ("Rhine"), a response echoed by many of the Romantic travelers that passed through the Rhineland. "The force and rapidity of the stream, the aspect of the dark disjointed cliffs, under which we passed, and the strength of the wind, opposing our entrance among their chasms, and uniting with the sounding force of the waters to baffle the dexterity of the boatmen, who struggled hard to prevent the vessel from being whirled round, were circumstances of the true sublime, inspiring terror in some and admiration in a high degree" (Radcliffe 294). Though Radcliffe and Shelley's descriptions of the Rhine were compelling, I had not yet experienced a sense of the sublime from my memories of my journey.

In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein she presents a view of the Rhine that is both picturesque and sublime:

The river descends rapidly and winds between hills, not high, but steep, and of beautiful forms. We saw many ruined castles standing on the edges of precipices, surrounded by black woods, high and inaccessible. This part of the Rhine, indeed, presents a singularly variegated landscape. In one spot you view rugged hills, ruined castles overlooking tremendous precipices, with the dark Rhine rushing beneath; and on the sudden turn of a promontory, flourishing vineyards with green sloping banks and a meandering river and populous towns occupy the scene. (Shelley)

Although I did not immediately experience the sublime, I did understand a sense of the picturesque as I passed through the Rhine. Though I did not know the picturesque, the varied beauty I found in the Rhine was immediately impressive, and now that I know of the picturesque I can claim that the Rhine provided a "singularly variegated landscape" which I took great pleasure in viewing. As I read on in Frankenstein, I found an excerpt from "Tintern Abbey" which seemed to be modified slightly by Mary Shelley:

-----The sounding cataract
Haunted him like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to him
An appetite; a feeling, and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, or any interest
Unborrow'd from the eye. (Shelley)

After reading this I returned to "Tintern Abbey" where I discovered not only Wordworth's "sense sublime" but his declaration that he is still a "lover of the meadows and the woods…of all the mighty world…" (Wordsworth 268). In Wordsworth's Ecclestiastical Sonnets he says:

-----born forward by the Rhine,
The living landscapes greet him, and depart;
Sees spires fast sinking -- up again to start!
And strives the towers to number, that recline
O'er the dark steeps, or on the horizon line
Striding with shattered crests his eye athwart. (qtd. in Miall)

Wordsworth's appreciation of the Rhine, together with Radcliffe and Shelley, began to form an understanding of the sublime as I struggled to remember the dark castles and craggy cliffs of the Rhineland. The beauty I had seen through my travel soon mixed with emotions of fear and delight. But it was not immediate, it seemed to hide in the background of my memory, like the shadowy fortresses peeking out of the hills or the sharp little clouds on the azure sky.

I find it interesting that even though I had not directly experienced the sublime I could find a sense of sublimity through memory and the influence of Romantic travelers. After some time reading through the writers I remembered a distinct moment of my travel and realized what it had meant.

The train was hugging the river as it curled around a mountain and I remember looking to the rocky and tree-lined summit to find a ruined castle. I stared beneath the mountain of rock and contemplated the castle at its perch, a sight I had never before seen, and experienced a moment of rapture. Now that I know how others interpreted the sights of the Rhine, I tend to agree with them, in that I believe I experienced, at least to some degree, the sublime. After all, it is on the Rhine where Wagner places his opera Das Rheingold from his series, Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Maternal Nature! For 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 684-5)

I returned to Köln a week later but slept or read for most of the train ride. But when I returned, on another calm and clear summer afternoon, I walked from the Hauptbahnhof to the Dom and stood beneath it in the daylight, still marveling.

Works cited

Byron, George Gordon. "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage." Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1998.

Evensen, Kristian. Multidimensional aspects of text and music in Wagner. 2 Apr. 2005

Miall, David. "Wordsworth: Rhine (3)." Romanticism: The CD-ROM. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.

"Rhine." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 2 Apr. 2005.

Radcliffe, Ann. Excerpts from A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 through Holland and the Western Frontier of Germany, with a Return Down the Rhine: to which are added, Observations During a Tour to the Lakes of Lancashire, Westmoreland, and Cumberland. Romanticism: The CD-ROM. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1997.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Oxford: Project Gutenberg, 1993. 2 Apr. 2005

Wordsworth, William. "Tintern Abbey." Romanticism: An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1998.