Emily, often as she travelled among the clouds, watched in silent awe their billowy surges rolling below; sometimes, wholly closing upon the scene, they appeared like a world of chaos, and at others, spreading thinly, they opened and admitted partial catches of the landscape — the torrent, whose astounding roar had never failed, tumbling down the rocky chasm, huge cliffs white with snow, or the dark summits of the pine forests, that stretched mid-way down the mountains.
Wordsworth and Radcliffe wrote in a society that treated men and women quite differently. Women did not vote, and most did not control property. Men, the dominant sex, treated women as less powerful and less important individuals than themselves. Radcliffe, because of her sex, could not attend a university. She lived as a citizen second class to the men around her, while Wordsworth was able to attend college, travel through Europe, and work closely with Samuel Coleridge. Wordsworth's younger sister was the closest woman to him when he wrote "Tintern Abbey," and he assumes the superior role of the wise counselor towards her. He tells her how nature will make her feel, and he claims "in thy voice I catch/ The language of my former heart." (ll.116-117)
Radcliffe, as a woman writing about a woman, treats Nature differently from Wordsworth. In the above passage Emily does not affect Nature, but watches "in silent awe." The clouds change of their own accord, and Emily must wait for them to spread thinly in order to see the landscape. Wordsworth, emphasizing his own power and importance, defines Nature in terms of himself and mankind. He hears in nature "The still, sad music of humanity," (l.91) and he observes in the scenery what his senses "half create,/ And what perceive." (ll.106-107) Wordsworth treats Nature as significant in its relation to himself, while Radcliffe emphasizes Nature's importance in itself.
In the above passage Radcliffe's word positioning reveals that Nature's power is superior to Emily's. "Emily" begins the passage, but she only "watched," and the "clouds," the subject of most of the passage, are introduced before the word "watched," as though they are more important than what Emily does. Radcliffe moves the scene beyond the woman, and describes Nature's power separately. The action increases after Emily: the clouds' "surges" are "rolling," and they appear "like a world of chaos;" then they admit sight of the landscape, which consists of a "torrent," "huge cliffs," and "summits of the pine forests." The sentence seems to climax with Nature's power and the word "summits." Wordsworth, on the other hand, places himself as the subject of most sentences that describe the landscape as in: "and again I hear/ These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs." (l.3) The verbs he uses for himself are as varied as those used to refer to nature, and his writing shows that he, the individual, is powerful and important.
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000