aradoxically, much of the Pisgah sight's power and richness as an allusive device appears to derive from the fact that it is so difficult to employ literally.3 As we have observed in the case of Locke's dying glimpse of the American coast, the ironies intrinsic in the original scene threaten to overpower whatever religious meaning one wishes to find in it. Kingsley solves this problem by having his dying hero receive additional metaphoric Pisgah sights which compensate for this first one. Even Melvill, who usually places chief importance upon following the literal narrative, feels impelled to replace the sight of the Promised Land of Canaan with a supposed vision of the Christian future. Melvill and other Christian interpreters transform a simple glimpse of a geographical area into a prophecy, a glimpse of the future. True, the biblical account does contain a slight futuristic element, since God tells Moses that the land he sees will be given to the Israelites, but the prophet knows that they will become the property of the chosen people soon after his death. Christian interpreters, on the other hand, entirely transform the Pisgah sight by adding this temporal element and thus making the vision a matter of a distant future. By juxtaposing a literal and a metaphorical Pisgah sight, Kingsley manages to create a close parallel to the Old Testament original and then solve the problems it produces. But this example suggests that the intrinsic difficulties of the original type require that almost any application of the last events of Moses's life to a Christian purpose requires modifying or adjusting the scriptural narrative.
The most common orthodox application of the Pisgah sight, which the hymn "Jerusalem, my happy home" exemplifies, takes the position of Moses on the mountain as a literal prefiguration of the believer's deathbed. But such applications redefine the geographical vision of Moses, transforming it into a spiritual vision: Canaan becomes Heaven. Such spiritualizing portions of the Old Testament figure in the antitype follows the strictest orthodox exegetical practice, but as soon as one wishes to employ this compelling image of a person catching sight of the distant promised land at any other time in a character's life than at its end, one necessarily creates an extended version of the basic type. Furthermore, as Toplady's mention of "prospects" in "Deathless principle, arise!" reminds us, another major source of the Pisgah sight's richness and complexity as a literary device is that it often merges with a secular tradition of visions from mountains, hilltops, and other high places.4 In fact, the particular additions Henry Melvill makes to the original Pisgah sight when he grants Moses a full sight of the Christian future owes as much to Milton and the prospect tradition as it does to the Bible.
In Paradise Lost Adam receives a vision of the future of mankind which, like that of Moses, serves as instruction, solace, and reward. At God's command, Michael leads the father of mankind up to a place of divine vision, as
In the visions of God: it was a hill
Of Paradise the highest, from whose top
The hemisphere of earth in clearest ken
Stretched out to the amplest reach of prospect lay. (11,37-40)
Under angelic guidance Adam learns both the horrific results of his fall and the coming salvation through Christ which will redeem man. Milton, who combines the classical and religious traditions to create a new Christian poetry, draws upon biblical and secular sources for this Adamic prospect vision. In particular, he draws upon the vision that Vergil grants Aeneas. In The Aeneid, during the hero's descent to the underworld, he receives a vision of the future of Rome which simultaneously provides a goal for his life and offers comfort in its many trials. This political vision, which is directed at the future, differs thus significantly from Vergil's Homeric sources, which present a fixed, static conception of time rather than a progressive theory of history.5 The Roman poet, for example, transforms The lliad's description of the shield of Achilles, which presents an image of human life as it is, into a vision of the future which will see dramatic changes in human existence. His vision contains the Roman version of the earthly paradise -- the imperium with its Pax Romana. Rather than being able to return to a past existence (as can Odysseus), Aeneas must create a new one, and his vision of the future is intended to comfort him for what he has lost.
Similarly, in Paradise Lost Adam receives his vision as both consolation and as something for which to strive. Like Aeneas, the father of mankind receives an overview of the race he will sire, but, unlike the father of Rome, Adam is learning how he has introduced evil into the world, and not solely that he is the father of ultimate good. Like Moses, Adam has the prospect sight shortly before leaving his former existence, and although the father of mankind does not die when he and Eve depart from Paradise, they both leave behind the potential immortality of Eden and the Tree of Life. Adam thus changes from being a potential immortal to a mortal, and he now must await Christ before he can attain to this higher state. None the less, his vision of a Christian future with its promise of salvation compensates for his loss.
In the Miltonic extension of the Pisgah sight, a divinely sponsored imaginative vision of truth compensates for the loss of an original Edenic state. A rather different religious extension of the original type occurs when nineteenth-century religious poets attempt to catch glimpses of the promised land during the course of life and not at its end. James D. Burns's "O time of tranquil joy and holy feeling!" (1855), which exemplifies such an extended Pisgah sight, makes the Sabbath appear a window into eternity:
Even now I see the golden city shining
Up the blue depths of that transparent air:
How happy all is there!
There breaks a day which never knows declining
A Sabbath, through whose circling hours the blest
Beneath Thy shadow rest!
By making the earthly Sabbath a type of an eternal heavenly one, Burns thus employs the futuristic element implicit in all prefigurative images and events to lead the believer to a sight of the promised land of heaven. Similarly, the anonymous "Ere another Sabbath's close" (1841), which is number 320 in Palmer's The Book of Praise, implores:
Let these earthly Sabbaths prove
Foretastes of our joys above;
While their steps Thy pilgrims bend
To the rest which know no end!
Newman's "The Haven" (1832) makes a bolder extension of the notion of types, for he takes, not some divinely ordained institution like the Sabbath, but a rare moment of perfect earthly peace as a means of glimpsing a lost paradise:
Sinner! thou hast in this rare guest
Of Adam's peace a figure blest;
'Tis Eden seen, but not possess'd,
Which cherub-flames still keep.
Unlike most such use of types as implicit Pisgah sights, Newman here makes his image serve as the antitype of Edenic bliss and only implicitly as the type of heavenly peace. In "The Month of Mary" (1850), which he wrote after his conversion to the Roman Church, Newman makes the more usual application of earthly phenomena to heaven:
The green green grass, the glittering grove,
The heaven's majestic dome,
They image forth a tenderer bower,
A more refulgent home;
They tell us of that Paradise
Of everlasting rest,
The sweetest, yet the best.
Abrams, M. H. . Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. N. Y., 1971.
Roper, Alan. Arnold's Poetic Landscapes. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1969.
Wasserman, Earl R. The Subtler Language: Critical Readings of Neoclassical and Romantic Poems. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1959.
Last modified 4 April 2015