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[From Landow, Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows: Biblical Typology in Victorian Literature, Art, and Thought (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980).

Deuteronomy 34:1-4 tells that before Moses dies, God commands him to ascend Mount Pisgah and there He grants him a sight of the Promised Land. As the Lord explains to Moses in Deut. 32:51-2, he could not enter the Promised Land because he had disobeyed divine command and struck, rather than prayed, to bring forth water from the rock in Kadesh Numbers 20:1-13]. The Pisgah sight is thus a coming together, a confrontation, of human and divine, temporal and eternal, immediately before the death of the prophet who had given his life to serving God and His chosen people, and it therefore stands simultaneously as the culmination, reward, and punishment for the acts of that life.

The history of the literary use of the Pisgah sight is complicated by the fact that it so frequently blends with its secular analogue, the prospect. Moments of revelatory vision occur to Petrarch on Mount Ventoux, Dante on the mount of Purgatory, Spenser's Red Cross Knight on the mount of Contemplation, Rousseau's St. Preux in the Valois, Wordsworth on Mount Snowdon, and Coleridge, Shelley, and Ruskin in the Alps. Some, though not all, of these visions explicitly refer to Moses's sight of Canaan.

By the late eighteenth century the Pisgah sight serves as a type of the deathbed of the true believer, who leaves this life confident in his faith. Moses's sight of Canaan prefigures the Christian's dying sight of his Saviour or of heaven. Evangelical hymns made such readings of the Pisgah sight a commonplace. Thus the anonymous hymn "Jerusalem, my happy home" (1801) claims that the believer does not shrink from pain or death, because "I've Canaan's goodly land in view,/ And realms of endless day." Isaac Watts's "There is a land of pure delight" (1709) similarly takes Canaan itself as a type of heaven. Augustus Montague Toplady's "Deathless principle, arise!" (1777) extends the original type, since he employs the secular analogue of the Pisgah sight, which is the prospect, rather than the literal vision from Mt. Pisgah. A similar extended vision appears in the closing pages of Charles Kingsly's Alton Locke, where it combines political and religious visions, for the dying workingman, surely no Moses, nonetheless has "come out of Eygpt and the house of bondage."

Paradoxically, much of the Pisgah sight's power and richness as an allusive device derives from the fact it is so difficult to employ literally. The Pisgah scene comprises seven basic elements, each of which can be modified for literary effect:

  1. the presence of God to the one who has the Pisgah sight;
  2. the time in the viewer's life when such a sight occurs;
  3. the physical position, usually a mountain top or high place, from which the prophet gazes;
  4. the removal from the viewed object, his separation from the promised land;
  5. his isolation from other people;
  6. the content of the vision; and
  7. the nature of the viewed object to human time -- whether, in other words, it is something to be obtained in time (in the future) or outside time (in eternity).

Although orthodox Pisgah sights have the direct sanction and sponsorship of God, characteristically romantic and modern ones seek the same education, solace, and reward in His absence. Nineteenth-century authors with relatively firm belief employ the orthodox and extended forms of the Pisgah sight to describe dying visions or to create images that act as windows into eternity; those without such belief employ the Pisgah sight and its analogue, the prospect, for the ironies potential in the situation. Even believers, such as Tennyson, will use Pisgah sights to dramatize troubled faith. For example, The Idylls of the King closes by granting Bedivere, the last of Arthur's knights, a consolatory vision that is yet tinged with irony, since it is riddled with doubt even as it consoles. Matthew Arnold's "Empedocles on Etna" (1852), which depicts its protagonist on a mountain height screened by fog and mist, might seem a parody of the Pisgah sight, but this form, too, turns out to be a commonplace of religious verse. For example, James Montgomery's "For ever with the Lord!" (1853) first presents glimpses of the "golden gates" in standard fashion but then admits that "clouds will intervene." Similarly, Toplady's "I saw, and lo! a countless throng" (1759-74) also emphasizes how soon "clouds return" and "hide the hill of Sion."

Poets mine the situation for its inherent ironies. Whereas Donne and Milton make Moses a figure for the divinely inspired poet as a means of self-aggrandizement, romantic and post-romantic poets do so to underline the ironies and costs of their position. Robert Browning compares himself to Moses in "Pisgah Sights" to show that since the divinely inspired vision comes just before death, it comes too late to communicate. In contrast, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1856), which uses this commonplace to show the essential difficulty of communicating with the contemporary audience, asks if anyone "getting to the top of Pisgah-hill,/ Can talk with one at bottom of the view,/ To make it comprehensible?"

When telling the story of his own life in Praeterita, John Ruskin, who frequently felt himself painfully alienated from an incomprehending public, employs another element in the Pisgah sight structure, the perceiver's frustrating separation from the land of promise. Newman, in "Day-Labourers" (1833) makes the orthodox use of this situation when he points out that even Moses "wearied on Nebo's height" and only Christ can finish "the work of grace, which he began." In contrast, Ruskin, who arranges his autobiography in terms of a series of Paradises Lost and Pisgah visions, emphasizes the cost and incompleteness of his position.


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Last updated 13 August 2001;
thanks to Martha J. Smith for catching a typo.