n extended version of the basic type of the Pisgah Sight appears in the closing pages of Kingsley's Alton Locke, whose hero, dying of consumption, realizes that he will never live to set foot on American shores. "Yes! I have seen the land!" he tells us in his dying moments. "Like a purple fringe upon the golden sea . . . there it lay upon the fair horizon -- the great young free new world! and every tree, and flower, and insect on it new!-- a wonder and joy-- which I shall never see." Immediately after admitting that he has known all along that he would never "reach the land," Locke hears the happy voices of his fellow emigrants on deck as they greet their new home and he exclaims that they and all workers should "come out of Egypt and the house of bondage, and the waste and howling wilderness of slavery and competition, workhouses and prisons, into a good land and large, a land flowing with milk and honey." His citation of the Exodus type in a political context reminds us that Kingsley's hero, who is certainly no Moses, none the less provides us with a figure in some ways analagous to him: a member of an enslaved people, he has acquired an unusual consciousness of his position, and though tempted to follow the usual course and move upward to the middle classes, he chooses, like Moses, to remain with his people and advance their cause. He also makes an exodus, though it takes the milder form of emigration; and he is no leader -- except in so far as his writings will inspire other workers.
Locke's dying words come in response to his hearing his fellow emigrants singing "the grand lilt of the 'Good Time Coming,'" which he describes as "a fitting melody to soothe my dying ears!" He thereupon asks, "Ah! how should there not be A Good Time Coming? -- Hope, and trust, and infinite deliverance! . . . coming surely, soon or late, to those for whom a God did not disdain to die!" Unlike Toplady's hymn, which only implicitly refers to the Pisgah sight, this closing section of Kingsley's novel surrounds a dying vision of a promised land with types. It thus insures that we perceive that Locke's glimpses of America exist in an antitypical relation to Moses's sight of Canaan.22222
Locke's tranquil, accepting death reminds us of another aspect of its Christian significance. However strong the punitive element in God's commands to Moses, He clearly grants him a vision of the Promised Land as both solace and as reward, for He rewards His prophet for faithful service and He solaces the pain of punishment with a vision. The Pisgah sight therefore provides a powerful image of divine mercy, but in Alton Locke another implication almost emerges. Since the dying hero only glimpses a land he cannot live to enter, we are reminded that the Pisgah sight also provides an image of man's failure to achieve his goals -- be they following the moral law or attaining true freedom. However, the Pisgah sight's intrinsic capacity for irony, which appears in so many works of nineteenth-century literature, is here suppressed by Kingsley's emphasis upon Locke's final acceptance and belief. For all the political applications that the Broad Church novelist makes of types, the final emphasis of his novel is still Christian. In terms of the Pisgah sight itself this final emphasis appears in the fact that although we are partially aware of the Irony in Locke's dying before he can set foot in his promised land, we realize that it is far more important to Kingsley that his hero have dying visions of both Christ as deliverer and the salvation He brings. These are the true Pisgah sights, and they serve to de-emphasize the importance of America as a literal promised land and to lessen the effect of any irony generated by Locke's sight of it in his last hours.
Since his hero's Christian acceptance of such a potentially painful vision contrasts so strongly with an earlier mention of an explicit Pisgah sight in the context of political violence, this closing passage permits Kingsley to demonstrate that Locke has grown beyond his once dangerously radical views. At the close of "Tailors and Soldiers," the novel's fourth chapter, Locke explains that hundreds of thousands of the working classes, convinced that they have been denied basic rights, "live on a negation" and
have to worship for our only idea . . . the hatred of the things which are. Ay, though one of us here and there may die in faith, in sight of the promised land, yet is it not hard, when looking from the top of Pisgah into "the good time coming" to watch the years slipping away one by one, and death crawling nearer and nearer, and the people wearying themselves in the fire for very vanity, and Jordan not yet passed, the promised land not yet entered? While our little children die around us . . . of cholera and typhus and consumption, and all the diseases which the good time can and will prevent; which, as science has proved, and you and the rich confess, might be prevented at once, if you dared to bring in one bold and comprehensive measure, and not sacrifice yearly the lives of thousands to the idol of vested interests, and a majority in the House. Is it not hard to men who smart beneath such things to help crying aloud -- "Thou cursed Moloch-Mammon, take my life if thou wilt; let me die in the wilderness, for I have deserved it, but these little ones in mines and factories, what have they done? If not in their fathers" cause, yet still in theirs, were it so great a sin to die upon a barricade?"
Locke's powerful indictment of the way England treats her workers, which draws heavily upon Carlyle's "Chartism" (1839) and Past and Present (1843), closes with an ironic call to the English clergy for leadership. He asks, "my working brothers, is it true of our promised land, even of that Jewish one of old, that the priests" feet must cross the mystic stream into the good land and large which God has prepared for us?" If such is the case, he concludes, why in the name of God don't the clergy -- "ye priests of His" -- awake and lead the people "over Jordan." Up until this point in his remarks Kingsley, the Broad Church clergyman, has been speaking through his character, but here he seems to address his fellows in his own voice. Certainly, despite his elaborately Evangelical vocabulary, tone, and rhetoric, Locke is not speaking as a believer. Rather, like so many working-class radicals, he applies the devices of the Evangelical preacher to the needs of the labor organizer, strike leader, and revolutionary. Locke argues implicitly that both owners and workers, rich and poor, follow false gods: the desperate working and unworking poor worship only "hatred of the things which are" and as they become less hopeful of improving their painful lot, they inevitably become attracted to violent solutions. The rich, who worship a "Moloch-Mammon," sacrifice the poor to their false god and do not understand that men who know they will die as offerings to such an obscene god will soon enough realize that they might as well "die upon a barricade." Kingsley's first use of the Pisgah sight in Alton Locke thus emphasizes that neither rich nor poor have found Christ. His uses of the type later in the novel show us, in contrast, that at least one member of the lower classes has found Him and thereby gained a true vision of the Promised Land.
Alton Locke's various skillful intonations of this biblical type suggest its range of literary possibilities. Unlike many commonplace types, the Pisgah sight is not secularized solely by replacing a reference to Christ with one to some other entity or idea, such as "the people." Seven basic elements comprise the Pisgah scene, and it may be modified (and is usually secularized) by manipulating any of these:
- the presence of God to the one who has the Pisgah sight;
- the time in the viewer's life when such a sight occurs;
- the physical position, usually a mountain top or high place, from which the prophet gazes;
- his removal from the viewed object, his separation from the promised land;
- his isolation from other people
- the content of the vision, the nature of the promised land, and the kind or degree of compensation they offer; and
- the nature of the viewed object to human time -- whether, in other words, it is something to be attained in time (in the future) or outside time (in eternity) .
Last modified 4 April 2015