The Simplon Pass: Poem - Summary & Analysis

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.....Brook and road
Were fellow-travellers in this gloomy pass.
And with them did we journey several hours
At a slow step. The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of waterfalls,
And in the narrow rent, at every turn,
Winds thwarting winds bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky.
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,
Black drizzling crags that spake by the wayside
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light—
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first, and last, and midst, and without end.


      The Simplon Pass is an extract from The Prelude, Book VI. It was probably written in the year 1799, or perhaps 1804, and though a part, of The Prelude, was published separately as well in 1845.

      The Simplon Pass was the poetic outcome of a walking tour around Switzerland and France which Wordsworth and his friend, Robert Jones, went on in the summer vacation of 1790. Before entering into Italy, the friends had to cross the Simplon Pass. This poem records the strange mystical experience felt by Wordsworth while he was crossing the gloomy and narrow pass. Bernard Groom, describing the journey of the two friends, remarks: “The two companies were ascending the Alps from the Valais, and having reached a halting place, were hoping that their path still lay up-wards. But it was not to be; a peasant informed them that they had already crossed the Alps. The first effect of the news was disappointment; but the words also had a thrilling sound, and as the friends enter the chasm leading downwards Italy, the magnificence of the surrounding views kindles the poet’s imagination into activity.” It is to be noted that the experience had to wait until recollection at a latter period for the emotion to be rekindled and given adequate poetic expression—in keeping with Wordsworth’s theory of poetry being emotion recollected in tranquility.


      In The Simplon Pass, Wordsworth describes the beauty of Nature and finally comes to a conclusion that may be called pantheistic. Wordsworth describes the long, narrow, gloomy Pass through the Alps. A brook ran parallel to the path along which the two friends walked slowly. Towering rocks and dense forest line the narrow path. The dense foliage of the forest decays but the forest never dies—for the decay is followed by renovation in a constant cycle. The waterfalls, looking stationary in the distance (for they do not move along like a stream) make a tumultuous sound which strikes the ear as if they were blasts from trumpets. At every step along the narrow path, winds blowing from different directions clash and obstruct one another, making sounds which seem to imply bewilderment and loneliness. The rocks on either side seem to mutter into the ears of the travelers as they pass along. And above the high rocks and forests is the sky, clear and blue. The small streams gushing down the gorge seem as if they come from the blue sky. The dark and damp crags by the way side seem to be possessed of a voice—they seem to be speaking to the travelers. The sight of the restless stream rushing tumultuously down the gorge, makes one feel slightly sick and giddy. The free clouds and the sky together suggest tumult and peace. Nature’s aspects are different from one another, even opposite and contradictory to one another. They suggest both noise and peace, both restlessness and calm, both darkness and light.

      Wordsworth reaches the conclusion from the scene around him that behind the outward manifestations of Nature is a fundamental unity—a spirit and Presence which dwells and interfuses itself in all natural objects. Each outward phenomenon is but the symbol of this one enduring Reality; all natural phenomena, are the visible feature of one Spirit, just as different features belonging to one face or the several flowers blooming on one tree. They are graphic signs of the great revelation—they show the Presence, the eternal invisible Being incorporating the beginning, the middle and the end, but itself endless or immortal.


Wordsworth’s Concept of Nature Illustrated by the Poem

      The Simplon Pass, though a part of The Prelude, is quite complete by itself. The poem illustrates Wordsworth’s concept of Nature and his understanding of Nature. It records a memorable occasion when the poet’s fellowship with Nature was consummated in a mystical experience. Wordsworth felt a spiritual communion with Nature - this is a characteristic of his ‘romanticism’. He is not just a Nature poet in that he gives beautiful and vivid pictures of scenes in words; his greatness as a poet of Nature lies in his being stirred into a mood of transcendent ecstasy in which Nature would reveal to him the mystery of infinitude”, of the Power, the Spirit, the Presence.

Nature’s Many Facets

      The poem The Simplon Pass, describes the awesome beauty of the natural scenery surrounding the Simplon Pass. Wordsworth is aware and brings home to the reader the different facets of Nature. While traveling with his friend, Wordsworth picks up some exalted moments spent in and around the Simplon Pass. The scene lives vividly before the reader’s eyes—the brook running parallel to the path, the towering rocks and forests on either side reaching up to measureless heights, the darkness and the dampness of the crags contrasting sharply with the clear blue sky high above the narrow pass, the winds blowing and dashing against the rocks and the stream rushing noisily down the gorge, the echoing crags and rocks seeming to possess a voice of their own, the waterfalls making a roaring sound which seems to hit one’s ears.

Nature Both Tumultuous and Peaceful

      The description of the scene around Simplon Pass clearly brings out the opposing or contradictory aspects of Nature. It is surprising that Aldous Huxley should have remarked that Wordsworth was blind to the violent side of Nature. In this poem, we get a clear vision of the awesome and possibly violent side of nature. The high rocks and the decaying forests and the tumultuous stream which rushes down the gorge with a noise which makes one feel sick and giddy; the noise of wind as it strikes the rocks and howls among the crags producing echoes—all these seem to be the menacing aspects of Nature. Of course, Wordsworth does not merely give us one side of the picture. Violence and peacefulness co-exist in Nature:

      The tumult and the calm, the roar and the quiet, the beautiful flower and the blasting waterfall, are all part and, indeed, the core of Nature’s creation. The crags may be dripping with moisture that cannot dry because of the darkness, but there is the clear blue sky with its unfettered clouds and bright light to balance the picture. The woods decay but yet live on undecaying.

Unifying Spirit behind the Multi-faceted Phenomena: Wordsworth’s Pantheistic Belief

      Despite the apparent contradictions in creation, Wordsworth finds a grand unison. The last lines of the poem are regarded as the exposition of Wordsworth’s pantheistic belief. The external evidence of natural phenomena that the senses perceive is not the complete idea of Nature. What he sees through the senses only helps Wordsworth to get a flash of visionary experience. His vision tells him that behind Nature is a Presence, a Spirit which manifests itself in the different external phenomena. Tense realization informs the lines in which Wordsworth speaks of the tumult and peace, the darkness and light being like the

.....workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree.
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity,
Of first and last, and midst, and without end.

      Wordsworth perceives a harmony, and an order behind the apparent anomaly. The Infinite Being reconciles both the tumultuous and the serene into a unified whole without any contradiction and without any end.

      Pantheism may be called Wordsworth’s notable ‘romantic’ characteristic. He expresses his belief that behind natural phenomena, there is a unifying spirit, what he calls the “Presence”. This is the contradiction in nature resolved into harmony. This harmony cannot be perceived by the ordinary man; the poet, however, attains this realization through his visionary power.

The Senses a means to Transcendental Experience

      The highest vision is superintended on the reaction of the senses in the state of ecstasy. The light of the senses goes out and the soul feels kinship with the spirit lying beyond the senses. The transcendental experience, as embodied in the poem, is typical of Wordsworth. It records a moment when he became “alive in a different dimension in which he saw into the life of things. In a flash, the invisible revealed the relationship between the visible and the invisible.” All internal and spiritual growth comes from the reaction of the senses, the eye and the ear, to the external world.

Style: Simple but Effective

      The language of the poem is simple and lucid; at the same time, however, an effect of grandeur is also produced. The images come one upon the other, bringing out strikingly the contrast between the different aspects of Nature. The images also reveal Wordsworth’s minute observation.

      The poem also illustrates Wordsworth’s tendency to give a personality to natural objects; thus the winds seem bewildered and forlorn, the crags seem to have a voice of their own, and the rocks mutter into the travelers’ ears.


      Lines. 1-2. Brook, and road were fellow-travellers: The downward track, which Wordsworth and his friend took, ran parallel to the stream hence they are termed as ‘fellow-travellers’. Line. 2. Gloomy pass: The reference is to the gorge of Gondo, “one of the grandest and the most gloomy in the Alps. It is bounded by slate-rocks whose smooth vertical sides deny any vegetation. At the base of these cliffs and in the bed of the stream are heaped the ruins of the mountains; while loosened masses still hanging on the slope seem to threaten the passenger”. Line. 3. Did we journey: i.e. Wordsworth and Jones, who crossed over the pass into Italy in the summer of 1790. Line. 6. Stationary blasts of waterfalls: The phrase effectively conveys to us the idea of the ceaseless noise of waterfalls. The line can be paraphrased thus: “The noise of the waterfalls was like the blast of trumpet after trumpet, each continuing ceaselessly in its own allotted station.” Line. 8. winds thwarting winds: High winds were blowing there, and to one crossing the pass it would appear as if they were thwarting each other. It is common experience that when winds blow over a high mountain, no distinct sound of winds is audible; what one hears is a confused, bewildering noise instead. Line. 9. Torrents shooting from the clear blue sky: Small streams gushing down the gorge appear as if coming from the sky. Line. 10. Rocks that muttered: alludes to the strange sound produced by the winds when they strike against rocks.

      Line. 11. Black drizzling crags: “The perpetual drip of moisture over the wayside crags give them a semblance of life.” Crags that spake: The heightened imagination of the poet leads him to think that the wayside crags were speaking to him in their own language. This is an instance of Wordsworth’s giving human attributes to natural things. Line. 12. “The sick sight: The stream as seen from the pass, raves in its with the restlessness of a sick man.” Line. 13. Giddy prospect: This phrase describes the effect which the ‘sick sight’ of the stream has upon a man. The beholder would feel giddy on seeing the turbulent river rushing down the gorge. Line. 14. Unfettered: free. The unfettered clouds...heavens: “A curiously Shakespearean line. Shakespeare at several places uses ‘region’ with the meaning of ‘sky’ or ‘upper air’.”

      Line. 15. Were all like workings of one mind: Whatever the poet saw there, appeared to him as the manifestation of the Eternal Mind. Lines. 16-17. Behind and beyond the outward shows of Nature Wordsworth sees a fundamental unity. The various natural phenomena are but the manifestation of the one enduring Reality and so to the poet’s eye the whole spectacle forms a sublime unity. Line. 17. Blossoms upon tree: Just as a tree bears many flowers and blossoms, similarly the various natural phenomena that one sees are but different forms of the One Life that informs all universe. Line. 18. Characters of the great Apocalypse: the writings traced by Nature’s hand in revelation of her mystery. Bernard Groom says: “Both ‘character’ and ‘apocalypse’ are, words of Greek origin; the former means (here) ‘a. graphic sign or symbol’, the latter ‘a revelation’. The line may, therefore, be paraphrased: ‘symbols of the great revelation’ (i.e. of divine truth)”. Line. 19. Types and symbols of Eternity): They are the signs which reveal the presence of the Eternal Life which interfuses itself in all Nature. Line. 20. Of first....without end: Wordsworth is probably thinking of the last book of the Bible in which a vision of God is described as ‘the beginning and the midst: and the last.’

      Explain. Lines. 16—20 Were all like.....without end: Wordsworth is here describing the transcendental experience which befell him when he was crossing the Simplon Pass. In a moment of heightened consciousness, the imagination of the poet saw all the outward shows of Nature as symbols and tokens of the Eternal Life. Each feature of the scene became a token of the indwelling presence which interfused itself in all Nature and ‘reconciled the discordant elements’ into harmony. Each was, as it were, one of the visible characters in which the revelation of this presence was written and was a symbol of the eternal unseen Being which thus manifested itself through concrete objects.

      Explain. Lines. 15—20. Tumult.....without end: Wordsworth here records his experience on traversing the Simplon Pass. The lines are an extract from The Prelude. The scene around struck Wordsworth as representing contradictory aspects of nature. The restless streams, the decaying woods, the echoing, dark crags the play of winds, the blasts of stationary waterfalls, the solid imposing rocks.


      The Simplon Pass represents a stage in the development of Wordsworth’s conception of Nature. At this juncture, Nature is typical or symbolic of spiritual life. Through Nature, we perceive the presence of the mysterious force or power that unifies everything. In Tintern Abbey, the poet perceives a Presence, and here in The Simplon Pass there is the “great Apocalypse.” His belief that a divine spirit pervades all the objects of Nature may be termed as mystical Pantheism. Thus Wordsworth is less concerned with the sensuous manifestations which delight most Nature poets; to him, the spiritual significance of the natural manifestations is more important. But he is fully alive to the sights and sounds of Nature, so much so that in some of his descriptions the different senses are subtly fused, as in the lines:

.....The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of waterfalls.....

      Here the senses of sight and sound are interfused and behind it all is the feeling of something of greater significance. Everywhere, the object seen is inseparable from the feelings evoked in the poet’s mind.

      Wordsworth’s unique apprehension of Nature is well illustrated by The Simplon Pass. It shows his far-reaching and penetrating eye, and his ability to look beyond the visible and the obvious scene to what he calls its ‘ideal truth’. He was more attracted towards the mountains, the rocks, the deep and gloomy woods, the clear blue expanse of the sky and the unfettered clouds; he had a keen ear for the sounds of wind and waters. And beyond all these sights and sounds, he apprehended the great ‘Apocalypse’, and the Eternity.

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