Excerpt from 'Pompeii'
The poem’s narrator gazes upon the ruins of Pompeii and imagines what took place on the date of the eruption. The narrator describes a crowded street that is instantly engulfed in a cloud of ash while Mount Vesuvius fumes in smoke and flames. After imagining this, the narrator returns to his present moment and begins to tread through the ruins.
Copyright 2009, Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison
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"Pompeii" was created as an academic exercise at Harvard University. In 1848, this poem, along with other of William Dix’s poems, was compiled in the book Pompeii and other Poems. This book of poems can now be found at Memorial Library at the University of Wisconsin—Madison.
Once a thriving Roman city, Pompeii was destroyed by a massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Civilians were buried under sixty feet of scorching ash within minutes of the eruption, which lasted two days. Today the ruins are unearthed and attract millions of tourists annually. Molds of the dead and archeological ruins remain as a reminder of Pompeii's destruction (R. Brilliant, Pompeii AD 79 292-296).
Johann Joachim Winckelmann
An archeologist in the mid 1700s, Winckelmann was a pioneer in volcanic inquiry. He published many scientific books regarding volcanic ruins. As a well-known scientist of volcanic history, he would have been one of the few scientific sources influencing William Dix’s poem "Pompeii." However, as Winckelmann's work focused mainly on ruined architecture and artwork, early Romantic culture still remained unknowledgeable of volcanoes themselves (L. Curtis, Winckelmann 1-3).
An early Romantic painter, Washington Allston was born in South Carolina and attended school at Harvard University and the Royal Academy in England. His paintings usually portray landscapes, and occasionally included mountains and volcanoes. He was a major inspiration to William Giles Dix and his poem "Pompeii" (E. Richardson, Washington Allston 183-185).
William Cullen Bryant
Like Washington Allston, Bryant helped inspire William Dix’s poem "Pompeii." Bryant is most known for his historically-based poetry, but he was also a journalist and editor of the New York Evening Post. Bryant was born in Massachusetts in 1794 and died in New York 84 years later (A. McLean, William Cullen Bryant 2-6).
This university is where William Giles Dix studied poetry. An assignment given by one of his instructors inspired his poem Pompeii. His work was originally published by the University publisher Metcalf and Company (J. Bethel Harvard Observed 302-319).
Classified as a Stratovolcano (one with a tall, multi-layered cone), Mount Vesuvius rises to 4,203 feet (1,281 meters). Within the recent centuries, Vesuvius’ height has decreased due to massive eruptions which have destroyed the volcano’s walls. The volcano is located in the Province of Naples near Pompeii, the city destroyed by its eruption in 79 AD. Today Mount Vesuvius has two craters which emit magma. The larger cone is known locally as Palo. The second, newer cone—formed by massive amounts of magma hardening under pressure—is known as Monte Somma. After the 79 A.D. eruption Mount Vesuvius has erupted about twice every century, with no eruptions occurring after 1944 (S. Bisel Secrets of Vesuvius 2-64).
In this poem, the narrator invisions a spectacle—of fire, smoke, ash, and death—that portrays the eruption of Vesuvius as awe-inspiring in its immense and mysterious powers of destruction. Consequently, the image invoked by the poem represents the early Romantic fascination with the sublime.
Inspired by early Romantic thought, the work of William Dix embodies early Romantic perceptions of volcanoes. The general Romantic audience only appreciated the death and destruction brought about by Mt. Vesuvius' eruption in 79 AD—not the scientific facts behind the disaster. Worth mentioning is Johann J. Winckemann’s excavations of ancient volcanic ruins in the mid 1700s, as these archeological studies shone some light on volcanism. But Winckemann’s works, like Dix’s poem and the writings of other early Romantic scientists, lacked the precise volcanic knowledge found in scientific publications. Dix was influenced by subjective works instead of objective science. Volcanism as we know it today (grounded in scientific data) was not a focus of early Romantic culture, in which an aesthetics founded on scientific details was unavailable or unappreciated. So, to depict the violence that his audience would appreciate, Dix evokes the sublime: his poem describes the visual spectacle of city-engulfing ash and a fuming volcano. Because the poem was inspired by early Romantic works, Pompeii represents how early Romantic culture appreciated and understood volcanoes as fear-inducing and sublime.
As a student at Harvard University, William Giles Dix studied English Literature (specifically poetry). During his studies, he wrote about Pompeii for a poetry exercise, influenced by the artistic works of Washington Allston and William Bryant. Though simply intended to complete an assignment, Dix's poem represents the early Romantic yearning for the sublime—to gaze upon something seemingly larger than life, to be awe-struck and afraid. Because aesthetics overshadowed scientific details during the early Romantic era, few, actual facts were known about volcanoes or the 79 AD eruption. Consequently, readers were captivated solely by the destructive and seemingly mysterious power of the volcano.
Bethell, John. Harvard Observed: An Illustrated History of the University. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998.
Bisel, Sara Louise Clark. Secrets of Vesuvius. New York, NY: Scholastic Inc., 1990.
Brilliant, Richard. Pompeii AD 79 the Treasure of Rediscovery. New York: C. N. Potter : distributed by Crown, 1979.
Curtis, Ludwig. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, 1768/1968. Bad Godesberg Inter Nationes, 1968.
Jongman, Willem. The Economy and Society of Pompeii. Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben, 1988.
McLean, Albert F. William Cullen Bryant. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
Richardson, Edgar. Washington Allston: A Study of the Romantic Artist in America. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1948.
Pompeii and other poems / by William Giles Dix.