The Rolling Hills


Much of that landscape still rises and declines in ancient patterns, which hold their own stories of lives laboriously led. The lines of ditches and hedgerows represent an ancient order; even densely built urban areas can reflect an older reality. Nineteenth-century Nottingham, for example, was “largely determined by the medieval footpaths and furlongs of the open fields.”1 It is an open secret that the topography of the City of London is established upon Roman and Saxon divisions.

These affinities are not simply material for nostalgia, however. It is sometimes supposed that landscape shapes human perception and that the power of the earth, the ground upon which we stand and move, is greater than that of the heavens in determining human destiny. Milton himself suggested that climate and topography nourish wit and consciousness as well as fruit, and more recent studies have confirmed the associations between locality and behaviour. It is of course a piece of ancient wisdom, but the present author has noticed its workings in various districts of twenty-first-century London.

It is the wisdom D. H. Lawrence gathered, and used, from the novels of Thomas Hardy in which “there exists a great background, vital and wild, which matters more than the people who move upon it.” Lawrence also said that Hardy’s understanding of the world derived from his recognition of the territorial imperative and that “putting aside his metaphysic, which must always obtrude when he thinks of people, and turning to the earth, to landscape, then he is true to himself.” It can be a source of power, too, as well as vision. As John Constable said of another country, “the Dutch were stay-at-home people. Hence their originality.” But in England itself the source of that originality, or genius, may lie far back. The spires of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century parish churches, an example of a line of beauty in the English landscape, follow a geological stratum from Lincoln to north Somerset and seem ineluctably to rise out of oolite stone. Wordsworth pursues a similar course of enquiry when in his Guide Through the District of the Lakes he asks his reader to imagine a primitive landscape. “He may see or hear in fancy the winds sweeping over the lakes, or piping with a loud voice among the mountain peaks and, lastly, may think of the primaeval woods shedding and renewing their leaves with no human eye to notice, or human heart to regret or welcome the change.” In the north-west region Wordsworth experienced “low breathings coming after him”; in that same territory, five hundred years before, Sir Gawain felt “etins aneleden him,” or giants blowing after him. The faint shudder of disquiet may be part of the landscape.

The coming of the Anglo-Saxons scarcely altered the vista of “primaeval woods,” with the ash and oak upon the claylands and beech upon the chalk. Part of the country possessed a settled agrarian regime, inherited from Romano-British or prehistoric farmers. And many of the great forests had already been cut back or burned down. But much of England was still a wilderness covered with thick woods or with cold moorlands broken by outcrops of stone, marshlands, fens and heaths; log huts with thatched roofs betrayed their presence with thin plumes of smoke rising into the vast English sky, while in certain places the ruins left by earlier settlers were visible among the weeds and scrubland. Here, except for the wind sighing among the trees and the rain falling upon the damp soil, was silence—silence together with the calls of the natural world. Earnwood in Shropshire signifies “eagle’s wood,” Yarnscombe in Devon means “eagles’ valley” and Arncliff in West Yorkshire “eagles’ cliff.” In these fastnesses we are not so far removed from the conclusion of Wuthering Heights with Heathcliff ’s head-stone “still bare” upon the moor. “I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.” Here the protagonists have returned to the earth from which they came; after their fitful sojourn in the human world they have folded back into the landscape of which they were always a part.

This odd, silent and empty England in its earliest manifestations was one that haunted the Anglo-Saxon imagination. The opening encomia in the histories of Britain describe a landscape of springs and snow-white gravelled streams, of plains and hills and various flowers; but the imaginative work of the Saxons is possessed by cold and isolation and darkness. The female persona within one short poem laments her state of houselessness; she dwells within an ancient barrow among dark hills and dales. Guthlac finds a resting place upon a primeval mound or “hill” within the wilderness. Everywhere there are references to steep and rugged places, to black waters and ice-cold streams, to crags and mountain caves. When Bede describes Ely as “an island surrounded by watery marshes” and Grant-chester as “a small ruined city,” he is describing a waste land scarcely populated and meagrely cultivated, a darkly tangled landscape of wolves and boars. So it appears in Beowulf, too; the home of the monster race was the “mor” and the “faestnes,” the moor and the fastness where there is frost and darkness. It is the landscape of King Lear where “the wrathfull skies / Gal-low the very wanderers of the darke” and the setting of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Thay clomben bi clyffez ther clengez the colde . . . Mist muged on the mor, malt on the mountez

Wild England is the context of the opening dream within Piers the Plowman: “That I was in a wildernesse, wist I never where.” It is couched in Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd where “the general aspect of the swamp was malignant. From its moist and poisonous coat seemed to be exhaled the essences of evil things in the earth, and in the waters under the earth.” It is the landscape that haunts the English imagination. Thus Egdon Heath, in Hardy’s Return of the Native, “had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities,” while in “The Palace of Art” Alfred Tennyson depicts an equally bleak vista with

a foreground black with stones and slags, Beyond, a line of heights, and higher All barred with long white cloud the scornful crags

It is the internal landscape of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Within the English landscape there are hallowed places, sacred by event or by association. There is a path that leads through English literature; it is the path of human agency and human settlement, a pact with the earth leading the traveller forward. It is the forest path, the wald-swathu, in Beowulf; it is the trackway along which Jude Fawley walks, weeping, in Jude the Obscure. John Clare rejoiced in “those crooked shreds / Of footpaths,” of which Edward Thomas remarked that “the more they are downtrodden, the more they flourish”; they are themselves a sign or token of national feeling, like that long serpentine line which in The Analysis of Beauty William Hogarth named as the line of beauty. It is the line as curved or curling, in the sinuous grace of a reclining body or in a line drawn upwards around a cone. Hogarth simply called it “VARIETY.” Stanley Spencer’s The Bridlepath at Cookham has the same irregular beauty as Paul Nash’s The Field Path, both paintings showing narrow ways turning among fields and trees. The journey of Bunyan’s Pilgrim, of Spenser’s Red Crosse Knight, of Dickens’s Little Nell, all take on the allegory of the winding path.

Since these are immemorial ways a sense of custom is strongest; their presence may linger even after all outward marks have disappeared. The pathways of the Iceni lie beneath the crossroads of the Angel, Islington, in North London. These green lanes and narrow paths flourish in obscurity, sharing that privacy and inward shelter which are so much part of the English vision; they harbour, too, the sacredness of past associations which is also part of the vision. In E. M. Forster’s The Longest Journey the path moves towards a circle of standing stones, suggesting the primal thread linking past and present times. Yet how quickly, too, that track can degenerate from a lane into an overgrown footpath as if it longed to return to desuetude and forgetfulness; it is a return to origins, to the field-dung and to the ditch-mud which make up its being. John Cowper Powys, in the twentieth century, invoked the sensations of walking in such a secluded place where “the spirit of the earth called out to him from the green shoots beneath his feet” so that he was filled with the genius loci and sustained by it. Here also he experienced “the innumerable personalities of all the men and women who for generations have gone up and down” these tracks across the earth. So the path may encourage moments of vision. Thus, in Tennyson’s In Memoriam:

I know that this was Life,—the track Whereon with equal feet we fared

Keats knew in turn that “The poetry of earth is never dead.” To be surrounded by the melody of landscape is to be blessed, to rest in the sleep of origins in which there is no difference between humankind and the natural world.

The poetry and prose of the Anglo-Saxons are filled with the wonders of symbiosis. Bede, in his life of Cuthbert, relates how the saint walked down from his monastery to the adjacent sea; he knelt down upon the sand in prayer, whereupon two otters “bounded out of the water, stretched themselves out before him, warmed his feet with their breath, and tried to dry him on their fur.”2 On another occasion some ravens pulled the straw from a hut which Cuthbert had built upon Farne Island, beside Lindisfarne; he reproved them and soon after one bird returned “with feathers outspread and head bowed low to its feet in sign of grief.” 3 The bird inhabited the small island also, and in the legends of English life power may reside in the most local circumstances. The site of the stream or “borne” beside which Langland slumbered has been identified as the fountain of Malvern water which springs out of the west slope of the Herefordshire Beacon; the “toure on the toft” is then the Norman castle immediately above it. The scene of Constable’s Autumn Sunset is the footpath from East Bergholt Post Office to Stratford St. Mary Church, via Vale Farm. The “dark Satanic Mills” of Blake’s Milton can readily be identified with the ruins of the Albion Mills along the Blackfriars Road, a short distance from Blake’s house in Lambeth; he was the poet of eternity, but he identified himself with a local topography. These sites are irradiated by vision, but half their power derives from their particularity. Even the earth strewn across the bones of the saints was considered sacred, and believed to contain miraculous properties.

On a larger scale, too, the country of England was considered to be charged with power. Saxton’s county maps, published in 1579, provided the first complete set of visual images as fresh and illuminating to his first audience as photographs of the outer universe to a more recent generation. His work was complemented by Camden’s Britannia, published seven years later, of which the purpose was “to restore Britain to its Antiquities, and its Antiquities to Britain.” This was sacred soil indeed, hallowed by age and sanctified by association. Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion, completed in 1622, is a poetic exercise in chorography, a great choral epic composed from “the sundry Musiques of England.” In the twentieth century Edmund Blunden compared the English landscape to a symphony. But by whom? By Vaughan Williams? Or Havergal Brian? For Drayton the music flows from the streams and rivers, such as the Severn and the Isis, while echoing among its hills and valleys. In the twelve maps which accompanied the first edition of Poly-Olbion, various shepherds, fairies and deities consecrate the land with “every mountain, forest, river, and valley, expressing in their sundry postures their loves, delights and natural situations”; the song of the earth is divinely ordered, and supplants the authority of the monarch or the newly emerging state. The four thousand names inscribed upon Saxton’s wall-map of England are a holy litany; as Drayton puts it, the “varying vein” of his poetical celebration registers the nature of “the varying earth.” It is, once more, a highly localised vision like that of Blake or Langland.

Landscape began to emerge, in English painting, in the latter years of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth century when various significant personages were placed in specific settings; the Wedding at Horsleydownin Bermondsey is one such. Milton wrote about landscape as “lantskip”; and at the beginning of the seventeenth century Edward Norgate described it as “an Art soe new in England, and soe lately come a shore.” Yet this new imported form took so great a hold on the English imagination that it has ever since shared pre-eminence with portraiture as the great art of the nation. In a very English study of ruins Christopher Woodward has suggested that the “picturesque way of seeing is arguably England’s greatest contribution to European visual culture,” 4 which has dominated metaphors of sight in areas as diverse as Versailles and Central Park. Yet the “picturesque remains an inseparable element of English taste,”5 dependent upon individual memory and association rather than a theoretical aesthetic or codified practice.

In Jane Austen’s Emma is depicted a view of gardens and meadows and avenues possessing “all the old neglect of prospect”—by which Austen means that the landscape had not yet suffered from the late eighteenth-century cult of the picturesque—but it still represented “English verdure, English culture, English comfort.”

John Ruskin, with his acute sense of place, remarked that with the emergence of the landscape painter Richard Wilson in the eighteenth century, “the history of sincere landscape art founded on a meditative love of nature begins in England.” Yet love of nature is too crude or capacious a term to encompass the specific passion for the English countryside which animates the work of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century artists. There had been an attempt to translate the tenebrous mythologies of the French painters Claude and Poussin into the native English scene, but the indigenous taste for irregularity and contrast modified their lights and shades. William Gilpin’s Observationson English scenery, published over a period of some twenty years at the end of the eighteenth century, digressed upon tones of air and earth “rarely permanent—always in motion—always in harmony—and playing with a thousand changeable varieties into each other.” A contemporary, Uvedale Price, in turn advanced the beauties “of roughness and of sudden variation, joined to that of irregularity.”

It cannot be the merest chance that these were also the qualities originally associated with English drama; it is as if national identity may be preserved in a thousand different guises. The emphasis is upon fluidity rather than formality, upon the manifestations of organic process rather than of any fixed design. All arts may in that sense concur. When Gainsborough turned his eyes away from the Suffolk landscape, his second passion was for music; Turner adored the poetry of James Thomson, whose The Seasons materially affected his art among “the bright enchantment” and “the radiant fields,” the “dew-bright earth” and “colored air.” The painter also reflected that “painting and poetry, flowing from the same fount mutually by vision . . . improve, reflect and heighten one another’s beauties.” Hardy’s vision of landscape was profoundly influenced by Turner’s paintings, which the novelist described as “light modified by objects.” Constable, too, believed that “could the histories of all the fine arts be compared, we should find in them many striking analogies.” It is customary to ignore or neglect the sentiments of artists themselves, and to brook no association between poetry and painting, yet there is a connection and a continuity which have their origin in a distinctive English sensibility. Samuel Palmer was decisively influenced by the poetry of John Milton, and with his etchings illustrated “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso”; all his life he tried to re-create the “Valley of Vision” filled with the shadows cast by moonlight and the dark foliage of overhanging trees. And why should that sensibility not be nourished from childhood, or from memories beyond infancy itself? Constable confessed that “all that lies on the banks of theStour . . . made me a painter” and that he painted “my own places best.” It is what Charlotte Brontë meant when she called her sister Emily “a native and nursling of the moors.”

Only the presence of some genius loci will explain the pre-eminence of the water-colour, for example, which has been described by one art historian as the “medium peculiarly belonging to and expressive of the English spirit in art”6 with its velleities of atmosphere and moist air, with its almost melancholy sense of transience and of passage, with its evocation of broken light and fleeting shadow.

The frontispiece of Poly-Olbion displays England draped across the image of a woman’s body. In a similar spirit the American essayist Washington Irving once observed that the “pastoral writers of other countries appear as if they had paid nature an occasional visit and had become acquainted with her general charms; but the British poets have lived and revelled with her—they have wooed her in her most secret haunts—they have watched her minutest caprices.” Not for the first time has the English landscape been compared to a human body. It is no allegory or personification, but a recognition of the landscape as an organic being with its own laws of growth and change.

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