Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page

First Impressions of England and its People
Chapter VI


Stourbridge. — Effect of Plutonic Convulsion on the surrounding Scenery.— Hagley; Description in the “Seasons.” — Geology the true Anatomy of Landscape. — Geologic Sketch of Hagley. — The Road to the Races.— The old Stone-cutter. — Thomson’s Hollow. — His visits to Hagley. —Shenstone’s Urn. — Peculiarities of Taste founded often on a Substratum of Personal Character. — Illustration. — Rousseau. — Pope’s Haunt. — Lyttelton’s high Admiration of the Genius of Pope. — Description. — Singularly extensive and beautiful Landscape ; drawn by Thomson. — Reflection. — Amazing Multiplicity of the Prospect illustrative of a Peculiarity in the Descriptions of the “Seasons.” — Addison’s Canon on Landscape ; corroborated by Shenstone.

I left Dudley by the morning coach for Stourbridge, and arrived, all unwittingly, during the bustle of its season of periodic license, — the yearly races. Stourbridge is merely a smaller Wolverhampton, — built on the same lower deposit of the New Red Sandstone, of the same sort of red brick, and roofed and floored with the same sort of red tiles. The surrounding country is, however, more pleasingly varied by hill and valley. Plutonic convulsion from beneath has given to the flat incoherent formation a diversity of surface not its own; and we see it tempested into waves, over the unseen trappean masses, like ocean over the back of some huge sea-monster. In passing on to the south and west, one finds bolder and still bolder inequalities of surface; the hills rise higher, and are more richly wooded, until at length, little more than three miles from Stourbridge, in a locality where the disturbing rock has broken through, and forms a chain of picturesque trap eminences, there may be seen some of at once the finest and most celebrated scenery in England. Certainly for no scenery either at home or abroad, has the Muse done more. Who, acquainted with the poetry of the last century, has not heard of Hagley, the “British Tempe,” so pleasingly sung by Thomson in his “Seasons,” and so intimately associated, in the verse of Pope, Shenstone, and Hammond, with the Lord Lyttelton of English literature? It was to walk over Hagley that I had now turned aside half-a-day’s journey out of my purposed route. Rather more from accident than choice, there were no poets with whom I had formed so early an acquaintance as with the English poets who flourished in the times of Queen Anne and the first two Georges. I had come to be scarce less familiar with Hagley and the Leasowes,' in consequence, than Reuben Butler, when engaged in mismanaging his grandmother’s farm, with the agriculture of the “Georgies;” and here was my first opportunity, after the years of half a lifetime had come and gone, of comparing the realities as they now exist, with the early conceptions I had formed of them. My ideas of Hagley had been derived chiefly from Thomson, with whose descriptions, though now considerably less before the reading public than they have been, most of my readers must be in some degree acquainted.

“The love of Nature works,
And warms the bosom; till at last, sublimed
To rapture and enthusiastic heat,
We feel the present Deity, and taste
The joy of God to see a happy world!
These are the sacred feelings of thy heart,
0 Lyttelton, the friend! Thy passions thus
And meditations vary, as at large,
Courting the Muse, through Hagley Park thou strayest,
The British Tempe! There along the dale,
With woods o’erhung, and shagged with mossy rocks,
Where on each hand the gushing waters play,
And down the rough cascade white dashing fall,
Or gleam in lengthened vista through the trees,
You silent steal, or sit beneath the shade
Of solemn oaks that tuft the swelling mounts,
Thrown graceful round by Nature’s careless hand,
And pensive listen to the various voice
Of rural peace, — the herds, the flocks, the birds.
The hollow whispering breeze, the plaint of rills,
That, purling down amid the twisted roots
Which creep around, their dewy murmurs shake
On the soothed ear.”

In all the various descriptions of Hagley and the Leasowes which I have yet seen, however elaborate and well-written, I have found such a want of leading outlines, that I could never form a distinct conception of either place as a whole. The writer—whether a Thomson or a Dodsley — introduced me to shaded walks and open lawns, swelling eminences and sequestered hollows, wooded recesses with their monumental urns, and green hill-tops with their crowning obelisks; but, though the details were picturesquely given, I have always missed distinct lines of circumvallation to separate and characterize from the surrounding country the definite locality in which they were included. A minute anatomical acquaintance with the bones and muscles is deemed essential to the painter who grapples with the difficulties of the human figure. Perhaps, when the geological vocabulary shall have become better incorporated than at present with the language of our common literature, a similar acquaintance with the stony science will be found scarce less necessary to the writer who describes natural scenery. Geology forms the true anatomy — the genuine osteology—of landscape ; and a correct representation of the geological skeleton of a locality will be yet regarded, I doubt not, as the true mode of imparting adequate ideas of its characteristic outlines. The osteology of Hagley, if I may so speak, it is easily definable. On the southern shore of the Dudley coal-basin, and about two miles from its edge, there rises in the New Red Sandstone a range of trap hills about seven miles in length, known as the Clent Hills, which vary in height from six to eight hundred feet over the level of the sea. They lie parallel, in their general direction, to the Silurian range, already described as rising, like a chain of islands, amid the coal; but, though parallel, they are, like the sides of the parallel ruler of the geometrician when fully stretched, not opposite ; the southernmost hill of the Silurian range lying scarce so far to the south as the northernmost hill of the trap range. The New Red Sandstone, out of which the latter arises, forms a rich, slightly undulating country, reticulated by many a green lane and luxuriant hedge-row; the hills themselves are deeply scoped by hollow dells, furrowed by shaggy ravines, and roughened by confluent eminences; and on the southwestern slopes of one of the finest and most variegated of the range, half on the comparatively level red sandstone, half on the steep-sided billowy trap, lie the grounds of Hagley. Let the Edinburgh reader imagine such a trap hill as that which rises on the north-east between Arthur’s Seat and the sea, tripled or quadrupled in its extent of base, hollowed by dells and ravines of considerable depth, covered by a soil capable of sustaining the noblest trees, mottled over with votive urns, temples, and obelisks, and traversed by many a winding walk, skilfully designed to lay open every beauty of the place, and he will have no very inadequate idea of the British Tempe sung by Thomson. We find its loveliness compounded of two simple geologic elements,—that abrupt and variegated picturesqueness for which the trap rocks are so famous, and which may be seen so strikingly illustrated in the neighborhood of Edinburgh; and that soft-lined and level beauty, — an exquisite component in landscape when it does not stand too much alone, — so characteristic, in many localities, of the Lower New Red Sandstone formation.

I was fortunate in a clear, pleasant day, in which a dappled sky over head threw an agreeable mottling of light and shadow on the green earth below. The road to Hagley was also that to the races, and so there were many passengers. There were carts and wagons rumbling forward, crowded with eager ruddy faces of the round Saxon type; and gigs and carriages in which the faces seemed somewhat less eager, and were certainly less ruddy and round. There were numerous parties, too, hurrying afoot: mechanics from the nearer towns, with pale unsunned complexions, that reminded one of the colorless vegetation which springs up in vaults and cellars; stout, jovial ploughmen, redolent, in look and form, of the open sky and the fresh air; bevies of young girls in gypsy bonnets, full of an exuberant merriment, that flowed out in laughter as they went; and bands of brown Irish reapers, thrown out of their calculations by the backward harvest, with their idle hooks slung on their shoulders, and fluttering in rags in a country in which one saw no rags but their own. And then there came, in long procession, the boys of a free-school, headed by their masters; and then the girls of another free-school, with their mistresses by their side; but the boys and girls were bound, I was told, not for the races, but for a pleasant recess among the Clent Hills, famous for its great abundance of nuts and blackberries, in which they were permitted to spend once a-year, during the season of general license, a compensatory holiday. To the right of the road, for mile beyond mile, field succeeds field, each sheltered by its own rows of trees, stuck into broad wasteful hedges, and which, as they seem crowded together in the distance, gave to the remote landscape the character of a forest.

On the left, the ground rises picturesque and high, and richly wooded, forming the first beginnings of the Clent Hills; and I could already see before me, where the sky and the hill met, the tufted vegetation and pointed obelisk of Hagley.

I baited at Hagley village to take a glass of cider, which the warmth of the day and the dustiness of the road rendered exceedingly grateful; and entered into conversation with an old gray-headed man, of massive frame and venerable countenance, who was engaged by the wayside in sawing into slabs a large block of New Red Sandstone. The process, though I had hewn, as I told him, a great many stones in Scotland, was new to me; and so I had not a few questions to ask regarding it, which he answered with patient civility. The block on which he was operating measured about six feet in length by four in breadth, and was from eighteen to twenty inches in thickness; and he was cutting it by three draughts, parallel to its largest plane, into four slabs. Each draught, he said, would employ him about four days; and the formation of the slabs, each containing a superficies of about twenty-four feet, at least a fortnight. He purposed fashioning them into four tombstones. Nearly half his time was occupied, he reckoned, in sawing, — rather hard work for an old man; and his general employment consisted chiefly in fashioning the soft red sandstone into door-pieces, and window-soles, and lintels, which, in the better brick-houses in this locality, are usually of stone, tastefully carved. His saw was the common toothless saw of the marble-cutter, fixed in a heavy wooden frame, and suspended by a rope from a projecting beam; and the process of working consisted simply in swinging it in the line of the draught. I would have no difficulty, he informed me, in getting admission to the Lyttelton grounds : I had but to walk up to the gardener’s lodge, and secure the services of one of the under gardeners; and, under his surveillance, I might wander over the place as long as I pleased. At one time, he said, people might enter the park when they willed, without guide or guard; but the public, left to its own discretion, had behaved remarkably ill: it had thrown down the urns, and chipped the obelisks, and scrabbled worse than nonsense on the columns and the trees ; and so it had to be set under a keeper, to insure better behavior.

I succeeded in securing the guidance of one of the gardeners; and passing with him through part of the garden, and a small but well-kept greenhouse, we emerged into the park, and began to ascend the hill by a narrow inartificial path, that winds, in alternate sunshine and shadow, as the trees approach or recede, through the rich moss of the lawn. Half way up the ascent, where the hill-side is indented by a deep, irregularly semi-circular depression, open and grassy in the bottom and sides, but thickly garnished along the rim with noble trees, there is a semi-octagonal temple, dedicated to the genius of Thomson, — “a sublime poet,” says the inscription, “and a good man,” who greatly loved, when living, this hollow retreat. I looked with no little interest on the scenery that had satisfied so great a master of landscape; and thought, though it might be but fancy, that I succeeded in detecting the secret of his admiration; and that the specialties of his taste in the case rested, as they not unfrequently do in such cases, on a substratum of personal character. The green hill spreads out its mossy arms around, like the arms of a well-padded easy-chair of enormous proportions, imparting, from the complete seclusion and shelter which it affords, luxurious ideas of personal security and ease; while the open front permits the eye to expatiate on an expansive and lovely landscape. We see the ground immediately in front occupied by an uneven sea of tree-tops, chiefly oaks of noble size, that rise, at various levels, on the lower slopes of the park. The clear sunshine imparted to them this day exquisite variegations of fleecy light and shadow. They formed a billowy ocean of green, that seemed as if wrought in floss silk. Far beyond — for the nearer fields of the level country are hidden by the oaks — lies a blue labyrinth of hedge-rows, stuck over with trees, and so crowded together in the distance, that they present, as has already been said, a forest-like appearance; while, still further beyond, there stretches along the horizon a continuous purple screen, composed of the distant highlands of Cambria.

Such is the landscape which Thomson loved. And here he used to saunter, the laziest and best-natured of mortal men, with an imagination full of many-colored conceptions, by far the larger part of them never to be realized, and a quiet eye, that took in without effort, and stamped on the memory, every meteoric effect of a changeful climate, which threw its tints of gloom or of gladness over the diversified prospect. The images sunk into the quiescent mind as the silent shower sinks into the crannies and fissures of the soil, to come gushing out, at some future day, in those springs of poetry which so sparkle in the “ Seasons,” or that glide in such quiet yet lustrous beauty through that most finished of English poems, the “ Castle of Indolence.” Never before or since was there a man of genius wrought out of such mild and sluggish elements as the bard of the “ Seasons.” A listless man was James Thomson; kindly-hearted ; much loved by all his friends; little given to think of himself; who “loathed much to write, ne cared to repeat.” And to Hagley he used to come, as Shenstone tells us, in “a hired chaise, drawn by two horses ranged lengthwise,” to lie abed till long past mid-day, because he had “nae motive ” to rise; and to browse in the gardens on the sunny side of the peaches, with his hands stuck in his pockets. He was hourly expected at Hagley on one of his many visits, when the intelligence came, instead, of his death. With all his amazing inertness, he must have been a lovable man, — an essentially different sort of person from either of his two poetical Scotch acquaintances, Mallet or Armstrong. Quin wept for him no feigned tears on the boards of the theatre; poor Collins, a person of warm and genial affections, had gone to live beside him at Richmond, but on his death quitted the place forever; even Shenstone, whose nature it was to think much and often of himself, felt life grow darker at his departure, and, true to his hobby, commemorated him in an urn, on the principle on which the late Lord Buchan was so solicitous to bury Sir Walter Scott. “He was to have been at Hagley this week,” we find Shenstone saying, in a letter dated from the Leasowes, in which he records his death, "and then I should probably have seen him here. As it is, I will erect an urn in Virgil’s Grove to his memory. I was really as much shocked to hear of his death as if I had known and loved him for a number of years.the memory of a people, in the nine lines of which it consists, than in any single poem of ten times the length his Lordship ever produced.

“A hard here dwelt, more fat than hard heseems,
Who, void of envy, guile, and lust of gain,
On virtue still, and nature’s pleasing themes,
Poured forth his unpremeditated strain;
The world forsaking with a calm disdain,
Here laughed he careless in his easy seat;
Here quaffed, encircled with the joyous train, —
Oft moralizing sage: his ditty sweet
He loathed much to write, ne cared to repeat.”

God knows, I lean on a very few friends, and if they drop me, I become a wretched misanthrope.”

Passing upwards from Thomson’s hollow, we reach a second and more secluded depression in the hill-side, associated with the memory of Shenstone; and see at the head of a solitary ravine a white pedestal, bearing an urn. The trees droop their branches so thickly around it, that, when the eye first detects it in the shade, it seems a retreating figure, wrapped up in a winding-sheet. The inscription is eulogistic of the poet’s character and genius. “In his verses,” it tells us, with a quiet elegance, in which we at once recognize the hand of Lyttelton, “were all the natural graces, and in his manners all the amiable simplicity of pastoral poetry, with the sweet tenderness of the elegiac.” This secluded ravine seems scarce less characteristic of the author of the “Ode to Rural Elegance,” and the “Pastoral Ballad,” than the opener hollow below, of the poet of the “Seasons.” There is no great expansion of view, of which, indeed, Shenstone was no admirer. “Prospects,” he says, in his “Canqns on Landscape,” “should never take in the blue hills so remotely that they be not distinguishable from clouds; yet this mere extent is what the vulgar value.” Thomson, however, though not quite one of the vulgar, valued it too. As seen from his chosen recess, the blue of the distant hills seems melting into the blue of the sky ; or, as he himself better describes the dim outline,

“The Cambrian mountains, like far clouds,
That skirt the blue horizon, dusky rise.”

It is curious enough to find two men, both remarkable for their nice sense of the beautiful in natural scenery, at issue on so important a point; but the diversity of their tastes indicates, one may venture to surmise, not only the opposite character of their genius, but of their dispositions also. Shenstone was naturally an egotist, and, like Rousseau, scarce ever contemplated a landscape without some tacit reference to the space occupied in it by himself. “An air of greatness,” remarks the infirm philosopher of Geneva, “has always something melancholy in it: it leads us to consider the wretchedness of those who affect it. In the midst of extended grass-plats and fine walks, the little individual does not grow greater; a tree of twenty feet high will shelter him as well as one of sixty; he never occupies a space of more than three feet; and in the midst of his immense possessions, is lost like a poor worm.” Alas! it was but a poor worm, ever brooding over its own mean dimensions, — ever thinking of the little entity self, and jealous, in its egotism, of even the greatness of nature, — that could have moralized in a strain so unwholesome. Thomson, the least egotistic of all poets, had no such jealousy in his composition. Instead of feeling himself lost in any save vignette landscapes, it was his delight, wholly forgetful of self and its minute measurements, to make landscapes even larger than the life, — to become all eye, — and, by adding one long reach of the vision to another, to take in a kingdom at a glance. There are few things finer in English poetry than the description in which, on this principle, he lays all Scotland at once upon the canvas.

“Here a while the Muse,
High hovering o’er the broad cerulean scene,
Sees Caledonia in romantic view;
Her airy mountains, from the waving main
Invested with a keen diffusive sky,
Breathing the soul acute; her forests huge,
Incult, robust, and tall, by Nature’s hand
Planted of old; her azure lakes between,
Poured out extensive, and her watery wealth
Full; winding deep and green her fertile vales;
With many a cool translucent brimming flood
Washed lovely, from the Tweed (pure parent stream,
Whose pastoral hanks first heard my Doric reed,
With sylvan Jed, thy tributary brook),
To where the north’s inflated tempest foams
O’er Orca’s or Betubium’s highest peak.”

Shenstone’s recess, true to his character, excludes, as I have said, the distant landscape. It is, however, an exceedingly pleasing, though somewhat gloomy spot, shut up on every side by the encircling hills, — here feathered with wood, there projecting its soft undulating line of green against the blue sky; while, occupying the bottom of the hollow, there is a small sheltered lake, with a row of delicate lines, that dip their pendent branches in the water.

Yet a little further on, we descend into an opener and more varied inflection in the hilly region of Hagley, which is said to have been as favorite a haunt of Pope as the two others of Thomson and Shenstone, and in which an elaborately-carved urn and pedestal records Lyttelton’s estimate of his powers as a writer, and his aims as a moralist: “the sweetest and most elegant,” says the inscription, “of English poets; the severest chastiser of vice, and the most persuasive teacher of wisdom.” Lyttelton and Pope seem to have formed mutually high estimates of each other’s powers and character. In the “Satires,” we find three several compliments paid to the “young Lyttelton,”

“Still true to virtue, and as warm as true.”

And when, in the House of Commons, one of Sir Robert Walpole’s supporters accused the rising statesman of being the facile associate of an “unjust and licentious lampooner,” — for, as Sir Robert’s administration was corrupt and the satirist severe, such was Pope’s character in the estimate of the ministerial majority, — he rose indignantly to say, “that he deemed it an honor to be received into the familiarity of so great a poet.” But the titled paid a still higher, though perhaps undesigned compliment, to the untitled author, by making his own poetry the very echo of his. Among the English literati of the last century, there is no other writer of equal general ability, so decidedly, I had almost said so servilely, of the school of Pope as Lyttelton. The little crooked man, during the last thirteen years of his life, was a frequent visiter at Hagley; and it is still a tradition in the neighborhood, that in the hollow in which his urn has been erected he particularly delighted. He forgot Cibber, So and Lord flung up with much glee his poor shapeless legs, thickened by three pairs of stockings apiece, and far from thick, after all; and called the place his “own ground.” It certainly does no discredit to the taste that originated the gorgeous though somewhat indistinct descriptions of “Windsor Forest.” There are noble oaks on every side, — some in their vigorous middle-age, invested with that “rough grandeur of bark, and wide protection of bough,” which Shenstone so admired, — some far gone in years, mossy and time-shattered, with white skeleton branches atop, and fantastic scraggy roots projecting, snakelike, from the broken ground below. An irregular open space in front permits the eye to range over a prospect beautiful though not extensive; a small clump of trees rises so near the urn, that, when the breeze blows, the slim branch-tips lash it as if in sport; while a clear and copious spring comes bubbling out at its base.

I passed somewhat hurriedly through glens and glades, — over rising knolls and wooded slopes, — saw statues and obelisks, temples and hermitages, — and lingered a while, ere I again descended to the lawn, on the top of an eminence which commands one of the richest prospects I had yet seen. The landscape from this point, — by far too fine to have escaped the eye of Thomson, — is described in the “Seasons" and the hill which overlooks it represented as terminating one of the walks of Lyttelton and his lady, — that Lucy Lady Lyttleton whose early death formed, but a few years after, the subject of the monody so well known and so much admired in the days of our great-grandmothers : —

“The beauteous bride,
To 'whose fair memory flowed the tenderest tear
That ever trembled o’er the female bier.”

It is not in every nobleman’s park one can have the opportunity of comparing such a picture as that in the “Seasons” with such an original. I quote, with the description, the preliminary lines, so vividly suggestive of the short-lived happiness of Lyttelton: —

“Perhaps thy loved Lucinda shares thy walk,
With soul to thine attuned.
Then Nature all Wears to the lover’s eye a look of love;
And all the tumult of a guilty world,
Tossed by the generous passions, sinks away;
The tender heart is animated peace;
And, as it pours its copious treasures forth
In various converse, softening every theme,
You, frequent pausing, turn, and from her eyes,—
Where meekened sense, and amiable grace,
And lively sweetness dwell, — enraptured drink
That nameless spirit of ethereal joy, —
Unutterable happiness! — which love
Alone bestows, and on a favored few.
Meantime you gain the height from whose fair brow
The bursting prospect spreads immense around,
And, snatched o’er hill and dale, and wood and lawn,
And verdant field, and darkening heath between,
And villages embosomed soft in trees,
And spiry towns by surging columns marked
Of household smoke, your eye excursive roams,
Wide stretching from the H, in whose kind haunt
The Hospitable Genius lingers still,
To where the broken landscape, by degrees
Ascending, roughens into rigid hills,
O’er which the Cambrian mountains, like far clouds
That skirt the blue horizon, dusky rise.”

As I called up the passage on the spot where, as a yet unformed conception, it had first arisen in the mind of the writer, I felt the full force of the contrast presented by the two pictures which it exhibits, — the picture of a high but evanescent human happiness, whose sun had set in the grave nearly a century ago; and the picture of the enduring landscape, unaltered in a single feature since Lyttelton and his lady had last gazed on it from the hill-top. “Alas!” exclaimed the contemplative Mirza, “man is but a shadow, and life a dream.” A natural enough reflection, surely, — greatly more so, I am afraid, than the solace sought by the poet Beattie under its depressing influence, in a resembling evanescence and instability in all nature and in all history.

“Art, empire, earth itself, to change are doomed:
Earthquakes have raised to heaven the humble vale,
And gulfs the mountain’s mighty mass entombed,
And where the Atlantic rolls, wide continents have bloomed.”

All very true, — none the less so, certainly, from the circumstance of its being truth in advance of the age in which the poet wrote; but it is equally and still more emphatically true, that the instability of a mountain or continent is a thing to be contrasted, not compared, with the instability of the light clouds that, when the winds are up, float over it, and fling athwart the landscape their breadth of fitful shadow. And, alas! what is human life? “even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” There jneed be no lack of mementoes to remind one, as I was this day reminded by the passage in Thomson, what a transitory shadow man is, compared with the old earth which he inhabits, and how fleeting his pleasures, contrasted with the stable features of the scenes amid which, for a few brief seasons, he enjoys them.

Thfe landscape from the hill-top could not have been seen to greater advantage, had I waited for months to pick out their best day. The far Welsh mountains, though lessened in the distance to a mere azure ripple, that but barely roughened the line of the horizon, were as distinctly defined in the clear atmosphere as the green luxuriant leafage in the foreground, which harmonized so exquisitely with their blue. The line extended from far beyond the Shropshire Wrekin on the right, to far beyond the Worcestershire Malvems on the. left. Immediately at the foot of the eminence stands the mansion-house of Hagley, — the “Hall” where the “hospitable genius lingers still;” — a large, solid-looking, but somewhat sombre edifice, built of the New Bed Sandstone on which it rests, and which too much reminds one, from its peculiar tint, of the prevailing red brick of the district. There was a gay party of cricket-players on the lawn. In front, Lord Lyttelton, a fine-looking young man, stripped of coat and waistcoat, with his bright white shirt puffed out at his waistband, was sending the ball far beyond bound, amid an eager party, consisting chiefly, as the gardener informed me, of tenants and tenants’ sons; and the cheering sounds of shout and laughter came merrily up the hill. Beyond the house rises a noble screen of wood, composed of some of the tallest and finest trees in England. Here and there the picturesque cottages of the neighboring village peep through; and then, on and away to the far horizon, there spreads out a close-wrought net-work of fenced fields, that, as it recedes from the eye, seems to close its meshes, as if drawn awry by the hand, till at length the openings can be no longer seen, and the hedge-rows lie piled on each other in one bosky mass. The geologic framework of the scene is various, and each distinct portion bears its own marked characteristics. In the foreground we have the undulating trap, so suited to remind one, by the picturesque abruptnesses of its outlines, of those somewhat fantastic backgrounds one sees in the old prints which illustrate, in our early English translations, the pastorals of Virgil and Theocritus. Next succeeds an extended plane of the richly-cultivated New Red Sandstone, which, occupying fully two-thirds of the entire landscape, forms the whole of what a painter would term its middle ground, and a little more. There rises over this plane, in the distance, a ridgy acclivity, much fretted by inequalities, composed of an Old Red Sandstone formation, coherent enough to have resisted those denuding agencies by which the softer deposits have been worn down; while the 'distant sea of blue hills, that seems as if toppling over it, has been scooped out of the Silurian formations, Upper and Lower, and demonstrates, in its commanding altitude and bold wavy outline, the still greater solidity of the materials which compose it.

The entire prospect, — one of the finest in England, and eminently characteristic of what is best in English scenery, — enabled me to understand what I had used to deem a peculiarity, — in some measure a defect, — in the landscapes of the poet Thomson. It must have often struck the Scotch reader, that in dealing with very extended prospects, he rather enumerates than describes. His pictures are often mere catalogues, in which single words stand for classes of objects, and in which the entire poetry seems to consist in an overmastering sense of vast extent, occupied by amazing multiplicity. I cannot better illustrate my meaning than by his introductory description to the “Panegyric on Great Britain”: —

“Heavens! what a goodly prospect spreads around,
Of hills, and dales, and woods, and lawns, and spires,
And glittering towns, and gilded streams, till all
The stretching landscape into smoke decays!”

Now, the prospect from the hill at Hagley furnished me with the true explanation of this enumerative style. Measured along the horizon, it must, on the lowest estimate, be at least fifty miles in longitudinal extent; measured laterally, from the spectator forwards, at least twenty. Some of the Welsh mountains which it includes are nearly thrice that distance; but then they are mere remote peaks, and the area at their bases not included in the prospect. The real area, however, must rather exceed than fall short of a thousand square miles; the fields into which it is laid out are small, scarcely averaging a square furlong in superficies; so that each square mile must contain about forty, and the entire landscape, — for all is fertility, — about forty thousand. With these there are commixed innumerable cottages, manor-houses, villages, towns. Here the surface is dimpled by unreckoned hollows; there fretted by uncounted mounds; all is amazing, overpowering multiplicity, — a multiplicity which neither the pen nor the pencil can adequately express; and so description, in even the hands of a master, sinks into mere enumeration. The picture becomes a catalogue; and all that genius can accomplish in the circumstances is just to do with its catalogue what Homer did with his,— dip it in poetry. I found, however, that the innumerable details of the prospect, and its want of strong leading features, served to dissipate and distract the mind, and to associate with the vast whole an idea of littleness, somewhat in the way that the minute hieroglyphics on an Egyptian obelisk serve to divert attention from the greatness of the general mass, or the nice integrity of its proportions; and I would have perhaps attributed the feeling to my Scotch training, had I not remembered that Addison, whose early prejudices must have been of an opposite cast, represents it as thoroughly natural. Our ideas of the great in nature he describes as derived from vastly-extended, not richly-occupied, prospects. “Such,” he says, “are the prospects of an open champaign country, a vast uncultivated desert of huge heaps of mountains, high rocks, and precipices, or a wide expanse of water. Such extensive and undetermined prospects,” he adds, “are as pleasing to the fancy as the speculations of eternity or infinitude are to the understanding.” Shenstone, too, is almost equally decided on the point; and certainly no writer has better claims to be heard on questions of this kind than the author of the Leasowes. “Grandeur and beauty,” he remarks, “are so very opposite, that you often diminish the one as you increase the other. Large, unvariegated, simple objects have always the best pretensions to sublimity: a large mountain, whose sides are unvaried by art, is grander than one with infinite variety. Suppose it checkered with different-colored clumps of wood, scars of rock, chalk-quarries, villages, and farm-houses, — you will perhaps have a more beautiful scene, but much less grand, than it was before. The hedge-row apple-trees in Herefordshire afford a lovely scenery at the time they are in blossom; but the prospect would be really grander did it consist of simple foliage. For the same reason, a large oak or beech in autumn is grander than the same in spring. The sprightly green is then obfuscated.”


Return to Book Index Page

 


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus

Quantcast