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Road to Egdon Heath

Road to Egdon Heath: The Aesthetics of the Great in Nature

Richard Bevis
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 434
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    Road to Egdon Heath
    Book Description:

    Bevis examines a wide range of English, European, and North American texts, literary works as well as religious, scientific, and travel writing. He surveys the literature on mountain climbing, sea voyages, desert travel, and polar exploration, and its metaphorical uses in poetry and fiction. Relying on Addison's term "the Great" rather than "the sublime," he shows how works such as Darwin's journals, Lyell's studies in geology, and de Saussure's books on the Alps helped form an outlook on nature that also found frequent literary expression.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-6753-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. [Illustrations] (pp. xvii-2)
  5. Introduction: Temple and Thule (pp. 3-8)

    Certain passages in the major authors of most literatures possess a tonal resonance that preserves an important aspect of their age. The disillusioned laugh of Chaucer’s Troilus, the poignant questions of Ronsard, the ravings of Lear, the musings of Faust, Pope on the human condition, Wordsworth on the French Revolution, Jane Austen’s “truth universally acknowledged” and Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own” have implications that reach far beyond the works in which they appear. It is significant that many such passages from the nineteenth century onwards — Arnold’s darkling plain, Eliot’s wasteland, Frost’s desert places — use vistas of natural voids to...

    • 1 The Great as Aesthetic Category (pp. 11-14)

      In order to evaluate Hardy’s proposition, we need to ascertain the class of things to which Egdon Heath properly belongs, that is, the group of phenomena (places, thoughts, feelings, writings) with which his fictional landscape and its emotional attributes are affiliated. Like eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientists such as Linnaeus, Cuvier, Lyell, and Darwin, who had to classify their data before they could ascertain its meaning, we need a taxonomy. Hardy ascribes a timely kind of value — (chastened) sublimity, dignity, and grandeur — to a vast, empty, lonely, gloomy landscape, a heath; later he generalizes from Egdon to moors, seas, and mountains...

    • 2 Knowing the Planet: Early Travel and Exploration (pp. 15-24)

      Addison defined “the Great” (or sublime) for the eighteenth century and described our astonishment in its presence; Hardy found a “chastened” version of this idea apt for his time. But for as far back as history and legend record, we have wondered at the stars, crossed deserts, oceans, or mountains when the need arose: where do we first find traces of the interests and attitudes described by Addison, and why did they develop? We need to know something of the palaeo-history of the Great in order to understand the movement that it became. This knowledge can be gleaned from records...

    • 3 Coming to Terms: Philosophy, Religion, and Science (pp. 25-38)

      It must always have been a circle. While the adventurous travelled and reported their reactions, a broad spectrum of intellectuals (some of them also travellers) were reflecting on the meanings of the natural phenomena that eventually coalesced as “the Great.” Their speculations shaped the parameters of response to the various facets of the physical world, making it more likely that one of their readers would feel a given emotion at a given place and time, or even go here rather than there. Later travellers then ratified, amended, or voted down the theories as seemed best, influencing future discourse.

      For a...

    • 4 The Great and the Sublime: British Aesthetics (pp. 41-52)

      Generally speaking, three important developments in eighteenth-century British intellectual life furthered the shift in attitudes towards nature that underlay the phenomenon Hardy described: the appearance of aesthetics as an independent branch of philosophy; an increased tendency to reverence nature as a deity; and an emerging consensus that certain kinds of topography could produce religious or quasi-religious emotions. Each of the authors treated in this chapter exhibits, in varying degrees, all three tendencies.

      After a long period of neglect, the writings of Anthony Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, are again being treated with respect, as they were in his own...

    • 5 Wild Writing: The Great in Georgian Literature (pp. 53-74)

      The development of a cultural sensibility that responded reverently to the Great was not left to writers on aesthetic philosophy; poets contributed a great deal to the spread of new ideas about nature. In eighteenth-century England, the two groups fed each other: mid-century poets such as Thomson and Akenside freely used Shaftesbury and Addison, while later aestheticians (Blair, Priestley) drew inspiration from these same poets, as well as from earlier essayists. Given the sales figures and allusions that we have, it is likely that more of the reading public became familiar with natural sublimity, and was moved by it, through...

    • 6 Breaking Loose: European Developments to Goethe (pp. 75-88)

      The eighteenth-century Continental portion of the road to Egdon Heath was built chiefly by scientific travellers and climbers who published narratives or interpretations of their experiences. Philosophy and aesthetics played a lesser role than in England, French theorists being slower to adopt new ideas about old subjects. Jean-Pierre de Crousaz’sTraité du Beau(1715) defines beauty in conventional neoclassical terms: unity, regularity, proportion; mountains are described only aslackingthese qualities (1715, 29-33, 82). Though de Crousaz mentionsThe Spectatorpolitely, he takes no cognizance of Addison’s “Pleasures of the Imagination,” creates no category above or beyond beauty. In the...

    • 7 Enlarged Views: English Travel and Exploration (pp. 89-98)

      We have already seen some eighteenth-century Englishmen responding to mountainous landscapes: Addison, Gray, and Windham to the Alps, Johnson and Boswell to Scotland, Berkeley and Hamilton to Vesuvius. Berkeley advised Alexander Pope in 1714 that it might be “worth a poet’s while to travel, in order to store his mind with strong images of nature,” for “to describe rocks and precipices, it is absolutely necessary that he pass the Alps” (1848, 1:20). A few (including Gray) visited the Lake District, with mixed results. Heading west from York in 1773, William Hutchinson initially found the “prospect” of hills and heath “dreary,”...

    • 8 Mind and Earth: Philosophy and Science (pp. 101-110)

      The philosophical ideas that connect Burke to Romantic literature came mostly from Scotland, whose contributions to aesthetics in the late eighteenth century were considerable, and from Germany, whose thought had wide influence in nineteenth-century England. Although Goethe remained a prestigious figure, his view of nature as a kind of spiritual mother, connecting us with God and giving laws to art and the mind, was of little interest to the new generation of formal inquirers into the aesthetics of nature. What unites these philosophers — besides their grounding in eighteenth-century British aesthetics — is the belief that the sensibility of the observer, not...

    • 9 Poetic Feet: England’s Peripatetic Bards (pp. 111-137)

      By the time England’s Romantic poets began to write, the evolution of the attitudes we have traced from the seventeenth century was well underway. Even William Blake, a Londoner, believed that “Great things are done when men and mountains meet; / This is not done by jostling in the Street.” Some variety of wild nature had pleased numerous writers and travellers, as Shaftesbury foretold; Addison’s Great was firmly established in aesthetics as the sublime; and landscapes were being examined more carefully than ever before. This movement bore literary fruit in the Romantics, but some of their works also sound the...

    • 10 Landscapes in Prose: Fiction and Travel (pp. 138-158)

      While philosophers, scientists, and poets discussed the meaning of nature and our relationship to it, novelists and explorers responded imaginatively to the Great and earlier writings about it, or described “naive” encounters with natural sublimity, unaffected by literature and philosophy. Whether continuing a tradition or operating independently, the fiction and travel writing of the Romantic period often had an impact on the tastes of later writers and explorers (Stafford 1976).

      The kind of fiction that came to be called “Gothic” seems to have begun with Horace Walpole’sThe Castle of Otranto(1764), a flimsy pseudo-historical novel that resorts to supernatural...

    • [PART IV INTRODUCTION] (pp. 159-160)

      One of the few tenable generalizations about “the nineteenth-century European mind” is that it was unsettled. Established beliefs, old ways of feeling and writing, received definitions, and comfortable limitations were disturbed by the generations of scientists, scholars, and travellers born around and after 1800. And what began in science continued in literature. Hardy’s Egdon Heath and predictions about Thule are the logical outcome of revisionist European thought about humanity, the earth, and the cosmos: ideas that began to take their modern shape about the time of his birth in 1840. His sensitivity to landscape and tendency to invest it with...

    • 11 “Go and See”: Lyell, Geology, and Belief (pp. 161-185)

      We have already seen that a greater awareness of and attention to physical nature formed part of the reverence that developed around the Great and contributed to it. The growth of a geological consciousness was also intimately involved in the “Thulean” sensibility that Hardy postulated (Dean 1981). It is as if early devotees did not quite understand what they were saying, or worshipping, but saw only a dark vision; as the nineteenth century comprehended the terrestrial Great better, the forms of homage changed without losing their intensity.

      The centre of Victorian England’s keen sense of the earth was Charles Lyell's...

    • 12 “What Is Nature?” Some Influential Views, 1830-70 (pp. 186-203)

      Although much of the writing about nature in the nineteenth century came from scientists, there were also attempts of the traditional, nonempirical kind to articulate a philosophy of nature. In Europe the legacy of Goethe remained potent. In the English-speaking world (where his influence was also felt), such efforts were dominated by four men acquainted with each other or each other’s writings: Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Ruskin, and John Stuart Mill. Carlyle’s correspondence with each of the others was sufficient to warrant publication in separate volumes. Mill met Carlyle in 1831 and gave Emerson a letter of introduction...

    • 13 Leaving Blanks: American Novelists and the Great (pp. 204-222)

      By 1800 North America had become part of the aesthetic phenomenon that Hardy means Egdon Heath to represent: the supercession of ancient standards of beauty by something larger, grimmer, and stronger. The influence of Shaftesbury and Burke was felt in the colonies; William Bartram found some vastness and sublimity in the American southeast in the 1770s (Huth 1957, 10-11, 20-1). But the west was by its nature the true proving ground for the theories about reactions to Great landscape that originated when the spontaneous emotions of Alpine travellers were recollected in the tranquillity of England. Early explorers such as Lewis...

    • 14 The Naked Truth: Desert Travel, 1830-70 (pp. 223-238)

      Hardy’s “heaths” and “moors” were the aesthetic equivalent of Addison’s “vast desarts,” but by the middle of the nineteenth century more travellers were seeking out the genuine article. The deserts of choice were in the Middle East, whose biblical associations gave it deep cultural interest, and which political developments were making more accessible. The Ottoman Empire’s long, slow decline and its interest in western science opened many doors, first to those with means and connections, such as the earl of Sandwich, who included the Levant in his Grand Tour (1738-39), later to ordinary tourists. English readers had a large appetite...

    • 15 Mighty Fortresses: The Meanings of Mountains, 1830-70 (pp. 239-253)

      High mountains were the only area of the Great widely seen as “sublime” before 1830: de Saussure and Mont Blanc, Rousseau and the Romantics had accomplished that. In England, these feelings were institutionalized during Victoria’s reign. The Alpine Club, formed in 1857, published accounts of its members’ outings inPeaks, Passes and Glaciers(1859, 1862), which was superseded by theAlpine Journal(1863- ). More adventurers, scientists, and tourists than ever climbed higher in the Alps, which became “the playground of Europe,” in Leslie Stephen’s words (1871). But the Alps were taken more seriously than his phrase implies; they (and...

    • 16 The Arctic Saga: Polar Exploration, 1830-67 (pp. 254-262)

      The idea of the Arctic piqued sensitive imaginations long before the late balladeer Stan Rogers turned Franklin’s tragic epic into a metaphor of his own odyssey. On a rainy November day, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre sat down to read Bewick’sHistory of British Birds,which fascinated her with accounts of “solitary rocks and promontories” inhabited only by seabirds, and of the coast of Norway, island-studded from Lindeness to North Cape:

      Where the Northern Ocean, in vast whirls,

      Boils round the naked, melancholy isles

      Of farthest Thule; and the Atlantic surge

      Pours in among the stormy Hebrides.

      Nor could I [she...

    • 17 Desert Souls: The Great and Barren in European Literature, 1830-66 (pp. 263-278)

      The road from the Great to Egdon Heath was never just an English lane: Burnet, Addison, and their successors tried to speak universally, and had Continental sources, allies, and analogues. Even in this study, which focuses on English-language writing, names such as Petrarch, Giordano Bruno, Fontenelle, Buffon, Bashō, von Haller, Rousseau, de Saussure, Goethe, Kant, Humboldt, Agassiz, Hugo, and Fromentin suggest a phenomenon of some cultural breadth. An extension into other national literatures would be a logical next step. How have South American writers responded to the Andes, the Arabs and the Chinese to their deserts, the Russians to their...

    • 18 On the Beach: Victorian Writers by the Sea of Doubt (pp. 279-302)

      Since Thomas Hardy was himself a Victorian poet, we should expect to find in Victorian poetry occasional glimpses of the territory which, following him, I have styled “Egdon Heath.” The remainder of the road there is short and relatively direct, for a broad range of nineteenth-century English poets, major and minor, sensed the attractions or perils of science, the natural Great, and/or “chastened sublimity.” Collectively these writers show that Hardy was not isolated in his view that a major shift of aesthetic feeling about nature had begun in western culture, but that responses to that shift covered a wide spectrum....

    • 19 On the Heath: The 1870s (pp. 303-326)

      In the decade of the 1870s, what had previously been a fairly loose body of data on human responses to Great nature began to coalesce. Diverse writers gathered up themes and ideas from many sources and gave them enough coherence so that, before its end, Thomas Hardy thought he could discern the shape of a new, “modern” aesthetics of nature emerging from the mass of commentary. Looking at the amount of evidence and the momentum it acquired, we may be surprised that the phenomenon was not remarked earlier, and feel that Hardy — far from being a lonely, eccentric prophet — was...

  10. Epilogue The Heath Revisited (pp. 327-332)

    Seen again after our long excursion, Egdon Heath looks slightly different; a phrase here, an eminence there has acquired new meaning. If we ask why the chapter is written as it is, why the land lies as it does, Hardy’s own experiences are one obvious answer. As it took Whistler “all [his] life” to paint “Whistler’s Mother,” so all of Hardy’s went intoThe Return of the Native.The suicide of his friend Horace Moule, who had given himEssays and Reviews,Mantell’sWonders of Geology,and much more, darkened his outlook on life in 1873, the year that he...

  11. CHRONOLOGICAL TABLE A Selection of Dates Mentioned in the Text and Some Others (pp. 333-348)
  12. Lexicon (pp. 349-374)
  13. Works Cited (pp. 375-396)
  14. Index (pp. 397-409)