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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Landscapes of the Poets

By John Ruskin (1819–1900)

From ‘Lectures on Architecture and Painting’

OF course all good poetry descriptive of rural life is essentially pastoral, or has the effect of the pastoral, on the minds of men living in cities: but the class of poetry which I mean, and which you probably understand, by the term pastoral, is that in which a farmer’s girl is spoken of as a “nymph,” and a farmer’s boy as a “swain”; and in which, throughout, a ridiculous and unnatural refinement is supposed to exist in rural life, merely because the poet himself has neither had the courage to endure its hardships, nor the wit to conceive its realities. If you examine the literature of the past century, you will find that nearly all its expressions having reference to the country show something of this kind; either a foolish sentimentality or a morbid fear, both of course coupled with the most curious ignorance. You will find all its descriptive expressions at once vague and monotonous. Brooks are always “purling”; birds always “warbling”; mountains always “lift their horrid peaks above the clouds”; vales always “are lost in the shadow of gloomy woods”; a few more distinct ideas about hay-making and curds and cream, acquired in the neighborhood of Richmond Bridge, serving to give an occasional appearance of freshness to the catalogue of the sublime and beautiful which descended from poet to poet; while a few true pieces of pastoral, like the ‘Vicar of Wakefield’ and Walton’s ‘Angler,’ relieved the general waste of dullness. Even in these better productions, nothing is more remarkable than the general conception of the country merely as a series of green fields, and the combined ignorance and dread of more sublime scenery; of which the mysteries and dangers were enhanced by the difficulties of traveling at the period. Thus, in Walton’s ‘Angler’ you have a meeting of two friends, one a Derbyshire man, the other a lowland traveler who is as much alarmed, and uses nearly as many expressions of astonishment, at having to go down a steep hill and ford a brook, as a traveler uses now at crossing the glacier of the Col de Geant. I am not sure whether the difficulties which until late years have lain in the way of peaceful and convenient traveling, ought not to have great weight assigned to them among the other causes of the temper of the century; but be that as it may, if you will examine the whole range of its literature—keeping this point in view—I am well persuaded that you will be struck most forcibly by the strange deadness to the higher sources of landscape sublimity which is mingled with the morbid pastoralism. The love of fresh air and green grass forced itself upon the animal natures of men; but that of the sublimer features of scenery had no place in minds whose chief powers had been repressed by the formalisms of the age. And although in the second-rate writers continually, and in the first-rate ones occasionally, you find an affectation of interest in mountains, clouds, and forests, yet whenever they write from their heart you will find an utter absence of feeling respecting anything beyond gardens and grass. Examine, for instance, the novels of Smollett, Fielding, and Sterne, the comedies of Molière, and the writings of Johnson and Addison, and I do not think you will find a single expression of true delight in sublime nature in any one of them. Perhaps Sterne’s ‘Sentimental Journey,’ in its total absence of sentiment on any subject but humanity, and its entire want of notice of anything at Geneva which might not as well have been seen at Coxwold, is the most striking instance I could give you; and if you compare with this negation of feeling on one side, the interludes of Molière, in which shepherds and shepherdesses are introduced in court dress, you will have a very accurate conception of the general spirit of the age.

It was in such a state of society that the landscape of Claude, Gaspar Poussin, and Salvator Rosa attained its reputation. It is the complete expression on canvas of the spirit of the time. Claude embodies the foolish pastoralism, Salvator the ignorant terror, and Gaspar the dull and affected erudition.

It was, however, altogether impossible that this state of things could long continue. The age which had buried itself in formalism grew weary at last of the restraint; and the approach of a new era was marked by the appearance, and the enthusiastic reception, of writers who took true delight in those wild scenes of nature which had so long been despised.

I think the first two writers in whom the symptoms of a change are strongly manifested are Mrs. Radcliffe and Rousseau; in both of whom the love of natural scenery, though mingled in the one case with what was merely dramatic, and in the other with much that was pitifully morbid or vicious, was still itself genuine and intense, differing altogether in character from any sentiments previously traceable in literature. And then rapidly followed a group of writers who expressed, in various ways, the more powerful or more pure feeling which had now become one of the strongest instincts of the age. Of these, the principal is your own Walter Scott. Many writers, indeed, describe nature more minutely and more profoundly; but none show in higher intensity the peculiar passion for what is majestic or lovely in wild nature, to which I am now referring. The whole of the poem of the ‘Lady of the Lake’ is written with almost a boyish enthusiasm for rocks, and lakes, and cataracts; the early novels show the same instinct in equal strength wherever he approaches Highland scenery: and the feeling is mingled, observe, with a most touching and affectionate appreciation of the Gothic architecture, in which alone he found the elements of natural beauty seized by art; so that to this day his descriptions of Melrose and Holy Island Cathedral in the ‘Lay of the Last Minstrel’ and ‘Marmion,’ as well as of the ideal abbeys in the ‘Monastery’ and ‘Antiquary,’ together with those of Caerlaverock and Lochleven Castles in ‘Guy Mannering’ and ‘The Abbot,’ remain the staple possessions and text-books of all travelers,—not so much for their beauty or accuracy, as for their exactly expressing that degree of feeling with which most men in this century can sympathize.