Friday, March 09, 2007

The shapely figured aspect of chalk-hills

Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne is a cultural landmark in the development of English attitudes to nature, but it is a book of observations about animals (mainly birds) rather than a book about landscape. When he does occasionally looks at the scenery, White shows a pre-Romantic taste in the countryside of southern England. However, in this interesting description of the South Downs written in 1773 from Ringmer (near Lewes), admiration for the forms of the hills moves away from the conventional language of 'the beautiful' to something more ecstatic and bodily: naturalist John Ray is 'ravished', White himself senses an 'air of vegetative dilation and expansion':

'Though I have now travelled the Sussex-downs upwards of thirty
years, yet I still investigate that chain of majestic mountains with
fresh admiration year by year; and think I see new beauties every
time I traverse it. This range, which runs from Chichester eastward
as far as East-Bourn, is about sixty miles in length, and is called the
South Downs, properly speaking, only round Lewes. As you pass
along you command a noble view of the wild, or weald, on one
hand, and the broad downs and sea on the other. Mr. Ray used to
visit a family* just at the foot of these hips, and was so ravished
with the prospect from Plumpton-plain near Lewes, that he
mentions those scapes in his Wisdom of God in the Works of the
Creation with the utmost satisfaction, and thinks them equal to
anything he had seen in the finest parts of Europe.
(* Mr. Courthope, of Danny.)

For my own part, I think there is somewhat peculiarly sweet and
amusing in the shapely figured aspect of chalk-hills in preference
to those of stone, which are rugged, broken, abrupt, and shapeless.

Perhaps I may be singular in my opinion, and not so happy as to
convey to you the same idea, but I never contemplate these
mountains without thinking I perceive somewhat analogous to
growth in their gentle swellings and smooth fungus-like
protuberances, their fluted sides, and regular hollows and slopes,
that carry at once the air of vegetative dilation and expansion.... Or
was there ever a time when these immense masses of calcareous
matter were drown into fermentation by some adventitious
moisture; were raised and leavened into such shapes by some
plastic power; and so made to swell and heave their broad backs
into the sky so much above the less animated clay of the wild


aurelia said...

Richard Jefferies in his ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’, first published in 1879, also provides a vivid introduction to the Downs before moving on to describe the birds and the animals:

‘The most commanding down is crowned with the grassy mound and trenches of an ancient earthwork, from whence there is a noble view of hill and plain. The inner slope of the green fosse is inclined at an angle pleasant to recline on, with the head just below the edge, in the summer sunshine. A faint sound as of a sea heard in a dream - a sibilant “sish, sish,” - passes along outside, dying away and coming again as a fresh wave of the wind rushes through the bennets and the dry grass. There is the happy hum of bees - who love the hills - as they speed by laden with their golden harvest, a drowsy warmth, and the delicious odour of wild thyme. Behind the fosse sinks, and the rampart rises high and steep - two butterflies are wheeling in uncertain flight over the summit. It is only necessary to raise the head a little way, and the cool breeze refreshes the cheek - cool at this height while the plains beneath glow under the heat.’

snarlerson said...

I enjoyed your blog entry but I sometimes feel that naturalists like Ray and White miss something by only seeing the ‘natural’ aspects of the landscape and underestimating Man’s impact. For another approach see Andrew Young’s attitude to downland landscape

And one tree-crowned long barrow
Stretched like a sow that has brought forth her farrow
Hides a king’s bones
Lying like broken sticks among the stones

Wiltshire Downs

I feel that this rings true for the South Downs too