Friday, January 29, 2010

Grongar Hill

So how do you describe a landscape?  Normally by selecting the most interesting features to which the reader's attention should be drawn, and this after having selected that particular view in the first place. Plus there's the time dimension - describing the landscape at a particular time on a particular day, describing temporal phenomena like the wind in the trees, referring to the landscape's history and future.  But what if your aim is more restricted or objective - to try to describe literally what is in front of you, like a photograph?  Where do you start?  How much detail do you include?  Do you give each arbitrary section of the visual field equal weight?  How do you convey relative distance?  Do you include ephemeral effects?  How much time is encapsulated in this 'snapshot'?

In The Search for the Picturesque Malcolm Andrews describes some of the difficulties eighteenth century tourists encountered in trying to record in writing their impressions of the landscape.  He quotes one J. Grant, writing his 'Journal of a Three Weeks Tour, in 1797, Through Derbyshire to the Lakes': "About to enter on the most beautiful scenery, I shall, hereafter, in describing, fix one spot in a landscape, whence the best bird's eye view of the whole is to be had, and beginning in front, shall go round to the right hand, and returning by the left, make a complete sweep."  Andrews sees the influence here of advice for painters, e.g. William Sanderson's Graphice (1658), which recommended that the painter of landskip take his station on high ground, divide his tablet into three sections and then start drawing in the middle before turning first to the right and then the left.  But the extent to which a writer followed the practice of an artist would influence the choice of details in a landscape description.  Andrews provides an interesting case: William Gilpin's criticism of John Dyer's poem Grongar Hill (1726).

Below me trees unnumber'd rise,
Beautiful in various dyes:
The gloomy pine, the poplar blue,
The yellow beech, the sable yew,   
The slender fir, that taper grows,
The sturdy oak, with broad-spread boughs;
And, beyond, the purple grove,
Haunt of Phyllis, queen of love!
Gaudy as the op'ning dawn,   
Lies a long and level lawn,
On which a dark hill, steep and high,
Holds and charms the wandering eye!
Deep are his feet in Towy's flood,
His sides are cloth'd with waving wood,  
And ancient towers crown his brow,
That cast an aweful look below;
Whose ragged walls the ivy creeps,
And with her arms from falling keeps;
So both a safety from the wind
In mutual dependence find.

In the extract above Dyer (who trained as a watercolourist under Jonathan Richardson) clearly describes the foreground trees and their colours, as you would expect in a landscape painting.  But Gilpin was worried about what comes next, the 'purple grove' in the middle ground - purple objects ought to imply distance - and criticised the detail apparently visible on the distant castle.  Instead of being fainter than the purple grove, 'you see the very ivy creeping upon the walls.'  He contrasts this with a famous couplet from Milton's L'Allegro, 'Towers, and battlements he sees / Bosomed high in tufted trees', where the colouring is indistinct and 'we do not see the iron-grated window, the portcullis, the ditch or the rampart.  We can distinguish a Castle from the tree; and a tower from a battlement' (Observations on the River Wye, and several parts of South Wales, &c. relative chiefly to picturesque beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770, 1782).  For Gilpin the picturesque description was not a simple inventory of what was before the tourist, it had to express the character of the place.  But rather than make use of the power of language to shift focus and capture the view in three or four dimensions he aimed to emulate the effects of landscape painters. 

Nobody has cracked the problem of describing a landscape in words, but it's a challenge that can lead to interesting experiments.  Colin Sackett made a book last year called Spate in which a panoramic photograph is translated into text - simple words (Field, Trees, Submerged Fence) placed on the white page in place of their image, with successive pages tracking the progress of the floodwater near Exeter.  A picturesque version might have more detail down in the foreground with vague phrases at the top of the page (not to mention variations in typography with faint purple text in the distance...)  Grongar Hill could be rewritten in all sorts of ways.  As a text picture it might look something like this (Gilpin may have been right about the purple grove which seems a bit hard to place...)

                                      ancient tower
                                          dark hill
                                  dark hill   dark hill
                         dark hill    dark hill    dark hill
            a             long              and         level        lawn
                                    the purple grove
gloomy pine poplar blue yellow beech sable yew slender fir sturdy oak
gloomy pine poplar blue yellow beech sable yew slender fir sturdy oak
gloomy pine poplar blue yellow beech sable yew slender fir sturdy oak

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