Landscape has been important in Western Literature since the mid 1700s.
Before that it existed, but was largely utilitarian: one of Arthur’s knights might need to gallop through a deep dark forest, Robison Crusoe had to have a desert island to be wrecked on, Shakespeare’s tales might require an Arcadian grove for Puck to perform his mischief in.
Or else landscape was moral allegory: Piers Plowman’s fortress on the hill with a “fair field of folk below it (Langland, 1380s) or “the Slough of Despond” and the “Delectable Mountains,” in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1664). There is also the tradition of “Topographical Poems” such as Sir John Denham’s, Coopers Hill (1642) in which real landscapes are bent to serve political and moral reflections. https://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poems/coopers-hill-1642. But landscape remained mostly symbolic, allegorical or stage setting for the story, not a subject in itself.
In the mid eighteenth century, however, things began to change. Credit is usually given for this to William Gilpin, whose, Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales, etc. relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770 was published in1782 and was a huge success. Gilpin was undoubtedly influential but attitudes to landscape had already changed. Capability Brown, for example, died in 1782 and had already spent over forty years transforming great gardens to make them more naturalistic, not to mention picturesque as Gilpin would have understood it.
Landscape painting had been important for much longer, since the 1600s, when it was pioneered by Dutch and Flemish artists. Landscape painting in the Low Countries departed from the allegorical and began to represent concerns that would be very familiar today, albeit framed more religiously:
“many Dutch landscapes suggest walks in the countryside, as a break from city life), and the sheer pleasure of physical sensation: fresh air, daylight, wind, moisture, cold and warmth, colors, textures—all of which was seen as God’s creation.” (Walter Liedtke, Met Museum https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/lpnd/hd_lpnd.htm )
By the mid 1700s, naturalistic, non-allegorical landscape painting had become well established in Britain too. Thomas Gainsborough was producing landscapes “in the Dutch style” from the 1740s.
Gilpin himself was an accomplished painter and his idea of the picturesque was framed with a landscape painter’s eye. He helped build a bridge between the visual and landscape artists and the writers, that would lead to a blossoming of landscape literature, from the Romantic poets onwards, and which continues unabated to this day.
There are far too many modern writers, for whom landscape is central or important, to look at here, so I will just say a word about one with local significance. Robert Macfarlane is celebrated for his prose reflections on landscape, especially the loose trilogy: Mountains of the Mind, Wild Places and The Old Ways. The last of these explores ancient routes and the landscapes they access, by land and sea, from Palestine to southern England. But a significant part of the book is about Lewis and Harris, and Macfarlane sails to the Shiant Isles with Iain Stephen, an old friend of the writers group.
It is well worth a read, both for itself and as an introduction to other landscape writers like the poet (and walker) Edward Thomas and nature writer (and walker) Nan Shepherd whose wonderful book about the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain we have looked at in the writers group previously.
BY EDWARD THOMAS (1878–1917)
Some day, I think, there will be people enough
In Froxfield to pick all the blackberries
Out of the hedges of Green Lane, the straight
Broad lane where now September hides herself
In bracken and blackberry, harebell and dwarf gorse.
Today, where yesterday a hundred sheep
Were nibbling, halcyon bells shake to the sway
Of waters that no vessel ever sailed …
It is a kind of spring: the chaffinch tries
His song. For heat it is like summer too.
This might be winter’s quiet. While the glint
Of hollies dark in the swollen hedges lasts—
One mile—and those bells ring, little I know
Or heed if time be still the same, until
The lane ends and once more all is the same.