The Landscape

Claremont Landscape Garden, designed by Capability Brown

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. 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:

The Avenue at Middelharnis by Meindert Hobbema. Oil on canvas, 104 × 141 cm. 1689. National Gallery, London.

“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 )

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.

The Lane

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.

6 thoughts on “The Landscape

  1. The Long Way Back.

    The tree
    Won’t let you pass at first
    As you eye the twisted, gnarled, out of perspective body.
    Twisted by gales
    And bleached to the bone by the sun
    It invites curiosity, wonder, scrutiny.
    Yet hides cowering, while at the same time branching out to scatter and confuse the scathing eye we all possess.
    Break past him though and you have the hilly horizon.
    Waves break their backs on jagged rocks
    Out there, way past the tree guard you can wander in the wild open.
    Wild healthy vastness
    The bigger picture
    Where the Atlantic lies blue powerful.
    Calming after the frenzied storms.
    Hill, moor, and cliff
    Yet ever changing in the Sunday noon pearlescent light.
    Out there is freedom if you have the luck or the correct skills.
    Once you’ve made a friend of the twisted, crazy body of the guard
    Once you’ve tasted the air and the salt we are all , somehow a part of.
    Then and only then can you return home.

    Losing Stigma

    Take a walk with me
    We will see the way
    In glimpses.
    We will see trees, rivers, rocks, hills.
    Flowers will grow by us.
    Insects will rummage around , unseen.
    Unless, we together, get down on our patched knees and forage for signs of minute life.
    Take a walk with me
    And you may, perchance, see me as I see you.
    In glimpses
    Passing by.

    Cathy Macleod x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Landscape

    Everywhere we look there is landscape

    Around us to the east we have mountains
    Mainland mountains covered in snow

    ‘this frieze of mountains, filed
    Stac Polly,
    Cul Beag, Cul Mor, Suilven, Canisp —
    a frieze and a litany’

    And all around shoreline
    Or lunar landscape

    To the north
    Tolstadh cliffs and headland

    To the west
    Ben Barvas Bragar and the hills
    Occasionally there are large wind turbines

    Sometimes it is grey and misty
    Sometimes full of colour
    Blue sky bright pink clouds
    Giant cloud formations fluffy white or
    Dark grey heavy menacing ones

    The sea changes day to day
    Sometimes still and calm
    Sometimes rising full of waves
    Crashing against the shoreline rocks

    No trees grow here on our peninsula
    Only a few in gardens

    A few little houses here and there
    Like scattered Lego bricks

    A Man in Assynt’: the poems of Norman MacCaig


    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Landscape

    by David Macleod

    Pearlescent pools across the moor
    With such a sight I”m never poor.
    From up upon a pearl gray sky,
    The raindrops fell to please the eye,

    To form a landscape pattern of lochs,
    And mountains high to please us jocks,
    Wear solid wellies, with thick socks,
    And let’s embark upon a walk,

    Cross heathered hills unfettered sheep,
    Heading for the highest peak,
    Through old peat bogs, seldom a slog,
    Run rivers green, a shiny scene.

    New trees abound, set your mind sound,
    Fresh breeze disperses any cloud,
    To be a native of this land, full of colour makes me proud.
    Span the sky, with Lewis eyes,
    A sight to draw a heartfelt sigh.

    One of joy, no sign of sorrow,
    I will come again tomorrow,
    The view will change with season’s end,
    Yet I’ll be back here once again,

    To see a land so different still,
    Yet sunk in wonder my heart fills,
    Snow laid deep upon the ground,
    Warmth of view thaws any chill.

    Expanse of space on golden beaches,
    Hues my face colour of peaches,
    Wondrous tides roll in and go,
    Set my mind to a peaceful flow.


  4. Spring Flowers

    by Donna Keenan

    The days are longer now,
    And daylight lingers on ,
    The buds are breaking free,
    As if to escape the dark,
    And show their bright colours,
    At night they seem to blossom,
    And by morning lift your mood.

    Pansies , Daisies, Dahlias galore ,
    You name it somebody’s got it ,
    Firstly a lemon Tree for my Bacardi ,
    And then I spotted a red tree ,
    Which I had to have and as my dog has passed,
    And I called it Frankie.

    As one life ends another has begun, so I will watch my tree grow and think of my boy, who meant the world to me and all the family,
    But we all knew he was jims dog exclusively.

    Every year I add a new garden pet,
    There is a heron a duck and a hen,
    And a fox is the new one ,
    Beside the fox sits a buddha,
    Just to make it exotic,
    My lights are all solar ,
    So I’m looking after the planet,
    So all spring and summer its there for all to see.
    And look at with pride.
    Its just like going on a fairground ride.


  5. The Landscape

    As we look all around us,
    All we can see, are rows and rows of aging Trees
    Each tells a story inside each tree, a circle for each year that it has been here.

    The Castle grounds is where I used to walk, as a child with my father,
    A walk each Sunday going round the creed.
    Starting with the low road and past Cuddy Point.
    On to Goat Island and stop for a seat before you get to the great mouth of the River Creed.

    The Salmon come in there from the sea
    If you watch for a while, it’s a sight to see,
    Jumping the rocks and into the Pools,
    To lay their eggs and move on again

    On the way home you come to the high road,
    Past the college, the Monument and Gardens
    As you walk past the castle you feel your heart tug,
    I went to school there before it was closed
    Now the tourists enjoy it,
    It’s a sight to be seen,
    And really is fit for a Queen.

    The golf course is next and watch them tee off
    All the dogs love it but the greenkeepers hate them,
    And chase them away.
    And lastly the Glen River where I played as a child,
    Unaware of the dangers the rivers hold.
    But all we could see was the tiddlers
    And watch them finally run free.

    Donna Keenan


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s