Friday, 16 February 2007

The Charm of the Downs

Nature in Downland page 20
First published by Longmans Green & Co 1900

On the south side of the range the hills are as a rule lowest, and slope gradually to the sea. The aspect of the downs on this side is familiar to most of us, owing to the large number of persons, probably amounting to millions annually, who visit one or other of the seaside towns and villages that extend in a chain along this part of the south coast, from Eastbourne to the Selsey peninsula, near Chichester. The hills are highest on the north side, where they rise abruptly from the flat weald, like a gigantic buttressed wall, or an earthwork reared of old by Titans. The loftiest part of the range is in the South Downs proper, where, in the neighbourhood of Lewes, east and west of that town, one may walk many miles along the crest of the hill, on a turf which makes walking a joy, and keep at a height of from 700 to 860 feet above the sea level, the ocean six or seven miles distant on one hand, the deep-green wooded flat country of the weald on the other…

I myself prefer to approach the downs on the north side, rather than walk five to seven or eight miles from the coast before getting to the highest point. The climb up the steep smooth escarpment is a good preparation, an intensifier of the pleasure to follow. Those who know the downs are all agreed that it is a rare pleasure to be on them. And when we have had our upward toil on a hot day, and are at length on the level plateau-like summit, on the turf; when the wind has blown us dry, and we have experienced that sense of freedom and elation which is the result of rising from a low level into a rarefied atmosphere, these purely physical sensations are succeeded by a higher, more enduring pleasure, which the mind receives from the prospect disclosed. I mean the prospect of the vast round green hills extending away on either hand to the horizon. What is the secret of his peculiar pleasure? We may say off-hand that it is nothing but the instinctive delight which we have in wild nature and a wide prospect. And this is no doubt a principal element in the feeling - wild nature and a wide prospect in unenclosed country, an elastic turf under foot, and full liberty to roam whithersoever we will. There is another element resulting from the conformation of the earth’s surface – the special character of the scenery. The wilderness, the wide horizon and sense of liberty after the confinement of the roads and fences and hedges, come first: it is the local aspect appealing as it does to the aesthetic faculties, which makes the feeling distinctive. Thus, among mountains, on moors, and in vast desolate marshes, on iron-bound coasts, and on wide seaside flats and saltings, and on level plains, I experience this same feeling of elation, which yet differs in character in each locality, and I may be able to analyse my feelings in all or some of these cases and find out why they differ. What is to be said concerning the special quality of the South Downs - the mental flavour they impart?

I remember Gilbert White speculated on this very question, in the often-quoted Letter LVI, where he says:

“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 I think I see new beauties each time I traverse it… For my own part, I think there is something 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… but I never contemplate theses 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 dilatation and expansion: or was there ever a time when the calcareous masses were thrown into fermentation by some adventitious moisture – were raised and leavened into shape 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 below?”

“Sweet and amusing” are not words we should now use in this connection; but the description is pleasant, and the speculations, albeit fanciful, are suggestive; for it is a fact that the attractiveness of these broad hills is in a measure due to their fungus-like roundness and smoothness. But not only to these qualities, as we find when we leave the chain to look upon an isolated down: it fails to attract: the charm is not in the one but in the many. Furthermore, it is die to a combination of various causes. To begin with, we have the succession of shapely outlines; the vast protuberances and deep divisions between, suggestive of the most prominent and beautiful curves of the human figure, and of the “solemn slope of mighty limbs asleep.”

That modern poet’s vision of a Titanic woman reclined in everlasting slumber on the earth, her loose sweet-smelling hair lying like an old-world forest over leagues of ground; the poet himself sitting for ever, immersed in melancholy, in the shadow of her great head, has seemed a mere outcome of a morbid imagination. Here, among the downs, the picture returns to the mind with a new light, a strange grandeur; it is not a mere “flower of disease” and nothing more, but is rather a startlingly vivid reminder that we ourselves are anthropomorphic and mythopoeic, even as our earliest progenitors were, who were earth-worshippers in an immeasurably remote past, before the heavenly powers existed.

Here to, where the lines of the earth are most human-like, we are reminded of the philosophic doctrine that for us all nature is a secondary object of the passion of love, and that to this fact the beauty of nature is chiefly due. The scene also takes us back to the discredited Hogarthian notion concerning the origin of our idea of beauty; and at the same time to Burke’s theory of the beautiful. This, too, has fallen into neglect, if not contempt, oddly enough, since it contains the germ of our modern philosophy of the beautiful. Perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to say that it contains a good deal more than the germ. Burke was assuredly right in maintaining that there exists a very close connection between the senses of sight and feeling, and in tracing the agreeable sensations arising from the contemplation of soft and smooth surfaces in this connection. To put the theory into five short words – what we see we feel.

When we look on a landscape, particularly when it is seen form a considerable elevation, the body goes with the mind or vision; in other words, locomotion is associated with seeing – we are thee, as it were, roaming corporeally over the expanse we are gazing on. When we look at the sky, or a cloud, or the sea, the sight does not instinctively rest on it, but is satisfied with a glance; if we continue to gaze, not occupied with something in us, but seeing vividly, it is because some object or some strange or beautiful atmospheric effect excites our admiration or curiosity; or because we are artists, or sailors, or fishermen, and have an interested motive in studying water or sky. “I cannot stand all day on a naked beach watching the capricious hues of the sea,” pathetically wrote Charles Lamb from some spot on the south coast. “I would fain retire into the interior of my cage. While I gaze on the sea I want to be on it, over it, across it. There is no home for me here.” I have read that in convents and harems there is an arrangement of the windows which prevents the inmates from looking out or down upon the earth; they are constrained to look up, presumably because there is no male form, nor shadow nor reflection of one, in the void above. Those who have been fenced in from harm in this fashion must have hated the blue sky as much as Tennyson’s worn-out mariners hated the dark blue wave. I have noticed that birds when perched do, even when they appear to be reposing, gaze a good deal at the sky. They are aerial, of the sky, and are accustomed to ravel and dwell there with spread wings; and their fellows and enemies are there.

The sea and the sky in their ordinary aspects do not hold the attention, because we are not of them, and do not feel them, and the sensation of moving in or on them is consequently not here associated with seeing. The sight dwells with pleasure on the downs, because they are, in appearance, easy to walk upon, and in a sense are being walked upon when looked at.

Here it may be remarked, that a surface which appears easy to the feet is also easy to the sight. The greater pleasure which we receive from flowing outlines than from those that are angular, as Herbert Spenser has pointed out, is due to the harmonious unrestrained action of the ocular muscles occupied in the perception of such outlines. On these downs, for the sight and bodily sensation which cannot be dissociated from sight, there are not impassable chasms, no steep heights difficult to climb, not jagged rocks and broken surfaces to impede free movement and passage.

Finally we have as another important element in our pleasure the large prospect disclosed. Why a wide horizon should have so great a fascination for us, wingless walkers on the level ground, is a curious question. It is not merely a childish delight in a novel sensation; I should rather look on it as a survival, like a fighting, hunting, and various other instincts – an inherited memory of a period when the hill-top was at the same time refuge, fortress, and tower of observation from which all hidden things stood revelled – where men, loosing their fear and feeling superior to their enemies, were lifted above themselves.

One would be only too glad to believe the feeling to be different in its origin, and in a sense prophetic – like the unnecessarily large brains of primitive man, according to the Wallacian doctrine – pointing to a time when we shall be able, with the aid of perfected machinery, or better still, by means of some mysterious undeveloped faculty within us, to rise from earth and float hither and thither at will through the boundless fields of air.

Oddly enough, that desire that we all have at times for wings, or at all events for the power for flight, and which like other vague and idle promptings is capable of cultivation and of being made a real source of pleasure, most often come to me on these great green hills. Here are no inviting woods and mysterious green shades that ask to be explored: they stand naked to the sky, and on them the mind becomes more aerial, less conscious of gravity and a too solid body. Standing on one great green hill, and looking across vast intervening hollows to other round heights and hills beyond and far away, the wish is more than a wish, and I can almost realise the sensation of being other than I am – a creature with the instinct of flight and the correlated faculty; that in a little while, when I have gazed my full and am ready to change my place, I shall lift great heron-like wings and fly with little effort to other points of view.

To come back from this digression, or flight. It is true that the extent of earth visible from the very highest downs is not really great, but with a succession of dome-like outlines extending to the horizon we have to take into account the illusion of infinite distance produced on the mind by the repetition of similar forms. The architect, in a small way, produces the same effect in his colonnades. I was once very much struck by an effect of this kind at sea, in the South Atlantic, when during perfectly calm weather there was a stupendous swell, the long vast glassy rollers succeeding one another at regular intervals. Viewed from the bridge of the steamer the ocean appeared to have increased immeasurably in extent; the horizon was no wider than before, yet it was as if I had been lifted hundreds of feet above the surface.

Those of my readers whose minds run on mountains, and the joy of mountains, may say here that, in spite of the illusion produced, the height of the downs is really so small that the pleasure arising from that cause must be comparatively very little. It is, I think, a very common error that the degree of pleasure we have in looking g on a wide prospect depends on our height above the surrounding earth – in other words, that the wider the horizon the greater the pleasure. The fact is, once we have got above the world, and have an unobstructed view all around, whether the height above the surrounding country be 500 or 5,000 feet, then we at once experience all that sense of freedom, triumph, and elation which the mind is capable of. This “sudden glory,” which may be ours on a very modest elevation, is the most we can hope for; we can no more get a new sensation or a larger measure of the quickly vanishing pleasure we have enjoyed by transporting ourselves to the highest summits on the globe, than we can change a Skye terrier into an eagle by taking it three or four miles up in a balloon and throwing it our of the car.

What we do get by ascending to greater heights, to the limits of our endurance, is the mountain scenery, the new aspects of nature, which have an aesthetic value. This is the same kind of pleasure which we experience in walking or riding through a picturesque country; but the aesthetic pleasure of the mountain may actually seem more, or keener, on account of the greater novelty – the unlikeness of the scene to the more or less familiar aspects of nature on the level earth. For we live on the earth but pay but brief visits to mountain summits.

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