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The Nature-Loving Victorians

ISSUE:  Autumn 1978
Nature and the Victorian Imagination. Edited by U. C. Knoepflmacher and G. B. Tennyson. California. $25.00.

WORDSWORTH’S Nature survives today, in sadly mutilated form, as environment and ecosystem, a maternal figure that has stirred the communal guilt of our generation. When still relatively inviolate in the first half of the 19th century, though in some locales the air was already poisoned by factory smoke and the rivers ran thick with industrial waste, Nature dominated the English sensibility. From their Romantic precursors, the Victorians inherited an emotional attachment to landscape that, if Wordsworth were still to be believed, could serve as an adjunct to formal religion, often indeed as a surrogate faith, a source of reassurance and orientation in an increasingly complex and ugly world. But this conviction was fading, along with the accompanying hope, strong among the Romantic poets, that under the auspices of a common view of Nature art and science would somehow fuse to provide man with a strong, comfortable, and enduring Weltanschauung.A whole cluster of new scientific disciplines was fragmenting what until lately had been looked upon as a single study, “natural philosophy,” the very term implying a former confidence in coherent principles that now was shattered.

The blunt fact was that Nature, in its special Wordsworthian sense, itself seemed to be dying, the victim of the new science. Impulses from a vernal wood were drowned out by the clatter and roar of machinery, and the Romantics’ therapeutic Nature was being replaced by a Darwinian predator, red in tooth and claw. Nature’s simple plan, to borrow one final cliche from the poets, had proved too simple, and not much of a plan, if any spiritual teleology at all could be deduced from its manifestations.

The most observant Victorian minds witnessed this inexorable process of disintegration and discreditation with dismay. Yet they clung to the notion that communion with Nature somehow could be good for them. As the scientific approach required more and more intellectual rigor, they continued instead to prize the old untutored responsiveness. As the editors of this important symposium observe,

Arnold and Ruskin and Hardy, though they denied Wordsworth’s nurturing and beneficent Nature, nonetheless hailed the older poet’s ability to assert, in Arnold’s words, “the freshness of the early world.” Victorian literature and art and architecture rely on retrospection to look back at that earlier world of Nature. Though partially discredited and bereft of some of its “mysteries, ’ it would continue to be cherished for its symbolic representations and sacramental meanings in the face of the rapid advances of science into a very different natural order. Victorian biology, physics, and chemistry created systems that would affect all future thinking about the physical universe; yet the imagination of poets, novelists, painters, designers, and architects remained essentially conservative, clinging to the icons of the past, adapting and reshaping earlier modes of expression. . . . For most Victorians, ’ Nature” remained above all a repository of feeling, a sanctuary they were all too eager to retain.

The 24 contributors to Nature and the Victorian Imagination, drawn mainly from the discipline of literary history but also including students of the history of art, architecture, and science, describe the diversified forms that this stubborn allegiance to an obsolescent concept of Nature assumed among the Victorians. Their essays ideally should be read alongside a similar compilation in two volumes, The Victorian City: Images and Realities, edited by H. J. Dyos and Michael Wolff (1973). Together, these collections in effect review the disturbing cultural dichotomy produced by the incursion of the man-made city, a great wen on the hitherto smiling face of Nature.

In the long run, the city proved to be the more powerful stimulus to the artistic imagination, first in fiction and then in painting. Because it was new to the English experience, it provided a challenge to the powers of comprehension and description. But it was to Nature, scaled down to human proportions and domesticated to suit the needs of a home-centered society in a small island nation, that Victorians afflicted with what Hardy called “the ache of modernism” customarily resorted. In poetry, fiction, sentimental essay and song, and genre and landscape painting, the cottage was an abiding symbol of man’s intimate connection with Nature. However damp, cramped, and squalid the rustic dwelling was in actuality, it was, after all, set into—not merely in—the countryside; as it weathered and aged it became an integral part of the landscape. Acquiring connotation by association, it stood as a reminder of pastoral innocence and purity in contrast to the encroaching, corrupting city. The hearth in particular, no matter in what kind of home it was found, epitomized the virtues of domesticity, the closest that 19th-century man in his social role could get to the ideal of unspoiled Nature. By a like assimilation of Nature and architecture, in late Victorian mansions of the well-to-do, wallpaper, furniture, decorative textiles, iron ornaments, carved screens, and stained glass all were designed to depict or imitate flowers, vine leaves, and birds, thus bringing a breath of Nature indoors. At this zenith of the arts and crafts movement, the same decorative impulse could also be seen at work in the semi-detached villas that lined the roads of the garden suburbs laid out by the first town planners. These oases of cozy domesticity, shaded by plane trees and ornamented with herbaceous borders, were urban society’s symbolic equivalent of the rural cottage. Back to Nature, now, by commuter train.

In Victorian fiction one finds the same predilection. The low-key landscape of hedges, fields, and woods was preferred to the sublimity of the Byronic, and later Ruskinian, mountainscape. This was less true of the pictorial arts, which, along with literature, provide the focus of Nature and the Victorian Imagination.(The book is dedicated to E. D. H. Johnson, a professor of English at Princeton, who has been engaged for a number of years in an intensive study of British art against its literary and cultural background. It is appropriate, as well as evidence of the present fruitfulness of interdisciplinary studies, that three of the most informative and stimulating essays are on aspects of landscape art—all written by professors of literature.) Early photography, represented at the outset of the volume by a “photo-essay” documenting the camera’s first capturing of Nature, concentrated for the most part on relatively close-up subjects in the form of ivy-grown ruins, wooded paths, rustic mills, and ancient trees. No such limitations affected Victorian painting, however, and the mountain sublime, typified by John Brett’s Val d’Aosta, was a frequent subject. But it was in response specifically to the changing view of Nature that Victorian artists, notably the Pre-Raphaelites, experimented, though more cautiously than did their adventurous contemporaries the French Impressionists, with new ways of representing the external world.

In literature there were marked revisions in the use of Nature as a vehicle for philosophical or religious themes. It is true that the taste of the poetry-buying public remained conservative: John Keble’s The Christian Year, a combination pastoral poem and Anglican breviary, was a bestseller for many years, and Tennyson’s In Memoriam brought its author fame, fortune, and the laureateship, its readers luckily failing to perceive that in total effect its nature imagery was more Manichean than optimistically Wordsworthian and that what they took to be its undogmatic piety actually veiled a tormented and unresolved doubt springing from the implications of the new science. But elsewhere the familiar Wordsworthian typological triad of child, landscape, and bemused adult observer, the child being of course the Rousseauistic child of Nature, was significantly modified. In Arnold, Hopkins, Pater, George Eliot, and Dickens, the adult’s desire to recover his primal wholeness by following the child back to his blissful origin in Nature contends, not often successfully, with his awareness that Nature is unconcerned with such human longings and, further, that the child is not, as Wordsworth would have it, wise father to the man, but merely a pre-adult lacking adult understanding. Similarly, Browning, a frequent subverter of Romantic convention, replaces Nature as a repository of spiritual truth with Nature as a psychological touchstone, a phenomenon for dramatic characters to react to, thereby revealing their elemental temperament. And in poems like “”Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” “he abandons the customary Romantic landscape to describe a wasteland scene whose grim surrealistic ugliness turns the sublime and the picturesque inside out.

The publisher’s dust-jacket assertion that this book is “a full exposition of the Victorians’ response to Nature” is an amiable exaggeration. It does range widely, from their fascination with the sublime and fearsome as exhibited in their enthusiasm first for Arctic exploration and then, after mid-century, for mountain climbing, to (in a footnote) that quintessential petit-bourgeois expression of delight in domesticated Nature, the potted aspidistra. An offhand list of topics not covered is not a criticism of the book’s limitations but a further proof of the richness of its subject. There is little or nothing, for example, on the impact of the telescope and microscope on the Victorian imagination. Tennyson was a devout student of Nature as seen through both instruments. He was, incidentally, among the thousands of curiosity seekers who flocked in the early 1830’s to see enlarged microscopic fields projected on London showplace walls by the newly invented limelight. The effect on the popular imagination of a monstrously magnified drop of polluted Thames water must have been fairly lively,

There is nothing on the influential popularization of science by the Royal Institution for the benefit of the upper crust of London society and by the Polytechnic Institution for that of the masses. Nor do we read of the development of natural history museums or of what is one of the most impressive evidences of the Victorian devotion to Nature, the presence of so many thousands of amateur naturalists. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Job Legh (Mary Barton) and George Eliot’s Mr. Farebrother (Middlemarch) had their real-life counterparts in people like the Scots stonemason-geologist Hugh Miller and in innumerable country parsons; the Reverend Octavius Pickard-Cambridge, for example, knew more about the Arachnida than anyone else in the country. Among most of these enthusiasts, one feels, the pursuit of Nature was as much of an imaginative indulgence, in the best sense of the term, as it was a strict exercise in scientific empiricism. At the very least, they practiced their hobby mainly in the field, not in a laboratory sealed off from any intimations, religious or secular, of the Nature that Wordsworth knew.

The social history of the period abounds with further evidence of the attraction Nature had for the city-pent masses or at any rate was assumed to have—for one must never under-estimate the element of empty social ritual involved in many of these supposed “responses.” Exhibitions of “animated nature,” which had been perennial attractions as far back as Tudor times, now were institutionalized as public menageries; parks and botanical gardens were slowly introduced into the grimy industrial towns; and with the coming of the railroad, one of the most popular of all mass recreational activities was the cheap holiday excursion to the scenic countryside or the seashore.

To all these forms of the search for Nature, highminded or Philistine (such as the Cockney invasion first of the Lake District and then, horror of horrors, Mont Blanc), John Ruskin was a passionately concerned witness. In any multi-faceted survey of what Nature meant to the Victorians, he is inevitably the central figure, as he is in this book. We meet him time after time: declaring that an enlightened architecture should assume the function of Nature in the midst of urban artifice; dogmatizing on the “moral aesthetic” of landscape painting; exalting the mountain as the supreme subject of art; interpreting the religious symbolism of the rainbow; renouncing his early Wordsworthianism, including, for all too understandable personal reasons, his belief in the paradisal quality of childhood; and being maddeningly eccentric on the topic of science itself.”No [botanical] name terminating in an “a,” “he announces, “will be attached to a plant that is neither good nor pretty,” and “neuter names terminating in “um” will always indicate some power either of active or suggestive evil.” His “intense joy in observing Nature,” we are told, was neutralized by “his equally intense revulsion at the sexuality of the biological world,”

In the midst of his tragic crotchets, Ruskin on occasion was a shrewd judge of his fellow men, The minds of some could rise to an understanding of scientific principles, but science or their own limitations then blocked the way to the “higher contemplation” which alone justified its practice. Far better, he thought, that since science had “a tendency to chill and subdue the feelings, and to resolve all things into atoms and numbers,” they should steer clear of it.”For most men,” he wrote in Modem Painters, “ an ignorant enjoyment is better than an informed one; it is better to conceive the sky as a blue dome than a dark cavity, and the cloud as a golden throne than a sleety mist.” Somewhere in this vicinity lies the reason why the Victorians’ feeling for Nature took the forms it did, sometimes exhilarated and eloquently expressed, at other times crude or vacuously sentimental. As a people, they contrived to make themselves more at home with Nature than with the science that Ruskin so misunderstood and feared.


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