The sweetness of England by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“And when, at last
Escaped, so many a green slope built on slope
Betwixt me and the enemy’s house behind,
I dared to rest, or wander, like a rest
Made sweeter for the step upon the grass,
And view the ground’s most gentle dimplement,
(As if God’s finger touched but did not press
In making England!) such an up and down
Of verdure, nothing too much up or down,
A ripple of land; such little hills, the sky
Can stoop to tenderly and the wheatfields climb;
Such nooks of valleys, lined with orchises,
Fed full of noises by invisible streams;
And open pastures, where you scarcely tell
White daisies from white dew, at intervals
The mythic oaks and elm-trees standing out
Self-poised upon their prodigy of shade,
I thought my father’s land was worthy too
Of being my Shakspeare’s.
Very oft alone,
Unlicensed; not unfrequently with leave
To walk the third with Romney and his friend
The rising painter, Vincent Carrington,
Whom men judge hardly, as bee-bonneted,
Because he holds that, paint a body well,
You paint a soul by implication, like
The grand first Master. Pleasant walks! for if
He said . . ‘When I was last in Italy’ . .
It sounded as an instrument that’s played
Too far off for the tune-and yet it’s fine
Often we walked only two,
If cousin Romney pleased to walk with me.
We read, or talked, or quarrelled, as it chanced;
We were not lovers, nor even friends well-matched-
Say rather, scholars upon different tracks,
And thinkers disagreed; he, overfull
Of what is, and I, haply, overbold
For what might be.
But then the thrushes sang,
And shook my pulses and the elms’ new leaves,-
And then I turned, and held my finger up,
And bade him mark that, howsoe’er the world
Went ill, as he related, certainly
The thrushes still sang in it. At which word
His brow would soften, and he bore with me
In melancholy patience, not unkind,
While, breaking into voluble ecstasy,
I flattered all the beauteous country round,
As poets use . . .the skies, the clouds, the fields,
The happy violets hiding from the roads
The primroses run down to, carrying gold,
The tangled hedgerows, where the cows push out
Impatient horns and tolerant churning mouths
‘Twixt dripping ash-boughs, hedgerows all alive
With birds and gnats and large white butterflies
Which look as if the May-flower had sought life
And palpitated forth upon the wind,
Hills, vales, woods, netted in a silver mist,
Farms, granges, doubled up among the hills,
And cattle grazing in the watered vales,
And cottage-chimneys smoking from the woods,
And cottage-gardens smelling everywhere,
Confused with smell of orchards. ‘See,’ I said,
‘And see! is God not with us on the earth?”
I have discussed the Romantics and neo-Romantics in earlier posts, and for me this poem, recently encountered for the first time in a volume provided for visitors in a holiday cottage, is an excellent example of the genre. Those mythic oaks and the secret, hidden charms of misty nooks contain a meaning greater than their modest surface charm. The landscape may be homely and charming, but it conceals druid groves and ghostly moths, a sense of mystery more powerful than the superficial prettiness suggests.
For the British (not just the English) consciousness of their Britishness has long been identified with and located in the land itself. The regard in which Constable and Turner (and less popularly, Samuel Palmer and the brothers Paul and John Nash) are held is indicative of this instinct. The landscape creates and validates the sense of attachment and belonging.
I use landscape here in the broadest sense of all features and artifacts of the national scene- not just the downs and vales, but Stonehenge, Avebury, the ruined castles and abbeys, the farmhouses and fields. The natural land-forms are adventitious; the shaping of the land by its inhabitants is- perhaps- the deepest expression of their character- and in their landscape, I suggest, the British can find stability, reassurance and strength. There is a confirmation of continuity of culture and occupation; the passing from generation to generation of certain responses and ideals.
There is perhaps a danger of encouraging petty nationalisms- of artificial divisions into Cornwall, England, Wales and Scotland. These should be rejected. Even within ‘England’ there is too much variety for a single identity to have predominance. The second and greater danger may be the risk of slipping into pastoral prettiness and arcadian charm.
This need not be though. In his recent Guardian newspaper review of D C Moore’s new play Common at the National Theatre, Michael Billington remarks that Moore is working to create a “radical pastoral environment that shows the privatisation of land as a pivotal moment in our nation’s history.” In seeking to achieve this, the play draws upon the countryside’s pagan past as well as on the politics of resistance as embodied by Captain Swing. The land is central to our national character and its protection and preservation has been one important forum for class conflict. Landscape (as well as land rights) can be a source of power- and also of inspiration. Radical pastoralism need not be a contradiction in terms, then, as I have also argued in the course of the story in Albion awake!
In art, literature, in political discourse and in the shaping of aspirations, powerful affection for and attachment to our landscape are vital motivations.