Friday, 27 March 2009

An image from a historian

The following passage, which I read many years ago, has stuck in my memory; or rather, that image of the estuary has. I always thought it was from Jacquetta Hawkes’s A Land but couldn’t find it there, and a reference in Oliver Rackham’s Woodlands made me think I'd perhaps read it in W.G. Hoskins’s The making of the English landscape. I had, and here it is:

W 0 R D S W O R T H in his Guide through the District of the Lakes - one of the best guide-books ever written, for poets make
the best topographers - opens his description of the scenery
of the Lakes with a View of' the Country as formed by
Nature. He then passes, in his second section, to the Aspect
of the Country, as affected by its Inhabitants, and this he
begins by asking the reader to envisage what the landscape,
finished by the great impersonal forces of Nature and awaiting its first human inhabitants, looked like in its primeval

He will form to himself an image of the tides visiting and re-visiting the friths, the main sea dashing against the bolder shore,
the rivers pursuing their course to be lost in the mighty mass of
waters. He may see or hear in fancy the winds sweeping over the
lakes, or piping with a loud voice among the mountain peaks and,
lastly, may think of the primaeval woods shedding and renewing
their leaves with no human eye to notice, or human heart to regret
or welcome the change.

How often one has tried to form these images in various
parts of England, seated beside a wide, flooding estuary as
the light thickens on a winter evening, dissolving all the
irrelevant human details of the scene, leaving nothing but
the shining water, the sky, and the darkening hills, and
the immemorial sound of curlews whistling over the mud
and fading river-beaches. This, we feel, is exactly as the
first men saw it when they reached the shingled margin of
the river a hundred generations ago. Nothing has changed.
We are seeing the natural world through the eyes of men who died three or four thousand years ago, and for a moment or two we succeed in entering into the minds of the
dead. Or on some desolate English moorland it is even easier
to feel this identity with the dead of the Bronze Age who lie
near by under a piled-up cairn or under the heathery blanket of a burial-mound. It is easy, too, to feel this kinship
while watching the summer morning waves falling with a
meditative indifference on a beach still untrodden by the
human race. (17-18)

W.G. Hoskins, The making of the English landscape, London, Hodder & Stoughton, second edition 1977

Images like that seem to have been very powerful in my peculiar sensibility. This one could only relate to Britain, I think. There must be a British artist who’s done justice to such a scene, but who? It might be John Piper or Eric Ravilious or Gwen Raverat but I don’t know any work by them that meets the specifications. Or what about a photographer? Fay Godwin?

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