Tuesday, January 24, 2012

tis distance lends enchantment to the view

Thomas Campbell, again.

This well-known line appears near the start of The Pleasures of Hope (1799).

At summer eve, when Heaven's ethereal bow
Spans with bright arch the glittering hills below,
Why to yon mountain turns the musing eye,
Whose sunbright summit mingles with the sky?
Why do those cliffs of shadowy tint appear
More sweet than all the landscape smiling near?
'Tis distance lends enchantment to the view,
And robes the mountain in its azure hue.

(The Pleasures of Hope, Part I, lines 1-8.)

OK, so the quote is much more fertile when it's taken away from the context of that poem and can breathe and develop its powers on its own.

Along with Hazlitt's remark about how we think of natural creatures as species rather than as individuals, this is about the only bit of aesthetic philosophy that I've ever taken on board. In compensation, I do think about both of them extremely often.

This morning, for example, because (in the office): the sudden stink of decay alerted me to a brief resumption of my sense of smell, for the first time since before Xmas. Perhaps what assaulted my suddenly-restored sense was the smell of my own trainers. Soon afterwards, we trooped along to the canteen on a tea-break - such an assault of smells. The jar of tea-bags smelt. The hot water smelt. The fridge made me feel like retching, and so did the distinct, personal odours emanating from the mouths of each of my friends.

Five minutes later, the olfactory system had all shut down again; I couldn't smell anything at all. This Brobdingnagian enlargement of sensory data is too much, too up close. In the circumstances, I drank it all in with enthusiasm, but it was not "beauty". "Beauty" in our present state of culture seems to require a desensitizing filter. That's what I take from Campbell.


The remarks by Hazlitt are in the Lectures on the English Poets (1818), specifically the lecture on Thomson and Cowper, which Hazlitt concludes with an excursus (springing from Rousseau at Annecy) about love of Nature. He says:

"That which distinguishes this attachment from others is the transferable nature of our feelings with respect to physical objects; the associations connected with any one object extending to the whole class."

He gives an example about foreign-ness:

"I remember when I was abroad, the trees, and grass, and wet leaves, rustling in the walks of the Thuilleries, seemed to be as much English, to be as much the same trees and grass, that I had always been used to, as the sun shining over my head was the same sun which I saw in England; the faces only were foreign to me."

A closer botanist wouldn't perhaps experience that; Lucy Snowe in Villette, more sensitive to the distinction of a continental climate, restricts her sensation of "English-ness" to the moon. Still, Hazlitt is on to something.

"The same principle will also account for that feeling of littleness, vacuity, and perplexity, which a stranger feels on entering the streets of a populous city. Every individual he meets is a blow to his personal identity. Every face is a teazing, unanswered riddle. He feels the same wearisome sensation in walking from Oxford Street to Temple Bar, as a person would do who should be compelled to read through the first leaf of all the volumes in a library. But it is otherwise with respect to nature. A flock of sheep is not a contemptible, but a beautiful sight..."

"This nature is a kind of universal home, and every object it presents to us an old acquaintance with unaltered looks..."

If I'm always pondering Hazlitt's claim it's because I don't believe it to be wholly true or invariably true. I think Hazlitt's sense of the delightfull unvarying class of sheep is an accident of point of view; a shepherd would look at sheep differently. In that respect Hazlitt is himself a walking illustration of "Tis distance lends enchantment to the view".

As it happens, Hazlitt is fairly scathing about Thomas Campbell. That may be right, but when he notices these lines -

Some hamlet shade, to yield his sickly form
Health in the breeze, and shelter in the storm.

- notices them, in order to assert a failure in the antithesis (the shade brings shelter, but it does not bring health: the breeze does), I don't think most readers today will feel the force of that logic; I think they'd judge Campbell's lines to be rather improved by the failure of his antithesis; it makes them rangier, more comprehensive.

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At 5:34 pm, Blogger All My Own Idea said...

I don't know which bit to address...there's the smell of other people's mouths...and then there's the bit about filtering smells generally or something like that,...well how can I put it? Welcome to my world,...although I can say, after a while you do get used to it

At 5:39 pm, Blogger All My Own Idea said...

...and I guess you can say the same thing about beauty,...if you're not very, very carefully, you can become complacent about almost anything, and stop seeing the colour, the shapes, the textures,...and it all dulls into sludge. Better to smell I reckon

At 8:27 pm, Blogger Michael Peverett said...



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