Friday, 17 March 2017

Pastoral Gothic: Ann Radcliffe and the Sublime

The Gothic Reading Group will be meeting on Wednesday 22nd March to continue this semester’s on-going discussion of all things Eco-Gothic. This time around we’ll be focusing on sublime pastoral landscapes.

During the session we’ll be thinking about the pastoral mode in relation to the poetry of the Mistress of Udolpho herself, Ann Radcliffe. Radcliffe’s novels are interspersed with poems which are often described as being either composed or sung by the heroine at times when she feels particularly inspired by her natural surroundings. In this post I’ll be considering how a sublime aesthetic experience effectively kick-starts the process of artistic creativity.

The novels of Ann Radcliffe are famous for their lengthy passages of landscape description in which she evokes the art of Claude Lorrain (c.1600-1682), Salvator Rosa (1616-1673) and Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Their rugged yet idealised pastoral landscapes populated by shepherds and banditti going about their daily lives, but it is the soaring trees, rocky edifices and wide expanses of open water that dominate the canvases and subsequently shaped Radcliffe’s impressions of Italy.

Pastoral Landscape by Claude Lorrain (1644)
In A Sicilian Romance (1790) Madame de Menon is travelling through such a landscape as painted by Claude when she is reunited with her young charge, Julia: 

‘Her thoughts, affected by the surrounding objects, gradually sunk into a pleasing and complacent melancholy, and she was insensibly led on. She still followed the course of the stream to where the deep shades retired, and the scene again opening to day, yielded to her view so various and sublime, that she paused in thrilling and delightful wonder. A group of wild and grotesque rocks rose in a semicircular form, and their fantastic shapes exhibited Nature in her most sublime and striking attitudes. Here her vast magnificence elevated the mind of the beholder to enthusiasm. Fancy caught the thrilling sensation, and at her touch the towering steeps became shaded with unreal glooms; the caves more darkly frowned – the projecting cliffs assumed a more terrific aspect, and the wild overhanging shrubs waved to the gale in deeper murmurs. The scene inspired madame with reverential awe, and her thoughts involuntarily rose, ‘from Nature up to Nature’s God.’ The last dying gleams of day tinted the rocks and shone upon the waters, which retired through a rugged channel and were lost afar among the receding cliffs. While she listened to their distant murmur, a voice of liquid and melodious sweetness arose from among the rocks; it sung in the air, and captivated her heart.’[1]
Alison Milbank argues that Madame’s aesthetic experience has ‘an actual, practical effect’ in that she is not paralysed by what she sees, but achieves transcendence which leads her to achieve her aim of being reunited with Julia through ‘voluntary passivity’.[2]  Julia is similarly responsive to the environment, and the sublime surroundings frequently inspire her to sing, compose or recite poetry:

She loved to indulge the melancholy of her heart in the solitude of the woods. One evening she took her lute to a favourite spot on the seashore, and resigning herself to a pleasing sadness, touched some sweet and plaintive airs. The purple flush of evening was diffused over the heavens. The sun, involved in clouds of splendid and innumerable hues, was setting o’er the distant waters, whose clear bosom glowed with rich reflection. The beauty of the scene, the soothing murmur of the high trees, waved by the light air which overshadowed her, and the soft shelling of the waves that flowed gently in upon the shores, insensibly sunk her mind into a state of repose.’ (Radcliffe, 1993: 42)

Evening Landscape by Salvator Rosa c. 1640-3
In such a state of repose, as Archibald Allison deems necessary in order to fully appreciate the sublime in his Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (1789), Julia is in the perfect state of mind for artistic creativity to flow, and proceeds to sing the following ode: 

Evening veil'd in dewy shades,
Slowly sinks upon the main;
See th' empurpled glory fades,
Beneath her sober, chasten'd reign.

Around her car the pensive Hours,
In sweet illapses meet the sight,
Crown'd their brows with closing flow'rs,
Rich with chrystal dews of night.

Her hands, the dusky hues arrange
O'er the fine tints of parting day;
Insensibly the colours change,
And languish into soft decay.

Wide o'er the waves her shadowy veil she draws,
As faint they die along the distant shores;
Through the still air I mark each solemn pause,
Each rising murmur which the wild wave pours.

A browner shadow spreads upon the air,
And o'er the scene a pensive grandeur throws;
The rocks-the woods a wilder beauty wear,
And the deep wave in softer music flows.

And now the distant view where vision fails
Twilight and grey obscurity pervade;
Tint following tint each dark'ning object veils,
Till all the landscape sinks into the shade.

Oft from the airy steep of some lone hill,
While sleeps the scene beneath the purple glow;
And evening lives o'er all serene and still,
Wrapt let me view the magic world below!

And catch the dying gale that swells remote,
That steals the sweetness from the shepherd's flute;
The distant torrent's melancholy note
And the soft warblings of the lover's lute.

Still through the deep'ning gloom of bow'ry shades
To Fancy's eye fantastic forms appear;
Low whisp'ring echoes steal along the glades
And thrill the ear with wildly-pleasing fear.

Parent of shades!-of silence!-dewy airs!
Of solemn musing, and of vision wild!
To thee my soul her pensive tribute bears,
And hails thy gradual step, thy influence mild.

This poem is heavily inspired by William Collins’ ‘Ode to Evening’ (1746). Like Collins, Radcliffe personifies evening as a maid, or muse, who inspires musical performance in harmony with the melancholy scene. Music, like the fading evening light, is transient – a fleeting moment of beauty that will pass in a matter of moments. Radcliffe’s use of the veil motif to describe the onset of evening is another aspect of the poem adapted from Collins’ ode, but the idea of obscurity is also central to Edmund Burke’s conceptualisation of the sublime.  In his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Burke suggests that the sublime is the most powerful emotion we are capable of experiencing, and that our inability to perceive or comprehend something in its entirety is a source of sublime terror as ‘the ideas of eternity, and infinity, are among the most affecting we have.’[3]

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)
When it comes to summing up what makes a landscape sublime, Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) pretty much encapsulates the concept. The image of a man standing on a precipice with a vast, mountainous landscape unfolding before his eyes invites the beholder to contemplate their own precarious position in the world from a position of safety. Faced by the enormity of God’s creation and human mortality we are awe inspired and drawn to meditate on the relationship between man and nature.  

Ken Hiltner’s study of the environment in Renaissance pastoral poetry identifies an ‘environmental consciousness’ in the mode and he goes on to argue that the pastoral responds to the mounting anxiety about the threat urban expansion poses to the natural environment.[4] It will be worth considering, then, how the Gothic responds to this issue by exploring how Radcliffe contrasts the experience of pastoral aesthetics with those of urban luxury and vice. 

During the session on Wednesday we will have more time to consider the relationship between pastoral poetry and the Gothic, and the influence of the Burkean sublime on Radcliffe’s work. If there is a particular example of pastoral Gothic you’d like to share – whether it’s an extract from Paradise Lost or an ode by your favourite graveyard poet - bring it along. We’ll be meeting in Jessop West room G.03 from 4pm-6pm. As always, snacks and sweets provided. All staff and students welcome!

Hannah Moss is a first year PhD student at the University of Sheffield researching the representation of art and the female artist in Gothic novels of the long eighteenth-century. We cannot confirm or deny whether she has a portrait hidden in her attic.

[1] Ann Radcliffe, A Sicilian Romance, (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1993), p. 104.
[2] Alison Milbank, ‘Introduction’ to A Sicilian Romance, (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1993), p. xviii.
[3] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. Paul Guyer, (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2015), p.51.
[4] Ken Hiltner, What Else is Pastoral? Renaissance Literature and the Environment, (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2011).

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