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date: 22 September 2021

Literature and Landscape in the Eighteenth Century

Abstract and Keywords

Drawing on literary, visual, and philosophical sources from the period, this article asks what is landscape, how was it represented and understood in the eighteenth century, and how might we understand its different forms and agenda now? It focuses on why terms such as landscape, nature, and beauty remain problematic; explores ideas of location, scale, and point of view; and discusses the influence of classical georgic and pastoral models on eighteenth-century ways of seeing. The article argues that landscapes were experienced quite differently because of class, gender, and education, and stresses the wide range of landscapes created by eighteenth-century writers of quite different kinds. Finally, it suggests the importance of emotion as a driving force in the construction of landscape and the need to understand landscape not as something “out there,” but rather as centrally concerned with the expression of self.

Keywords: landscape, pastoral, georgic, space, location, emotion, William Gipin, Henry Home (Lord Kames)

Landscape isn’t there. At least it is not “there” in the sense that the apparent physicality of landscape, its geographical location, its geology and terrain, do not determine some of the most important aspects of its being, for all that they appear to be its most immediate characteristics. Landscapes are created by omission and suppression, both visual and ideological. They are brought into being by a point of view, and if that point of view is physical, it is also ideological, intellectual, and emotional; indeed, a physical viewpoint is itself likely to be determined in turn by ideological assumptions about class and aesthetics, beauty and utility, politics and power.1

As readers of landscape literature, we must focus not simply on what is described—the material environment being reported—but also on the ways in which description is itself framed and the strategies employed by individual writers, in order to explore their relationship with an imagined public audience. To account for landscape in this way is, of course, to see from a particular point of view. Robert Lawson‐Peebles has put it like this: “Descriptions of the environment are never merely empirical. They are strategies which encode the interests and concerns of the writers as well as the physical nature of the terrain, the climate, and so on.”2 We might query the use of “empirical” here, not least because eighteenth-century empiricism was itself wholly bound up with the interests and concerns of the writer, but we should certainly register from the start the significance of attempts to distinguish between the physicality of “terrain” and the experience, or representation, of a “landscape,” which may in turn be associated with such heavily freighted terms as nature, country, or wilderness. The problem for eighteenth-century readers and writers is that landscape is to be understood as representational (and therefore mediated) while still apparently being capable of offering access to (an unmediated) “nature”—that most mediated of all accounts of a world outside of the human. Modern landscape practitioners still draw at times on an account of “natural” or “untouched” landscape that exists outside of a human point of view, and theorists and critics continue to stress the immateriality of landscape as the product of ideology; this is a problem that “landscape” never leaves behind and a distinction that is never resolved.

The contradictions and elisions between these two positions are in part what makes landscape such a rich field for those studying eighteenth-century culture. My opening sentences suggest, of course, a bias towards the immaterial and ideological basis of landscape and implicitly suggest that landscape is the commodification of nature, that nature itself is always already a cultural construct, that it is produced in contingent ways at different moments in different societies. My concern in this article, however, is to resist simply taking sides and instead to stress that there remains a powerful ambiguity in uses of the term “landscape,” and that this ambiguity opens up for us some of the most fundamental ways in which a culture imagines both itself and what is beyond it. While it is tempting to imagine landscape as somehow “out there,” it is important to recognize that eighteenth-century accounts of landscape not only rely on the physicality and the metaphor of a point of view, but are focused sharply on the viewers’ sense of themselves and on their desires. W. J. T. Mitchell has argued that “there is no visin without purpose” because the world “is already clothed in our systems of representation”; in turn we might understand the production of landscape as a staging of the self in relation to an audience. A central concern for those who produce it are the questions of how one might situate or locate oneself and what intellectual, emotional, as well as physical structures enable or allow one to do so.3

Literary Histories of Landscape

In modern parlance, landscape, like space, has the potential to mean almost anything. It can be prefixed by everything from urban to emotional, from revolutionary to repressive, or suffixed by the phrase “and identity/nationalism/ecology/sustainability/dystopia,” and so forth. That potential is in fact equally present in eighteenth‐century uses of the term, but to maintain some kind of focus—itself a crucial concern for eighteenth‐century landscape, and one of its governing metaphors—this article confines itself to some of the categories and modes of understanding to which eighteenth‐ century writers found themselves most often drawn. Those categories and modes are themselves still numerous, but we can start most usefully perhaps with the term “landscape” itself and with its relation to two other key terms, “pastoral” and “georgic.”

In the eighteenth century the understanding of landscape was closely tied to the visual arts, particularly to painting.4 The period sees a transition from the earlier usage of “landskip” to the modern “landscape,” but both terms draw on painting’s emphasis on the movement of the eye across a scene, and although literary landscape increasingly outgrew its origins in visual practice, the influence of those origins remained strong. Perhaps the most important aspect of this heritage from the visual arts was the coexistence of two quite distinct traditions of European landscape painting, which we might associate with the Netherlands in the north and Italy in the south. There are more complicated stories to tell here, but for an English audience in the eighteenth century, Dutch landscape suggested a concern with the detailed and the specific, while Italian landscape emphasized the general and the abstract. Neither of those associations does justice to northern or southern traditions, but that mode of thinking that imagines landscape either in terms of specifics, detail, and localization, or in terms of the general, the ideal, and the mythic, is helpful when we try to understand literary representation of landscape in the eighteenth century. What is important here is that both traditions emphasize ways of seeing: a painted landscape is not merely a record of what can be seen, but also an invitation to think about the act of seeing and—more important—the acts of judgement that this implies.

One strategy for histories of literature and landscape of that period is to focus on these acts of seeing; for example, in the (still valuable) scholarship of the early twentieth century, what has become known as “topographical” literature has been grouped together to emphasize a tradition in which the movement of the eye acts as a structuring feature of landscape description. If this suggests some kind of passive recording of physical features, it is as well to recognize that this was never the case.

At the beginning of our period, among the most powerful influences on literary landscape was John Denham’s late seventeenth-century topographical poem, Cooper’s Hill; at the end of the century it was perhaps William Gilpin’s series of picturesque tours around Britain, the Observations on … the Picturesque.5 What both writers shared was a sense that point of view enables the viewer to construct landscape from physical terrain, but also allows the viewer to see beyond the physical limits of that terrain. They insist, that is, that landscape is moral and political quite as much as it is visual and “aesthetic,” that it includes historical vision, and that in constructing landscape they articulate an account of their own position in the world. With this emphasis on viewpoint comes a powerful insistence on the movement of the eye, certainly, but as important is the location of the eye. In particular, both writers are acutely aware of high and low viewpoints: Denham champions the view from on high, the prospect, while Gilpin values the occluded view, the view from beneath. Both, however, insist that such viewpoints create landscapes that invite the viewer to see the moral and the metaphysical quite as much as the physical world. In Denham’s case the movement of the eye is characteristically registered with markers of place and time: “here,” “there,” “now,” “then” (the basis, too, for much topographical poetry to follow, including James Thomson’s The Seasons). With Gilpin the terminology of landscape painting is more apparent (memorably satirized, and accepted, by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey’s listing of “fore-grounds, distances, and second distances—side-screens and perspectives—lights and shades”).6 Both attempt to create landscapes that are at once pleasurable and morally valuable; both argue that their point of view comes closest to understanding one’s place in God’s creation (Denham because the high view, the prospect view, is also the overview, the all-encompassing; Gilpin because the picturesque beauties of the low view, the occluded view, acknowledge the inevitable limitations of human vision).

If we add to Denham’s influence at the start of the century and to Gilpin, Wordsworth, and Austen at its close, the names Alexander Pope, James Thomson, and Thomas Gray, we have the makings of a conventional history of landscape literature.7 We might finesse this with the help of late eighteenth-century fiction by women (notably Ann Radcliffe in the 1790s) and of travel writing ranging from the likes of Daniel Defoe’s Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain to Johnson and Boswell’s travels in Scotland, or any number of works of foreign travel, and we might add, too, the wealth of writing about gardens that appeared throughout the century (notably Pope once again, but also Stephen Switzer, Horace Walpole, Thomas Whately, William Mason, Humphry Repton).8 But a more fruitful approach (not least because it helps us to waylay the deadening effect of describing landscape writing as itself “descriptive,” as a self-evident invitation to skip to something more interesting) is to ask ourselves just what it was these writers wanted from landscape, what they wanted it to be, and why it might matter.

One way of answering such questions is to begin with a quite traditional account of landscape literature and to explore the significance of two of the century’s most important literary forms, pastoral and georgic. While pastoral may conjure up images of shepherds and shepherdesses leaning on their crooks (of which more in a moment), its association with leisure, pleasure, and the absence of care marks out its more serious concerns. Like georgic—with its rather different stress on labour, toil, and productivity—it has a history stretching back to classical Greece and Rome, and for eighteenth-century readers and writers it was perhaps most strongly associated with Virgil and Horace. For both authors, the pleasures of pastoral are to be found in otium, the absence of business and worry associated with the city and the court. Pastoral’s pleasures are in some sense, then, the pleasures of absence, and if the country is the place in which otium is possible, it is not simply because it is beautiful, but because it is associated with the natural, the bounty of creation, and moral regeneration. While pastoral associates that moral regeneration with ease, georgic associates it with labour, with the need to struggle against an unrelenting and hostile natural world. It has become conventional to narrate the decline of pastoral in the eighteenth century and with it the rise of a georgic vision of nature, which is associated not only with labour but also—as was the case in Virgil’s original Georgics—with the expansion of empire. But while georgic certainly became more popular in literary writing during the eighteenth century, it would be wrong to think that pastoral visions of landscape disappeared.

In the middle of the eighteenth century Samuel Johnson would famously write of Milton’s hugely influential pastoral drama, Comus: “Its form is that of a pastoral, easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting: whatever images it can supply, are long ago exhausted; and its inherent improbability always forces dissatisfaction on the mind.”9 Such attacks were compounded by the rise of what modern critics have termed the new realism of antipastoral: Stephen Duck’s The Thresher’s Labour and Mary Collier’s The Woman’s Labour both stress the hardship of physical labour in the fields rather than some easy and elegant vision of aristocratic pastoral ease; Ann Yearsley’s poetry in the 1780s counters pastoral with landscapes of displacement and unease; while in his brutally antipastoral poem, The Village, George Crabbe insisted that he would represent rural life, “as truth will paint it and as bards will not.”10

It would be tempting to see in all this a confirmation of pastoral’s demise, but that would be to miss what is at stake in pastoral, and indeed to misunderstand an influential mode of imagining the landscape that spreads well beyond the writing of poetry. Indeed, pastoral’s apparent ubiquity and its equally apparent decline in literary writing point to the problems of basing a literary history of landscape on the production of new works throughout the century, and in particular the production of poetry. For all that Johnson might damn pastoral, it continued to be read, and quoted, not only by other poets, but also by eighteenth-century consumers of literature and landscape. Thus, while Alexander Pope’s youthful “Pastorals” (1710) tend to be labeled as the last gasp of a poetic mode that was already out of fashion, what that misses, of course, is that eighteenth-century readers—like modern readers—did not just read the works of their contemporaries; they continued to read, and be influenced by, not only Virgil and Horace, but also the great pastoral works of the English Renaissance, including Spenser’s Faerie Queene, the comedies of Shakespeare, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Il Penseroso, L’Allegro, and so on.11 Rather than signaling the decline of pastoral, then, Johnson’s attack foregrounds for us that pastoral remained a contested mode, at once frivolous and deeply serious in its concerns, and holding out an ambiguous attraction for readers and writers. In this, Johnson was himself implicated; his attack on Milton is an attack on what we might term the formal trappings of pastoral—that is, on an outmoded urge to people landscape with shepherds, shepherdesses, and their associated paraphernalia. However, in other respects we might recognize Johnson himself as writing in the pastoral mode, at least when that mode is defined by the likes of William Empson, as an attempt to put the complex into the simple and as an essentially nostalgic desire for the imagined simplicity of an earlier age, most often figured as rural.12 Certainly it was the simplicity of a past age that Johnson hoped to find when he briefly left behind his London life for a tour of the Highlands of Scotland; that movement between the city and the country brings us to another important account of pastoral and another powerful model for the imagining of eighteenth-century landscape.

As Frank Kermode has argued, pastoral writing (but this extends to other forms of representation, too, and especially to painting) is an essentially urban vision of the country, and it comes with its own baggage.13 It is also a form of writing with a long history, and it should come as no surprise that the poetry and prose written by a classically educated elite not only drew repeatedly on the likes of Virgil and Horace when attempting to account for the significance of landscape, but in fact found it difficult not to portray landscape in such terms. Virgil’s Pastorals and Georgics were an important model here, as was Horace’s Epode II, which famously begins “Happy the Man” (who leaves urban cares behind for a life in the country) and which echoes through any number of eighteenth-century accounts of the pleasures of a country life. While this is not the place for long excursions into the history of pastoral poetry, one thing to keep in mind is that from its classical origins, pastoral sets in place a series of powerful oppositions. The most powerful of these, perhaps, is that between the country and the city, the one imagined as simple and virtuous, the other as complex and corrupt.14 The complication here is that landscape might be equated with the countryside, and the countryside in turn with a set of values distinct from the city, but such distinctions may be no more than a fantasy of absence. That is, while representation of the country becomes a repository for urban desires of simplicity, virtue, and ease, or of georgic’s more robust insistence on the powerful productivity of the land, those virtues may have their existence primarily in the imaginings of urban society. In part this is what Crabbe’s The Village would attack, not least by a sustained assault on Goldsmith’s hugely popular poem, The Deserted Village.15 Indeed, with its deeply nostalgic vision of a country life destroyed by urban modernity, what is pastoral in Goldsmith’s poem is not simply the focus on rural community, nor even the emphasis on easy labour, but the lament for a lost way of life, and specifically a way of life now lost to the poet. Wrenching Goldsmith’s words from their contexts, Crabbe’s insistent use of quotation set Goldsmith’s headily emotive phrases in new and disturbing locations and in landscapes that resisted the urban poet’s dislocated fantasies of rural pleasure.

As Goldsmith’s poem and Crabbe’s reaction to it suggest, if we choose to characterize pastoral as an urban longing for the moral simplicity of the country, we might recognize too that the expression of such longing is not a rejection of the city but instead becomes necessary, because the speaker has not left the city and its pleasures behind. The effect in both poems, then, is the production of landscapes that neither poet ultimately wishes to inhabit. Instead, landscape becomes a focus for the imagining of absence and of the ideal. Thus, while critics have rightly mapped a clear decline in the use of formal pastoral and with this a rising interest in georgic—at least in the world of poetry—it is important to recognize that powerful cultural assumptions about the leisure and labour on which these two modes are based hardly become less important as literary tastes change. We can see changes in emphasis, certainly, but the problem of how to justify pleasure and leisure in the face of moral claims for usefulness and work remains powerfully in place. The larger issue for us, then, is that representations of the land as landscape are an implicit invitation to explore opposition and difference. In these terms, an image of landscape that aligns itself with “nature” or the pleasures of the country is constantly implicating itself in an account of what it is not. This inevitably complicates apparently easy oppositions between country and city, virtue and corruption, nature and artifice, because those oppositions are themselves an expression of relation—and we might think about landscape in this way, too.

Location as Dislocation

Representation of landscape offers us structures for thinking that frequently work in terms of relation and opposition—pastoral and georgic, labour and leisure, country and city, the prospect view and the picturesque, and so forth—and we might ask ourselves what stance individual creators of landscape adopt or find themselves inhabiting in relation to them. In the case of Denham and Gilpin, for example, we might argue that for all of their obvious differences, what they share is a concern for location that is also an acute awareness of dislocations of various kinds; this relation between location and dislocation can help us to understand what is at stake in eighteenth-century constructions of landscape.

Gilpin’s emphasis on the muted tones of the picturesque view—along with the oval format of images in his printed works—means that he has erroneously come to be associated with the Claude glass, a concave mirror with a darkened surface used to bring a subdued landscape harmoniously into view.16 With the landscape only appearing in mirror image as one turned one’s back upon it, this use of the Claude glass has become an over-easy metaphor for the dissociated traveller in search of aesthetic pleasures and divorced from the “real” landscape of people, property, and labour. Wordsworth, with his repeatedly confronted figures in the landscape, would equally famously adopt a rhetoric of collapsing that distance, but both writers were able to see these rural landscapes because they were not working in them, and this raises the question not only of who is able to see landscape, but how closely the idea of landscape might be associated with the leisured status of the elite and with a dissociation from rural labour.17

Wordsworth, like Coleridge, was keen to emphasize an account of nature in which there was no apparent disjunction between interiority and an exterior world, and also keen to suggest that earlier writers had failed to understand nature because they tended to allegorize, personify, and so forth. If this emphasis on the experience of “nature” as at once beyond and within the imagination of the individual was expressed in part at the expense of writers like Gilpin, however, it was also a misunderstanding of Gilpin and of earlier generations of eighteenth-century writers. Certainly Gilpin chose to reshape the physical forms before him in accordance with conventions he had absorbed from the visual arts, but the aim of such re-vision was to gesture towards what was beyond the merely physical. If the Claude glass is a tempting metaphor for distance and dissociation, we might set against this Gilpin’s suggestion that his monochrome sketches were best seen—or partially seen—by candlelight, because that light made the gestural intention of the sketch most clear and inevitably threw the viewer back on his or her own imagination. When we put aside the early romantics’ highly influential rhetoric, that is, and turn to their contemporaries, we can see at least some shared concerns and an attempt to grapple with those moments when culture appears to collapse into nature, when landscape might no longer be imagined as a set of learned procedures, but as an immediate experience of the Creation.

We need not resolve the differences between Wordsworth and Gilpin here—and my account of shared concerns inevitably suppresses them—to see that, while landscape may focus attention on a particular or generalized location, on interiority or exteriority, a tension remains between physical forms and what is imagined to be beyond, or represented by, or symbolized by, those forms. That is, landscape’s concern with location brings with it other forms of dislocation. It confronts us with the problem of just what is—and is not—located by location, and it relies on forms of representation that are always inviting us to see something else or to see in relation to something else.

We can extend this insight further by recognizing that representations of landscape are characteristically constructed, and consumed, in its absence: the mental structures that allow its creation are in place before it is “seen”; the physical act of representation (with the exception of plein air painting) tends to take place after it has been seen, and in some other location, as does the consumption of the represented landscape. More striking even than Gilpin’s small, candlelit landscapes are the dislocations implied by large-scale landscape painting: a representation of the outdoors almost without exception to be displayed indoors, quite often of course on display in the city rather than in the country, and only available to the wealthy elite. Just as with less elite forms of visual representation, including the sketch but also the print, the consumption of such landscapes inevitably takes place elsewhere and may be valued most because the consumer is elsewhere. Thus, while landscape places emphasis on place, the experience of landscape is frequently that of being displaced.

Seeing the Scenery

Here it is as well to address another of those terms so closely associated with landscape: “scenery.” Often used in conjunction with “landscape,” or as its synonyms, “scenes” and “scenery” have theatrical implications that can also help us understand the cultural expectations of landscape. Just as with theatrical scenery—which we might understand as a representation in front of which something significant happens, but which also signals a set of expectations about what is significant—we might also understand the production of landscape as a means of accounting for oneself in relation to an imagined audience. That problem of what significance landscape might hold in relation to the human, however, continued to be an issue for eighteenth-century writers and painters.

One of the painters most admired—and most collected—by the English in the eighteenth century was the seventeenth-century Frenchman Claude Lorraine, whose images of Italian landscape became synonymous with ideal beauty. The inspiration for designers of English gardens (such as at Painshill in Surrey), for gothic novelists such as Ann Radcliffe, and of course for the likes of Gilpin and the crowd of amateur picturesque sketchers, Claude’s large-scale landscapes characteristically place small figures in the foreground of huge landscapes. In painting’s hierarchy of genres, landscape came a poor third or fourth to the seriousness and importance of historical painting, with its emphasis on significant human action, on important moments of classical and biblical history; for all that Claude’s figures were dwarfed by the landscapes they inhabited, it was those human figures who allowed Claude to make claims for the cultural seriousness of his work. In paintings such as Landscape with Narcissus and Echo (1644) or Landscape with the Marriage of Isaac and Rebekah (1648), Claude would place in the foreground intense moments of human action, with the beautiful landscapes of the Italian Campagna forming the middle distance and the background. But if this seemed to confirm the secondary importance of landscape, eighteenth-century viewers clearly admired Claude for his landscapes rather than for his (sometimes rather poorly executed) figures. Once again, that is, landscape provides us with a problem of subject and focus: it may be no more than a scene—the painterly background (or the theatrical backdrop) to the significance of the human—yet it may also become the focus of attention and the object of pleasure at the expense of rather grander human claims.

We might think of another kind of “scene,” too, the sentimental tableaux that became increasingly popular in the second half of the century and that also assumed the conventions of theatrical performance.18 With their carefully staged figures—the lover weeping by an overgrown grave, a parent and child beside a derelict cottage—such images insist on their affective qualities, on the heightened expectations of an emotional response. In both cases, although we should recognize the centrality of convention and artifice, we should also recognize the concern for emotional affect, the desire for scenes to produce an immediate and apparently unmediated response from their audience. Such a desire for emotion suggests that we should be wary of any easy claims about eighteenth-century landscape being an aesthetic of dissociation, and it is a desire that spreads well beyond the limits of those sentimental works we now associate with the likes of Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling.19 While sentimental tableaux characteristically focused on the figures in front of a landscape, much of the theorizing about landscape in the period not only expressed a desire for landscape to be the occasion for emotion, but made either the author, or that convenient stand-in, the idealized imagined viewer, the means of expressing such emotional responses.

Subjective Beauties

This brings us to another kind of disjunction, which is that while the figure of the idealized viewer of landscape was frequently used to stand in for and to suggest a standard response from the individual, in works of aesthetic theory that ideal was without exception imagined to be male, wealthy, and educated. We will turn to those excluded from this ideal, but first it is worth exploring what this idealized male figure was imagined to experience when confronted by landscape. Here, too, the picture is far from clear, in that not only did the century see increasingly elaborate attempts to establish an objective account of the external beauties of nature, but it increasingly recognized the subjectivity of responses that could not be legislated against except by insisting on a language of “taste,” which in turn remained equally torn between subjective and objective claims and riven by assumptions about class, education, and gender.20

In their claims for the objective effects of landscape, three mid-century writers are particularly helpful to us: Edmund Burke, Henry Home Lord Kames, and Thomas Whately. The literary influence of Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) is hard to overestimate for later accounts of landscape, whether in Gilpin’s struggles to define the picturesque, in Radcliffe’s scenes of the sublime and beautiful scenery that affect her heroines with so much immediacy, or perhaps most famously in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Burke’s emphasis on the physiological effects of sublime and beautiful landscape—the one aligned with masculinity and power, the other with femininity and the social—compounded the sense that physical landscapes had objective effects, stretching or relaxing the nerves and causing physiological discomfort or pleasure. In turn, while Kames and Whately acknowledge these basic categories of the sublime and the beautiful, what is perhaps most interesting about their work is the urge to map out a rather wider range of landscape forms to which humans would consistently respond in immediate and particular ways, and with this to distinguish between inherent qualities and emotional effects.

In his Elements of Criticism (1762), Kames used the example of his own experience on entering a garden:

I perceive it to be beautiful or agreeable; and I consider the beauty or agreeableness as belong to the object, or as one of its qualities. Again, when I turn my thoughts from the garden to what passes in my mind, I am conscious of a pleasant emotion of which the garden is the cause. The pleasure here is felt, not as a quality of the garden, but of the emotion produced by it …. Agreeable and disagreeable, then, are qualities of the objects we perceive: pleasant and painful are qualities of the emotions we feel. The former qualities are perceived as adhering to objects; the latter are felt as existing within us.21

The obvious stumbling block here is Kames’s confidence that the qualities of the beautiful and the agreeable are obviously perceivable and objective, and also that his individual response can stand unproblematically for the experience of all. Having made such claims, however, it then becomes possible for him to imagine a range of different landscape forms, all of which will be responded to in particular ways (though ways that will, we assume, inevitably correspond to his own reactions). Thus, he argues, when designing a landscape garden,

[a] field may be laid out in grand, sweet, gay, neat, wild, melancholy scenes. When these are viewed in succession, grandeur ought to be contrasted with neatness, and gaiety with melancholy; so as that each emotion may succeed its opposite.22

If as modern readers we find ourselves struggling to distinguish between the sweet and the gay, or the point at which the wild might become the grand, that struggle is a marker of just how culturally specific Kames’s universalism was and should signal for us once again that such universalism implies a wealth of exclusions. Kames’s confidence arises in part from an education he shared with the landowning elite, an education that gave to such men a set of assumptions and a classically inflected literary language that made their response to landscape seem self-evident.

For Kames, gardens were a tangential issue, a convenient example for his larger arguments; in Thomas Whately’s hugely influential Observations on Modern Gardening (1770), the gardens created by eighteenth-century English gentlemen were the main focus of attention. Like Kames, Whately was concerned with the different effects that designed landscape might produce; like Kames, too, he was particularly concerned with the emotional pleasures that they produced and with responses so immediate that they were themselves felt to be unmediated or—they might say—natural. Of this Whately writes, “Certain properties, and certain dispositions, of the objects of nature, are adapted to excite particular ideas and sensation … all are very well known: they require no discernment, examination, or discussion, but are obvious at a glance.”23 For Whately those ideas and sensations are to be valued because they are “instantaneously distinguished by our feelings,” but what is made more clear in the Observations than in Kames’s work is that this is only possible in the form of carefully rehearsed reveries that shore up the cultural values into which Whately has been educated, values that enable him to see landscape in this way and to adopt the position of a man of taste. Whately’s stress here is on the ability of features in the landscape to generate “ideas and sensation,” and the immediacy of those ideas and sensations is what appears to underwrite their status as natural. However, if this suggests the freedom of the individual to respond to landscape in whatever way he wishes, Whately also insists—like Kames—that those responses will follow familiar patterns, repeating the cultural myths that structure the experience of landscape, whether those myths concern themselves with beauty, sublimity, or divinity. Thus he concludes:

[S]uch is the constitution of the human mind, that if once it is agitated, the emotion often spreads far beyond the occasion; when the passions are roused, their course is unrestrained; when the fancy is on the wing, its flight is unbounded; and quitting the inanimate objects which first gave them their spring, we may be led by thought above thought, widely differing in degree, but still corresponding in character, till we rise from familiar subjects up the sublimest conceptions, and are rapt in the contemplation of whatever is great or beautiful, which we see in nature, feel in man, or attribute to divinity.24

Characteristically, the experience of landscape here is once again framed in terms of location and dislocation. Ultimately what is valued are those moments when the culturally learned collapses into an imagining of the authentically natural, and landscape becomes at once nature and an account of one’s own—privileged—place in the natural order. What’s valued, too, however, is the sense that the experience of landscape is one of transportation, of “quitting … inanimate objects” and being taken elsewhere.

The urge to find “nature” in the cultural constructs one inhabits is hardly specific to the eighteenth century, but Whately and Kames demonstrate both the problematic relationship between landscape and the cultures that give it meaning, and the urge to find in one’s own responses to landscape a universalizing aesthetic. It is tempting, of course, to consider our work as cultural critics to be done once we have duly diagnosed our authors as trapped within the classical and Christian traditions that enable their vision, but that seems unsatisfactory, not least because it underplays the rather more interesting question of what this might mean for individuals. That is, while final conclusions about the subjective or objective nature of taste and beauty may continue to elude us, eighteenth-century writing presents us with a wealth of resources for exploring the ways in which individuals attempted to navigate these conflicting claims and their encounters with different kinds of landscape. Whately might adopt a confidently universalist stance that would seem to be the preserve of an educated male elite, but the pleasures of the imagination (as the much-quoted poet Mark Akenside would call it) were not confined to landed gentleman, or indeed only to men, and the readily available language of literature provided men and women from different ranks in society a powerful means of making landscape their own.25

Quotation and the Sense of Place

Conventional accounts of literature and landscape tend to trace the more public forms of literature such as poetry and fiction and to focus on chronological changes in style and purpose, whether that be shifts from pastoral to georgic, from elegy to lyric, or from the social to the solitary, but another means of understanding the relationship between the two is to explore the ways in which literature was used by individuals as they engaged with, and produced, the landscapes around them. An alternative history of eighteenth-century landscape and literature, then, would be one in which we turn to the rich resources offered to us by letters, diaries, and travel journals and to the personal landscapes constructed not only by painters and poets, but also by those who read poetry and who admired paintings. In this sense, Kames’s categorizing of landscape types, and Whately’s insistence on the inevitability of certain kinds of response to those types, shouldn’t hide from us the range of ways in which people might make meaning in landscape. Literature—and perhaps predominantly poetry—certainly provided a ready stock of emotionally heightened phrases and expressions, which formed part of a much wider audience’s engagement with landscapes and might be imagined as pastoral or historical, as pleasurable, as pious, or as melancholy. But what might seem “stock” or overfamiliar phrases need not be dismissed as uninterestingly conventional, for they had the potential to produce deeply felt emotional responses to landscape.

One of the recognized—and sought out—forms of landscape was the melancholic scene, and the pleasures of melancholy—especially as engendered by a ruin in the landscape—had become a well-established, indeed wholly conventional, theme (both Kames and Whately include it as a matter of course). Conventional, too, had become a dutiful nod to Milton’s poem on the pleasures of melancholy landscape, Il Penseroso, or to lines from Alexander Pope’s poem of melancholic despair, “Eloisa to Abelard.” We might say that it is merely conventional, therefore, that on visiting Fountains Abbey in the 1780s, the bluestocking poet and translator Elizabeth Carter wrote of the park:

It is surely very beautiful in its own singular style, but looks like the retreat of solitude and silence. I never saw any place which appeared to me so perfectly the abode of melancholy. She meets one in every walk, and

  • “—round her throws
  • A death like silence, and a dread repose,
  • Deepens the murmur of the falling floods,
  • And breathes a browner horror o’er the woods.”

The whole scenery is however admirably adapted to the solemn ruins of Fountain Abbey, which stands in the centre of it.26

Certainly the “browner horror” of Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard,” along with the echo of “solitude and silence” from Mark Akenside’s Pleasures of the Imagination, appear with regularity when eighteenth-century travellers find themselves in such landscapes, but rather than dismiss the “conventional” as empty form-following, as the mere listing of fashionable quotations, we might ask ourselves what work such phrases do, what the speaking of the familiar might achieve when attempting to convey one’s experience of landscape to someone else, in another location. We might once again note, for example, that in Carter’s letter the focus of the landscape is less on the physicality of location and more directly on the emotional effects it produces; thus one answer to these questions may be that quotation—especially familiar quotation—conjures up the possibility of inhabiting not the same physical location but the same emotional landscape, with the aid of a shared and familiar language. Certainly for Carter, part of the appeal of describing landscape was that the act of describing—and crucially the choice of affective quotation—held out the prospect of shared experience.27 That prospect might not emphasize political vision in the way that Cooper’s Hill had done, but like Denham, Carter would take her cues from historical association, from poetic tradition, from what is imagined and felt, as well as what may be immediately before one’s eyes, in an attempt to convey the experience of place to an imagined audience. It is this urge to convey a sense of place—one’s own place—that makes these landscapes so affecting. And although we tend to associate literary landscape with sustained set-piece descriptions like Pope’s Windsor Forest (1713), or Thomson’s The Seasons (1730), or on a slightly smaller scale, the likes of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751), these miniature landscapes—appearing in perhaps no more than a line or two in a letter or diary entry—are among the most powerful to be found in eighteenth-century literature, because they invest so much emotional energy in their attempts to convey that experience. This is not of course to dismiss the importance of longer works of landscape description—not least because those works so often provide the poetic cues used by others—but it does invite us to recognize a mode of reading, and remembering, landscape description that turns on the evocative phrase rather than on complex argument or a sophisticated political agenda. And it invites us to recognize, too, that the familiar, the conventional, the well-worn quotation, might be less empty of significance, and retain more affective potential, than Johnson’s attack on a worn-out language of description might suggest. Also important here is that the quotation holds a peculiar status in relation both to the source from which it was taken and the landscape it informs or helps to construct. It is at once redolent of its context and has the capacity to float free from that context; it may stand in for the rest of a poem, for example, but it hardly needs that entire context or a poet’s intention to do its work—a point perhaps most clearly made by the seemingly endless quotation of lines from Thomson’s The Seasons not only in Britain soon after its publication, but also in the newly formed United States of America well into the nineteenth century.28

Miniature Landscapes and Visions of the Infinite

Carter, like Denham, was highly educated and acutely aware of literary constructions of landscape. But the ability to frame an account of oneself—to demonstrate one’s cultural capital—with the aid of literary allusion also made landscape a socially contentious site. For the landscape gardener and poet William Shenstone, owning and creating a landscape garden was a demonstration of status, but the small-scale and often quite frail structures he created also demonstrated an uncomfortable lack of wealth. At the Leasowes, Shenstone created a garden full of poetic inscriptions and invitations to respond to the landscape in different emotional registers.29 Drawing on Virgil in particular and combining such classical sources with his own poetic productions, Shenstone made a landscape that drew visitors from around the globe, but which for some—much closer to home—made him a figure of fun.

The debate about Shenstone, and the clash between those who admired his gardens and those who disparaged the man, raise wider issues that also help us to understand what might be at stake in the construction and experience of landscapes, whether large or small. For those who chose to laugh at Shenstone—or as in the case of Samuel Johnson, merely disparage him—emphasis tended to fall on scale, wealth, and social status, irrespective of any beauties the poet may have created. Shenstone effectively bankrupted himself by creating a landscape that emphasized pastoral pleasure rather than the georgic usefulness that might have repaired his finances. His urge to ignore the economic in favour of the aesthetic highlights a problem of which we too should be aware: all too often—as critics rightly insist—aesthetic landscape comes into being by suppressing the economic; conversely, the economic and the agricultural are devalued because they are imagined to be the vulgar concerns of those who are not gentlemen.30 Here, then, landscape is also recognizably a product of class, and the ability to describe and appreciate landscape is fraught with social tensions. When Shenstone’s friend, the publisher and one-time footman Robert Dodsley, attempted to describe the Leasowes, he chose the form of a list and a map, because, he argued, they would provide his readers with the most accurate account of the garden. Soon after his account appeared in print, however, this emphasis on detail made him an object of satire and an easy target for writers who wished to stress their own ability to appreciate the ideal rather than a mere listing of particularities that might all too easily be aligned with Dodsley’s lower-class origins and limited education.31 Shenstone, too, was party to these kinds of judgements and exclusion, of course: his carefully chosen inscriptions, drawn from classical authors and inviting a shared emotional response, were also a means of denying the uneducated access to his landscape. When a local shoemaker and poet, James Woodhouse, dedicated to Shenstone a poem on the beauties of the Leasowes, he included lines on his regret that Latin and Greek quotations meant nothing to him.32 The literary world’s normative practices of quotation were in this sense quite as effective as a “keep out” sign when it came to entering a landscape.

Part of Shenstone’s problem, then, was the matter of scale, but more than that, it was the normalizing in landscape of the large scale at the expense of various forms of littleness (of wealth, taste, language, detail, etc.). Certainly it was easy for the educated and wealthy elite to claim the language of the large scale as their own. There was, however, another high-status language on which a much wider range of people—including Woodhouse—might draw, and that came from the King James Bible, heard throughout the country each week by the literate and illiterate alike, and offering in its stories of gardens, deserts, and wildernesses a powerfully evocative means of imagining the infinite landscapes of the Creation. This would make for an essay in itself, but to take only one example, the language of gardens and of the wilderness, of pleasures to come and of tests to be faced, appears with regularity in one of the most popular—but in terms of landscape still most overlooked—forms of writing in the early modern period, the spiritual letter or diary.

Burke’s account of the sublime placed great emphasis on the overwhelming sense of the vast and the unknowable in relation to the littleness and frailty of the human, but that sense of landscape as at once small-scale and vast is a characteristic of many kinds of landscape writing and certainly a characteristic of spiritual writing that turns to the experience of landscape. We have seen how the high and the low act as organizing structures for landscape; so too do the large and the small: spiritual writing, with its acute sense of the disparity between human and divine landscapes, frequently turns on the disjunction between the two, but also on their elision, as it moves from an awareness of the local and the little to the vast and the infinite. At the end of the century William Blake famously insisted that one might see whole worlds in a grain of sand, or the infinite beauties of heaven in the passing delicacy of a wildflower, but in this he reiterated a much longer tradition of religious writing alive to fleeting shifts of perspective that produced landscapes caught between the local and the infinite. This tradition was powerfully alive on both sides of the Atlantic, and we can end this article with the continuation of that tradition in the letters of quite ordinary—that is, not professionally literary—writers engaging with the new landscapes of the early American Republic.

Appearing in letters and diaries both before and after the Revolution, the framing of America’s lands to the west as “wilderness” highlights of course an experience of landscape as neither merely physical nor simply metaphoric: if one usage of “wilderness” here might be something close to unknown terrain, it would be difficult to separate this in many letters and journals from a sense that this “terrain” was itself to be experienced as a process, at once physical location and spiritual travail. Early confrontations of the American landscape as a “wilderness” at once physical and symbolic, as empty and yet full of danger, as both threat and promise, have become a staple of American landscape studies.33 But even in the more domesticated landscapes of early America, that same elision of the physical and metaphysical is also powerfully present, and here one final example must suffice.

Early in the nineteenth century a young Philadelphian Methodist, Hannah Bunting, wrote of a landscape that she “could scarce imagine … more lovely … the sun was just declining; a river murmuring slowly … many of the little hillocks almost covered in flowers and rose trees … made this to me an interesting view.”34 The description, however, is of a graveyard scene, and Bunting is recalling the experience of her first visit to the grave of her cousin. Drawing on prospects both visual and spiritual, Bunting creates a landscape in which physical beauties and temporal pleasures are the markers and the reminders of another world; while the description of location is specific, detailed, and dated, it is also an attempt to describe the experience of seeing symbolically, of accounting for an experience in which “the scenes of eternity were brought very near.” And, while her final claim that “[v]arious emotions swelled my bosom” might seem rather flat and oddly unable to express such emotion, it of course draws to our attention all the more forcibly the weight that Bunting places on a landscape she feels as much as describes. In what is only a short letter, with a still shorter account of place (it amounts to no more than half a dozen lines), this description of the terrestrial is also, then, an attempt to describe the affective landscape that Bunting inhabits and the spiritual landscape just beyond her reach. Combining seen and unseen worlds, this brief description—for all its localized and quotidian detail—offers as much an account of what is felt as it does of what is physically before her. Description of the physical and a focus on the apparently exterior gain their importance from the ability—or imagined promise—of articulating what cannot be articulated in other ways. With echoes and gestures towards the biblical language with which Bunting was so familiar, it hovers between the locally specific and a vision of the infinite, and it places the speaker in the middle of that drama. If the nebulous phrasing of Bunting’s “various emotions” gives little away, her landscape offers a powerfully intense account of her state of mind.

All this we should recognize as at work in quite different forms of writing throughout the eighteenth century. It is this ability to combine emotion, belief, and desire that makes landscape such a powerful and appealing form, not only for professional writers and artists but also for men and women from quite different walks of life, when attempting to convey a sense of self and of their place in the world. As we have seen, the production of one landscape is only possible by the suppression of another, and in this article I have suppressed many; however, in focusing attention on the felt and on the experience of place as a form of displacement, my aim has been to suggest some of the ways in which we might continue to explore eighteenth-century landscapes, however large or small, and wherever those landscapes might be. At the beginning I suggested that landscape isn’t “there,” but we might reframe that claim by recognizing the ways in which literature insists on the experience of landscape as “here” and “there,” as an attempt to account for oneself and one’s place in the world.


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(1) For debates about the nature of landscape (beyond the eighteenth century), see especially Jay Appleton, The Experience of Landscape (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1975); Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels, eds., The Iconography of Landscape (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); Steven Bourassa, The Aesthetics of Landscape (London: Belhaven Press, 1991); Stephen Daniels, Fields of Vision: Landscape Imagery and National Identity in England and the United States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993); W. J. T. Mitchell, ed., Landscape and Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

(2) Robert Lawson-Peebles, Landscape and Written Expression in Revolutionary America: The World Turned Upside Down (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 6.

(3) W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 38.

(4) The most useful introduction to landscape and the visual arts remains Malcolm Andrews, Landscape and Western Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

(5) See Expans’d Hieroglyphics: A Critical Edition of Sir John Denham’s Cooper’s Hill, ed. Brendan O Hehir (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969); for William Gilpin, see especially Observations on the River Wye, and several parts of South Wales (1782), and Observations, relative chiefly to picturesque beauty, made in the year 1772, on several parts of England; particularly the mountains, and lakes of Cumberland, and Westmoreland (1786).

(6) Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 111.

(7) See especially Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads and The Prelude; Alexander Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard,” Windsor Forest, and Epistle to Burlington; James Thomson’s The Seasons; and Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, but also his letters describing a visit to the Lake District. And for this approach to landscape and literature, see Edward Malins, English Landscaping and Literature, 1660–1840 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), and David C. Streatfield and Alistair M. Duckworth, Landscapes in the Gardens and the Literature of Eighteenth-Century England (Los Angeles: Williams Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1981).

(8) Ann Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest (1791), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and The Italian (1797); Daniel Defoe, A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–1727); Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775) and James Boswell, A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785); Stephen Switzer, Ichnographia Rustica (1718, revised 1741–1742); Horace Walpole, “On Modern Gardening” (1780; but composed earlier); Thomas Whately, Observations on Modern Gardening (1770); William Mason, The English Garden (1772–1782); and Humphry Repton, Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening (1794), Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1803), as well as his numerous “Red Books,” recording his plans for individual estates. For women’s travel writing and landscape aesthetics, see also Elizabeth A. Bohls, Women Travel Writers and the Language of Aesthetics, 1716–1818 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

(9) Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets, ed. George Birkbeck Hill, 3 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1905), 1:163.

(10) Stephen Duck, The Thresher’s Labour (1730); Mary Collier, The Woman’s Labour (1739); Ann Yearsley, “Clifton Hill” (1785); and George Crabbe, The Village (1783). For laboring-class poetry’s wider engagement with “landscape,” see William J. Christmas et al., eds., Eighteenth-Century English Labouring-Class Poets, 1700–1800, 3 vols. (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2003).

(11) Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene (1590–1596); William Shakespeare, As You Like It (1599/1600); and John Milton, Poems (1646), and Paradise Lost (1664).

(12) William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral (London: Chatto and Windus, 1935).

(13) Frank Kermode, English Pastoral Poetry from the Beginnings to Marvell: An Anthology (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1972), xiv.

(14) The classic account of that divide remains Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London: Paladin, 1973).

(15) Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village (1770).

(16) In his Observations relative chiefly to picturesque beauty, made in the year 1776, on several parts of Great Britain; particularly the High-lands of Scotland, 2 vols., Gilpin wrote that while the Claude glass gave the objects of nature “a soft, mellow tinge,” “I am apt to believe, that the merit of this kind of modified vision consists chiefly in it’s novelty” (London, 1789), 1:124–125.

(17) William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads (1798/1800).

(18) See David Alexander, Affecting Moments: Prints of English Literature Made in the Age of Romantic Sensibility 1775–1800 (York: University of York, 1993).

(19) Henry Mackenzie, The Man of Feeling (1771).

(20) For a discussion of these problems, see David Solkin, Richard Wilson: The Landscape of Reaction (London: Tate Publishing, 1982), and Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1993).

(21) Henry Home, Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism (1762), 6th ed, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1785), with the author’s last corrections and additions, 1:106.

(22) Kames, Elements of Criticism, 1:301.

(23) Thomas Whately, Observations of Modern Gardening (London, 1770), 156. Gardens and literature has become a substantial area of study in itself, but the work of John Dixon Hunt stands out as the most useful place to begin, including The Figure in the Landscape: Poetry, Painting, and Gardening during the Eighteenth Century (Baltimore, MD, and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), and The Afterlife of Gardens (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

(25) Mark Akenside, The Pleasures of the Imagination (1744), a work heavily influenced in turn by Joseph Addison’s papers on the same theme in The Spectator, nos. 411–418.

(26) Elizabeth Carter to Elizabeth Vesey, South Lodge, September 11, 1781, in A Series of Letters between Mrs. Elizabeth Carter and Miss Catherine Talbot, 4 vols. (London, 1809), 4:letter CXLIV.

(27) For a fuller account of Carter’s engagement with melancholic landscapes, see Stephen Bending, Green Retreats: Women, Gardens and Eighteenth-Century Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 126–130.

(28) Note, for example, J. M. W. Turner’s repeated use of quotations from Thomson as titles for his landscape paintings; see Janis A. Tomlinson, “Landscape into Allegory: J. M. W. Turner’s ‘Frosty Morning’ and James Thomson’s ‘The Seasons’,” Studies in Romanticism 29, no. 2 (Summer, 1990): 181–196; and Andrew Wilton, Painting and Poetry, Turner’s “Verse Book” and His Work of 1804–1812 (exh. cat., London: Tate Gallery, 1990).

(29) For the best collection of recent essays on the Leasowes, see “Arcadian Greens Rural: The Leasowes, Hagley, Enville, Little Sparta,” special issue, New Arcadian Journal 53, no. 4 (2002).

(30) See, for example, John Barrell, The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting 1730–1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); and Stephen Copley and Peter Garside, eds., The Politics of the Picturesque: Literature, Landscape and Aesthetics since 1770 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

(31) I have discussed these interactions in “One Among the Many: Polite Culture and the Country House Landscape,” in The Georgian Country House: Architecture, Landscape and Society, ed. Dana Arnold, (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1998), 61–78.

(32) James Woodhouse, “An Elegy to William Shenstone, Esq; Of the Leasowes” (1764).

(33) But for the late eighteenth century, see especially Lawson-Peebles, Landscape and Written Expression; Mick Gidley and Robert Lawson-Peebles, eds., Views of American Landscape (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); and for the early nineteenth century, see especially Robert E. Abrams, Landscape and Ideology in American Renaissance Literature: Topographies of Skepticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); and Christopher Hanlon, America’s England: Antebellum Literature and Atlantic Sectionalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), chs. 3–4.

(34) Hannah Bunting, Memoir, Diary, and Letters, of Miss Hannah Syng Bunting, of Philadelphia, 2 vols. (New York: Mason and Lane, 1837), 1:117.