Thursday, July 18, 2013

accident stamped a character upon places

"Details give charm," writes Charlotte Brontë, placing a Romantic landscape in a room and transforming its details into her domestic items: the serene view is boring, the piqued spots of drama are vital, the grotesque detail is a treasure, the frightening vertigo element, the shocking grotto, or not shocking, it doesn't have to be shocking, it can be cattle and ponies as it is in Dorothy Wordsworth's Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, A.D. 1803, after she decides that one lake is a disappointment because it has too much uniformity: "there is an uniformity in the lake which, comparing it with other lakes, made it appear tiresome. It has no windings: I should even imagine, although it is so many miles long, that, from some points not very high on the hills, it may be seen from one end to the other."

"Tiresome," is a word I have seen used about humans but never scenery, which leaves me with the impression that she is disappointed in this lake as if it is a person that has let her down. It is being that way on purpose. It refuses to give her a winding. An accident would have been enough for her, a cow could have done it. "We passed by many droves of cattle and Shetland ponies," she wrote later about a different landscape, "which accident stamped a character upon places, else unrememberable -- not an individual character, but the soul, the spirit, and solitary simplicity of many a Highland region."

The cattle and ponies chewed the grass; the spirit of Accident had passed through them. They had been manifest Accidents as they were chopping up the daisies. The carriage vanished over a hill. Ann Radcliffe's prose comes across the herd in The Mystery of Udolpho where they fill the same role: they "[stamp] a character upon places, else unrememberable -- not an individual character, but the soul, the spirit, and solitary simplicity" of a country region. Functionally they are the same cattle.

These tremendous precipices were contrasted by the soft green of the pastures and woods that hung upon their skirts; among whose flocks, and herds, and simple cottages, the eye, after having scaled the cliffs above, delighted to repose.

The cattle are restful signs of human civilisation, gentle stoics in a paddock; nothing gives scale to a landscape like a sign of human habitation, wrote young Ruskin, though he took it back later when civilisation seemed too industrial for him: these people would not stop at cattle, they'd be in there with factories next. But Dorothy Wordsworth not worried about that, earlier than Ruskin, never anticipating a factory in the field where there is today possibly a supermarket. So she is calm in her pleasure. The Australian women I've been reading -- all born before 1900, all out of copyright -- like to pick up on flowers, I have noted, they tend to see flowers, and they will spend their poems describing flowers.

Bring flowers for the wearied one,
The wearied one of pain;
Bright flowers from the glorious sun,
Will give her joy again.
But, oh! seek them not from gardens,
Nor from the gay parterre,
Wander far into the woodlands,
For blossoms hiding there.

(from VII, in Lyra Australis, or, attempts to sing in a strange land (1854), by Caroline Leakey)

Again above thy fragile flowers
I bend, to bring their perfume nigh;
For only in the evening hours
Thy odors pass thy blossoms by;
But when the ministering day
Deserts thee with the warmth and light
That lulled thee, -- waking thou wilt pay
For these, in sweetness, to the night.

(from To the White Julienne, from Where the Pelican Builds and Other Poems (1885), by Mary Hannay Foott)

Myrtle, myrtle lying low,
With the moss about you creeping,
With the torrent round you leaping,
And the grand old mountain keeping
Vigil as the seasons go,
Still to me your music comes
Set in chords august, specific,
When a storm-voice, weird, terrific,
Beats across the waste Pacific
Like the roll of muffled drums.

(from Mountain Myrtle in the The Horses of the Hills (1911), by Marie Pitt)

They write about the larger items of the scenery as well, the cliffs and so on, "strange green hills and the glint of a far bay" (Marie Pitt again, Doherty's Corner) but they're drawn back to the tiny things in that huge continent, the flowers, always the flowers, little items; Leakey writes about violets, she writes about the primrose, she mentions bluebells, not the wattle, not an Australian flower. They miss British things in their colonial or just-Federated lives, they miss the peaceful cattle, they miss the village smoke coming up from chimneys, they want the churchbell but they see the bushland, Ernestine Hill in the 1930s saw the jungle gym of exhydrated cattle around a dead waterhole, and a character in Catherine Martin's Silent Sea wills herself to death in the salt brush because her mother has died. She loves her flowers, gardens of flowers, she cultivates them, she talks about them, she has opinions on the right colours for orchids, then she leaves the pocket of garden her mother has helped her to inhabit, she goes through the salt brush on a cart, she gets ill, she dies, poisoned by a landscape "gray, voiceless, sinister, for ever the same," or without windings, you could say: tiresome.

She could see the sky growing darker, even the sunset flush trembling into wanness, as the dust-storm raged with the fitful wails of a wind that rushes at its own wild caprice over boundless plains, without a solitary wall or hill, or even a line of trees, to impede its course.

"Not even herds," says Dorothy Wordsworth, passing in a carriage and looking, "it has neither cow nor pony." But Ernestine Hill journalistically struck and solemnly exultant about the hollow animals in the dead land.

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