The fascination with the natural world has engrossed humans since the beginning of written records and has been frequently used as inspiration for works of literature, art and other forms of expression.
In the ancient world, there was often an intertwining of paradise, and an untouched natural world. This world, ‘Arcadia’ as it is known, featured in several prominent works of literature. The Sicilian poet Theocritus, credited with inventing Greek pastoral poetry, wrote many poems called Idylls. These fantastic gems, often written as songs or dialogues, show a peaceful and tranquil environment, far detached from the violence and warfare depicted by many other ancient authors.
These pieces of writing, while short and clear, create an unspoilt and fascinating environment
The Roman poet Virgil, heavily influenced by Theocritus’ pastoral work, also ventured into poems of nature, the Eclogues. These pieces of writing, while short and clear, create an unspoilt and fascinating environment. Eclogue IV particularly resonated with me, he writes how in this world ‘all the stains of our past wickedness [are] being cleansed away’ resulting in a climate where the earth will ‘shower…..with romping ivy, foxgloves, and bouquets of gypsy lilies’. Most importantly, however, this world is one where the ‘ox will have no fear of the lion’, and where safety and placidity are emphasised. This innocent and harmonious vista invokes, for me at least, a spring-time simplicity that instantly calms and soothes.
Two-thousand years later, in 1941, a novel with fantastic natural elements, written by one of my favourite authors, was published. Frenchman’s Creek, by Daphne du Maurier, is primarily concerned with the romance between a 17th century noblewoman and a pirate, but woven into the story is a fantastic depiction of the rugged remoteness of Cornwall, a trait so many of du Maurier’s novels possess.
the image created of a semi-untouched environment, nature at its most coarse, is one that brought me a new sense of wonder
This type of nature is a far cry from Virgil or Theocritus, where I imagine a valley of multi-coloured shrubs and plants, set to the music of cows mooing and birds tweeting. Instead, in Frenchman’s Creek, I see windswept cliffs, with little to no vegetation except patches of grass covering huge drops to the sea. It is the natural equivalent of brutalist architecture. On the first page, du Maurier writes how there were ‘no buildings to desecrate the rough fields and cliffs’ and how there were ‘no yachts’ and ‘no cottages’ interrupting the landscape. To be honest the story isn’t particularly ground-breaking, or interesting for that matter, but the image created of a semi-untouched environment, nature at its most coarse, is one that brought me a new sense of wonder at the landscape of the United Kingdom when reading.
Written in 2018, Melissa Harrison’s novel, All Among the Barley, uses its setting in the idyllic Suffolk countryside in the 1930s to confront issues surrounding the rise of fascism in English rural settings. The plot is, as with Frenchman’s Creek, is not as important as the setting and the message of the novel. The book is primarily concerned with a young farmers daughter, and the friendship she cultivates with a London journalist, seen as an outsider by the wider community,. Rural England, often seen as the epitome of Britishness, has a dark past – with the beauty of the landscape being used to contrast undertones of anti-Semitism and fascism. As the New Stateman review wrote, ‘All Among the Barley is an unflinching account of the harshness and beauty of rural life’.
In this small selection of literature, nature and rurality have taken different shapes, showing the complexity of natural representation in literature throughout the ages. It’s certain, however, that the natural world is a continually fascinating habitat to explore.
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