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MHS Library | Our Fragile Environment

Nature: Landscape and the Sublime

How does the natural world move us? 

How can we write creatively about this? 

Photo by Pixabay:

Blessing by Imtiaz Dharker 


The skin cracks like a pod. 

There never is enough water. 


Imagine the drip of it, 

the small splash, echo 

in a tin mug, 

the voice of a kindly god. 


Sometimes, the sudden rush 

of fortune. The municipal pipe bursts, 

silver crashes to the ground 

and the flow has found 

a roar of tongues. From the huts, 

a congregation: every man woman 

child for streets around 

butts in, with pots, 

brass, copper, aluminium, 

plastic buckets, 

frantic hands, 


and naked children 

screaming in the liquid sun, 

their highlights polished to perfection, 

flashing light, 

as the blessing sings 

over their small bones. 

Egdon Heath by Gustav Holst

Listen 'Egdon Heath' by Gustav Holst, the classical composer, and read the extract from the novel on which it was based: 'The Return of the Native' by Thomas Hardy.  Famously, Egdon Heath has its own chapter in the novel and its presence permeates the entire novel. 


The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy 


Book I, Chapter 1 

A Face on Which Time Makes but Little Impression 

A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.  

The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with the darkest vegetation, their meeting-line at the horizon was clearly marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of an instalment of night which had taken up its place before its astronomical hour was come: darkness had to a great extent arrived hereon, while day stood distinct in the sky. Looking upwards, a furze-cutter would have been inclined to continue work; looking down, he would have decided to finish his faggot and go home. The distant rims of the world and of the firmament seemed to be a division in time no less than a division in matter. The face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking and dread.  


In fact, precisely at this transitional point of its nightly roll into darkness the great and particular glory of the Egdon waste began, and nobody could be said to understand the heath who had not been there at such a time. It could best be felt when it could not clearly be seen, its complete effect and explanation lying in this and the succeeding hours before the next dawn; then, and only then, did it tell its true tale. The spot was, indeed, a near relation of night, and when night showed itself an apparent tendency to gravitate together could be perceived in its shades and the scene. The sombre stretch of rounds and hollows seemed to rise and meet the evening gloom in pure sympathy, the heath exhaling darkness as rapidly as the heavens precipitated it. And so the obscurity in the air and the obscurity in the land closed together in a black fraternization towards which each advanced halfway.  

The place became full of a watchful intentness now; for when other things sank blooding to sleep the heath appeared slowly to awake and listen. Every night its Titanic form seemed to await something; but it had waited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries, through the crises of so many things, that it could only be imagined to await one last crisis—the final overthrow.  

It was a spot which returned upon the memory of those who loved it with an aspect of peculiar and kindly congruity. Smiling champaigns of flowers and fruit hardly do this, for they are permanently harmonious only with an existence of better reputation as to its issues than the present. Twilight combined with the scenery of Egdon Heath to evolve a thing majestic without severity, impressive without showiness, emphatic in its admonitions, grand in its simplicity. The qualifications which frequently invest the facade of a prison with far more dignity than is found in the facade of a palace double its size lent to this heath a sublimity in which spots renowned for beauty of the accepted kind are utterly wanting. Fair prospects wed happily with fair times; but alas, if times be not fair! Men have oftener suffered from, the mockery of a place too smiling for their reason than from the oppression of surroundings oversadly tinged. Haggard Egdon appealed to a subtler and scarcer instinct, to a more recently learnt emotion, than that which responds to the sort of beauty called charming and fair.  

Indeed, it is a question if the exclusive reign of this orthodox beauty is not approaching its last quarter. The new Vale of Tempe may be a gaunt waste in Thule; human souls may find themselves in closer and closer harmony with external things wearing a sombreness distasteful to our race when it was young. The time seems near, if it has not actually arrived, when the chastened sublimity of a moor, a sea, or a mountain will be all of nature that is absolutely in keeping with the moods of the more thinking among mankind. And ultimately, to the commonest tourist, spots like Iceland may become what the vineyards and myrtle gardens of South Europe are to him now; and Heidelberg and Baden be passed unheeded as he hastens from the Alps to the sand dunes of Scheveningen.  

The most thoroughgoing ascetic could feel that he had a natural right to wander on Egdon—he was keeping within the line of legitimate indulgence when he laid himself open to influences such as these. Colours and beauties so far subdued were, at least, the birthright of all. Only in summer days of highest feather did its mood touch the level of gaiety. Intensity was more usually reached by way of the solemn than by way of the brilliant, and such a sort of intensity was often arrived at during winter darkness, tempests, and mists. Then Egdon was aroused to reciprocity; for the storm was its lover, and the wind its friend. Then it became the home of strange phantoms; and it was found to be the hitherto unrecognized original of those wild regions of obscurity which are vaguely felt to be compassing us about in midnight dreams of flight and disaster, and are never thought of after the dream till revived by scenes like this.  

It was at present a place perfectly accordant with man's nature—neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony. As with some persons who have long lived apart, solitude seemed to look out of its countenance. It had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities.  

This obscure, obsolete, superseded country figures in Domesday. Its condition is recorded therein as that of heathy, furzy, briary wilderness—“Bruaria.” Then follows the length and breadth in leagues; and, though some uncertainty exists as to the exact extent of this ancient lineal measure, it appears from the figures that the area of Egdon down to the present day has but little diminished. “Turbaria Bruaria”—the right of cutting heath-turf—occurs in charters relating to the district. “Overgrown with heth and mosse,” says Leland of the same dark sweep of country.  

Here at least were intelligible facts regarding landscape—far-reaching proofs productive of genuine satisfaction. The untameable, Ishmaelitish thing that Egdon now was it always had been. Civilization was its enemy; and ever since the beginning of vegetation its soil had worn the same antique brown dress, the natural and invariable garment of the particular formation. In its venerable one coat lay a certain vein of satire on human vanity in clothes. A person on a heath in raiment of modern cut and colours has more or less an anomalous look. We seem to want the oldest and simplest human clothing where the clothing of the earth is so primitive.  

To recline on a stump of thorn in the central valley of Egdon, between afternoon and night, as now, where the eye could reach nothing of the world outside the summits and shoulders of heathland which filled the whole circumference of its glance, and to know that everything around and underneath had been from prehistoric times as unaltered as the stars overhead, gave ballast to the mind adrift on change, and harassed by the irrepressible New. The great inviolate place had an ancient permanence which the sea cannot claim. Who can say of a particular sea that it is old? Distilled by the sun, kneaded by the moon, it is renewed in a year, in a day, or in an hour. The sea changed, the fields changed, the rivers, the villages, and the people changed, yet Egdon remained. Those surfaces were neither so steep as to be destructible by weather, nor so flat as to be the victims of floods and deposits. With the exception of an aged highway, and a still more aged barrow presently to be referred to—themselves almost crystallized to natural products by long continuance—even the trifling irregularities were not caused by pickaxe, plough, or spade, but remained as the very finger-touches of the last geological change. 


Read about the early twentieth century composer Gustav Holst and his composition 'Egdon Heath' inspired by Thomas Hardy's novel, The Return of the Native   

English Romantic Poets

Read or listen to two poems by English Romantic poets: 'Mont Blanc' by Percy Bysshe Shelley (the poet husband of Mary Shelley, author Frankenstein) and 'I Wondered Lonely As a Cloud' by  William Wordsworth. 



Mont Blanc, Percy Bysshe Shelley - 1792-1822

Mont Blanc 

Percy Bysshe Shelley - 1792-1822 




The everlasting universe of things 
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves, 
Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom— 
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs 
The source of human thought its tribute brings 
Of waters,—with a sound but half its own, 
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume 
In the wild woods, among the mountains lone, 
Where waterfalls around it leap for ever, 
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river 
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves. 

Thus thou, Ravine of Arve—dark, deep Ravine— 
Thou many-coloured, many-voicèd vale, 
Over whose pines, and crags, and caverns sail 
Fast cloud-shadows and sunbeams: awful scene, 
Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down  
From the ice-gulfs that gird his secret throne, 
Bursting through these dark mountains like the flame 
Of lightning through the tempest;—thou dost lie, 
Thy giant brood of pines around thee clinging, 
Children of elder time, in whose devotion 
The chainless winds still come and ever came 
To drink their odours, and their mighty swinging 
To hear—an old and solemn harmony; 
Thine earthly rainbows stretched across the sweep 
Of the aethereal waterfall, whose veil 
Robes some unsulptured image; the strange sleep 
Which when the voices of the desert fail 
Wraps all in its own deep eternity;— 
Thy caverns echoing to the Arve’s commotion, 
A loud, lone sound no other sound can tame; 
Thou art pervaded with that ceaseless motion, 
Thou art the path of that unresting sound— 
Dizzy Ravine! And when I gaze on thee 
I seem as in a trance sublime and strange 
To muse on my own separate fantast, 
My own, my human mind, which passively 
Now renders and receives fast influencings, 
Holding an unremitting interchange 
With the clear universe of things around; 
One legion of wild thoughts, whose wandering wings 
Now float above thy darkness, and now rest 
Where that or thou art no unbidden guest, 
In the still cave of the witch Posey, 
Seeking among the shadows that pass by 
Ghost of all things that are, some shade of thee, 
Some phantom, some faint image; till the breast 
From which they fled recalls them, thou art there! 

Some say that gleams of a remoter world 
Visit the soul in sleep,—that death is slumber, 
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber 
Of those who wake and live.—I look on high; 
Has some unknown omnipotence unfurled 
The veil of life and death? or do I lie 
In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep 
Spread far around and inaccessibly 
Its circles? For the very spirit fails, 
Driven like a homeless cloud from steep to steep 
That vanishes among the viewless gales! 
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky, 
Mont Blanc appears,—still, snowy, and serene— 
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms 
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between 
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps, 
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread 
And wind among the accumulated steeps; 
A desert peopled by the storms alone, 
Save when the eagle brings some hunter’s bone, 
And the wolf tracks her there—how hideously 
Its shapes are heaped around! rude, bare, and high, 
Ghastly, and scarred, and riven.—Is this the scene 
Where the old Earthquake-daemon taught her young 
Ruin? Were these their toys? or did a sea 
Of fire envelop once this silent snow? 
None can reply—all seems eternal now. 
The wilderness has a mysterious tongue 
Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild, 
So solemn, so serene, that man may be, 
But for such faith, with nature reconciled; 
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal 
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood 
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good 
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel. 

The fields, the lakes, the forests, and the streams, 
Ocean, and all the living things that dwell 
Within the daedal earth; lightning, and rain, 
Earthquake, and fiery flood, and hurricane 
The torpor of the year when feeble dreams 
Visit the hidden buds, or dreamless sleep 
Holds every future leaf and flower;—the bound 
With which from that detested trance they leap; 
The works and ways of man, their death and birth, 
And that of him and all that his may be; 
All things that move and breathe with toil and sound 
Are born and die; revolve, subside, and swell. 
Power dwells apart in its tranquility, 
Remote, serene, and inaccessible: 
And this, the naked countenance of earth, 
On which I gaze, even these primaeval mountains 
Teach the adverting mind. The glaciers creep 
Like snakes that watch their prey, form their far fountains, 
Slow rolling on; there, many a precipice, 
Frost and the Sun in scorn of mortal power 
Have piled: dome, pyramid, and pinnacle, 
A city of death, distinct with many a tower 
And wall impregnable of beaming ice. 
Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin 
Is there, that from the boundaries of the sky 
Rolls its perpetual stream; vast pines are strewing 
Its destined path, or in the mangled soil 
Branchless and shattered stand; the rocks, drawn down 
From yon remotest waste, have overthrown 
The limits of the dead and living world, 
Never to be reclaimed. The dwelling-place 
Of insects, beasts, and birds, becomes its spoil; 
Their food and their retreat for ever gone, 
So much of life and joy is lost. The race  
Of man flies far in dread; his work and dwelling 
Vanish, like smoke before the tempest’s stream, 
And their place is not known. Below, vast caves 
Shine in the rushing torrents’ restless gleam, 
Which from those secret chasms in tumult welling 
Meet in the vale, and one majestic River, 
The breath and blood of distant lands, for ever 
Rolls its loud waters to the ocean-waves, 
Breathes its swift vapours to the circling air. 

Mont Blanc yet gleams on high:—the power is there, 
The still and solemn power of many sights, 
And many sounds, and much of life and death. 
In the calm darkness of the moonless nights, 
In the lone glare of day, the snows descend 
Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there, 
Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun, 
Or the star-beams dart through them:—Winds contend 
Silently there, and heap the snow with breath 
Rapid and strong, but silently! Its home 
The voiceless lightning in these solitudes 
Keeps innocently, and like vapour broods 
Over the snow. The secret Strength of things 
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome 
Of Heaven is as a law, inhabits thee! 
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea, 
If to the human mind’s imaginings, 
Silence and solitude were vacancy? 

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Read about the idea of the sublime and find out how the Romantics applied the idea to nature