O God methinks it were a happy life
To be no better than a homely swain;
To sit upon a hill, as I do now,
To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,
Thereby to see the minutes how they run.
—(Shakespeare, William. Henry VI, Act II Scene 5 Lines 21-25)
In a 1972 College English article, Stanford scholar Herbert Lindenberger quotes the above lines from Shakespeare’s Henry VI (Part III). He calls them a “set speech, highly rhetorical, in fact ritualistic in nature…[that call] particular attention to themselves in the way they contrast with the prevailing mode of Shakespeare’s early historical plays” (335). They are Pastoral Poetry, a historical poetic form known to Shakespeare and one of several pastoral versions found in his work.
Pastoral poetry would see a resurgence and renewal in the Romantic Period of literature, much later. Pastoral in this literary sense, and for the Romantics, refers to nature and human dominion over it. A life of spirit, God, Creation, are most fully experienced in Nature. From the view of Transcendentalism (closely associated with Romanticism), this comes when the spirit / soul rises, or connects, to Heaven / Paradise / God through Nature and thus transcends the physical world.
The particular version of the pastoral that Shakespeare employed above, Lindenberger writes, “has a special bearing on the pastoral of Romanticism” (335). What these lines do in particular, Lindenberger explains, is to “…provide a kind of pastoral relief from the bitter realities of the historical world with which the [history] plays are centrally concerned” (335). And how much more do we need this relief than in a time as our own, when life seems more about bitter realities than pleasant sojourns among flowers and trees?
Can we now (re)claim pastoralism / transcendentalism / sublimity in adopting a life of the spirit in our own bitter times? While wars, industry, and bitter politics contribute to the destruction of the “natural world” through habitat destruction, pollution, and global warming—perhaps ultimately destroying life on our planet through the Climate Crisis—can we still find a spiritual connection through nature? Or, as its killers, will we find a Messenger, flaming sword in hand, barring our way?
For Romanticism and Transcendentalism, Nature was not all Pastoral gardens and orchards—aesthetics and philosophy of the movement “divided the natural world into categories: the Pastoral, the Picturesque, and the Sublime,” according to Lauren Rabb, who curated the 2009–2010 University of Arizona Museum of Art exhibit on these themes (19th Century Landscape, unpaginated web page, 2009).
She goes on:
The first two represent Nature as a comforting source of physical and spiritual sustenance. The last, as articulated by Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), refers to the thrill and danger of confronting untamed Nature and its overwhelming forces, such as thunderstorms and deep chasms. Whereas the Pastoral and Picturesque reference mankind’s ability to control the natural world, the Sublime is a humbling reminder that humanity is not all-powerful.
Pastoral landscapes celebrate the dominion of mankind over nature. The scenes are peaceful, often depicting ripe harvests, lovely gardens, manicured lawns with broad vistas, and fattened livestock. Man has developed and tamed the landscape – it yields the necessities we need to live, as well as beauty and safety. The Picturesque — a category developed in the late 1700s by clergyman and artist William Gilpin — refers to the charm of discovering the landscape in its natural state. Gilpin encouraged his followers to engage in “picturesque travel” – the goal of which was to discover beauty created solely by Nature. The artist and the viewer delight in unspoiled panoramas: sunsets behind majestic mountains, an egret taking off from a quiet marsh, a deer bathed in a shaft of light in the woods. These scenes are uplifting, but not frightening.
Sublime images, on the other hand, show Nature at its most fearsome; in fact, Burke believed that “terror is in all cases… the ruling principle of the sublime.” There is an awe and reverence for the wild that to Burke was akin to violent passion. Humanity is small and impotent in front of raging rivers, dizzying cliffs and canyons, ferocious animals, and violent storms. These works can also be uplifting, but in a deeply spiritual way. The Sublime emphasizes God’s dominion over humanity and considers the possible folly in mankind’s overriding confidence.
These three competing ways of looking at Nature are relevant today. In the 21st century, we still debate humanity’s right to use the planet for only our own good. Global warming, mining rights, wildlife preservation and land use are all controversial issues. As you look at these 19th century landscapes [in the exhibition], think about how artists over time have contributed to our view of the natural world and its significance in our lives. (Rabb 2009)
Our encounters with the sublime in the 21st century come in the forms of unprecedented heat waves, storms, floods, wildfires, and winter storms—made much worse as the result of the Climate Crisis—providing terror. However, this fearsome violence shows that mankind’s domination (“dominion over”) nature is neither “uplifting” nor emphasizing “God’s dominion.” Rather, our encounter with the sublimity of The Climate Crisis reveals all too clearly “the possible folly in mankind’s overriding confidence.” These are the consequences of using “the planet for only our own good.”
[Vocative caste of Latin, domin-us lord, master]; English (obsolete), Lord, Master… (excerpted from The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Vol. 1 A–O, p. 786)
mid-15c., “lordship, sovereign or supreme authority,” from Old French dominion “dominion, rule, power” and directly from Medieval Latin dominionem (nominative dominio), corresponding to Latin dominium “property, ownership,” from dominus “lord, master,” from domus “house” (from PIE root *dem- “house, household”).
In law, “power of control, right of uncontrolled possession, use, and disposal” (1650s). From 1510s as “territory or people subject to a specific government or control.”
British sovereign colonies often were called dominions, hence the Dominion of Canada, the formal title after the 1867 union, Dominion Day, the Canadian national holiday in celebration of the union, and Old Dominion, the popular name for the U.S. state of Virginia, first recorded 1778. (Online Etymology Dictionary)
1610s, “to rule over, control by mastery,” a back-formation from domination or else from Latin dominatus, past participle of dominari “to rule, dominate, to govern,” from dominus “lord, master,” from domus “house” (from PIE root *dem- “house, household”).… (Online Etymology Dictionary)
1. Excessive pride or self-confidence.
‘the self-assured hubris among economists was shaken in the late 1980s’
2. (in Greek tragedy) excessive pride towards or defiance of the gods, leading to nemesis. (Lexico)
1884, a back-formation from hubristic or else from Greek hybris “wanton violence, insolence, outrage,” originally “presumption toward the gods;” the first element probably PIE *ud- “up, out” (see out (adv.)) but the meaning of the second is debated. Spelling hybris is more classically correct and began to appear in English in translations of Nietzsche c. 1911. (Online Etymology Dictionary)
[Emphases in bold-violet added.]
The Climate Crisis results from human hubris (excessive pride, but at its root: “wanton violence, insolence, outrage”; presumption toward the gods” through holding one’s self up as equal to the gods) in trying to dominate nature without acknowledging or fully understanding the effects of our own actions. And, with even greater hubris, now that we do understand what we do, defying Creation in greed and selfishness, we resist changing our course.
We need to acknowledge that The Climate Crisis threatens to destroy all life on Earth. If a life of the spirit emerges from or in nature, then we need to transcend a self-centered human greed to embrace a life of the spirit. Then, possibly, we will treat each other better, and work with all diligence to save our planet.
—Michael Dickel ©2019
“Our house is on fire…”
Works Cited in the Essay
Lindenberger, Herbert. “The Idyllic Moment: On Pastoral and Romanticism.” College English, Vol. 34, no. 3, 1972, pp. 335–351. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/375139.
Rabb, Lauren, Curator. “19th Century Landscape—The Pastoral, The Picturesque, and the Sublime.” The University of Arizona Museum of Art. Website. artmuseum.arizona.edu/events/event/19th-century-landscape-the-pastoral-the-picturesque-and-the-sublime.
Michael Dickel is a contributing editor for The BeZine. He writes, creates art, and teaches in Jerusalem, Israel, where he lives with his wife and two young children. The World Behind It, Chaos… (WV? eBookPress, 2009), one of his first books, includes photographs and digital artwork from photos in a free PDF eBook format. His resistance chapbook of poetry, Breakfast at the End of Capitalism (locofo chaps, 2017) can also be downloaded for free as a PDF (or purchased in paper). His latest collection of poetry, Nothing Remembers, came out from Finishing Line Press in September, 2019. Other books include The Palm Reading after The Toad’s Garden, a collection of Flash Fiction (art by Ayelet Cohen), and War Surrounds Us, a collection of poetry, both from Is a Rose Press.