About ten days ago I rediscovered the first landscape poem in English. I came across it by chance and remembered having read it about 30 years ago, when I don’t think I had understood its significance. This time, I was struck by the modernity of its sentiments. The poem is Coopers Hill by Sir John Denham. I don’t particularly recommend it unless you feel inclined to immerse yourself in 354 lines of a disquisition on parliamentary monarchy in heroic couplets, but it is an interesting poem nevertheless.
It is identified as the first landscape poem in the English language because it is the first to give poetic expression to a specific place (Cooper’s Hill is near Egham in Surrey). Before this, poetry had often evoked landscape, but it was either the classical landscape of mythology or a generic landscape – ‘the lofty hill’ or ‘the grassy knoll’. What Denham’s poem does, for the first time, is relate specific ideas, feelings and sensibilities to specific places and views.
I knew very little about Denham, but wondered why he should have been the first poet to write in this way. I then discovered that as well as being a poet he had succeeded Inigo Jones as Surveyor of the King’s Works, and had in turn been succeeded by Sir Christopher Wren. Was he perhaps the first English poet to combine the Vitruvian aesthetics of ‘firmness, commodity and delight’ with literary sensibility?
Denham’s work was very influential and it inspired many other landscape poems for the following century and a half. The most famous among these are Alexander Pope’s Windsor Forest (1713) and Thomas Gray’s Ode to a Distant Prospect of Eton College (1740), as well, of course, his masterpiece Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1742). Later on, this style of landscape poetry was tortured beyond recognition by William Blake into bizarre and very un-Augustan shapes, in which every street corner or stand of trees represents some kind of portal to a parallel universe. It was eventually drowned unceremoniously in the chilly waters of Windermere by the Romantic poets, who were inspired by the ‘sublime’. For Wordsworth and Coleridge, this was the Lake District; for Shelley, it was the Alps. They yearned for a nature that was primeval and (allegedly) untouched by human hands. The Romantics loved the thrill of being confronted by the implacable and the terrifying, which encouraged reflections on the elemental and spontaneous creative feelings of one’s own spirit.
The value of landscape in Denham’s poem is quite different. It evokes quieter virtues such as loyalty, industry, and community spirit. The balance between nature and agriculture, between town and country, between the exterior view and the internal vision, are the pleasures that the poet recounts. But the reason I wanted to write about it in this post is really none of the things I have mentioned, or indeed the many other interesting aspects of the poem that I have not touched on. It is the opening lines.
The poem begins with a conceit linking Cooper’s Hill with Mount Parnassus in Greece and Denham with the classical poets. He concludes ‘if I can be to thee a poet, thou Parnassus art to me.’ In other words, it is not because Cooper’s Hill ‘is’ Parnassus, and therefore the home of the Muses, that inspired Denham to write poetry. According to him, it is the other way around. The very fact that he, the poet, has chosen Cooper’s Hill as a place of inspiration is what has transformed it into the English Parnassus. It is not the place that inspires the poet, it is the poet who invests the place with meaning.
I stopped and re-read these lines several times before moving on, because they are so important. Nothing could be more at odds with the Romantic idea, which we still largely hold today, that the ‘spirit of the place’ moves the human soul. Denham clearly says that it is the human imagination that creates meaning and which therefore transforms mere topographical features into an ordered and significant cultural landscape.
This piece of social constructivism is a pretty remarkable sentiment for 1642, but something else was nagging away at me about it. It took a little bit longer for me to make the connection: The first landscape poem in the English language begins with eight lines that exactly echo the opening words of Article 1 of the European Landscape Convention:
Landscape’ means an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors.
If you don’t feel like reading all 354 lines of Denham’s poem (and many of them are rather heavy chewing), that will stand as a very elegant summary of what it says.