ALL travellers agree, that while the English people are far from being remarkable for their taste in the arts generally, they are unrivalled in their taste for landscape gardening. So completely is this true, that wherever on the continent one finds a garden, conspicuous for the taste of its design, one is certain to learn that it is laid out in the "English style," and usually kept by an English gardener.
Not, indeed, that the south of Europe is wanting in magnificent gardens, which are as essentially national in their character as the parks and pleasure grounds of England. The surroundings of the superb villas of Florence and Rome, are fine examples of a species of scenery as distinct and striking as any to be found in the world; but which, however splendid, fall as far below the English gardens in interesting the imagination, as a level plain does below the finest mountain valley in Switzerland. In the English landscape garden, one sees and feels everywhere the spirit of nature, only softened and refined by art. In the French or Italian garden, one sees and feels only the effects of art, slightly assisted by nature. In one, the free and luxuriant growth of every tree and shrub, the widening and curving of every walk, suggests perhaps even a higher ideal of nature, — a miniature of a primal paradise, as we would imagine it to have been by divine right; in the other, the prodigality of works of art, the variety of statues and vases, terraces and balustrades, united with walks marked by the same studied symmetry and artistic formality, and only mingled with just foliage enough to constitute a garden,— all this suggests rather a statue gallery in the open air, — an accompaniment to the fair architecture of the mansion, than any pure or natural ideas of landscape beauty.
* Original date of August, 1849.
The only writer who has ever attempted to account for this striking distinction of national taste in gardening, which distinguishes the people of northern and southern Europe, is Humboldt. In his last great work — "Cosmos," he has devoted some pages to the consideration of the study of nature, and the description of natural scenery, — a portion of the work in the highest degree interesting to every man of taste, as well as every lover of nature.
In this portion he shows, we think, very conclusively, that certain races of mankind, however great in other gifts, are deficient in their perceptions of natural beauty; that northern nations possess the love of nature much more strongly than those of the south; and that the Greeks and Romans, richly gifted as they were with the artistic endowments, were inferior to other nations in a profound feeling of the beauty of nature.
Humboldt also shows that our enjoyment of natural landscape gardening, which many suppose to have originated in the cultivated and refined taste of a later age, is, on the contrary, purely a matter of national organization. The parks of the Persian monarchs, and the pleasure gardens of the Chinese, were characterized by the same spirit of natural beauty which we see in the English landscape gardens, and which is widely distinct from that elegant formality of the geometric gardens of the Greeks and Romans of several centuries later. To prove how sound were the principles of Chinese taste, ages ago, he gives us a quotation from an ancient Chinese writer, Lieu-tscheu, which might well be the text of the most tasteful improver of the present day, and which we copy for the study of our own readers.
"What is it," says Lieu-tscheu, "that we seek in the pleasures of a garden? It has always been agreed that these plantations should make men amends for living at a distance from what would be their more congenial and agreeable dwelling place, in the midst of nature, free and unconstrained. The art of laying out gardens consists, therefore, in combining cheerfulness of prospect, luxuriance and growth, shade, retirement and repose; so that the rural aspect may produce an illusion. Variety, which is the chief merit in the natural landscape, must be sought by the choice of ground, with alternation of hill and dale, flowing streams and lakes, covered with acpiatic plants. Symmetry is wearisome, and a garden where every thing betrays constraint and art becomes tedious and distasteful".
We shall seek in vain, in the treatises of modern writers, for a theory of rural taste more concise and satisfactory than this of the Chinese landscape garden.
Looking at this instinctive love of nature as a national characteristic, which belongs almost exclusively to distinct races, Humboldt asserts, that while the "profoundest feeling of nature speaks forth in the earliest poetry of the Hebrews, the Indians, and the Semitic and Indo-Germanic nations, it is comparatively wanting in the works of the Greeks and Romans".
"In Grecian art," says he, "all is made to concentrate within the sphere of human life and feeling. The description of nature, in her manifold diversity, as a distinct branch of poetic literature, was altogether foreign to the ideas of the Greeks. With them, the landscape is always the mere background of a picture, in the foreground of which human figures are moving. Passion, breaking forth in action, invited their attention almost exclusively; the agitation of politics, and a life passed chiefly in public, withdrew men's minds from enthusiastic absorption in the tranquil pursuit of nature".
On the other hand, the poetry of Britain, from a very early period, has been especially remarkable for the deep and instinctive love of natural beauty which it exhibits. And here lies the explanation of the riddle of the superiority of English taste in rural embellishment; that people enjoying their gardens the more as they embodied the spirit of nature, while the Italians, like the Greeks, enjoyed them the more as they embodied the spirit of art.
The Romans, tried in the alembic of the great German writer, are found still colder in their love of nature's charms than the Greeks. "A nation which manifested a marked predilection for agriculture and rural life might have justified other hopes; but with all their capacity for practical activity, the Romans, in their cold gravity and measured sobriety of understanding, were, as a people, far inferior to the Greeks in the perception of beauty, far less sensitive to its influence, and much more devoted to the realities of every-day life, than to an idealizing contemplation of nature".
Judging them by their writings, Humboldt pronounces the great Roman writers to be comparatively destitute of real poetic feeling for nature. Livy and Tacitus show, in their histories, little or no interest in natural scenery. Cicero describes landscape without poetic feeling. Pliny, though he rises to true poetic inspiration when describing the great moving causes of the natural universe, "has few individual descriptions of nature." Ovid, in his exile, saw little to charm him in the scenery around him; and Virgil, though he often devoted himself to subjects which prompt the enthusiasm of a lover of nature, rarely glows with the fire of a true worshipper of her mysterious charms. And not only were the Romans indifferent to the beauty of natural landscape which daily surrounded them, but even to the sublimity and magnificence of those wilder and grander scenes, into which their love of conquest often led them. The following striking paragraph, from Humboldt's work, is at once eloquent and convincing on this point:
"No description of the eternal snows of the Alps, when tinged in the morning or evening with a rosy hue, — of the beauty of the blue glacier ice, or of any part of the grandeur of the scenery in Switzerland, — have reached us from the ancients, although statesmen and generals, with men of letters in their train, were constantly passing from Helvetia into Gaul. All these travellers think only of complaining of the difficulties of the way; the romantic character of the scenery seems never to have engaged their attention.
It is even known that Julius Caesar, when returning to his legions, in Gaul, employed his time while passing over the Alps in preparing a grammatical treatise, 'De Analogia.'" The corollary to be drawn from this learned and curious investigation of the history of national sensibility and taste, is a very clear and satisfactory one, viz., that as success, in "the art of composing a landscape" (as Humboldt significantly calls landscape gardening), depends on appreciation of nature, the taste of an individual as well as that of a nation, will be in direct proportion to the profound sensibility with which he perceives the beautiful in natural scenery.
Our own observation not only fully confirms this theory, but it also leads us to the recognition of the fact, that among our countrymen, at the present day, there are two distinct classes of taste in rural art; first, the poetic or northern taste, based on a deep, instinctive feeling for nature; and second, the artistic or symmetric taste, based on a perception of the beautiful, as embodied in works of art.
The larger part of our countrymen inherit the northern or Anglo-Saxon love of nature, and find most delight in the natural landscape garden; but we have also not a few to whom the classic villa, with its artistic adornments of vase and statue, urn and terrace, is an object of much more positive pleasure than the most varied and seductive gardens, laid out with all the witchery of nature's own handiwork.
It is not part of our philosophy to urge our readers to war against their organizations, to whichever path, in the Delectable Mountains, they may be led by them; but those who have not already studied "Cosmos" will, we trust, at least thank us for giving them the key to their natural bias towards one or the other of the two world-wide styles of ornamental gardening.