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almost unconsciously to himself, the external world becomes
a subject of the imagination. The undue preponderance of
the descriptive element shews itself in the forty-eight cantos
of the Dionysiaca of the Egyptian Nonnus, which are dis-
tinguished by a very artfully constmcted verse. This poet
takes pleasure in describing great revolutions of nature; he
make$ a fire kindled by lightning on the wooded banks of

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the Hydaspes bum even the fish in the bed of the river; he
tells how ascending vapours produce the meteorological
processes of storm and electric rain. Nonnus of Panopolis
^ inclined to romantic poetry, and is remarkably unequal;
at times spirited and interesting, at others verbose and

A more delicate sensibility to natural beauty shews itself
occasionally in the Greek AnAology, which has been handed
down to us in such various ways, and from such different
periods. In the pleasing translation by Jacobs, all that
relates to plants and animals is collected in one section :
these passages form small pictures, most commonly, of only
single objects. The plane tree, which " nourishes among
its boughs the grape swelling with rich juice,^' and which,
in the time of Dionysius the Elder, reached the banks of
the Sicilian Anapus from Asia Minor, through the Island of'
Diomedes, occurs perhaps but too often ; stiU, on the whole,
the antique mind shews itself in these songs and epigrams as
more inclined to dwell on animal than on vegetable forms.

The vernal idyll of Meleager of Gadara in Coelo-Syria is
a noble and more important composition (^*). I am un-
willing, were it only for the ancient renown of the locality,
to omit all notice of the description of the wooded Vale of
"'^mpe given by JElian {^^), probably from an earher notice
by Piceaxchus. It is the most detailed description of
natural scenery by a Greek prose writer which we possess ;
and, although topographic, is at the same time picturesque.
The shady valley is enlivened by the Pythian procession
(theoria), "which gathers from the sacred laurel the
reconciling bough.'*

In the latest Byzantine epoch, towards the end of th«

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fourth century, vre find descriptions of scenery frequently
introduced in the romances of the Greek prose writers; as
in the pastoral romance of Longus (^^), in which, however,
the author is much more successful in the tender scenear
taken from life, than in the expression of sensibiKty to the
beauties of nature*

It is not the object of these pages to introduce more than
^uch few references to particular forms of poetic art, as may
tend to illustrate general considerations respecting the poetic
conception of the external world; and I should here quit
the flowery circle of Hellenic antiquity, if, in a work to which
I have ventured to give the name of " Cosmos,^' I could
pass over in silence the description of nature, with which the
pseudo AristoteKan book of the Cosmos (or " Order of the
Universe'^) commences. This description shews us "the
terrestrial globe adorned with luxuriant vegetation, abun-
dantly watered, and, which is most worthy of praise, inha-
bited by thinking beings'' (i^). The rhetorical colouring
of this rich picture of nature, so imlike the concise and
purely scientific manner of the Stagirite, is one of the many
indications by which it has been judged not to have been
his composition. Conceding this point, and ascribing it to
Appuleius (^®), or to Chrysippus (i^), or to any other author,
its place is fully suppUed by a brief but genuine fragment
wliich Cicero has preserved to us from a lost work of
Aristotle (2<>). "If there were beings living in the depths
of the earth, in habitations adorned with statues and paint-
ings, and every thing which is possessed in abundance by
those whom we call fortunate, and if these beings should
receive tidings of the dominion and power of the gods, and
'^hould then be brought from their hidden dwelling

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places to the surface which we inhabit, and should sud-
denly behold the earth, lyid the sea;, and the vault of
heaven ; should perceive the broad expanse of the clouds and
the strength of the winds; should admire the sun in his
majesty, beauty, and eflFdlgence; and, lastly, when night veiled
the earth in darkness, should gaze on the starry firmament, the
waxing and wauiug moon, and the stars rising and setting
in their unchanging course, ordained from eternity, they
would, of a truth, exclaim, 'there are gods, and such great
things are their work/ '* It has been justly said, that these
words would alone be sufficient to confirm CScero^s opinion
of "the golden flow of the Aristotelian eloquence" (2^), and
that there breathes in them somewhat of the inspired genius
of Plato. Such a testimony as this to the existence of
heavenly powers, from the beauiy and infinite grandeur of
the works of creation, is indeed rare in classical antiquity.

That which we miss with regard to the Greeks, I will not
say in their appreciation of natural phsenomena, but in the
direction which their literature assumed, we find still more
sparingly among the Eomans. A nation which, in conformity
with the old Siculian manners, manifested a marked predilec-
tion for agriculture and rural life, might have justified other
hopes; but with all their capacity for practical activity, the
Bomans, in their cold gravity, and measured sobriety of
understanding, were, as a people, far inferior to the Greeks
in the perception of beauty, and far less sensitive to its influ-
ence ; and were much more devoted to the realities of every-
day life, than to an idealising poetic contemplation of nature.

These inherent differences between the Greek and Eoman
mind are faithfully reflected, as is always the case with
national character, in their respective literatures ; and I must

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add to this consideration, that of the acknowledged difference
in the organic structure of the two languages, notwithstand-
ing the affinity between the races. The language of ancient
Latium is regarded as possessing less flexibility, a more
limited adaptation of words, and '' more of realistic tendency"
than of 5' ideal mobility/' The predilection for the imita-
tion of foreign Greek models in the Augustan age, might,
moreover, have been unfavourable to the free outpourings of
the native mind and feelings in r^erence to nature ; but yet,
powerful minds, animated by love of country, have effectually
surmounted these varied obstacles, by creative individuality,
by elevation of ideas, and by tender grace in their presenta-
tion. The great poem which is the fruit of the rich genius
of Lucretius, embraces the whole Cosmos : it has much
affinity with the works of Empedocles and Parmenides ; and
the grave tone in which the subject is presented is enhanced
by its archaic diction. Poetry and philosophy are closely
interwoven in it ; without, however, faUing into that coldness
of composition, which, as contrasted with Plato's views of
nature so rich in imagination, is severely blamed by the rhetor
Menander, in the sentence passed by him on the '^ hymns to
nature*' {^^). My brother has pointed out, with great in-
genuity, the striking analogies and diversities produced by
the interweaving of metaphysical abstraction with poetry in
the ancient Greek didactic poems, in that of Lucretius, and
in the Bhagavad-Gita episode of the Lidian epic Mahab-
harata (^3). Li the great physical picture of the universe
traced by the Soman poet, we find contrasted with Lis
ehiUing atomic doctrine, and his often extravagantly wild
geolo^cal fancies, the &esh and animated description of
mankind exchanging the thickets of the forest for the pur-

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suits of agricnilture, the subjugation of natural forces, the
cultivation of the intellect and of language, and the forma-
tion of civil society (2*),

When, in the midst of the busy and agitated life of a
statesman, and in a mind excited by poUtical passions, an
animated love of nature and of rural solitude still subsists,
its source must be sought in the depths of a great and
noble character. Cicero^s writings shew the truth of
this assertion. Although it is generally recognised that in
the book De Legibus, and in that of the Orator, many things
are imitated from the Phaedrus of Plafco(2*), yet the picture
of Italian nature does not lose its individuality and truth.
Flato, in liaore general characters, praises the dark shade of
the lofty plane tree, the luxuriant abundance of fragrant
herbs and flowers, the sweet summer breezes, and the chorus
of grasshoppers.^' In Cicero's smaller pictures, we find, as
has been recently well remarked (2®), all those features
which we still recognise in the actual landscape : we see the
Liris shaded by lo% poplars; and in descending the steep
mountain side to the east, behind the old castle of Arpinum^
we look on the grove of oaks near the Fibrenus, as well as
on the island now called Isola di Gamello, which is formed
by the division of the stream, and iuto which Cicero retired,
as he says, to " give himself up to his meditations, to read,
or to write/' Arpinum, on the Volscian Mountains, was
the birthplace of the great statesman; and his mind and
character w^re doubtless influenced in his boyhood by the
grand scenery of the vicinity. In the mind of man, the
reflex action of the external aspect of surrounding nature is
early and unconsciously blended with ih&t winch belongs to

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the original tendencies^ capacities, and powers of his own
inner being.

In the midst of the stormy and eventful period of tha
year 708 (from the foundation of Eome), Cicero found con-
solation in his villas, alternately at Tusculum, Arpinum,
Cunwe, and Antium. '^ Nothing/^ he writes to Atticus (^),
'' can be more ddightftd than this solitude; more pleasing
than this country dwelling, the neighbouring shore, and
the prospect over the sea. In the lonely island of Astur%
at the mouth of the river of the same name, and on the
shore of the Tyrrhenian sea, no human being disturbs me ;
and when, early in the morning, I hide myseK in a thick
wild forest, I do not leave it until the evening. Next to
my Atticas, nothing is so dear to me as solitude, in which I
cultivate intercourse with philosophy^ but this intercourse
is often interrupted with tears. I strive against these as
much as I can, but I have not yet prevailed.^* It has been
lepeatedly remarked, that in these letters, and in those of
the younger Pliny, expressions resembling those so common
amongst the sentimental writers of modem times may be
unequivocally recogmsed; I jSnd in them only the accents
of a mind deeply moved, such as in every age, and every
nation or race, escape from the heavily-oppressed bosom.

From the general diffusion of Boman literature, the master
works of Virgil, Horace, and Tibullus, are so widely and
intimately known, that it would be superfluous to dwell on
individual instances of the delicate and ever wakeful sensi-
bility to nature, by which many of them are animated. In
the Mndd, the epic character forbids the appearance of
descriptions of natural scenes and objects otherwise, than as

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sabordinate and accidental features^ limited to a very small
space; individual localities are not pourtrayed (^s), but an
intimate understanding and love of nature manifest them-
selves occasionally with peculiar beaaty. Where have the
soft play of the waves, and the repose of night, ever been,
more happily described? and how finely do these mild and
tender images contrast with the powerful representations of
the gathering and bursting tempest in the first book of the
Georgics, and with the descriptions in the JBneid of the
navigation and landing at the Strophades, the crashing fall
of the rock, and of Mtnsk with its flames (^). We might
have expected from Ovid, m the fruit of his long sojourn in
the plains of Tomi in Lower Msesia, a poetic description of
flie aspect of nature in the steppes ; but none such has come
down to us from antiquity, either from him or from any other
writer. The Soman exile did not indeed see that kind of
gteppe which in summer is thickly covered by rich herbage
and flowering plants from four to six feet high, which, as
each breeze passes over them, present the pleasing picture
of an undulating many-coloured sea of flowers and verdure.
The place of his banishment ufas a desolate marshy district.
The broken spirit of the exile, which yielded to unmanly
lamentations, was filled with recollections of the social
pleasures and the political occurrences of Eome, and had no
place for the contemplation of the Scythian desert by which
he was surrounded. On the other hand, this richly-gifted
poetj^ 80 powerful in vivid representation, has given us,
besides general descriptions of grottos, fountains, and silent
moonlight nights, which are but too frequently repeated, an
eminently-characteristic, and even geologically-important
description of the volcanic eruption at Methone bet^^een

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Epidaurus and TroBzene^ which has been referred to in the
'^General View of Nature'^ contained in the preceding
volume (30).

It is especially to be r^retted that TibuUns should not
have left us any great composition descriptive of natural
scenery, general or individual. He belongs to the few
among the poets of the Augustan age who, being hap^y
strangers to the Alexandrian learning, and devoted to retire-
ment and a rural Ufe, fiill of feeling and therefore simple^
dre^ from their own resources. Elegies are indeed portraits
of mind and manners of which the landscape forms only the
background; but the Lustration of the Fields and the 6th
Elegy of the .irst book shew what mighi have been expected
from the friend of Horace and Messala. (^i)

Lucan, the grandson (d ibe rh^or Marcus AnnsBus
Seneca., is indeed only too nearly related ,to his progenitor
in tiie rhetwical omateness of his style; yet we find among
his writings a fine description of the destruction of a Druidic
forest (32) on the now treeless shore of Marseilles, which is
thoroughly true to nature : the severed oaks, leaning against
each other, support themselves for a time before they fall;
and, denuded of their leaves, admit the first ray of light to
penetrate the awful gloom of the sacred shade. Those who
have lived long in the forests of the New Continent, feel
how vividly the poet has depicted, with a few traits, the
luxuriant growth of trees whose giant remains are still found
buried in turf bogs in Prance {^).

In a didactic poem entitled iEtna, written by Lucilius
the Younger, a friend of L. Annseus Seneca, the phseno-
mena of a volcanic eruption are described, not inaccurately,
but vet in a far less animated and characteristic manner than

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in the ^'Mtna, Dialogus'^ {^) of the youthful Bembo, men-
tioned with praise in the preceding volume.

When, after the close of the fourth century, poetry
in its grander and nobler forms faded away, as if ex-
hausted, poetic attempts, deprived of the magic of creative
imagination, were occupied only with the drier realities of
knowledge and description : and a certain rhetorical polish
rf style could ill replace the simple feeUng for nature,
and the idealising inspiration, of an earlier age. We may
name as a production of this barren period, in which tho
poetic element appears only as an accidental and merely
external ornament, a poem on the Mo elle, by Ausonius, a
native of Aquitanian Gaul, who had ac<x rapanied Valentinian
in his campaign against the Allemamu. The ^'Mosella,'^
which was ocanposed at ancient Treves ('^), describes some-
times not unpleasingly the already vine-covered hflb of
one of the loveUest rivers of Germany ; but the mere topo-
graphy of the country, the enumeration o"^ the streams which
flow into the Moselle, and the characters, m form, colour,
and habits, of some of the diff^ent kinds of fish which are
found in the river, are the principal objeccs of this purdy
didactic composition.

In the works of Eoman prose writers, among which we
have already referred to some remarkable passages by Cicero,
descriptions of natural scenery are as rare as in those of
Greek writers of the same class; but the great historians —
Juhus Qsesar, Livy, and Tacitus — ^in relating the conflicts
of men with natural obstacles and with hostile forces, are
sometimes led to give descriptions of fields of battle, and
of the passage of rivers, or of di£Bcul' mountain passes. In
tibe Annals of Tacitus, I am delighted with the description

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of G^ermanicns's unsaccessM navigation of the Amisia, and
with the grand geographical sketch of the mountain chains
of Syria and of Palestine {^). Curtius (^7) has left us a
fine natural picture of a forest wilderness to the west of
Helcatompylos, through which the Macedonian army had
to pass in entering the humid province of Mazanderan;
to which I would refer more in detail^ if, in a writer
whose period is so uncertam, we could distinguish with
any security between what he has drawn from his own
lively imagination^ and what he has derived from historic

The great encyclopsedic work of the elder Pliny, which,
as his nephew, the younger Phny, has finely said, is '' varied
as nature herself/^ and which, in the abundance of its
contents, is unequalled by any other ancient work, will be
referred to in the sequel, when treating of the '^ EEstoiy of
the Contemplation of the Universe/' This work, which
exerted *a powerful influence on the whole of the middle
ages, is a most remarkable result of the disposition to com-
prehensive, but often indiscriminate collection. Unequal in
style — sometimes simple and narrative, sometimes thoughtful^
animated, and rhetorically ornate — ^it has, as, indeed, might
be expected from its form, few individual descriptions 0/
nature; but wherever the grand concurrent action of the
forces in the universe, the well-ordered Cosmos (naturae
majestas), is the object of contemplation, we cannot mistake
the evidences of true inward poetic inspiration.

We would gladly adduce the pleasantly-situated villas ol
the Eomans, on the Pincian Mount, at Tusculum, and
Tibur, on the promontory of Misenum, and near Puteoli and
Baise, as evidences of a love of nature, if these spots had not,

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like those in which were the viHas of Scaoros and Msecenas,
Lucnllus and Adrian^ been crowded with sumptuous build-
ings — temples^ theatres, and race-courses alternating with
ttviaries and houses for rearing snails and dormice. The
dder Scipio had surrounded his more simple country seat
at litumum with towers like a fortress. The name of
Matius^ a friend oi Augustus, has been handed down to us
as that of the individual whose predilection for unnatural
constraint first introduced the custom of cutting and training
trees into artificial imitations of architectural and plastic
models. The letters of the younger Plmy famish us with
pleasing descriptions of two (^^) of his numerous villas,
Laurentinum and Tuscum. Although buildings, surrounded
by box cut into artificial forms, are more num^ous and
crowded than our taste tor nature would lead Uw to desire,
yet these descriptions, as well as the mutation of the Vale
of Tempe in the Tiburtine villa of Adrian,, shew us tLat
among the inhabitants of the imperial city, the love of
art, and the solicitous care for comfort and convenience
manifested in the dioice of the positions of their country
houses with reference to the sun and to the prevailing
winds, might be associated with love for the free enjoyment
of nature. It is cheering to be able to add, that on the
estates of PUny this enjoyment was less disturbed than
elsewhere by the painfol features of slavery. The wealthy
proprietor was not only one of the most learned men of Lis
period, but he had abo those compassionate and truly
humane feelings for the lower classes of the people who were
not in the enjoyment of freedom, of which the expression at
least is most rare in antiquity. At his villas fetters were
unused; and he provided that the slave^ as a cultivator of

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the soU, should freely bequeath that which he had
acquired (^).

No description of the eternal snows of the Alps, when tmged
m the morning or evening with a rosy hue, of the beauty of
tlie blue glacier ice, or of any part of the grandeur of the
scenery of Switzerland, have reached us from the ancients,
although statesmen and generals, with men of letters in
their traiji, were constantly passing through Helvetia into
Gaul. All these travellers think only of complaining of
the difficulties of the way; the romantic character of the
scenery never seems to have engaged their attention. It is
even known that Julius Caesar, when returning to his legions
in Gfaul, employed his time, while passing over the Alps, in
preparing a grammatical treatise "De Analogia'^ (*®).
Silius Italicus, who died under Trajan, when Switzerland
was already in great measure cultivated, describes the
district of the Alps merely as an awful and barren wilder-
ness (**) ; although he elsewhere loves to dwell in verse on
the rocky ravines of Italy, and the wood-fringed banks of
the Liris (Gnrigliano) (*2). It is deserving of notice that
the remarkable appearance of groups of jointed basaltic
columns, such as are seen in several parts of the interior of
France, on the banks of the Ehine, and in Lombardy, never
cngagcfl the attention of the Eomans sufficiently to lead
their writers to describe or even to mention them.

At the period when the feelings which had animated
classical antiquity, and had directed the minds oi men to the
active manifestation of human power, almost to the exclu-
sion of the passive contemplation of the natural world, were
expiring, a new influence, and new modes of thought, were

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gaming sway. Christianity gradually diffused itself; and,
as where it was received as the religion of the state, its bene-
ficent action on the lower classes of the people favoured
the general cause of civil freedom, so also did it render
man's contemplation of nature more enlai^ed and free.
The forms of the Olympic gods no longer fixed the eyes of
men : the fathers of the church proclaimed, in tfieir sestheti-
caUy correct, and often poetically .imaginative language,
that the Creator shews himself great no less in inanimate
than in hving nature; in the wild strife of the elements as
well as in the silent progress of organic development But
during the gradual dissolution of the Boman Empire,
vigour of imagination, and simplicity and purity of diction,
declined more and more, first in the Latin countries, and
afterwards in the Gredc or eastern portion of the empire.
A predilection for solitude, for saddened meditation, and
for an internal absorption of mind, seems to have influenced
simultaneously both the language itself and the colouring of
the style.

Where a new element appe&s to develop itself suddenly
and generally in the feelings of men, we may almost always
trace earlier indications of a deep-seated germ existing pre-
viously in detached and solitary instances. The softness
of Mimnermus (*3) has often been called a sentimental
direction of the mind. The ancient world is not abruptly
separated from the modem; but changes in the religious
sentiments and apprehensions of men, in their tenderest moral
feelings, and in the particular mode of life of those who
influence the ideas of the masses, gave a sudden predomi-
nance to that which previously escaped nonce.

The tendency of the Christian mind was Co shew the

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greatness and goodness of the Creator from the order of the
universe and the .beauty of nature ; and this desire to glorify
the Deity through his works^ favoured a disposition for
natural descriptions. We find the earliest and most detailed
instances of this kind in the writings of Minucius Felix, a
rhetorician and advocate living in Bome in the beginning
of the thircl century, and a contemporary of Tertullian and
Philostratus. We follow him with pleasure in the evening

Online LibraryAlexander von HumboldtCosmos, Volume 2 → online text (page 2 of 43)