Joseph Wright was profoundly moved by the sight of Vesuvius during his visit to Italy in 1774. He did not see the eruption of 1777, but contemporary accounts must surely have played a part in this glowing canvas. Not all of us have the opportunity to see volcanoes erupting (other than on news footage, obviously): most of us have seen mountains. Might it be impossible to be indifferent to mountains? Whether it’s walking in North Wales, skiing in the Alps or – for the adventurous few – trekking in the Himalayas, we seem to gain something from the experience of being in the midst of these gigantic forms. I love the effort and exhilaration of reaching the summit, the sharp cold air, the vast map of land stretched out below. Yet I am somehow fearful when mountains crowd around me, stepping between me and the sun, blocking my way.
Literature is full of mountains, their drama and impact used to symbolic effect. In Washington Square , Henry James takes his unfortunate heroine, Catherine Sloper and her overbearing father to the Alps. This nineteenth century single parent family are at odds over Catherine’s choice of fiancé. She has engaged herself to Morris Townsend despite her father’s disapproval. Dr Sloper believes Morris is merely after Catherine’s considerable fortune. Ridiculous, in his opinion, to consider that the dashing Morris would be interested in Catherine – dull, quiet and plain – for any other reason. Catherine worships her clever father, but despite his opposition, she loves Morris with an intense passion. During the six months of their European tour, she has not wavered in her devotion to Morris and her intention to marry him on her return to the States. Dr Sloper is increasingly irritated by this unexpected resistence from his weak and biddable child. The confrontation between them, when it finally happens, is in a bleak, mountainous landscape, which seems to intensify Catherine’s isolation and her father’s harshness.
From Washington Square by Henry James
One day at the end of the summer, the two travellers found themselves in a lonely valley of the Alps. They were crossing one of the passes, and on the long ascent they had got out of the carriage and had wandered much in advance. After a while the Doctor descried a footpath which, leading through a transverse valley, would bring them out, as he justly supposed, at a much higher point of the ascent. They followed this devious way, and finally lost the path; the valley proved very wild and rough, and their walk became rather a scramble. They were good walkers, however, and they took their adventure easily; from time to time they stopped, that Catherine might rest; and then she sat upon a stone and looked about her at the hard-featured rocks and the glowing sky. It was late in the afternoon, in the last of August; night was coming on, and, as they had reached a great elevation, the air was cold and sharp. In the west there was a great suffusion of cold, red light, which made the sides of the little valley look only the more rugged and dusky. During one of their pauses, her father left her and wandered away to some high place, at a distance, to get a view. He was out of sight; she sat there alone, in the stillness, which was just touched by the vague murmur, somewhere, of a mountain brook. She thought of Morris Townsend, and the place was so desolate and lonely that he seemed very far away. Her father remained absent a long time; she began to wonder what had become of him. But at last he reappeared, coming towards her in the clear twilight, and she got up, to go on. He made no motion to proceed, however, but came close to her, as if he had something to say. He stopped in front of her and stood looking at her, with eyes that had kept the light of the flushing snow-summits on which they had just been fixed. Then, abruptly, in a low tone, he asked her an unexpected question:
“Have you given him up?”
The question was unexpected, but Catherine was only superficially unprepared.
“No, father!” she answered.
He looked at her again for some moments, without speaking.
“Does he write to you?” he asked.
“Yes–about twice a month.”
The Doctor looked up and down the valley, swinging his stick; then he said to her, in the same low tone:
“I am very angry.”
She wondered what he meant–whether he wished to frighten her. If he did, the place was well chosen; this hard, melancholy dell, abandoned by the summer light, made her feel her loneliness. She looked around her, and her heart grew cold; for a moment her fear was great. But she could think of nothing to say, save to murmur gently, “I am sorry.”
“You try my patience,” her father went on, “and you ought to know what I am, I am not a very good man. Though I am very smooth externally, at bottom I am very passionate; and I assure you I can be very hard.”
She could not think why he told her these things. Had he brought her there on purpose, and was it part of a plan? What was the plan? Catherine asked herself. Was it to startle her suddenly into a retraction–to take an advantage of her by dread? Dread of what? The place was ugly and lonely, but the place could do her no harm. There was a kind of still intensity about her father, which made him dangerous, but Catherine hardly went so far as to say to herself that it might be part of his plan to fasten his hand–the neat, fine, supple hand of a distinguished physician–in her throat. Nevertheless, she receded a step. “I am sure you can be anything you please,” she said. And it was her simple belief.
“I am very angry,” he replied, more sharply.
“Why has it taken you so suddenly?”
“It has not taken me suddenly. I have been raging inwardly for the last six months. But just now this seemed a good place to flare out. It’s so quiet, and we are alone.”
“Yes, it’s very quiet,” said Catherine vaguely, looking about her. “Won’t you come back to the carriage?”
“In a moment. Do you mean that in all this time you have not yielded an inch?”
“I would if I could, father; but I can’t.”
The Doctor looked round him too. “Should you like to be left in such a place as this, to starve?”
“What do you mean?” cried the girl.
“That will be your fate–that’s how he will leave you.”
He would not touch her, but he had touched Morris. The warmth came back to her heart. “That is not true, father,” she broke out, “and you ought not to say it! It is not right, and it’s not true!”
He shook his head slowly. “No, it’s not right, because you won’t believe it. But it is true. Come back to the carriage.”
He turned away, and she followed him; he went faster, and was presently much in advance. But from time to time he stopped, without turning round, to let her keep up with him, and she made her way forward with difficulty, her heart beating with the excitement of having for the first time spoken to him in violence. By this time it had grown almost dark, and she ended by losing sight of him. But she kept her course, and after a little, the valley making a sudden turn, she gained the road, where the carriage stood waiting. In it sat her father, rigid and silent; in silence, too, she took her place beside him.
William Wordsworth’s love of the Lake District is well known. Much of the poet’s inspiration and, indeed, beliefs came from the natural world and the unspoilt landscapes through which he strode. In The Prelude Wordsworth writes of the moral guidance which, so it seemed to him, he received from Nature. In the extract which follows, the young boy slips out at night and rows a boat out onto Ullswater. Of course he has not asked permission to use the boat. As he rows towards a point he has determined to reach in the centre of the lake, form behind the mountain opposite, a second taller peak suddenly apprears. No matter how he rows to try to hide this looming bulk behind the first mountain, he cannot. It has a profound effect on him.
From The Prelude by William Wordsworth
One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cave, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark,–
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood;
Do let me know your thoughts about these and any other landscape texts which have made an impression on you