An exploration of the rise of a modern aesthetic of nature.
Many people spend considerable sums of money on arduous trekking holidays in frozen wastelands or through scorched deserts. These places, which would once have been considered cursed and avoided at all cost, are now sought out or seen as the epitome of a highly spiritual kind of beauty. In The Road to Egdon Heath, the first of a two-part study, Richard Bevis shows that this modern sensibility has its roots in late Renaissance science and natural philosophy. Concentrating on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he traces its development up to 1878 -- when one of its earliest conscious articulations occurs in Thomas Hardy's description of Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native.
Bevis examines a wide range of English, European, and North American texts, literary works as well as religious, scientific, and travel writing. He surveys the literature on mountain climbing, sea voyages, desert travel, and polar exploration, and its metaphorical uses in poetry and fiction. Relying on Addison's term "the Great" rather than "the sublime," he shows how works such as Darwin's journals, Lyell's studies in geology, and de Saussure's books on the Alps helped form an outlook on nature that also found frequent literary expression.
A wide-ranging, interdisciplinary work in the history of ideas, The Road to Egdon Heath traces the growth of an aesthetic sensibility that is now ubiquitous but which would have been incomprehensible prior to the Renaissance. This sensibility underlies not only much of modern literature but also our modern ideas about conservation, ecology, and environmentalism.