The Heart of the Fields: The Mythology of Forster’s English Landscape

The Heart of the Fields
The Mythology of Forster’s English Landscape

In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster writes of Meredith, “What is really tragic and enduring in the scenery of England was hidden from him, and so is what is really tragic in life” (89). However, Forster does not go on to answer the question many readers may find themselves asking: what, exactly, is “tragic and enduring” in England’s landscape?

As far as we know, Forster never explicitly explained this notion. It is up to us to investigate, and what better place to look for clues than in Forster’s own fiction? In Howards End, the English landscape is vividly present, and yet somehow mysterious. Better to understand its presence in this novel—and perhaps to understand Forster’s concept of its tragic and enduring quality—we may examine several facets of the English landscape: as the object of Forster’s almost odic descriptions; as a thematic symbol; in relation to his characters; and finally—and perhaps most importantly—as it is contrasted with contemporary life in the novel.

Let us begin by examining Forster’s descriptions of the landscape. These passages stand out as some of the most beautiful and poetic parts of the novel. He begins one such passage with the phrase “If one wanted to show a foreigner England”, and then proceeds with his description, revealing—if not to the naked eye, then to the imagination—the landscape to foreigners and natives alike. Placing us on “the final section of the Purbeck Hills…a few miles to the east of Corfe,” he describes the view:

…system after system of our island…roll together under [the foreigner’s] feet. Beneath him is the valley of the Frome, and all the wild lands that come tossing down from Dorchester, black and gold, to mirror their gorse in the expanses of Poole. The valley of the Stour is beyond, unaccountable stream, dirty at Blandford, pure at Wimborne—the Stour, sliding out of fat fields, to marry the Avon beneath the tower of Christ church. The valley of the Avon—invisible, but far to the north the trained eye may see Clearbury Ring that guards it, and the imagination may leap beyond that on to Salisbury Plain itself, and beyond the Plain to all the glorious downs of Central England. (Howards End, 142)

This passage employs two literary tools to communicate its meaning. Firstly there is the catalog: Forster lists and briefly describes the “systems” of England, from the Valley of Frome, out to beyond what his imagined viewer’s eye can see. The effect of the catalog is to bring us close to the English landscape—we cannot skim over it as a pleasant notion, but are drawn in by the specific details that Forster describes: the “wild…black and gold” lands of Dorchester; the Stour running dirty and then clean; the “fat fields”; the church’s spire. The provision of such detail indicates to the reader that England’s landscape is important—the close attention that Forster pays, and that we must pay, begins to establish the sense that this landscape is not just scenery.

This sense of the landscape’s significance is only furthered by the second literary tool used in this passage: the invocation of the reader’s imagination, which takes place in the final lines. This is a landscape that inspires the mind—and for Forster, it is not the logical, conscious mind, but the imaginative, unconscious mind. This inspiring function of the landscape is seen even more clearly in the lines that follow, as England’s landscape is placed in contrast with the spread of the city (a contrast we shall see even more clearly later on). Forster writes,

Nor is Suburbia absent. Bournemouth’s ignoble coast cowers to the right, heralding the pine-trees that mean, for all their beauty, red houses, and the Stock Exchange, and extend to the gates of London itself. So tremendous is the City’s trail! But the cliffs of Freshwater it shall never touch, and the island will guard the Island’s purity till the end of time. (143)

The last sentence of this passage takes on an almost declamatory voice, or perhaps even a magical one, as if the narrator is attempting to cast a spell. It harks to the language of the Medieval romance: Forster turns the Isle of Wight (home to the cliffs of Freshwater) and the Island of Britain itself into symbolic presences, one guarding the purity of the other, as a knight and his lady. This mythic language is crucial to establishing the presence of the natural landscape in Howards End. Forster implies in Aspects of the Novel that England’s scenery is rich with meaning; here, through his poetic language, he creates a sense of how that scenery becomes symbol, even though its exact meaning is not yet clear.

Seen from the west the Wight is beautiful beyond all laws of beauty. It is as if a fragment of England floated forward to greet the foreigner—chalk of our chalk, turf of our turf, epitome of what will follow. And behind the fragment lies Southampton, hostess to the nations, and Portsmouth, a latent fire…How many villages appear in this view! How many castles! How many churches, vanished or triumphant! How many ships, railways, and roads! What incredible variety of men working beneath that lucent sky to what final end! The reason fails, like a wave on the Swanage beach; the imagination swells, spreads, and deepens, until it becomes geographic and encircles England. (143)

“Beautiful beyond all laws of beauty”—this is the language of the ode. The rhythms of Forster’s language once again take on the quality of an incantation: “…chalk of our chalk, turf of our turf, epitome of what will follow.” This last clause implies the question: What will follow? And this question once again suggests that England means something. This cannot be clearer than when he invokes archetypal symbolism in describing Southampton and Portsmouth: the former as “hostess to the nations,” the latter “a latent fire.” England is brimming with meaning, and its meaning is woven into its geography.

That meaning, we may then deduce, is itself brimming with some mysterious poignancy. This quality of emotion—which periodically rises so magnificently from the subtlety of Forster’s work—is clear in the final, especially odic lines of this passage, when the speaker himself brims over with several brief, exclamation-pointed clauses, as if overwhelmed by the bounty of England’s richness: its number of villages, castles, churches, ships, railways, roads, and—most poignantly of all—the number of lives lived there, “to what final end.” This important mood of poignancy is perfectly captured in the words “vanished or triumphant” that describe England’s churches and also echo another pair of words: “tragic and enduring.”

This mysterious poignancy deepens our sense that there is something beyond this landscape’s beauty and variety, as fine as those are. We know this, even though we do not know what, exactly, the landscape means, and Forster’s own words describe our state of mind perfectly: “The reason fails, like a wave on the Swanage beach; the imagination swells, spreads, and deepens, until it becomes geographic and encircles England” (143).

This sense of the English landscape having some potent power over the mind is furthered by later passages in the book. Forster writes that Shropshire, “Though robbed of half its magic by swift movement…still conveyed the sense of hills,” and adds, “Quiet mysteries were in progress behind those tossing horizons: the West, as ever, was retreating with some secret which may not be worth the discovery, but which no practical man will ever discover” (180). This is a landscape “robbed of half its magic”—but such a phrase implies the presence of magic, all the same. This is confirmed by the second passage’s mention of mysteries and secrets.

Having examined the descriptions of landscapes, and being left with no doubt that they do contain some particular meaning, we may now turn our attention to the more obvious ways in which landscape and meaning are connected in Howards End. The word mythology has already been invoked to describe Forster’s poetic descriptions of England, and it may be a helpful word to bear in mind. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “myth” firstly as “A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.” Bearing this in mind, let us turn to another revealing passage from Howards End, which takes place when Margaret Schlegel is about to visit the house itself for the first time, and as she walks down the avenue of chestnuts, our narrator reflects,

Why has not England a great mythology? Our folklore has never advanced beyond daintiness, and the greater melodies about our countryside have all issued through the pipes of Greece. Deep and true as the native imagination can be, it seems to have failed here. It has stopped with the witches and the fairies. It cannot vivify one fraction of a summer field, or give names to half a dozen stars. England still waits for the supreme moment of her literature—for the great poet who shall voice her, or, better still, for the thousand little poets whose voices shall pass into our common talk. (228)

view

Forster’s descriptions of the English landscape certainly imply that there is some kind of meaning to be found there, but this passage makes clear his desire for meaning. And bringing to mind the OED’s definition—a myth as something that “provides an explanation,” or in other words, provides meaning—this passage on the missing mythology of England becomes even more significant. What is also clear is that the mythology the narrator desires is a mythology of rural England. He writes that “the greater melodies about our countryside have all issued through the pipes of Greece”—what he longs for is a pastorale, a symphony of stars and summer fields.

Thus far, then, we have seen that Forster senses a particular meaning in the English landscape, and longs for it to be mythologized—although that is what he himself in doing, to a certain degree, in Howards End. Keeping this in mind—and also keeping in mind that sense of the vanished and triumphant that is present in his pastoral descriptions—let us turn our attention to character, for meaning in nature becomes clearer when we examine the characters’ individual relationships with the natural world. The two characters with the strongest attachment to the natural world are Mrs. Wilcox and Margaret, who is

…fascinated by Oniton. She had said that she loved it, but it was rather its romantic tension that held her. The rounded Druids of whom she had caught glimpses in her drive, the rivers hurrying down from them to England, the carelessly modeled masses of the lower hills, thrilled her with poetry. The house was insignificant, but the prospect from it would be an eternal joy… (185)

This passage perfectly encapsulates and strengthens the same sense of the landscape that we have already seen in our narrator: the sense that it is not merely pretty scenery, but a source of “romantic tension.” In this case, Margaret is looking out into Wales, Britain’s mysterious west, a land embodying wildness and ancientness. The same might be said of Scotland and Ireland—along with Wales, they are the previously independent provinces that lie in the north and west, farthest from London’s rule of civilization and progress in the southeast. This is an important distinction, of which we’ve already seen hints: rural England as opposed to industrialized England, with the sense of magic and mystery and meaning residing exclusively in the former. This theme will be subsequently examined in more detail, but for the moment, we remain with this image of Margaret: seated at the border of England and Wales, looking out into a landscape of romantic tension, of poetry. Margaret is in a sense hovering between two Britains in this moment: the “civilized,” “known” Britain to the east, and the wild, mysterious Britain to the west. By implication, the former is urban and suburban, while the latter is rural. This dualism is important to keep in mind as we move on, along with the pairings of the vanished and triumphant, the tragic and enduring.

Another duality—that of England past and present—comes to light when we turn our attention to Mrs. Wilcox, whose connection to nature is imbued with a meaning and mythology that, as we have seen, is so important to Forster’s sense of England. Unlike her husband, Mrs. Wilcox knows about the magical qualities of the wych-elm at Howards End—she tells Margaret, “‘There are pigs’ teeth stuck into the trunk, about four feet from the ground. The country people put them in long ago, and they think that if they chew a piece of the bark, it will cure the toothache. The teeth are almost grown over now, and no one comes to the tree’” (61). When Margaret asks her if the tree could really cure toothache, Mrs. Wilcox replies, “‘Of course it did. It would cure anything—once’” (ibid.).

Forster captures a great deal in this brief exchange: we once again see meaning in nature; mythology in nature, and perhaps most importantly, a suggestion of a past that is gone: the wych-elm could cure anything—once. This brings us to our final, and most important examination: Forster’s English countryside in contrast with industrialism’s encroaching modernism. We begin this analysis keeping in mind the essential points on the English countryside that we have already gleaned from Forster: his premise in Aspects that there is something “tragic and enduring” to be found there; the extended passages in which he waxes poetic about the beauty of the landscape and its ability to inspire the imagination; the suggestion that the landscape possesses an untold mythology; the sense of its essence being something both triumphant and threatened.

And so we turn to our final duality: rural England versus urban England. We see this contrast most vividly embodied in Margaret, who escapes from London to the peaceful countryside at Howards End, and as “the car turned away, and it was as if a curtain had risen. For the second time that day she saw the appearance of the earth” (170). She notices the trees, the hedges, the vines, and is “struck by the fertility of the soil; she had seldom been in a garden where the flowers looked so well, and even the weeds she was idly plucking out of the porch were intensely green” (ibid.). Here, she may forget “the luggage and the motor-cars, and the hurrying men who know so much and connect so little. She recaptured the sense of space, which is the basis of all earthly beauty, and, starting from Howards End, she attempted to realize England” (174). It is clear, then, that there is a promise in the countryside that is not to be found in the city—a promise of connection, invoking the book’s epigraph, “Only connect…” But a connection to what? It is not clear at present, but this is yet another important point to keep in mind as we move on.

Forster’s preference for the countryside is also indicated by his earlier descriptions of the London that Margaret escapes. Out shopping with Mrs. Wilcox, Margaret is disturbed—

The city seemed Satanic, the narrower streets oppressing like the galleries of a mine. No harm was done by the fog to trade, for it lay high, and the lighted windows of the shops were thronged with customers. It was rather a darkening of the spirit which fell back upon itself, to find a more grievous darkness within. (72)

Besides from seeming “satanic”—certainly a condemnation if there ever was one—it is clear that there is something lacking in the city. The famed London fog (originally caused in part by the emissions of coal soot from the city’s industry and individual households) causes a “darkening of the spirit,” suggesting that what is lacking in the city is a certain spirituality—and there is also a troubling lack of permanence in London: the Basts’ house “struck that shallow makeshift note that is so often heard in the dwelling-place. It had been too easily gained, and could be relinquished too easily” (41). The narrator observes, “We are reverting to the civilization of luggage, and historians of the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret of their imaginative poverty” (128). This desire to “take root in the earth” is at the heart of Forster’s tending away from the city and toward the countryside. He does not wish to establish himself in society; rather, he decries the way for the city folk: “They had no part with the earth and its emotions. They were dust, and a stink, and cosmopolitan chatter…” (183).

In these passages, Forster is not setting up a contrast between the countryside and the historical city, the city of all ages. After all, London is deeply permanent in the sense that it has existed since 43 AD. No, the city so troubling to Forster is specifically the industrial city. It is the industrial city that is most truly modern; it is the industrial city that poses the greatest threat to the countryside he so loves. He writes,

And month by month the roads smelt more strongly of petrol, and were more difficult to cross, and human beings heard each other speak with greater difficulty, breathed less of the air, and saw less of the sky. Nature withdrew: the leaves were falling by midsummer; the sun shone through dirt with an admired obscurity. (92)

The crucial word here is process; the crucial phrase in this passage is “month by month.” The industrial city is equated with time moving forward, with the progression of the future. By default, then, we equate the countryside with the past that industry leaves behind. And here, we may begin to answer our initial question: what is tragic and enduring in England’s landscape, and in life itself? When considering the word “tragic,” we must remember we are reading Forster, and that his tragedy will be subtle. With this in mind, we may hear it in the following passage, which poetically encapsulates his woe at the modernization and industrialization of England:

Did not a gentleman once motor so quickly through Westmoreland that he missed it? And if Westmoreland can be missed, it will fare ill with a county whose delicate structure particularly needs the attentive eye. Hertfordshire is England at its quietest, with little emphasis of river and hill; it is England meditative. If Drayton were with us again to write a new edition of his incomparable poem, he would sing the nymphs of Hertfordshire as indeterminate of feature, with hair obfuscated by the London smoke. Their eyes would be sad, and averted from their fate towards the Northern flats, their leader not Isis or Sabrina, but the slowly flowing Lea. No glory of raiment would be theirs, no urgency of dance; but they would be real nymphs (168).

In these lines, Forster mythologizes England: it becomes a land of nymphs. And looking back on what we have observed of Forster’s writing on the English landscape, suddenly it all comes together in one great longing: the longing for the past. When Forster wrote that the British countryside could inspire the imagination, it was the imagining of the past that he had in mind—the past that is somehow visible in the very earth. When he writes long, poetic passages on the beauty of England, it is the ancient England he eulogizes: the England untouched by industrialization. Although he claims that England lacks a mythology of its countryside, in Howards End, as noted above, he himself begins to weave a myth from its hills and fields: as myths are meant to do, he lends meaning to life by suggesting that the emotional and inspiring quality of England’s landscape lies in rural past it embodies. This is the England both vanished and triumphant: vanished because it has, indeed, passed into history; triumphant because it is still visible, to the poetic eye, in those very hills and fields.

This, then is the “true tragedy”, and the endurance, of England’s landscape: its connection to the vanishing past. Tragic because it is vanishing; enduring because it remains visible. The scenery itself is not tragic—Forster does not write of Brontë’s Yorkshire moors, nor of the more remote wilds of Scotland. His scenery is the tamed English garden, the bucolic meadow, the gently rolling hills. He does not see tragedy written in the landscape; it is rather that his English scenery, despite its peace and pleasantness, reflects back to him the tragedy in himself, and in all life: the loss of the past. It might have been more suitable for Forster to use a word such as “poignant” if he was merely describing the poignant beauty of a landscape that is threatened by encroaching industrialization. But it is a tragedy that concerns him: the tragedy of life’s impermanence, and death’s certainty.

But of course, the two losses—of countryside and of life itself—are inextricably linked: in Howards End, Forster writes, “Nature, with all her cruelty, comes nearer to us than do these crowds of men” (92). His use of “us” in this sentence is fascinating, and extremely revealing. The “us” in this sentence is an “us” disconnected from the “crowds of men,” who are emblematic of the city life, and thus the modern life. And this modern life, he suggests, has nothing to do with “us”; thus, we can only assume this “us” is a past us. It is an older us, in the sense of its being from an older time; and yet it is younger, too, in the sense that it is an us of an idealized past, embodied by England’s rolling green landscape: a historical childhood. A nation’s past, before telegrams and anger; before dark satanic mills.

There is poignancy in the fact that England’s rural past is gone, and yet is still so plainly visible in her landscape. But the fact that the landscape does embody these two truths—the past beloved and lost, and yet also not lost—leaves us not only with a sense of poignancy, but of potency. To look into the English countryside and see a nation’s lost past, as well as the lost past of each individual, is certainly bittersweet; but there is more to Forster, to Howards End, to the English landscape, than just mourning for what is lost. What is truly present in the country and missing in the city is not only a sense of the past, but the sense of missing. It is the sense of missing that completes life, fulfilling our longing to be whole. Perhaps, in the end, the real tragedy is not to have this sense of missing—not to face the whole of life, with all that is tragically vanished and all that is triumphantly enduring. Forster, of course, puts it best:

…the graver sides of life, the deaths, the partings, the yearnings for love, have their deepest expression in the heart of the fields. All was not sadness. The sun was shining without. The thrush sang his two syllables on the budding guelder-rose. Some children were playing uproariously in heaps of golden straw. It was the presence of sadness at all that surprised Margaret, and ended by giving her a feeling of completeness. In these English farms, if anywhere, one might see life steadily and see it whole, group in one vision its transitoriness and its eternal youth, connect—connect without bitterness until all men are brothers. (229)

Works Cited

Forster, E.M. Howards End. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. Print.
Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985. Print.
“myth, n.”. OED Online. March 2012. Oxford University Press. 1 April 2012
<http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/124670?rskey=wBQhWS&result=1>.

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About Kestrel Slocombe

I like writing, meditation, art, reading, riding horses, playing guitar, watching trees in the wind, ferns, the smell of woodsmoke, Mozart and Bach, long walks in the wilderness, and the sound of the cello.
This entry was posted in Britain, Innocence, Intellectual Life, Literature, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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