Landscape and Sehnsucht

I am one of those for whom, as Eve Garrard wrote in her piece on Landscape that I recently posted ‘landscape is much more than a source of pleasing aesthetic or nostalgic experiences; as one of its most famous, and longwinded, representatives noted, it’s a haunting passion, it’s something which shapes a whole life. For these people, every natural scene, every fall of land or changing colour of the sea, speaks its own unique, intense, significant word – as they keep telling us, at frankly tedious length. The word in question seems always to be in a foreign language whose translation manual we’ve permanently mislaid, but nonetheless this unknown language seems to be experienced by landscape devotees as being utterly, overwhelmingly, filled with meaning and beauty, of a kind which induces an intense and nameless longing for who knows what.’

Not only the word that the landscape speaks, but the word most fitting to describe the experience induced by it, is in a foreign language, in this case German: sehnsucht. In seeking help in translating the word, I came across the following extract from an interesting blog.

‘The Germans have a word I’ve long admired: sehnsucht. There is no easy English translation, although it is generally translated “longing” or “yearning.” The German idea goes a good deal deeper into the quasi-mystical.

One author translated it as the “inconsolable longing in the human heart for we know not what.” Another compared it to “a longing for a far off country, but not one which we could identify”. C.S. Lewis called it [in his autobiography Surprised by Joy]

“That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”‘ (Tyler Huckabee, )

Lewis famously used Joy as a technical term for this experience, and it is Joy that will be the focus of my next few posts.

After the war, my parents decided to buy an hotel in the Yorkshire Dales. (They had both been evacuated at the start of the war, with the children and the other teachers at Gateshead Grammar School, to Askrigg in Wensleydale, and had fallen in love with it.) They found what they were looking for in Reeth in Swaledale: the Arkleside Hotel. Swaledale is wilder and bleaker than Wensleydale; the story goes that the Romans never conquered it, but merely bypassed it. The hotel was not a commercial success, given the exhausted state of the economy after the war, but I spent my formative years there – from three to seven years old. It was very remote. All children between 5 and 11 were taught in the one room village school, to which we walked in all weathers. Reeth is enclosed by fairly rugged fells, and these gave me my first experience of Joy. Indeed, in my case the longing took a concrete form; I ached to explore them. I don’t recall that I ever did. I was too young to be left to wander on my own, and my parents were very busy at the hotel. Our annual holidays were spent on the North Yorkshire coast in Whitby. Selective memory is supposed to colour one’s childhood summers with sun and warmth. My abiding memory of Whitby was that it was cold, windy, and wet. Watching the fishing boats in the harbour, and climbing up the steps to the Abbey soon began to pall, and the view of the grey menacing North Sea aroused only the most mundane feelings of longing – for a warm café or even a hospitable shop.

No, it was those fellsides, denuded of trees, pocked by mine shafts, and sprinkled with rock that gave me my first glimpse of Joy. Once we had moved to Nottingham there were other Joyful moments, and not all induced by country scenes. But it was the hills of the North that called to me, and played a large role in making me who I am. So when, after reading each of the Chronicles of Narnia as they were published, I read Surprised by Joy, I knew immediately that here was someone who understood. Lewis describes First Friendship as a meeting of minds; the discovery, amazing though it is, that you are not alone in what you feel and care about. In a way, Lewis was my first friend, though an absent one.

There are two great interwoven themes in the early part of his autobiography: Joy and Northernness. For Lewis, Joy was found in many things, but especially landscape, literature, and music. And so it is with me. My second ‘first friend’ came much later: if reading Surprised by Joy was my first epiphany, reading Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey was my second.

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