Chris Fitter. Poetry, Space, Landscape: Toward a New Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. xiv+322pp. ISBN 0-521-46301-7 Cloth.
Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr.
Pennsylvania State University

Sullivan, Jr, Garrett A. "Review of Poetry, Space, Landscape: Toward a New Theory." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.1 (May 1997): 6.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-1/rev_sul2.html>.

  1. The word Landscape most readily suggests one of three things: a particular location, a view of that location, or the representation in words or pictorial images of such a view. For those of us who work primarily with English sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literary texts, the term is most likely to evoke either country house poems (Jonson's "To Penshurst," Marvell's "Upon Appleton House") or, if we are inclined to interdisciplinarity, landscape or prospect paintings. What is seldom, if ever, explored is the relationship between, on the one hand, texts that we might lump together under the rubric of the landscape arts, and, on the other, the category of landscape. In fact, most critics understand the category as inseparable from the arts themselves. Thus, while Raymond Williams and James Turner have powerfully examined the ideological underpinnings of country house poetry, a genre that for the most part represents as natural fact the perspective of landed aristocrats and gentry, they have also assumed that the category of landscape bears the same ideological inflections as do those works labeled as landscapes. One of the many achievements of Chris Fitter's important book is that it makes clear the difference between landscape and landscapes.

  2. Fitter draws the important distinction between landscape and landskip: the former describes "the dialectical construction of environmental 'reality' through the interplay of the physical with the psychical universe," whereas the latter, a term popular in the seventeenth-century, refers to "the narrower, technical concern, in painting or poetry, for naturalistic, pictorial effects and the composed 'view'" (7, 10). Fitter's definition of landscape echoes that adduced by the geographer Denis Cosgrove: "[L]andscape denotes the external world mediated through subjective human experience . . . Landscape is not merely the world we see, it is a construction, a composition of that world. Landscape is a way of seeing the world" (Denis E. Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape [London: Croom Helm, 1984] 13). As "a way of seeing the world," landscape suggests more than just a composed view; it refers to a subjective relationship, to "the interplay of the physical with the psychical universe." Thus, there is always the possibility of multiple landscapes, not merely those instantiated in the aesthetic objects produced at the behest or in the service of the landlord. Fitter recognizes this when he says that landskip "is but one, historically contingent form of conceptualizing and perceiving natural space" (10): that is, it is but one form of landscape.

  3. This crucial insight aside, Fitter's book traces the important history of "the rise and fall of landskip" (12). The sweep of the book is impressive: it begins with the ancient world and continues through a discussion of seventeenth-century English poetry. Fitter's analysis of "the rise and fall" does not take the form of a catalogue of aesthetic features, absent or present, within specific pictorial or verbal representations of the land. Instead, he argues that for landskip to come into being, certain historical preconditions must be met. These preconditions take the form of "five sociohistorical determinants of the aesthetic taste for landskip," five "forms of interest in space" (25), which are as follows: "managerial," "comparative," "quotidian," "possessive," and "rational." (Space, by the by, is an unexamined category here, and Fitter might have benefited by incorporating the work of Henri Lefebvre, Edward Soja, or Michel de Certeau. Similarly, he would have found much of interest in the writings of geographers like Cosgrove.) The example of the ancient world is clarifying: a managerial relation to space is to be found not only in the development of agriculture, which suggests man's active shaping of his environment, but in "the conceptual stylization of natural scenes in Egyptian tomb painting" (51); comparative space, made possible by international trade and reflected in comparativist accounts of cultures such as those in Homer, describes the "interest in comparing and contrasting places and nations, soils and climes" (32); quotidian space manifests itself in the form of an aesthetic interest in the everyday, a "relish for the transitory and actual" (36), obvious in, say, Virgil's Georgics; possessive space reveals a proprietary pride of ownership, revealed in prospect paintings produced on the walls of villas; and, finally, "a post-mythological 'Rational space', in which a close material definition of nature is sought: both objectively, in 'scientific' pictorial mimesis, and subjectively as 'phenomenological' poetry of heightened sensuous affectivity and nuance" (52). Thus, the presence of these "sociohistorical determinants" underwrites the emergence of landskip in the ancient world.

  4. After leaving the ancients behind, Fitter devotes a chapter each to the landscape of the Bible, to "Late Antiquity and the Church Fathers," and then, most importantly to readers of this journal, to the Medieval and Renaissance periods, and to "Seventeenth-century English poetry." I will focus on these last two chapters. In the case of the former (Chapter Five), the breadth of the book becomes something of a problem as the chapter traces, in broad strokes, the reemergence of the sociohistorical preconditions for landscape. Even divided into sections on both "Gothic" and "Late Medieval and Renaissance," the chapter ranges widely, sliding from country to country, from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, sometimes in a page. Moreover, Fitter's emphasis on the five forms of space has by now grown familiar, as are many of the historical phenomena he touches upon: the "transforming achievement of geometric perspective" (210), the growth of international trade and the concomitant explosion of travel writing, and the importance of the great house. Of course, this is, in many ways, an unfair complaint -- the book is, after all, intended to cover a lot of territory and time. This intention means, however, that Fitter seldom deals with any text in great detail (the early exception being the Bible). By Chapter Five, I had begun to grow weary of skating across the surface of the ages, and I was ready for Fitter to narrow his focus. In Chapter Six, he does so, and the results are impressive.

  5. Fitter's account of landskip and/in seventeenth-century English poetry is the highlight of the book, and it seems to be the chapter that has most engaged his interest. As always, Fitter describes the historical underpinnings of landskip (or its absence), which produce, in this period, "landscape writing that is extraordinary and novel not only in visual and tactile acuity, but in a new quality of experiential 'authenticity'" (234). However, as the above mentioned five preconditions for landskip have been met earlier (and addressed in Chapter Five), Fitter shifts his focus to the intersection of sociohistorical developments and the production of "three central tendencies in seventeenth-century verse landscape: the idealizing tonality, the development of empirical and 'phenomenological' description, and the evocation of landscapes of animistic energy and of struggle" (235). If the second tendency reminds us of the rational space of the ancient world, Fitter sees seventeenth-century poetry less as a return to landskip than as a marked advancement in its history. Certainly Fitter's Marvell (whose "Upon Appleton House" he describes as a "poetry of truth to the senses aimed at exhibiting the falsehood of the senses" [286]) seems to exemplify such an advancement, as Marvell develops "a poetics of sensuous affective particularity to a degree of acuity unprecedented in the English language" (283). At the same time, Marvell's poetry explodes the orderly, perspectival frame of landskip, displacing it with "tactile landscaping, ... a language of texture and metamorphosis that expresses the instability of creation and the subjectivism of human understanding" (289). Marvell seems to represent, then, both "the rise and fall of landskip" (if we are to understand that fall as the deconstruction of landskip's perspectivalism).

  6. But of course landskip does not fall with Marvell, and it is not clear why Fitter stops with the seventeenth century. (My guess would be that he ends with the material that interests him most.) However, Fitter's conception of history is worth touching upon. Early on, he describes history as "a true dynamic, a trajectory of emancipations, from confining economic and intellectual shells, of emergence into widening possibility and genuine historical novelty" (12). This triumphal, entrepreneurial language reminds us that Fitter's history of landskip is also a history of the emergence of capitalism, as the nature of the above "five forms of interest in space" would suggest. At the same time, since Fitter shows us that landskip is only one form of landscape, we are left to wonder what a history of literary landscape that wasn't also the history of capitalism might look like. For now, though, it is enough to say that Chris Fitter provides us with a fascinating, challenging, and ambitious account of "a way of seeing" and its cultural preconditions.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1997-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(May 5, 1997)