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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Earth's Dugs, Wens, Warts, Imposthumes”—such
are some of the epithets applied to mountains in a
seventeenth-century phrase book, which also lists
among appropriate descriptive adjectives, “insolent,
ambitious, uncouth, inhospitable, sky-threatening,
forsaken, pathless.” In both biblical and classical atti-
tudes toward mountains there was interesting dualism.
Phrases from the Old Testament echo in our memories:
“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence
cometh my help.” There are various such passages in
the Psalmist. But in the same book we find prophecy
of an attitude that is to echo in the New Testament:
“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and
hill shall be laid low.” In spite of the Sermon on the
Mount, there is almost no description of mountains in
the New Testament, but the general impression is
adverse. The social philosophy seems to be that the
“high” is suspect, the “low” much preferable. As the
seventeenth-century theologian Laurence Clarkson
said: “If you would understand the Scriptures, you shall
read it calleth rich men wicked Mountains, and poor
believing men Valleys.”

A similar basic contradiction is felt in classical liter-
ature. The Greeks seldom described mountains, but
when they did, inclined to such adjectives as “stately,
cloud-touching, star-brushing.” They worshipped their
gods on Mount Olympus and invoked the Muses on
Helicon. Gilbert Murray described the Greek attitude
thus: “They did not describe forests or mountains; they
worshipped them and built temples in them. Their love
for nature was that of the mountaineer and the seaman,
who does not talk much about the sea and mountains,
but who sickens and pines if he is taken away from
them.” With the exception of Lucretius, who experi-
enced among mountains the exultation described by
romantic English poets, attitudes of classical Latin
poets were usually adverse. Catullus, Vergil, and
Horace seldom described mountains, and, when they
did, felt them dangerous, desolate, hostile and used such
adjectives as ocris, asperus, arduus, horridus.

Since the mountain-attitudes of Elizabethan and
seventeenth-century poets go back almost entirely to
the Bible and the classics, we shall not pause over those
of the Middle Ages except for one comparison. Dante
knew mountains well enough, as his realistic account
of Bismantova shows, but, whether influenced by his
own experience or by Latin and New Testament for-
bears, he did not like them. The Mount of Purgatorio
is as allegorical as Bunyan's Hill Difficulty. On the
other hand, Petrarch ascended Mount Ventoux in April
1335 for his own pleasure and so exulted in the experi-
ence that his words have been repeated in anthologies
for mountain-climbers. Modern scholarship has shown
that his experience was not unique. But for the most
part, medieval men climbed mountains only through

Allegorization, abstraction, and personification so
overshadow realism that the mountain-imagery of the
Renaissance is largely stereotyped. Shakespeare proba-
bly never saw a mountain or a really high hill. Moun-
tains are infrequent in his nature-imagery and a purely
literary heritage: “... jocund day/ Stands tip-toe on
the misty mountain tops”; “new lighted on a heaven-
kissing hill”; “make Ossa like a wart”—such phrases
had a literary origin. The “mountains on whose barren
breast/ The labouring clouds do often rest” of L'Allegro
were not seen by Milton from Horton or Cambridge.
Bunyan's “Delectable Mountains” and his “Hill
Difficulty” are simple biblical moralizings. Equally
traditional were attitudes Andrew Marvell crowded
into a stanza of “Upon the Hill and Grove at Bill-

Here learn ye Mountains more unjust
Which to abrupter greatness thrust,
That do with your hook-shoulder's height
The Earth deform and Heaven fright,
For whose excrescence ill-design'd,
Nature must a new Center find,
Learn here those humble steps to tread
Which to securer glory lead.

Many travellers of the seventeenth century were so
conditioned by their Latin or New Testament heritage
that they felt little except terror when on the Grand
Tour they were forced to cross mountains. Thomas
Coryate, attempting a record-breaking journey,
described in Coryats Crudities (1611), tried to make


the ascent on foot from Aiguebelle, because, as he
confessed, he was afraid to go on horseback. Finally,
he hired natives to carry him in a chair and, when
he came to precipices, he kept his eyes closed. James
Howell described his mountain-experience in his Fa-
miliar Letters
(1650). He crossed the Alps from Italy
after having crossed the Pyrenees, which he found “not
so high and hideous as the Alps; but for our mountains
in Wales... they are but Molehills in comparison of
these; they are but Pigmies compared to Giants, but
Blisters to Imposthumes, or Pimples to Warts.” John
Evelyn, an experienced traveller, showed only
momentary appreciation of Alpine scenery, largely
stressing in his Diary dangers and discomforts. His basic
preference for plains may be seen in an entry on the
sight of the Alps from Mergozzo. The mountains rose
suddenly, “after some hundreds of miles of the most
even country in the World, and where there is hardly
a stone to be found, as if nature had here swept up
the rubbish of the Earth in the Alps, to forme and
cleare the Plaines of Lombardy.”

“The rubbish of the Earth,” said Evelyn, and Charles
Cotton completed his condemnation of the “Peak dis-
trict” in The Wonders of the Peak with a couplet:

And such a face the new-born Nature took
When out of Chaos by the Fiat strook.
Hovering in both minds was something more profound
than the literary heritage from Roman and New Testa-
ment ancestors, a theological dilemma that was revived
in the seventeenth century to become one of the early
modern clashes between science and religion.


“Hear, O ye mountains, the Lord's controversy!”
(Micah 6:2). For many years a controversy continued
among Jewish and Christian Fathers which had to do
with the appearance of the earth at the time of crea-
tion. Involved in this was the question, whether moun-
tains had been original or whether they had arisen
later, and, if so, for what cause. Insofar as most of us
have ever considered the matter we have probably
taken for granted that the world appearing after the
Creation-scene in Genesis was in configuration basi-
cally like the world we know, with heights and depths
and seas. If we again turn to literature as a guide to
attitudes of the seventeenth century, we find that
Milton in Paradise Lost (VII, 282-87) followed the
convention many then subconsciously accepted:

God said,
“Be gathered now, ye waters under Heaven,
Into one place, and let dry land appear!”
Immediately the mountains huge appear
Emergent, and their broad bare backs upheave
Into the clouds; their tops ascend the sky.
This, however, is not the implication of Marvell in
“Upon Appleton House,” (stanza lxxxvi):
'Tis not what once it was, the World;
But a rude heap together hurl'd;
All negligently overthrown,
Gulfs, Deserts, Precipices, Stone.
John Donne in The First Anniversary (lines 284-301)
is even more specific on the fact that the world has
lost its original form:

But keepes the earth her round proportion still?
Doth not a Tenarif, or higher Hill
Rise so high like a Rocke, that one might thinke
The floating Moon would shipwrack there, and sinke?...
Are these but warts and pock-holes in the face
Of th' earth? thinke so: but yet confesse, in this
The worlds proportion disfigured is.

The most conventional theory arising from Genesis
is, then, that when the original earth emerged from
chaos it was in general the world we know, with
mountains and depths. However, among classical as
well as Jewish and Christian Fathers, there was an-
other tradition, that the earth had once been smoothly
rounded, a “Mundane Egg,” as it was sometimes called.
Mountains had appeared at some later time and were
considered blemishes on the fair face of Nature, be-
cause they were evidences of the sin of man. One
theory that seems to have been peculiar to Jewish
legend was that they arose as a result of the sin of
Cain. More pervasive than this, and common to Chris-
tians and Jews, was a belief that the various distor-
tions of the earth resulted from sins of Adam and Eve.
As the poet Henry Vaughan said in “Corruption,”
man drew “the Curse upon the world, and Crackt the
whole frame with his fall.” According to the Midrash
(1512), “three entered for judgment, yet four
came out guilty. Adam and Eve and the serpent
entered for judgment, whereas the earth was punished
with them.” A chief problem here is the interpretation
of the word “earth,” ambiguous in other languages as
in English. In Christian theology, part of the trouble
went back to a mistranslation of a phrase in the Vulgate
(Genesis 3:17), as “maledicta terra in opere tuo,” rather
than “maledicta humus propter te.” The Jerome read-
ing became the accepted interpretation of most Roman
Catholics both before and after the Douay edition. If
the curse was merely upon the humus, or soil, so that
Adam was forced to earn his living by the sweat of
his brow, the topography of the world was not neces-
sarily altered, but if the curse of God extended from
man to terra, Nature was cursed and earth may have
changed as much as man.

In spite of arguments pro and con on this matter,
there was widespread agreement among Jewish and


Christian Fathers that a later catastrophe, sent because
of the continual sinning for two millennia on the part
of man, must have had a profound effect upon external
Nature. A majority of those who considered that the
original earth must have been round and smooth
attributed the emergence of mountains to Noah's
Flood. Biblical exegetes have always used negative as
well as positive evidence, and many stressed the fact
that a mountain is not mentioned in Genesis until the
ark landed on Ararat, and also that, though Moses
described the four rivers, he did not mention moun-
tains. Even those theologians who held that mountains
had been original with the creation of the world agreed
with the Augustinian theory that the Flood must have
had a profound effect upon the configuration of earth,
causing mountains to be higher and more jagged than
had been the original hills. So the debate continued
during the Middle Ages well into the Renaissance, the
theory of mountain-origin sometimes primary, some-
times involved with other issues.

On the question of mountain-origin and the place
of hills in the scheme of things, the two greatest Refor-
mation thinkers stood opposed. Their dual attitudes
were in part a result of psychological factors (as indeed
may have been true of various of their predecessors)
since Calvin spent many years among Swiss mountains,
while Luther was a lowlander whose one journey over
mountains filled him with terror. Calvin would never
agree that Nature was other than beautiful. He did
not believe that God had cursed the earth. Ugliness
read into her was the result of man's lapsed condition.
Nature, created by God, was beautiful; Calvin's belief
that original Nature included mountains is shown by
his map of Paradise in the Geneva Bible (1560). With
Augustine he acknowledged that some of the original
earth had been damaged by the Flood, yet beauty
remained even though the wilfully blinded eyes of man
could not behold it.

So far as such matters were concerned, Luther's
theology was consistently pessimistic. In his commen-
tary on Genesis he went further than most predecessors
in his gloom. Adam and Eve, Cain and multitudes of
men had sinned before God sent the Flood to wipe
out most of mankind. Luther specifically mentioned
the emergence of diluvian mountains where fields and
fruitful plains had once flourished. Since the Deluge,
man has continued to sin; in the not too distant future
Luther anticipated the destruction of all mankind and
the death of the world. Following in general Augus-
tine's conception of the seven ages of man, Luther
insisted that the world would not complete its sixth
age. He dated the end of the world as approximately
1560. “The last day is already breaking.... The world
will perish shortly.” The earth, in itself innocent, has
been forced to bear man's curse. The world degenerates
and grows worse every day. Luther's is an intensely
pessimistic picture.


There is nothing in the geology of the seventeenth
century to correspond to the spectacular discoveries
of astronomy. Geology was only part of “natural Phi-
losophy,” and not an important part. It is true that
Agricola had done important work on stratification, on
ores, minerals, and metals, and that the basic principles
of modern stratigraphy were formulated by Nicholaus
Steno in 1669. But geology, in the modern sense,
marked time, indeed lagged behind other sciences.
More than most of the others, geology was retarded
by Genesis. A new astronomy could readily emerge,
since Moses had committed himself only upon the
creation of the sun and moon but had said nothing
about their nature. Our modern idea of “geological
time” was impossible to ages of men who believed in
the miraculous creation of the world in time, and
divine order in inorganic and organic species. Earth
sciences and human sciences were handicapped by the
tendency of generations to read cosmic processes into
earth and man, and to find inevitable similarities be-
tween the body of earth and the body of man. It was
not that all our ancestors were “fundamentalists.”
Scholars read the Bible in various languages and inter-
preted it broadly. There were ethical, allegorical,
analogical, cabbalistical expositions. Yet the fact re-
mained that the earth had been created in time and
called into existence by miracle.

The problems they encountered may be seen in their
theories of fossils, a subject closely associated with that
of the origin of mountains. Unhampered by Genesis,
the Greeks had surmised that marine fossils were re-
mains of animals, indicating immense age and showing
the vicissitudes of sea and land. Our orthodox ancestors
could not accept this, since Moses taught that sea and
land had been separated on the third day, animal life
not produced until the fourth. Fossils, men argued,
were not organic but lusus naturae, or results of the
influence of the planets, twisting stones into grotesque
shapes. This remained the orthodox theory until well
into the seventeenth century. Tertullian had suggested
the influence of the Flood; marine remains had been
deposited as the waters receded. This too was widely
accepted and remained orthodox. Both before and after
Leonardo da Vinci and Girolamo Fracastoro suggested
the true explanation, orthodox thought remained con-
sistent with the Mosaic account.

In the “Digression of Air” in the Anatomy of Melan-
(1621), Robert Burton wished that he could de-
termine “whether Mount Athos, Pelion, Olympus, Ossa,


Caucasus, Atlas, be so huge as Pliny, Solinus, Mela
relate.... The pike of Teneriffe how high it is....
Are they 1250 paces high... or seventy-eight miles
perpendicularly high?” Actually the highest peak of
Teneriffe is 12,190 feet, but as late as the seventeenth
century it was “a hill whose head touched heaven,”
from which poets coined grand figures. The adherents
of a smooth round earth had little trouble in explaining
monstrosities resulting from the various sins of man.
Traditionalists largely followed one of two schools of
thought, a classical idea that there had been vicissitudes
of sea and land, which had changed places; or a collat-
eral belief, implied by Milton in his account of the
Creation in Paradise Lost (VII, 288-90):
So high as heav'd the tumid hills, so low
Down sunk a hollow bottom broad and deep,
Capacious bed of waters.
Here again we find the ancient belief that the work
of the Great Geometer had been based upon symmetry
and proportion.

Change in what we now consider geological atti-
tudes was slow. With the exception of a few such men
as Agricola and Steno, there were few major geological
figures. Compared with astronomy, geology marked
time. This becomes clear to anyone who has combed
English literature seeking scientific allusions and found
almost no reference to geology until the later seven-
teenth century, with the exception of the broad basic
concepts that have been mentioned, all implicit in
classical or early patristic thinking. A “new astronomy”
had been heralded by dramatic moments, such as the
appearance of novae, which disproved the belief, held
for centuries, that the heavens were eternal and
immutable. As John Donne put it in a poem to the
Countess of Huntingdon:

Who vagrant transitory Comets sees,
Wonders, because they'are rare; But a new starre
Whose motion with the firmament agrees,
Is miracle; for there no new things are.
Galileo had announced in the Sidereus Nuncius (1610)
the discovery of myriads of stars, of the nature of the
Milky Way, of the moon and of what he at first believed
to be four new planets. These discoveries were spec-
tacular, unexpected. From them imagination took fire.
But not yet did imagination respond, as in the eight-
eenth century, to the idea of long, leisurely processes
of earth-development.

In England, until well into the seventeenth century,
when men read works about geological ideas, they read
books written on the continent, not at home. A Collec-
tion of Discourses of the Virtuosi of France,
in 1664 and 1665, was originally French but much at
home in England in both the original and in translation.
One discourse (Conference CLXXXIX) was particu-
larly concerned with mountains. In form this is a con-
ference among six speakers who uphold various points
of view. One speaker, who insisted that mountains were
original, based his belief less upon Moses than upon
Galileo, who had observed mountains not only in the
moon but in Mars. Throughout the dialogue we find
a concern less with metaphysics than with an implicit
aesthetics. Since God created the world in perfection,
we should expect “agreeable variety” as “its principal
ornament.” Another speaker, upholding the diluvian
theory, believed that the original earth had been a
Circle of Perfection. “'Tis certain that God gave the
Earth that Spherical Form” and that it remained
smooth and round until the Flood. The speakers in A
Collection of Discourses
had much to say of the Bible
but they were also aware of discoveries of Kepler,
Gilbert, and Galileo. A shift was occurring to what
came to be known as “physico-theology.”

The most widely used book treating the ideas we
have been considering was the Geographia generalis
of Bernhardus Varenius, published in England in 1650
and 1664, revised by Newton in 1672, then appearing
as Cosmography and Geography in 1682. For nearly
a century it was consulted in Latin and in translation,
and its science kept up to date. Literary historians have
pointed out that it was a handbook of poets from
Milton to James Thomson. In his lengthy treatment
of the original earth, Varenius followed the Sphaera
(1620) of Joseph Blancanus, though he also
introduced ideas that had come into thinking during
the intervening decades. Few writers had been as con-
sistent as Blancanus in their belief in the symmetry
and proportion God had given the earth, in which the
highest mountain exactly corresponded to the lowest
depth of the sea. The original earth had emerged on
the third day as a smooth sphere. Had it been affected
only by natural law, it would have remained in that
form, but the miraculous hand of God had scooped
out the channel of the sea and created the Alps and
other mountains. If left to its own nature, the world
would perish as it had begun, in water. But God would
not permit such natural metamorphosis: the world
would perish by fire. Following Blancanus, but im-
proving upon him in various ways, Varenius found the
origin of terrestrial mountains in water. To the general
reader, particularly the poet, the most impressive parts
of the Geographia generalis were sections in which
Varenius sent his imagination over the globe, calling
a catalogue of the ranges and peaks in every continent,
as they rise, sometimes in majesty, sometimes in terror.
Theology still clouded Varenius' eyes to some extent
in his mountain-passages, though even the three dec-


ades since Blancanus had made him basically more

There was one seventeenth-century creator of a new
world, however, who feared neither God nor man. In
his Principles of Philosophy (1644), René Descartes
momentarily paid tribute to a divine Mechanic who
had set in motion a mechanical universe, but, genuflec-
tion over, his great clock ticked on, and we see what
Blancanus had vaguely surmised, a cosmos emerging
by natural principles. The irregularities of the Carte-
sian world and universe, however, were not results of
emergence from water. Descartes posited a theory of
the origin of planets from fiery matter cast off by the
sun, a universe of cosmical vortices. From the “lumi-
nous dust” of the “first element,” and the heat and light
of the “second element” was produced a “third ele-
ment” of earth and water-particles. As the planet
cooled, a layer of liquid was contained within the crust,
the elements in the order of specific gravity. The sun's
heat caused cracks in the crust so that the earth was
ruptured and collapsed upon the inner globe. A result
of the collapse was great irregularities, some rising
above the liquid, some falling below: mountains, earth
hollows, the bed of the sea. At the center still remained
fire, causing earthquakes and volcanoes. Such was the
self-consistent Cartesian world-scheme, a mechanistic
world in a mechanistic universe. Complex enough to
satisfy scientists, its vortices were simple and graphic
enough to be grasped by an amateur such as
Fontenelle's Marchioness in the Plurality of Worlds
(1686), who thanked God for the vortex in which she
had been placed. Most of all, so far as literary influence
was concerned, here was a world-scheme with the
drama earlier schemes had lacked, a universe offering
imagination the spectacular that had been found in the
“new astronomy,” so far lacking in a “new geology.”


The “mountain controversy” came to a climax in
the 1680's with the publication of a work that appeared
first in Latin as Telluris theoria sacra (1681), then in
English as The Sacred Theory of the Earth (1684), again
in Latin in 1689 with the addition of two more books.
This edition was republished in English in 1690-91.
There were various other editions during the eight-
eenth century and at least one in the nineteenth. The
author was Thomas Burnet, Master of the Charterhouse
and Chaplain to King William, who would probably
have become Archbishop of Canterbury had he not
published this work. Here was one of the most provoc-
ative and influential works of the century, widely read
and eliciting many replies.

Burnet's book aroused various issues, several of
which have been discussed in Mountain Gloom and
Mountain Glory.
Here only Burnet's views concerning
mountain-attitudes will be stressed. Basically Burnet's
attempt was to reconcile the new science and the old
religion, which he realized were drifting apart. He
went back to Scriptural exegesis and considered par-
ticularly those Fathers who in his opinion believed that
the world and sea were not the originals created by
God for Adam and Eve, but that the physical, like the
moral, world shows marked steps in degeneration.
External Nature, as man had known it since the Flood,
is “a broken and confused Heap of Bodies, plac'd in
no Order to one another, nor with any Correspondency
or Regularity of Parts,” and, like the moon seen
through a telescope, “rude and ragged.” Both moon
and earth are images of “a great Ruin.... A World
lying in its Rubbish.” Before the Flood the face of earth
was “smooth, regular, and uniform, without Mountains
and without a Sea... you will not meet with a Mountain
or a Rock.” In this smooth world with “not a Wrin-
kle, Scar or Fracture in all its Body” lived our original
parents. The first great climax occurred when, after
generations of sins, God sent the Deluge to wipe out
all mankind, with the exception of one faithful man
and his family. Burnet's description of the coming of
the Flood is music, if sombre music. We hear the raging
waters and the broken waves coming to their height,
“so as Nature seem'd to be in a second Chaos.” The
wild abyss destroyed everything in its path, except “A
Ship, whose Cargo was no less than a whole World;
that carry'd the Fortunes and Hopes of all Posterity.”
When the Flood abated and Noah descended upon
Ararat, he saw only a great ruin of “wild, vast and
indigested Heaps of Stone and Earth.” As the Flood
receded, there stood the mountains we know today,
“the Ruines of a broken World.”

No previous writer had felt or shown anything
approaching Burnet's mountain-paradoxes. A majority
of preceding writers had been uninterested in hills or
mountains, some had actively disliked them, a few had
shown momentary response to “Mountain Glory,” but
among all previous writers interest in mountains had
been secondary. In Burnet it was primary. His theory
had developed as a result of his experience in 1671
of making the Grand Tour with the Earl of Wiltshire,
to whom he dedicated the first edition of Telluris
theoria sacra.
When he crossed the Alps and Apennines,
“the Sight of those wild, vast and indigested Heaps
of Stones and Earth did so deeply stir my Fancy, that
I was not easy until I could give my self some tolerable
Account how that Confusion came in Nature.”

Burnet had grown up with traditional ideas of sym-
metry and proportion. In his atlases mountain ranges
had seemed neat, pleasing, and decorous. Even when


he saw the Alps from a distance, he could still believe
in proportion and symmetry, but not when he stood
among them. He saw “vast Bodies thrown together in
Confusion.... Rocks standing naked round about him;
and the hollow Valleys gaping under him,” black clouds
above, heaps of snow in mid-summer, and a noise of
thunder below him. Burnet's mountain-experience does
not seem to have been identical with that of Thomas
Coryate who had no head for heights. He was less
frightened than appalled at the “incredible Confusion”
that broke down all his ideals of symmetry and propor-
tion. Mountains, he found by experience, were placed
in no order implying either use or beauty. “There is
nothing in Nature more shapeless and ill-figur'd than
an old Rock or Mountain, and all the variety that is
among them, is but the many various Modes of Irregu-
larity... they are of all Forms and Figures except
regular.... They are the greatest Examples of Confu-
sion that we know in Nature; no Tempest or Earth-
quake puts things into more Disorder.” That chaos and
confusion he had found among mountains, he discov-
ered also on his travels when he saw earth's entrails
in caves and caverns, when in some districts he discov-
ered the effects of volcano and earthquake. On his
journey Burnet faced what he believed was a religious
crisis. Actually his theological beliefs did not waver.
His ethics was threatened and even more his aesthetics.

Burnet has been deliberately quoted in such a way
that he seems the most consistent of men in his repul-
sion from grand Nature, even more than Luther, beat-
ing his breast when he looked upon the ruins caused
by man's sin. But, reading Burnet's long descriptive
passages on natural scenery, we find that he is the most
paradoxical writer up to this time. His stress on form-
lessness and lack of design in external Nature was an
intellectual condemnation more than offset by his
emotional response to the grand and the vast. At the
same time that he condemned irregularity, he
responded to the majesty of mountains and oceans as
had no English traveller before him. “Places that are
strange and solemn strike an Awe into us,” he wrote.
The mountains are ruins, “but such as shew a certain
Magnificence in Nature.” The chapter in which he
most drastically condemned the gross disproportion of
mountains begins with a tribute to their majesty:

The greatest Objects of Nature are, methinks, the most
pleasing to behold; and next to the Great Concave of the
Heavens, and those boundless Regions where the Stars
inhabit, there is nothing that I looke upon with more Pleas-
ure than the wide Sea and the Mountains of the Earth.
There is something august and stately in the Air of those
things, that inspires the Mind with great Thoughts and
Passions; we do naturally, upon such Occasions, think of
God and his Greatness: and whatsoever hath but the Shadow
and Appearance of INFINITE, as all Things have that are
too big for our Comprehension, they fill and overbear the
Mind with their Excess, and cast it into a pleasing kind
of Stupor and Admiration

(Sacred Theory..., I, 188-89).

Burnet was “ravished” by the grand and majestic in
Nature. Before the vastness of mountains and ocean,
he experienced awe and wonder which he had previ-
ously associated only with God. He did not understand
his own emotional response, which he realized was not
to Beauty. The vast and irregular could not be beauti-
ful, but nothing except the night skies had ever so
moved him to thoughts of God and infinity as did the
mountains and the sea. As yet he had no vocabulary
in which to express the fact that he had discovered
the Sublime in external Nature. The development of
this part of the story is traced elsewhere in this Dic-
[See Sublime in External Nature.]


References of English men of letters to the Sacred
began to appear in the year of its publication.
On June 8, 1684, John Evelyn returned a copy of the
translation to Samuel Pepys with flattering remarks.
Both diarists were enthusiastic about the work, as at
first was Sir William Temple who read it at the same
time as a volume by Fontenelle. He thought highly
of both until he came to sections in which the writers
praised modern literature and learning above ancient.
As a result he wrote his essay on ancient and modern
learning which led him into the Battle of the Books.
Burnet was attacked or defended by nearly every im-
portant writer on theology, physico-theology, and sci-
ence, with the exception of Newton, to whom one
volume in the controversy was dedicated. Most of these
books and papers have been discussed in Mountain
Gloom and Mountain Glory.
Only a few of the more
important will be mentioned here. Burnet made
England “mountain conscious” to an extent not hith-
erto known. John Ray, father of English natural history,
published in 1691 his Wisdom of God, which went
through many editions. His defense of mountains was
conventional, the old pragmatic and utilitarian argu-
ment. Some, he says, have considered mountains
“Warts and superfluous Excrescences.” He will devote
his energies to proving “the great Use, Benefit and
Necessity of them.” Much of what Ray said was old
convention—a reply to Lucretius as well as Burnet—
but on occasion he developed movingly the place of
mountains in a universe created by a God of overflow-
ing benignity who had expressed himself in the world
with all possible diversity.

In 1692 Richard Bentley delivered the first Boyle
Lecture, The Folly and Unreasonableness of Atheism


Demonstrated from the Origin and Frame of the World.
Men like Burnet, he says in effect, think that mountain,
valley, ocean are deformity, ruin or fortuitous con-
course of atoms rather than what they are—works of
Divine artifice. “They would have the vast body of a
planet to be as elegent as a factitious globe represents it.”

Interest in the Sacred Theory continued well into
the eighteenth century. Addison, discovering Burnet
in youth, addressed a poem to him and later showed
his influence in The Pleasures of the Imagination. Steele
devoted Spectator 146 to the work, quoting several
passages, particularly what he called Burnet's “Funeral
Oration over this Globe,” and his farewell to the
“mountains and Rocks of the Earth.” Burnet's theory
continued to dwell on the minds of travellers to the
continent. The mountain-experiences of John Dennis
and Lord Shaftesbury, were based to a large extent
on Burnet. James Thompson added to “Spring” a pas-
sage describing the Deluge in Burnetian mood, and he
and David Mallett in their companion-poems showed
Burnetian influence. A climax of the enthusiasm for
Burnet as a prose-poet came with Wordsworth and
Coleridge. The former read the Sacred Theory after
he had finished The Excursion and copied parts of the
Latin version to publish with his notes. References to
Burnet's work occur frequently in Coleridge's Note
Book. He proposed to turn the Telluris theoria sacra
into blank verse. He classed Plato and Burnet together
to show that “poetry of the highest order may exist
without metre.” The lines prefixed to The Ancient
were taken from a later work of Burnet.

The Sacred Theory was well known on the continent.
Buffon thought it a fine historical romance. Voltaire
satirized the work but the Encyclopedists took it very
seriously. It has been shown that Burnet was quoted
more often than any other English writer by Diderot,
Boulanger, Formey, and Jaucourt; Jaucourt classed him
with Descartes and Newton. The greatest philosopher
among Burnet's admirers was Leibniz, though the
Protogaea, in which Burnet was discussed, appeared
posthumously. Indeed, Burnet's work lived for nearly
a century after it was published.


As stated in Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory
(p. 345): “If the 'Mountain Glory' did not shine full
splendor in the earlier eighteenth century, the 'Moun-
tain Gloom' was gone. We find nothing to parallel
Marvell's 'unjust' and 'hook-shouldered' mountains that
deform earth, nothing (except conventional hymns) of
the early Christian strain of abasing the hills in order
to exalt the valleys. Mountains had ceased to be mon-
strosities and had become an integral part of varied
and diversified Nature.” Even in a poem like Richard
Blackmore's Creation (1713), basically intended as a
reply to Lucretius, the author went further than the
old utilitarian argument, showing himself aware of the
growing interest in geology by introducing passages
on the stratification of the earth, the part played by
mountains in production of minerals and gems, and the
relationship of mountains to the origins of rivers and

The extent to which consciousness of geological
theories of mountains developed among laymen may
be seen in James Thomson's Seasons (1744), individual
parts of which began to appear from 1726 to 1730.
Thompson had an important prerequisite for his inter-
est in mountains—he was a Scot. As he wrote of the
Laplanders, many Scots

... ask no more than simple Nature gives;
They love their mountains, and enjoy their storms.
When he made the Grand Tour, he felt little of the
alarm and distaste of many earlier travellers among
the Alps. In Liberty (1734-36), he described the moun-
tains as they appeared to him in a passage beginning:
... their shaggy mountains charm
More than or Gallic or Italian plains;
And sickening fancy oft, when absent long,
Pines to behold their Alpine views again.
Alan Dugald McKillop has studied various of Thom-
son's mountain-passages in The Background of
Thomson's Seasons,
particularly in Chapter II, “De-
scription and Science.” He has analyzed in detail an
extended mountain-passage in “Autumn” (lines 700-30)
as it developed from the quarto edition of 1730 to the
complete Seasons, fourteen years later. Turning from
one scientific authority to another, Thomson considered
in turn theories of “attraction,” “distillation,” “perco-
lation” in relation to the development of mountains.
The passage becomes more and more technical as the
author proceeds, showing his interest in geological
theories which frequently threaten the poetic emphasis
of the original passage. But while overemphasis on
scientific verisimilitude mars the effect of some partic-
ular passages, there is no question that James Thomson
was the finest English mountain-poet before William

Every reader of “Tintern Abbey” or The Prelude is
aware that in youth Wordsworth had vacillated be-
tween fear and exaltation so far as grand Nature was
concerned. Terror was often in the ascendency as he
remembered himself “more like a man flying from
something that he dreads than one who sought the
thing he loved.”

While yet a child, and long before his time,
Had he perceived the presence of the power


Of greatness; and deep feelings had impressed
So vividly great objects that they lay
Upon his soul like substances
(The Excursion, I, 132-38). “In the mountains did he feel his faith.” Surrounded
by lesser English hills, Wordsworth felt “a sense of
stability and permanence,” but among the Alps he was
always conscious of “the fury of the gigantic torrents,”
and their “almost irresistible violence,” “Havoc, and
ruin, and desolation.” Among the snow-capped Alps,
it was almost impossible to escape from the “depressing
sensation” that the whole was in a rapid process of
dissolution. The savagery of the terror of Nature echoes
through his early acquaintance with Alpine mountains,
“winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,”
“rocks that muttered close upon our ears,” “black
drizzling crags,” “the sick sight and giddy prospect of
the raging storm,” “huge fragments of primeval moun-
tain spread/ In powerless ruin.” But this is not
Wordsworth's mature conclusion of the power of
mountains upon human imagination. To comprehend
that, we must include with “Mountain-Attitudes” the
sense of “The Sublime in Natural Scenery” that
accompanied the human discovery of the vast in exter-
nal Nature.


Frank Dawson Adams, The Birth and Development of the
Geological Sciences
(Baltimore, 1938). B. Sprague Allen,
Tides in English Taste (Cambridge, Mass., 1937). Robert
Arnold Aubin, Topographical Poetry in XVIII-Century
(New York, 1936). Edwin A. Burtt, Metaphysical
Foundations of Modern Physical Science
(London, 1925;
other eds.). Douglas Bush, Science and English Poetry: A
Historical Study
(New York, 1950). Katherine Brownell
Collier, Cosmogonies of our Fathers (New York, 1934).
R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature (Oxford, 1945).
Clair-Éliane Engel, La Littérature Alpestre en France et en
Angleterre aux 18e et 19e siècles
(Chambéry, 1930).
Christopher Hussey, The Picturesque: Studies in a Point of
(London, 1927). Arthur O. Lovejoy, Essays in the
History of Ideas
(Baltimore, 1948). Elizabeth Manwaring,
Italian Landscape in Eighteenth Century England (New
York, 1925). Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and
Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the
(Ithaca, 1959). H. V. S. and Margaret Ogden, English
Taste in Landscape in the Seventeenth Century
(Ann Arbor,
1955). Hedley Howell Rhys, ed., Seventeenth Century Sci-
ences and the Arts
(Princeton, 1961). Clarence Dewitt
Thorpe, The Aesthetic Theory of Thomas Hobbes (London,
1940). Ernest Lee Tuveson, Milennium and Utopia: A Study
in the Background of the Idea of Progress
(Berkeley, 1949).
Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World
(New York, 1926; other eds.).


[See also Ancients and Moderns; Beauty; Creation; God;
Sublime; Symmetry; Uniformitarianism.]