Nowhere else does the greater light so rule the day, so measure, so divide, so reign, make so imperial laws, so visibly kindle, so immediately quicken, so suddenly efface, so banish, so restore, as in a plain like this of Suffolk with its enormous sky. The curious have an insufficient motive for going to the mountains if they do it to see the sunrise. The sun that leaps from a mountain peak is a sun past the dew of his birth; he has walked some way towards the common fires of noon. But on the flat country the uprising is early and fresh, the arc is wide, the career is long. The most distant clouds, converging in the beautiful and little-studied order of cloud-perspective (for most painters treat clouds as though they formed perpendicular and not horizontal scenery), are those that gather at the central point of sunrise. On the plain, and there only, can the construction—but that is too little vital a word; I should rather say the organism—the unity, the design, of a sky be understood. The light wind that has been moving all night is seen to have not worked at random. It has shepherded some small flocks of cloud afield and folded others. There’s husbandry in Heaven. And the order has, or seems to have, the sun for its midst. Not a line, not a curve, but confesses its membership in a design declared from horizon to horizon.
To see the system of a sky in fragments is to miss what I learn to look for in all achieved works of Nature and art: the organism that is unity and life. It is the unity and life of painting. The Early Victorian picture—(the school is still in full career, but essentially it belongs to that triumphal period)—is but a dull sum of things put together, in concourse, not in relation; but the true picture is one, however multitudinous it may be, for it is composed of relations gathered together in the unity of perception, of intention, and of light. It is organic. Moreover, how truly relation is the condition of life may be understood from the extinct state of the English stage, which resembles nothing so much as a Royal Academy picture. Even though the actors may be added together with something like vivacity (though that is rare), they have no vitality in common. They are not members one of another. If the Church and Stage Guild be still in existence, it would do much for the art by teaching that Scriptural maxim. I think, furthermore, that the life of our bodies has never been defined so suggestively as by one who named it a living relation of lifeless atoms. Could the value of relation be more curiously set forth? And one might penetrate some way towards a consideration of the vascular organism of a true literary style in which there is a vital relation of otherwise lifeless word with word. And wherein lies the progress of architecture from the stupidity of the pyramid and the dead weight of the Cyclopean wall to the spring and the flight of the ogival arch, but in a quasi-organic relation? But the way of such thoughts might be intricate, and the sun rules me to simplicity.
He reigns as centrally in the blue sky as in the clouds. One October of late had days absolutely cloudless. I should not have certainly known it had there been a hill in sight. The gradations of the blue are incalculable, infinite, and they deepen from the central fire. As to the earthly scenery, there are but two ‘views’ on the plain; for the aspect of the light is the whole landscape. To look with the sun or against the sun—this is the alternative splendour. To look with the sun is to face a golden country, shadowless, serene, noble and strong in light, with a certain lack of relief that suggests—to those who dream of landscape—the country of a dream. The serried pines, and the lighted fields, and the golden ricks of the farms are dyed with the sun as one might paint with a colour. Bright as it is, the glow is rather the dye of sunlight than its luminosity. For by a kind of paradox the luminous landscape is that which is full of shadows—the landscape before you when you turn and face the sun. Not only every reed and rush of the salt marshes, every uncertain aspen-leaf of the few trees, but every particle of the October air shows a shadow and makes a mystery of the light. There is nothing but shadow and sun; colour is absorbed and the landscape is reduced to a shining simplicity. Thus is the dominant sun sufficient for his day. His passage kindles to unconsuming fires and quenches into living ashes. No incidents save of his causing, no delight save of his giving: from the sunrise, when the larks, not for pairing, but for play, sing the only virginal song of the year—a heart younger than Spring’s in the season of decline—even to the sunset, when the herons scream together in the shallows. And the sun dominates by his absence, compelling the low country to sadness in the melancholy night.
We are to content ourselves with the light it pleases the sun to communicate to us, by virtue of his rays; and who will lift up his eyes to take in a greater, let him not think it strange, if for the reward of his presumption, he there lose his sight.
He exists in a region to which rumour and conjecture have never penetrated. He was long neglected by his countrymen, and was brought to light as if by accident.
Quotidiana is an online anthology of "classical" essays, from antiquity to the early twentieth century. All essays and images are in the public domain. Commentaries are copyrighted, but may be used with proper attribution. Special thanks to the BYU College of Humanities and English Department for funding, and to Joey Franklin and Lara Burton, for tireless research assisting.