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  • Writer's pictureTom Paine

Sense and Sentimentality

mostly written over two decades ago, mostly still ringing true


I am a sentimentalist. I am not afraid to be influenced by emotional feelings—“gut feel” of a different kind than intuition. By that I also mean, I am good for a good laugh and a good cry, or at least a few tears. I am with Australia-based tech consultant Mehmet Yidiz’s observation that “Laughter and tears offer us avenues for emotional release, self-expression, and connection with others.” As Readers Digest used to point out, laughter is the best medicine. Humor is tonic. There is little controversy surrounding that notion. To quote HelpGuide.org, “Laughter strengthens your immune system, boosts mood, diminishes pain, and protects you from the damaging effects of stress. Nothing works faster or more dependably to bring your mind and body back into balance than a good laugh. Humor lightens your burdens, inspires hope, connects you to others, and keeps you grounded, focused, and alert. It also helps you release anger and forgive sooner.”

More succinctly: Humor breaks the ice, launches speeches, even saves relationships. Seen on a high school blackboard a while back: She who laughs lasts.  Go for the jocular vein.  Jest for the health of it. 

Laughter aside, I see sentimentality as mostly the realm of “aww” and tears of joy. As I indicated in my post “What Matters is What Moves Us,” I am moved by stories of reunion, compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation. So what if the movie story line is a manipulative tearjerker—let the tears flow! They are healthy. Like the internet says, shedding emotional tears releases oxytocin and endorphins—chemicals that make people feel good and may also ease both physical and emotional pain. (Oxytocin, not OxyContin)

            In co-authoring my college twenty-fifth reunion survey, I went so far as to insert this question: “Do you find yourself crying out of joy, empathy or poignancy more now than as a recent college grad?” Over half of the 487 respondents agreed.  Of the several hundred questions on the survey covering all aspects of our lives, this one stood out.  When people praised the survey, they cited this question. Perhaps I was onto something. Only later did I discover that anthropologist Ashley Montagu in 1981 had argued that we suppress weeping at our peril. Humans must socialize, and weeping shows we care.

One of the many unexpected pleasures of getting older is that tears flow more freely from moments of feeling connectedness and empathy, across generations, even across time. These feelings wash over me while flying and listening to music, or walking in sublime nature—a perfect early spring day walk around the pond in Wellesley. Above all, having grandchildren, such an unexpected pleasure of empathy and delight—a deeper connection to feeling one’s own humanity, imperfect though mine surely is. Kindred spirits indeed.

Every holiday season, watching Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, when druggist Mr. Gower boxes the ears of his young helper George Bailey for not having delivered a prescription that a distraught Gower mistakenly made out of poison, I well up. Even thinking about it gets to me. “Capracorn” for sure, but bring it on.

Then there is Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931). Albert Einstein showed up at the premier. Good for him.


City Lights Premier 1931--Chaplin with Albert Einstein

In the movie, after many comedic scenes, the audience may wonder how this movie filled with Charlie Chaplin’s humor is to end. Chaplin’s tramp, his pockets empty, but pretending to be rich, has befriended a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) on a street corner.  He may be a bum, but he has a heart of gold.  Even more so the heart of the flower girl.  Never having seen her own beauty, she embodies modesty, innocence, and vulnerability. Through selling her flowers, she supports her grandmother with whom she lives in a simple apartment.  When she gets sick, they cannot pay the rent, and the landlord threatens to evict them.  Despite many setbacks, the bum with pluck gets the flower girl the money for the rent—and for an eye operation, before being thrown in jail. 

            Her sight regained, the flower girl is running a bustling flower shop, searching the face of every well-heeled customer for her secret benefactor. Out of jail but down on his luck again, a shabby Chaplin wanders by the flower shop. When some street-smart boys hit him with a peashooter, he scolds them pathetically, but when he bends over to pick up a flower swept into the gutter, they yank on his ripped pants, and he chases them off.  The flower girl and her grandmother are laughing as the bum blows his nose on a rag.  He is just raising the flower to his nose when he turns and sees the girl sitting in the flower shop.  He is dumbfounded, for it is the blind girl who can now see, and then he breaks out into a broad smile.  But what is she to make of the smile of this hunched bum in tatters clutching a pathetic flower?  She laughs. “I have made a conquest,” she tells her grandmother.  Look, she points out to him, your petals are dropping, but he only beams at her.  Still sitting, she offers him a new flower, but he just stands there smiling, and she adds some change, but when she gets up, he turns to go, by now embarrassed that she can see how little he resembles the benefactor of her dreams.  She gets up to go after him, urging the change and flower on him, and he turns, smiles at her again.  He reaches for the flower, not the change.  With a gesture like “here, take it”, she steps toward him with the coin.  As her hand presses the coin into his, and her eyes fix on his quizzically, and she touches his hand, his arm, his shoulder, her touch knows before her eyes do.  She is eyeing him now, really seeing him in this moment for the first time.  “You?” she asks, her hand palming his.  Speechless, with the flower in his mouth, he nods, and she presses her hand to her bosom in disbelief.  “You can see now?” he asks.  At last the realization of who this wretched man is sweeps through her, and she is crying, and the camera fades on Chaplin, smiling, flower in his mouth. 

The ending of City Lights is one of the unsurpassed icons of sentimentalism.  The pathos has won out over the comedy. For all the distance between us and this silent flick, beguiling in its simplicity and tenderness of gesture, its silence and dancelike pantomime as powerful as allegory, we are moved each time we see it. I am not surprised that Martin Brest, director of Scent of a Woman, considers it the most glorious moment in movies, and that every time he thinks about it, it brings him to tears.  Me, too, I swear.  Yes, it is a fairy tale, a parable—they deserve our gratitude.


"You?" The flower girl and the tramp in City Lights

           But heaven forfend if tears ever become obligatory.  It is perfectly okay to be moved, uplifted, brimming with empathy and yet not shed a tear.  What better example does one need than the enduring power of Casablanca?  With careful modulation of mood, it studiously avoids tear-jerk moments yet keeps us enthralled.  Eighty years after the movie’s release, every other midlife love story is still compared to it and usually found wanting.  Bogey’s tough-guy Rick, café owner in Free French Morocco, enjoys wide popular and even critical appeal.  To Claude Rains’ corrupt Prefect of Police Louis Renault goes the immortal line, “Under that cynical shell of yours, you’re at heart a sentimentalist”—a charge that the closeted sentimentalist hardly denies, and fully reaffirms when the flame of his Paris days Ilsa Lund walks into his café with freedom fighter Viktor Laszlo. Sam reluctantly plays As Time Goes By for Ilsa, then for Rick:  “If you can play it for her you can play it for me,” Rick growls.  Suddenly the isolationist who has announced, “I stick my neck out for no one” is lost in reverie recalling “Here’s looking at you, kid,” and recoups his lost idealism first by advising a young refugee couple gambling for their lives to place their chips on number 22, and ultimately sending the refugee couple that is Ilsa and Laszlo on their way as well.  The agent of change in Rick is Laszlo, the shining white-knight idealist, who welcomes Rick back to the fight even though it means that Ilsa and Bogey will always have Paris, but nothing more.  Before we are done, Renault has called Rick a sentimentalist on four occasions.

            Casablanca’s appeal suggests one kind of thing that can move us in this world.  The appeal is not just that this is a tale of lost love, the eternal triangle; the appeal is certainly not merely the exotic backdrop of war-weary Morocco and the villains of choice in Hollywood, Nazi thugs.  It is not just the appeal of a superb cast rich in personality types.  It is in the play of isolationism versus idealism, personal and national. Above all it is in the dominant mood created by the masterful play of cynicism softened by sentimentalism, sentimentalism reined in by cynicism.  The one plays off against the other, and restores to sentimentalism the power it has lost as generations have wearied of excessive expression of emotion. As time goes by, Bogey’s affective, idealistic core hidden beneath a world-weary facade, his self-sacrifice as commendable as Chaplin’s, have lost little of their power.


Closeted sentimentalist Rick with Sam at Rick's Cafe in Casablanca

Laughter and tears aside, these are perilous times for sentimentalists, and something ought to be done about it. Deeply embedded in the cultural discourse is the common assumption that sentimentalists suffer from an affliction. They name us sentimentalists but to dismiss us: “Sentimentalists, get real.” It is time to stop oppressing sentimentalists, free them from persecution!

            What’s in a name like sentimentalism, really? 

            Sentimentalism supposedly implies unwarranted optimism. To be afflicted with a sunny disposition is to be delusional, in denial, living in a fool’s paradise, cynics say.  The optimist never met a scumbag (their word not ours) he did not like. In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the cynic is Scrooge, the sentimentalist his nephew, whom I confess I played in my first-ever role on stage, in the fourth grade...


Playing Scrooge's nephew with Scrooge's long suffering Bob Cratchit in 4th grade

More than optimism, sentimentalism suggests emotionalism: feeling some things to excess, and other things not enough. And having such feelings an excessive amount of the time. The question is, who says?  Whose “excess”?  And who says being emotional is another name for not thinking clearly, as if clarity requires the repression of emotion. I have nothing against clear thinking, but are not feelings also thoughts? Is thought pure logic and nothing more? And must logic studiously avoid feelings as illogical? Is the “pure unvarnished truth”, often “coldly” spelled out, really an emotion-free zone? And is not the “cold truth” informed by some emotion, though not one that leads to feelings of warmth? To exclude emotions from a seat at the table is a bit like a corporate board being dominated by shareholders denying other kinds of stakeholders a chance to be heard.

Cynically, the critics dismiss good things and big ideas with belittling and put-down epithets.  This is the old trick of substituting for a complimentary epithet a parallel but dismissive one: the dramatic is dismissed as theatrical.  To a cynical beholder, the beautiful is pretty, meaning insubstantial, unmoving, the ultimate in faint praise. Countering every sympathetic term like heartwarming or poignant are knee-jerk put-downs to suit every kind of critic: for the laconic there are romanticized, quaint, maudlin, mawkish, insipid, smarmy; for the verbose, tugging at the heartstrings, pulling out all stops, seen through rose-tinted glasses; for the food-fixated, saccharine, sappy, syrupy, treacly, gooey, cloying, sugar-coated, confection, or corn.  These critics suffer from the bane of the mixed metaphor, or what the British delightfully call a muddle: sweetness of one kind unfairly used to implicate sweetness of another. The critics who accuse others of a taste for bromides ought to wash out their own mouths. The critics who deplore everyone else’s whining had better stop their own whining first.

Put another way, in life’s struggle to approach ever nearer to objective truth and proper conduct, sentimentalism is usually considered an obstruction.  But it just might be the path. Even to acknowledge the reality of a thing called proper conduct is a highly uncynical act, a highly optimistic one, a decidedly idealistic one.  I’ll take the tag “idealist” over “cynic” on my epitaph any day, and who wouldn’t?  Sentimentalism is second nature to an idealist, if not first. But not according to the self-described realists, who indulge in blind cynicism and short-sighted suspension of disbelief.  Again, like Dickens’ Scrooge.

Even worse, realists rail against sentimentalists for being self-absorbed. It is the sentimentalists who deceive themselves, they say.  Who are naïve bleeding-heart liberals.  Who indulge in fantasy.  Are escapist.  Fond of lost causes.  After all, reality is not so clean-cut, and never was.  Reality is all that counts, they say. Life is all film noir and sad endings. Sentimentalists claim to feel others’ pain and shed wet tears, but those who do the real suffering, if they cry at all, cry dry tears. They hold back their tears, while sentimentalists, suffering from a low pain threshold, cry all the more.  They are wimps.  If not less than zero, they are less than they ought to be, being “reduced to tears.” 

Even when not weeping, sentimentalists are found guilty of a certain irresponsible vagueness. They are not in charge of reality, let alone their emotions, and react inappropriately. Allegedly lacking a precise world-view, sentimentalists are considered incapable of emotion suited to the occasion. To some ears, their feelings ring a false note. When they are accused of “false sentiment,” they are left to wonder when sentiment is unarguably “true.” Probably many more often than we realize, I would say, which the gainsayers would dismiss as “wishful thinking.”

At least, in our age of female ascendancy and male vulnerability, and outing of gender stereotyping, we hear less of anyone being dissed as a doe-eyed do-gooder, all happy-talk and fluff, a Mary Poppins, a Goody Two Shoes, or a Pollyanna.

            Worse than vagueness may be the anti-sentimentalist’s perception of emptiness and smugness on the part of anyone who could wear a smiley-face lapel button or use a bumper sticker urging us to “Visualize world peace” or cautioning us with “I brake for animals.” So I readily admit the possibility, even prevalence, of false sentimentalism covering something else. There may be fellow travelers using the language of sentiment, and abusing it, guilty of one too many “tenderly” or “bitterly” adverbs cloying the style of gushy mushiness.  Novelist Graham Greene is said to have closed a book the instant he read the term “tenderly.” Fellow Brits Digby Anderson and Peter Mullen’s 1998 Faking It: the Sentimentalisation of Modern Society rails against a creeping sentimentality “Does this tide of sentimentality matter?  Yes, because it is essentially escapist. It involves the substitution of appearance for reality, of wishes for facts, of self-indulgence for restraint, and of victimhood for personal responsibility.” Ouch.

            These are perilous times for sentimentalists even without the tears because these are, indeed, perilous times for all of us. It has been decades since the era of MGM musicals, those feel-good song-and-dance extravaganzas, Shirley Temple movies or the sentimental realism of Noman Rockwell, a truly gifted artist who modestly called himself an illustrator. His skill was as fully realized as an Old Master’s.  His facility with facial expression and love of humor and gentle irony guided his hand to follow his heart in hundreds of magazine covers, calendars, and ads whose collective nostalgia is instantly recognizable. The Four Freedoms, presidential portraits, Lincoln snapshots, and civil rights works are as solid and full of gravitas and evocation of what truly makes America great as the sculpture of his Stockbridge MA neighbor Daniel Chester French.  But lately we seem to find ourselves living in an age of envy redux, of empathy in chains. Religious intolerance multiplies fruitlessly over the face of the earth. The wealthy wannabes dream of pursuing their own playthings and indulging their appetites, but not improving their character.

            Then there are the unseductive perils of violence and violation of the human spirit.  Violent crime may be down slightly one moment, but never down to something our grandparents could understand.  Given our abundant overexposure to human misery in all its virulent forms, we have become at once jaded and gluttons for punishment.  The drive-by shootings, ethnic hate crimes, marital beatings: the bad has us in thrall, and we are too thick-skinned to feel the pain. Perhaps, consistent with our depleted reserves of aid domestic and foreign, and with our reduced philanthropic zeal, we simply do not have enough emotional energy in reserve to spread compassion in kind. 

Leading the worldwide assault on sentimentalism and decency alike are the terrorists and over-armed extremists in our midst.  None of us can feel secure in our hope that the dark side of human nature will someday be in remission. Though American may strike other peoples as not only the last best hope of mankind, but also the last bastion of opportunity, the American Spirit seems to be faltering, as distrust takes root everywhere among us. We need to remember that empathy, optimism, and sentimentalism are the things the terrorists lack, not the things we must shed.  It was our arrogance and hypocrisy, not the better angels of our nature, that triggered this anti-American onslaught. After the Boston Massacre bombing of 2013, Boston emerged stronger than ever—the better angels of our nature were not undone, they were unleashed.

If we succeed in putting the latest terrorist act out of our minds, placid life still seems far removed from the good old days. We have no time for joining the organizations and institutions our parents nurtured, like the PTA, the clubs, the church and synagogue, in all of which participation has fallen dramatically over recent decades. We are too busy with our careening careers, too seduced by our cells and virtual-reality isolation to participate in real-time gathering. In the progression from local community to global community, the neighborliness of basic face-to-face interaction has eroded. People get extremely exercised about the mores of people they have no wish to know personally and understand. On the plus side, I do notice that on my walks, much more than I recall in pro-Covid days, strangers walking in the other direction say hi, wave and smile.

 

I turn to nostalgia, the elephant in the room.  Consider the Civil War reenactor movement.  At Gettysburg, in the battlefields of Northern Virginia and elsewhere, reenactors convene by the thousands, accurately attired performers in camp and in battle formation. Their commitment must owe something to a sentimental bond with our nation’s most cataclysmic moment. But getting sentimental over a false understanding of the past is worrisome.  In the hands of demagogues, it is dangerous. like Putin’s nostalgia for Russian’s alleged golden age.  Demagogues love to evoke motherlands (sorry, ladies, the guys did this) and brush off crimes against humanity. I refuse to let them give sentimentality a bad name. Healthy nostalgia acknowledges the progress of human decency, dignity, and justice that have redefined circumstances that were once considered normal as something no longer to be tolerated.  The arc of the moral universe continues to bend toward justice.  That hope is what good sentimentalism rallies around.

So let’s take a nostalgic look at sentimentalism in the nineteenth century, a subject near and dear to my heart, saith the sentimentalist.  Today’s sentimentalists can put themselves in their critic’s shoes by trying to imagine what possessed their own ideological forebears of 200 years ago, when the Romantic era was born. The joy of sorrow was all the rage then, and has fallen from grace ever since. Tears once fell as uncontrollably as peony petals. A sensitivity for the pathetic, once so common, so normal, now seems absurd even to sentimentalists, and the sense in it must now be conjecturally restored by social archaeologists.  How quickly we forget that pathetic once conjured up something that was moving in its tenderness (there’s that word again) and sorrow.  But joy it was, a joy expressed freely with tears.  What is moving to us, over such a span of time, is a moving target.  Tastes change. 

            Hard to imagine what the joy of sorrow was once like. It has been a long time since a sentimental novel like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom's Cabin could so publicly dominate our culture.


Edwin Longsden Long, Uncle Tom and Little Eva, 1866 (Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth)

The pages she devotes to the death of angelic Little Eva must go on and on until she has dispensed locks of her hair to all bedside visitors.  Nathaniel P. Willis, who champions American scenery in the 1840s, reveals the tenacity of such a notion when he declares trees in autumn to be more beautiful than summer, just “as woman in her death is heavenlier than the being on whom in life she leaned.” Given the high rate of morbidity (when the disease they called consumption was truly all-consuming), mourning and the celebration of the dead were a kind of cult, as was the need to snatch precious memory from the jaws of oblivion, whether locks of hair or a daguerreotype of a deceased child. The interest in classics, narrative history, orations, elegies, and garden cemeteries was at its zenith.  Even then, sweet was less affecting than bittersweet.

            Of course, it is a small leap from such pleasant sorrow for loved ones to nostalgia, the cult of wistfulness, of yearning, of longing. Places were familiar haunts, redolent with memories, associations with an imagined halcyon or golden age, a time of peace and plenty in an arcadian landscape, the stuff of pre-Civil War lithographs by Currier and Ives down to early twentieth century tinted photographs of New England byways by Wallace Nutting. Real places were compared to idealized images from the brush of landscape painters like Claude Lorraine, Thomas Cole, and Albert Bierstadt.


Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada, California, 1868, detail (Smithsonian)

            We assume now that these early instances of nostalgia were less self-consciously delusional and escapist than their descendants.  But even they were chided for their Claude glasses, the progenitor of rose-tinted glasses, through which they viewed the real world, and romantics were immediately parodied. So laughter, too, had its say. By 1815 the comic character Dr. Syntax in search of the picturesque landscape swoons with “Vale!  O vale!”  Early nineteenth century critics already delighted in parodying the trances, heaving bosoms, gasps, fainting, and groans as exceeding a realistic canon of delicacy of feeling.  Still less can we expect nowadays to convey emotional sensitivity and vulnerability in trembling or a heaving bosom.


Thomas Rowlandson, Dr. Syntax Tumbling Into the Water

            Today non-sentimentalists may unwittingly use once-sentimental terms, but the meaning has been largely transformed.  Commonplace is the hyperbolic usage of terms like spellbinding or hypnotic or magical to describe a thing, but never to describe a person.  The Victorian writers could more safely than our own acknowledge an emotional vulnerability in terms like enchant, bewitch, enthrallAwe has descended into “great respect”, if not lost all dignity.  Nothing is really awful, frightful or terrible anymore, because nothing is sublime.  As the romantic temperament has withered away, reverie has been supplanted by systems of eastern meditation, and rapture and ecstasy, then so often elicited by the sublime, are now largely orgasmic or religious, take your pick. The soul itself has descended from heaven.  Feminine traits like purity, delicacy, gentleness have all but disappeared; nurturing survives. Gaiety, once suggestive of innocent joy (“to be young and gay”), has moved on to pursue other interests.  What remains of sentimental usage is now reserved for greeting cards and terms of endearment like honey and sweetie.

            Beneath these survivors, the archeologists of sentimentalism will unearth an entire language lost to us, the liberal use of a vocabulary of sentiment, adjectives like salutary, soothing, melancholy, mournful, blithe, blissful, felicitous, mystical, woeful, lamentable, forlorn, lachrymose. Dear to Victorians, such language is now often described as constitutionally precious and overwrought.  If their language is sometimes described as florid, sentimentalism once literally concerned itself with pretty things like flowers, and with nature. Oliver Wendell Holmes, no shrinking sentimentalist he, gave his sister-in-law a copy of Catherine Waterman’s “Flora’s Lexicon, an interpretation of the language and sentiment of flowers” published in 1841.  In it we learn that the violet symbolizes modesty because it has “the bashful timidity of the nymph.”  And on and on. Such poetic association begins with the plant-names themselves, wildflowers like Queen Anne’s Lace or Virgin’s Bower or Maidenhair or Lady Slipper.  Likewise, even recently introduced exotic daylilies with subtle colors and petal contours may be given names like Winsome Passion or Summer Reverie. Confirming the age-old feminization of flora, many girls’ given names themselves are floral.  We have to remind ourselves that this is so for names like Cherry, Dahlia, Daisy, Fern, Ginger, Hazel, Heather, Holly, Iris, Ivy, Jasmine, Laurel, Lily, Myrtle, Olive, Rose, Rosemary, and Violet.  Why these flora and no others, like Gardenia, Hibiscus, and Orchid, who can say.

            The words once used to describe the natural landscape seem quaintly antique now: rill, nook, dell, dale, meadow, dingle, glade, knoll, hollow, rill, sylvan vale, copse, grove, grotto, lagoon, strand, haven, isle, greenwood, even scenery.  Most suggest an inviting spatial intimacy that seems at the core of the sensibility, and owes much to the texture of England.

The romance of place-naming was once epidemic, adorning picturesque scenery. The renowned park designer Frederick Law Olmsted, whose landscapes evoked the picturesque, was fond of place-names like the Ramble, the Playstead, the Fens, the Arborway, Ellicottdale, Fellsmere, Nethermead, Lullwater, Ambergill Falls, and Greensward. Squam Lake in New Hampshire inspired camp names like Rockywold and Deephaven.  Everglades, if we stop and think about it, conveys the same magic. We are not infrequently reminded that people once named their houses, not just grand estates, with poetic names, like Tanglewood, Glendale, and Stonehurst. Mark Twain’s Hartford address was Nook Farm, a nook being a bend in the river there.       

In England, the spatially intricate Lakes District, whose romantic tradition of place-names has charmed legions of tourists on the trail of Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter beguiles us with names like Ullswater, Langdale, Bow Fell, Grasmere, Ambleside, Windermere. So we may think it all began in England, and spread to America as it did to places like Bermuda, but I suspect other cultures share the zeitgeist. Perhaps earlier, in China a house that was more compound than pond might still be called Willow Pond Garden.  In both Taiwan and America, you can find a Whispering Pines Inn. And of course, boat names bring out all kinds of tastes, romantic among them. A tour-boat at Niagara is still called Maid of the Mists.

            Other place-words once suggested something more sinister: beetling cliff, bald pate, blasted crag, howling wilderness, barren waste. Place-names like Purgatory Chasm or Devil’s Den or Norman’s Woe lack power now to remind us that all was not sweetness and light in the hardscrabble world of yore.  We forget the canon of romanticism whereby rural landscape beauty was either picturesque or sublime but not both.  A mountain waterfall or a vine-clad bower were picturesque, but a limpid pool, a sheet of water on a still lake or a rainbow were sublime.  The distinction was far from perfect.  In our blasé times sublime seems overwrought, and we in our infinite correctness assert that everyone then was on the lookout for sublimity in both the awesome power of nature’s untamed wild side and the serene repose of nature’s placid side.  Of course, the commercialization of some sights, like Niagara, may have something to do with our distrust of sublimity; even sights like the Grand Canyon saved in national parks must be seen alone at dawn to avoid the crowding out of sublimity.



an imagined moment of sublimity
Frederick Church, Rainy Season in the Tropics, 1866 (de Young Museum)

            In less ravaged times, sights spoke more eloquently to listeners who were better schooled.  On a romantic ramble, an observer well-read in classical mythology and ancient history, say in Ovid, or at least Shakespeare and poets ever since, could once upon a time imagine Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake at Squam in New Hampshire, druidical oaks at Beaver Brook Reservation, and the haunts of wood nymphs, dryads, and naiads among fern-clad rocks, mossy cushions, and hoary beech groves in the White Mountains. 

It has been a long while since anyone in these parts has named a ledge the Old Man of the Mountain or a boulder Squaw Rock. But out West Steamboat Spring’s Elk Mountain goes by the name of the Sleeping Giant.  The metaphorical cross-linkage of landscape and human beings is a meaning that is largely lost in the mist in our un-nostalgic lives. Though we still have the metaphor earth mother, lesser personifications of individual land and water features have long since become truisms.  To describe places, we unthinkingly use terms like head, brow, mouth, tongue, neck, shoulder, arm, elbow, finger, leg, foot, or toe, and barely resonate to the ghost of a metaphor.  When we describe a person as willowy long-limbed, or when we hear the loaded word crotch, we no longer think of trees. Much more has faded away since poet Robert Frost compares the snow-clad suppleness of white birches to “girls on hands and knees that throw their hair over their heads to dry in the sun.”

Metaphors provide a bond between different realms, another source for feeling connected, for expressing empathy, perhaps compassion. We ought to resist the temptation to assume that metaphors rely on common cultural conventions, that in a world where cultural diversity is on the ascendancy, metaphors are necessarily the early casualties.  If Yale literary critic Harold Bloom was profoundly pessimistic about the future of literature, much of his concern was that the death of metaphor is not metaphorical.

Back in the day, places at a certain moment or in a certain season were once invested with human moods, and inferentially what were once thought of as strictly female moods at that, stereotypical though the traits may have been, like capricious, charming, sweet.  Sweet Auburn was the earlier name for the soft-contoured landscape that would later become a much-revered garden cemetery, Mount Auburn. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthplace in Atlanta is in another Sweet Auburn.

            A place could be also be described as happy or sad, smiling or frowning, laughing or weeping, inviting or forbidding, soothing or oppressive. “Earth laughs in flowers,” writes Emerson.  For Timothy Dwight, at Crawford Notch “the hoary cliffs rising with proud supremacy frowned artfully on the world below.” A scene could blush; there could be a flush of autumnal color.  A river could be capricious, a stream jocund, a plain delicate, a hillock dainty.  A rain could be gentle.  A valley could be inhabited by a noble forest, an oak or elm could be stately or wizened, a hornbeam trunk could writhe and twist, and firs and hemlocks frowning and somber.  Clouds of the happiest forms could dance overhead.

Plots were once reinforced, we would say marred, by storms outside mirroring inner turmoil, forebear of today’s cinematic cliché of tears streaming down a man’s face seen through rain streaming down a windshield. But ascribing human behavior to place is, after all, bald-faced projection, as psychologists call it, or what Victorian literary critic John Ruskin calls the “pathetic fallacy” (their usage of pathetic, not ours). Still, I will side with poets Wordsworth, Shelly, and Tennyson and poetic artist-illustrator Arthur Rackham any day. Rackham’s gnarled tree trunks sometimes seem goblinesque in their eyeholes, nose-branches, and gaping mouths, a trick that translated well into forest scenes in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz and Walt Disney’s Snow White.

            Rackham’s American fellow traveler, N. C. Wyeth is secure enough in his athletic manliness and passion to admit to literally embracing nature: “I feel so moved sometimes toward nature that I could almost throw myself face down into a ploughed furrow‑ ploughed furrow understand! I love it so.”  Look at his language closely and you find his mistress: “To paint a landscape wherever one is endeavoring to represent with passionate emotion the hot molten gold of sunlight, the heavy sultry distances and the burning breath of soft breezes, one returns home in the evening proud and happily sympathetic in sweaty clothes and burned arms and back.  To feel thus completes one’s sense of identification and unity with nature.” And clearly his prodigy son Andrew, reverential in his fifteen-year homage to Helga, subtly fuses her form with nature in a common brush technique to render the fur and the hair that adorn her, and the fronds and grass that adorn the earth.

            Likewise, people could take on traits from the natural world: a disposition could be sunny or misty, a mood stormy, a brow furrowed, an imagination barren, sympathy could gush, tears flow, a body could be ripe or withering away.  A blushing cheek could be a field of roses. A promising man could be felled or cut down in his prime.  Even now we cling to a cliché like rugged individualist.  Conversely, if there was such a thing as virgin forest, the land could also be violated.  In an age that was acutely aware that the ravages of man were fast overtaking those of nature, Paradise Lost haunted the romantic temperament.  A hillside could be described as denuded, a landscape pockmarked or bruised.  A New Deal artist painted a dustbowl landscape, the contours taking on the form of a raped woman with slashed throat.  By now we call a landscape raped without a trace of shock value. 

            The idealized male form once had something of a foothold on the language of landscape.  The sensibility found in geological truth anatomical truth as well: if fertile soil was a skin, ledges were sinews and lineaments. Medford, Massachusetts, historian Charles Brooks asserts in 1855, “The earth looks best with its beard.” Beech trunks could be described as muscular, geysers, cascades and pinnacles thought of as phallic. A wave could caress a beach, and the sea or an island could be vexed. 

            Springs were thought of as female. In less strident times, it was the ordered, reposeful landscape that gave rise to a sensual aesthetic of female form, a comparison of the soft contours and secret places of both that betrayed a sensibility that was romantic and reverential, possibly light-hearted as well. A “dimpled stream” is of course not overtly sexist, but Milton in Comus is probably thinking female. Knowing something about landscape mysticism, transcendentalists could observe that what the eye is to the face, open water is to the landscape: limpid, wet, reflective, blue, brown, green. Thoreau says as much in Walden: “A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is the earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows.”

Nathaniel Willis rhapsodizes over “the pellucid bosom” of Lake George.  No match for Willis’ delicacy, early explorers called a jagged mountain range in Wyoming Les Grands Tetons, and buttock-like protuberances buttes, Native Americans called Mount Rainier the “Fountain Breast of Milk White Waters.”  For Victorians landscape could have a bosom or dimple as much as a fetching miss in risqué literature could have a rosebud, a bush, a sacred grove, a secret bower, or a perfumed garden.  Colette calls the lush upper lip of a courtesan her Cupid’s bow.  In Poros, Greece, my Greek host once offered me a room with a view of the Sleeping Woman, the sunset silhouette of the mountains near Epidaurus that formed a reclining woman from chin to bosom to abdomen to knees and shins.  Mother Earth or earthy mother, both can be said to undulate in soft supple contours.  Indeed, for lovers locked in embrace and lost in passion, the outside world ceases to exist, and their bodies are the four corners of their shared world.

            But much survives to legitimize the power of sentiment-based rhetoric.  Lincoln used such language poetically and sparingly in such phrases as mystic chords of memory and better angels of our nature. Much of the Gettysburg Address imparts the emotion so dear to sentimentalists without their verbal excesses. For them, the Address itself is hallowed ground.  We have lost the taste for the sentiment and classical excesses of the main speaker of the day, Edward Everett. Much was made of allegory, of symbolism. Coincidence is a perceptual invention of our own scientific era. For allegory and symbolism, we must turn to political cartoons where the shorthand stock imagery of elephants, donkeys, and peace pipes still works.  We cry touché, critics cry cliché.

            Alert readers of Shakespeare will recognize the selfsame mirroring of universe and protagonist in Macbeth, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream. The phenomenon in other cultures like the Chinese is the principle of correspondence.  Elements which we would find disparate their true believers considered to be related, ordered in universal harmony.  Woman and man, yin and yang, hot and cold, sea and mountain...sound familiar?

            Plots were also marred by the author’s facile reliance on melodrama, fatalism, and doom, forebear of today’s supernaturalism. The protagonists in the early nineteenth-century sentimental novels were wooden, good or evil, the heroine full of the milk of human kindness, the cad ruined forever. Lovers’ emotions sprang from the breast rather than the gut, people were made for each other, but not for our real world or our escapist one either.  If a woman wept, her interlocutor who of course worshipped her would track her tear’s fall from cheek to bosom; even, in what must surely be subliminally erotic, kiss the tears off the weeper like pearly dew drops on the rose.  The excess of such patently unrealistic detail may have created an exquisite fantasy world of delicacy of feeling that readers longed to linger in, but reality it could never claim to be. 

            Were Dickens alive today, serious critics would dismiss A Tale of Two Cities as mush, its plot as contrived.  It has been a long time since Sydney Carton offered himself up to the guillotine for his look-alike saying, “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done.  It is a far, far better place I go to than I have ever been.”  Yet the emotional and story-line equivalent is alive and well in Harlequin Books.  Radical feminists do not read romantic novels for pleasure, but those novels fly off the shelf, and their readers have heard about liberation, taken from the movement whatever makes sense for them, and still willingly escape to the world of sentimentalism.  Though forbidden the vocabulary of sentimentalism, millions read romantic novels and enjoy three-hanky movies, and not all of them are women. Some of the writers are men writing under a female pseudonym.

            It is not the rosy scenarios and happy endings, but the compassion along the way, that must never be forgotten. Having said that, I admit I still like happy endings. As a landscape architect, I am moved by the vision of immersion in an intimate dell where one comes upon a manifestation of compassion that inspires one to take heart and take action, for environmental and social justice.

(C) Thomas M. Paine 2024


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