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Representation of landscape in literature has always been one of the most prolific subjects in many world’s literatures. Whether the landscape has been conceptualized as mere scenery for the ‘more important’ action or situation in the author’s narrative, or it has been introduced as the narrative’s major object, the themes of landscape still retain their significance in many genres of both prose and poetry. In this essay, the analytical overview of landscape representations in major Western and ‘non-Western’ literatures are presented with key themes identified and compared. The main issue to be addressed is the correlation between changes in landscape’s literary representations and the underlying cultural transformations of human civilizations.

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The importance of landscape in the ancient mythological narratives cannot be understated. This is because myths’ key concepts inherently relied on the association of specific sacral space with relevant landscape features (e. g. mountains, seas, forests). Richard Buxton observes that in Greek myths, the very depiction of the world’s creation in Hesiod is directly related to the emergence of landscapes necessary for all life to thrive. Similarly, Indian mythology virtually abounds with references to sacred places that are conceptualized as particular (and very much real) landscapes to be revered and visited. In particular, sacred mountains (e.g. Himalaya) and rivers (e.g. Ganges) played instrumental role in the organization of Indian sacred landscape. Moreover, as one may see from the rich legacy of Indian epics, ancient Indians paid great attention to the connection between their landscapes and divine characters of their myths.

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Similarly, the Near Eastern mythos appears to reflect the preoccupation of ancient people with the connection between landscape and the sacred. The Epic of Gilgamesh is especially notable due to its emphasis on the notion of ‘cultivating’ the previously ‘uncivilized’, or more precisely, ‘monstrous’ landscape by the divine or divinely inspired hero. The same motif can be found in the mythos of Heracles and in his struggle against malevolent creatures of nature as well as in Beowulf, with this epic poem’s contrast between the bright palaces of human kings and dark marshes and deep seas, where the creatures of darkness dwell. This contrast seems to be present in the number of other mythologies as well.


In contrast with epic poems and heroic myths, lyric poetry genre that appears to have emerged both in the East and the West in the same era (i.e. the mid to late 1st millennium BCE), focused on human emotive perceptions of the landscape and its reflection in elaborate poetic images. Both Roman (e.g. Virgil) and Ancient Chinese (e. g. anonymous authors of The Verses of Chu) lyric poets clearly aimed either to communicate to their readers or listeners their inner feelings associated with the observation of respective landscapes, or present their ideas in the metaphoric form using landscape as a main referent. In particular, Virgil’s Eclogues seems to present some of the most spectacular examples of the ancient Mediterranean landscape poetry building upon previous Greek poetry’s experience. However, unlike such Greek poet as Theocrites, Virgil is notable for the extensive attribution of human qualities to natural objects that he mentions in his poetry. Such ‘humanization of nature’ enables him to introduce a specific kind of romantic pastorality in his narrative. Such ‘Arcadian’ poetic narrative that focused specifically on the affinity between human beings and natural pastoral landscapes, as opposed to urban artificiality, was a major inspiration for the 19th century Romantic poets.

On the other hand, representation of human-nature relationship in ancient Chinese poetry seems to be focused on the issues of symbolic connection between nature and larger metaphysical considerations. For instance, early Common Era poetry of post-Han states was heavily influenced by Daoist notions of primeval nature as a perfect representation of cosmic harmony. For instance, Xie Lingyun’s famed landscape poetry (5th century CE) “almost invariably conclude with some kind of philosophical meditation.” This indicates the deeply cherished connection between inner cosmos (i.e. human soul) and outer reality (as exemplified by natural landscapes). This difference in focus may be generally attributed to the divergent paths of the development of spiritual culture in Rome and Ancient China.


In the West, the period of c. 500-1400 was notable for the complete shift of emphasis from the physical and tangible to the spiritual and divine, with the corresponding changes in the treatment of landscapes in literary works. The deeply allegorical and symbolic representation of the afterlife landscapes as presented, for instance, in the Anglo-Saxon religious poetry (e.g. Judgment Day and The Phoenix) emphasized a transient and mutable character of all natural landscapes as opposed to the immutable splendor of the Paradise. Such shift from previous mythological-poetic depiction of nature and its landscapes would appear to correspond with the development of the West Christian worldview, with its emphasis on the sinful nature of the present world as opposed to the spiritual one.

In contrast, non-Western literatures of this era continued to exhibit more positive perspective on natural world as the abode of wonders and the place of untamed purity. For instance, The Travels of Ibn Bat%u016Bta (c. 1325-1354) appears to be marked with author’s pointed interest to the variety of Earth’s landscapes and numerous peoples inhabiting them. This would stand in a stark contrast with preoccupation with personal salvation that seemed to be a dominant feature of the pre-Renaissance intellectual culture in West Europe.


Resumption of the interest of European literature to the subject of natural landscape can be traced to 15th -16th centuries with the emergence of Renaissance secular literature.  Growing emphasis on nature and its interrelationship with humans was accompanied by newer social constructions of the ‘national’ or regional identity as expressed through allegiance with particular landscapes. The growing connection between depictions of landscape and socio-political ideas espoused by the author/narrator became a feature of the 18th century British and French literatures. In both of them, Virgilian dichotomy between the corrupt/sickly urban environment and virtuous/healthful countryside or the pastoral lands of tribal non-European peoples may be definitively discerned. Further, the development of sentimental image of the ‘true’, or ‘golden age’ associated with pre-commercial and rustic lifestyle became especially prominent, specifically with respect to the impending Industrial Revolution. These processes presaged both the rise of the Romantic literature with its elevated notion of pristine and untainted nature, and the 20th to 21st century environmentally conscious literature.


In the course of the late 19th century to early 20th century, a definite change in the human-nature relationship occurred. This change led to the complete dominance of nature by human beings and the latter’s mass mobility that undermined the feeling of entrenchment typical for the pre-industrial society. Consequently, feelings of alienation and the ruination of traditional forms of living and the landscapes connected therewith appear to have become prominent in literary works of this era. In particular, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets can be perceived as an attempt to counter mechanization and standardization tendencies of the 20th century industrial civilization with a reference to the re-imagined austerity of rural-oriented life of the Classical world. Similarly, critical fiction of the early 21st century seems to focus on the “onrush of commercial modernity,” emphasizing the feelings of urban angst and dislocation in the constantly shifting and changing metropolitan city landscapes.

Hence, the changes in perceptions of a landscape in literary works would appear to be directly correlated with the overall transformations in human life conditions as mediated by the progress in technology and awareness of the world at large. While transitioning from the primitive adoration of nature to the mastery over it, human beings seem both to gain and to lose something of note, and the search for this lost quality constitutes a part and parcel of the literature’s mission.

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