DOI: 10.1177/03061973231213033 ISSN: 0306-1973

Escaping the Crowds: The Harmonious Environments of Sociability in Eighteenth-Century Writings

Przemysław Uściński
  • Literature and Literary Theory
  • History

This article looks at the eighteenth-century ways of thinking about nature in connection with sociability and retirement by juxtaposing some of the poetry of the period with the discourses concerned with gardens and the aesthetics of garden design. In the writings of Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Joseph Addison, William Gilpin, Elizabeth Montagu, and William Shenstone, the interest in the value of retirement as a much-needed respite from polite society is accompanied with some concern about the dangers of inactivity and idleness. Nature is thus supposed to offer an appropriately shaded, harmonious environment that provides spiritual reinvigoration and cultivation of taste, away from the tumult of urban crowds. In the poetry of Thomas Gray and William Blake, in turn, one may notice the evocation of nature as a more disturbing force, which, rather than merely confirming to the taste for harmony, seems to challenge some of the premises of polite culture. Paying attention to aesthetic thought, cultural history and poetic discourse, the article provides some insights into the complexity of the eighteenth-century aesthetics of nature.