The Sublime

February 27, 2015 § 1 Comment

In his recent book The Moor, William Atkins describes the flat, high, empty terrain he explores as sublime: not as Edmund Burke conceived it, but as a dismal, featureless, horizontal landscape.  In place of the uplifting, vertiginous Alps, the wide, barren moors stretch to the horizon, their monotone denudation inducing a sense of endlessness and immanence.  These spaces, Atkins infers, affect us in a similar – or similarly extreme – way to the vast mountainscapes:

Situated on the plateau above the far bank of the Taw, Cranmere Pool was one of the moors’ uttermost centres, a place of Wordsworthian ‘visionary dreariness’ – where dreariness was so absolute that it constituted nothing less than a form of the sublime.’ (p100)

Moorland, as Atkins stresses, is not a natural landscape, but a result of human management.  However, the processes involved in this management – deforestation, drainage (and later re-inundation), burning – have produced an environment which is hostile to human inhabitation and use.  The moors – once human homelands – now repel us.  They are treacherous, not only in their physical hostility, but as a no-mans-land: a wilderness, ecologically and psychologically, spectred by beasts and ghosts.

These terrains are richer for writers than they are for farmers.  Their fruitless, resistant qualities – and the whispers and echoes consequent upon this barrenness – are attractive to those seeking visions which are peripheral, antithetical or strange.  If the pay-off for social engagement is a necessary conformity, then the moor can be conceived as a place of necessary estrangement.


William Atkins, The Moor (Faber & Faber, 2014)



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