Wednesday 30 September 2009

'A country rapidly passed through...'

'Clear vision goes with the quick foot,' says Robert Louis Stevenson, condensing his previous sentence: 'A country rapidly passed through under favourable auspices may leave upon us a unity of impression that would only be disturbed and dissipated if we stayed longer.' So opens the essay An Autumn Effect (1875), collected in Essays of Travel. An account of an excursion from London to walk in the wooded hills of Buckinghamshire, it's a typical Stevensonian mix of pin-sharp observation, charm and deft description, with descents into fustian prose and whimsy - but I think, in his opening generalisations, he has a point. 'Things fall for us,' he continues, 'into a sort of natural perspective when we see them for a moment in going by; we generalise boldly and simply, and are gone' - gone, that is, before, in the natural course of things, the whole picture changes. Stevenson likens this kind of perception to the exposure of a photographic plate, but it is not exactly photographic; there is also, in scenes we see in this way - while walking through them - something of the heightening and foreshortening characteristic of certain strange effects of strong low light. This vividness may be illusory, as Stevenson allows, but it is vivid nonetheless, and we tend to remember more clearly places that we have merely glimpsed while walking through them than others where we have lingered (and certainly those that we have driven through) - they seem more real to us.
Anyway, I shall have the chance to put this to the test over the next few days, when I shall be walking - in France, again. Tomorrow I take the ferry to Le Havre, then on to Honfleur... Au revoir, mes amis! Blogging will resume next week.
Meanwhile, here are wise words - in French, as it happens - taken from the epigraph to Stevenson's essay: 'Nous ne decrivons jamais mieux la nature que lorsque nous nous efforcons d'exprimer sobrement et simplement l'impression que nous en avons recue.' It's from an essay by one Andre Theuriet, called L'Automne dans les Bois. Very seasonal...

1 comment:

  1. Stevenson illuminated much. But then he was from a family of lighthouse engineers.