Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Harry Pearson is a good man

An unexpectedly generous article in The Guardian tries to flog the pleasures of rural Germany to the discerning British tourist. The author, Harry Pearson, waxes (maybe a little too?) lyrical about a particularly pleasant visit to the Odenwald, a minor mountain range in the south-west of Germany (and really not that far from here). Reminiscing about the mild climate, mellow sights and pleasant (albeit exotic) food that he enjoyed there, Pearson contemplates upon the British reticence regarding travel to and in Germany.

And he reminds us that
at one time the Black Forest and Rhine cruises were immensely popular with British tourists.
Yes indeed: exactly where we live once was a British tourist hot spot. Had Wayne and Coleen tied the knot in the early nineteenth-century, they probably would have taken a cruise on the Rhine, rather than the Riviera. But then again: had Wayne and Coleen lived in the early nineteenth century, they probably wouldn't have had a high-end wedding sponsored by a glossy magazine, the details of which we can't avoid knowing thanks to the press hysteria surrounding it.

In fact, had Wayne and Coleen been early nineteenth-century people, they would probably have lived, slogged, bred and died without anyone noticing.

Literary evidence of the past popularity of Germany can be found in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818/1831), where the eponymous hero - partly in order to shake off the monstrous creation that haunts him and to finally find "tranquillity" (a word which appears on almost every single page in the novel) - travels (grand tour style) across Europe with his friend Henry Clerval.

And you know what: on their way North (because they're England bound), they come past here (i.e. roughly where we are):

We had agreed to descend the Rhine in a boat from Strasbourg to Rotterdam, whence we might take shipping for London. During this voyage we passed many willowy islands and saw several beautiful towns.We stayed a day at Mannheim, and on the fifth from our departure from Strasbourg, arrived at Mainz. The course of the Rhine below Mainz becomes much more picturesque. The river descends rapidly and winds between hills, not high, but steep, and of beautiful forms. We saw many ruined castles standing on the edges of precipices, surrounded by black woods, high and inaccessible. This part of the Rhine, indeed,presents a singularly variegated landscape. In one spot you view rugged hills, ruined castles overlooking tremendous precipices, with the dark Rhine rushing beneath; and on the sudden turn of a promontory,flourishing vineyards with green sloping banks and a meandering river and populous towns occupy the scene.
We travelled at the time of the vintage and heard the song of the labourers as we glided down the stream. Even I, depressed in mind, and my spirits continually agitated by gloomy feelings, even I was pleased. I lay at the bottom of the boat, and as I gazed on the cloudless blue sky, I seemed to drink in a tranquillity to which I had long been a stranger. And if these were my sensations, who can describe those of Henry? He felt as if he had been transported to fairy-land and enjoyed a happiness seldom tasted by man. "I have seen," he said, "the most beautiful scenes of my own country; I have visited the lakes of Lucerne and Uri, where the snowy mountains descend almost perpendicularly to the water, casting black and impenetrable shades, which would cause a gloomy and mournful appearance were it not for the most verdant islands that believe the eye by their gay appearance; I have seen this lake agitated by a tempest, when the wind tore up whirlwinds of water and gave you an idea of what the water-spout must be on the great ocean; and the waves dash with fury the base of the mountain, where the priest and his mistress were overwhelmed by an avalanche and where their dying voices are still said to be heard amid the pauses of the nightly wind; I have seen the mountains of La Valais, and the Pays de Vaud; but this country, Victor, pleases me more than all those wonders. The mountains of Switzerland are more majestic and strange, but there is a charm in the banks of this divine river that I never before saw equalled. Look at that castle which overhangs yon precipice; and that also on the island,almost concealed amongst the foliage of those lovely trees; and now that group of labourers coming from among their vines; and that village half hid in the recess of the mountain. Oh, surely the spirit that inhabits and guards this place has a soul more in harmony with man than those who pile the glacier or retire to the inaccessible peaks of themountains of our own country."
Clerval! Beloved friend! Even now it delights me to record your words and to dwell on the praise of which you are so eminently deserving. He was a being formed in the "very poetry of nature." His wild and enthusiastic imagination was chastened by the sensibility of his heart. His soul overflowed with ardent affections, and his friendship was of that devoted and wondrous nature that the world-minded teach us to look for only in the imagination. But even human sympathies were not sufficient to satisfy his eager mind.

The scenery of external nature, which others regard only with admiration, he loved with ardour

The sounding cataract
Haunted him like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to him
An appetite; a feeling, and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, or any interest
Unborrow'd from the eye.

(Wordsworth "Tintern Abbey")
And where does he now exist? Is this gentle and lovely being lost forever? Has this mind, so replete with ideas, imaginations fanciful and magnificent, which formed a world, whose existence depended on the life of its creator; - has this mind perished? Does it now only exist in my memory? No, it is not thus; your form so divinely wrought, and beaming with beauty, has decayed, but your spirit still visits and consoles your unhappy friend.
It is a pity, given the sublimity that she had ascribed to the German landscape in her first novel, that Mary Shelley, when she travelled in Germany in 1842, wasn't too impressed by the country (let alone the language, of which she only had a passive knowledge). Which is why I worry that Mr. Pearson's praise might not have the intended effect, but lead to great disappointment. No deckchairs, no towels, no Yoga in German. Oh dear ....

Still: nice one. Though I have to point out that if you want to get to the Odenwald, Hamburg is about the least convenient place to fly to, as the article suggests, even if it might be the German airport closest to London.

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