The British are not the only nation who eulogize the beauties of their landscape in verse, nor were we even the first. The ancient Greeks praised the shepherd’s simple life – Arcadia was simply a rural region of Greece before it came to symbolize a mythic idyll where Pan cavorted with herdsmen. However, it is fair to say that the British pastoral tradition has proved particularly fertile and enduring. We are an island at the mercy of unpredictable weather, as anyone who has attended a garden barbecue or music festival in Britain will confirm. Yet the British have long believed in the spiritual dividends to be derived from nature. We treasure our magnificent views. We ramble. We flock in our thousands to our country’s cherished wildernesses, from the Lake District to the Dales and from the Highlands to Snowdonia, as excited by their glorious vistas as tourists from far flung countries.
Writers and poets in particular have always found solace and inspiration in the British countryside. Although literary life has been centred on the capital for much of the nation’s history, our writers have often had to escape the city to produce their finest work. Chaucer, Marlowe, Pope and Keats are among the many London-based poets whose work is included in my new anthology Green and Pleasant Land, a collection of the best-loved poems about the British countryside. Keats – whose "Ode to a Nightingale" and "To Autumn" are two of the nation’s most cherished poems – was even derided as being one of a Cockney school of poetry when his first verses were published. Perhaps the town dweller’s thirst for natural beauty is all the more powerful for being unquenched? The pastoral was always a genre that romanticised its subject: by townies, for townies, it was aimed at a literate urban audience rather than the swains and milkmaids it portrayed. Like many of us today, these writers hungered for the green of woods and hills, the untainted air of rural Britain and the sights and sounds of nature.
The benefits of a country walk are many and undisputed. Walking reduces the risk of high blood pressure and can be a helpful weapon against high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes and even some cancers. The rewards go beyond the physical boost to our health though: a team from Essex University found that green exercise – walking in a natural environment – can be an especially powerful mood enhancer and a wonderful way to combat stress. The beauties of nature and the tranquillity of the countryside are good for us on every level.
Few of us are able to escape to the country on a regular basis in the course of our daily lives. Towns and cities have sprawled into the countryside as the suburbs swallow up the landscape celebrated by many of the poets whose words I read while choosing poems for this book. For many of us it would take time we can ill afford to spare from our busy schedules to get to even the starting point for a rural ramble. Yet as I researched the poems I wanted to include in the anthology a curious thing started to happen. Although I was spending time bent over my books in my South London flat – and, often, fitting the work into brief interludes when my baby daughter was sleeping – the process was anything but tiring. If anything, I would feel invigorated and refreshed after each session of research. The poems begged to be savoured; they tasted of fresh air. Childhood memories came back to me, such as happy times spent at Knole in Sevenoaks which inspired Vita Sackville West’s ‘The Land’, two extracts from which I have included. The poems whisked me away – to the coast; to woods filled with bird-song; to the beautiful corners of Britain I had seen and many more I had not.
I firmly believe that poetry is good for you. It is fantastic for expanding our vocabulary and an enjoyable way to improve our own grasp of the English language, and it expresses emotions in a way we can connect to at a deep level. I have also concluded that poetry about the countryside is especially good for you. It is soothing and inspiring, and in your mind you can visit the green and pleasant landscape in a moment – even if you are crammed into a stranger’s armpit on the Northern Line at the time of reading. All you need is your imagination and the nation’s favourite poets as your guides.
It has been a pure pleasure exploring the British countryside through the words of our greatest poets. I do hope that wherever readers are when they dip into the book, they will benefit from a quick blast of healthy fresh air and a dose of the beauty that has soothed, inspired and nourished so many of our finest writers through the centuries. Happy rambling!
Green and Pleasant Land: Best-Loved Poems of the British Countryside by Ana Sampson is out now from Michael O’Mara for £9.99.