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Here for all his aesthete's pose, which emphasizes the artifice involved in this particular instance of natural beauty, Beerbohm sounds much like Ruskin, Morris, and modern environmentalists.
ll men kill the thing they love" was the keynote of a fine ballad which every one has read. And, indeed, it does seem that in all love, be it love for animate or inanimate things, there is an ogre-ish element; humanity, in its egoism, being unable to appreciate anything, unless it have also power to destroy it. The comparative indifference with which the ancients regarded landscape might be traced to their lack of tools for its destruction. We, in this century, suffer from no such lack, and our love of landscape is quite unbounded. We have water-towers wherewith to cap our little hills, railway-trains to send along the ridges of our valleys, coal-shafts to sink through ground where, for many centuries, forest have been growing. We have factories, too, for the marges of wide rivers, texts about pills and soaps for the enamelling of meads, and telegraph-wires for the threading of air, and tall, black chimneys for all horizons. Month in, month out, with tears blinding our eyes, we raise tombs of brick and mortar for the decent burial of any scenery that may still be lying exposed. A little while, and English landscape will have become the theme of antiquarians, and we shall be listening to learned lectures on scenology and gaping at dried specimens of the trees, grasses, and curious flowers that were once quite common in our Counties.
I am glad that there are, in the meantime, still some fragments of country not built over. I make the most of them, whenever I am at leisure. I think that Prangley Valley is the fragment that most fascinates me; partly because it is so utterly sequestered, yet so near to London. From Kew Gardens one may reach it in less than half an hour^s walking, but the way to it lies through such devious and narrow lanes, that the wheel of no scorcher scars it, and it is unimpressed by any Arrian or Arriettian boot. Indeed, I have often wondered how the "King's Sceptre," a Jacobean inn which stands just above the Valley, can thrive so finely on so little custom. John Willet himself seemed not more prosperously paunched than the keeper of this inn, and, though I have never met any fellow-farer at his door, my advent does not seem to flutter him. The notion, that any human creature should care to drink old ale from one of his burnished tankards, or should admire the Valley over which he has always lived, seems to puzzle him rather, but not to excite him. It is very pleasant to sit on the settle that stands, in summer-time, across the lawn of his sloping garden; pleasant to sit there, among the hollyhocks and fuchsia-beds, and look down upon the little, hollow Valley that is so perfect in its way. I am afraid it is not a grand or an uncomfortable piece of scenery. It cannot lay claim to a single crag, peak, or torrent. It suggests the artfulness, rather than the forces, of Nature. Its charm is toy-like. The stream that duly bisects it is so slight and unasssuming that I have quite forgotten its name. I remember that my innkeeper once told me, with a touch of pride, that it was a tributary of the Thames. Perhaps it is, but it looks suspiciously like a riband. So neat, so nicely matched one to another are the poplar-trees on the opposite brow of the Valley, that one fancies they must stand, as in the nursery, on rounds of yellow wood, and would topple at the touch. Among these amusing trees there is one solitary tenement. It is a kind of pavilion, built of grey stone and crowned with a dome round which stand gilded statuettes of the nine Muses. I know not what happens in it now, but it is said to have been designed by Sir Roland Hanning, physician-in-ordinary to Queen Adelaide, and used by him as a summer-house and library, whenever he was in residence at Kew. Seen from a distance, with the sun gleaming on its grey and gilt, the pavilion has an absurd charm of its own. Set just where it is, it makes, in draughtsman's jargon, a pretty "spot" in the whole scheme. One can hardly believe, though, that any one but a marionette ever lived there. Indeed, were it not for the sheep, which are browsing on the slope and are obviously real, and for their shepherd, who is not at all like Noah, one would imagine that the whole Valley was but a large, expensive toy. A trim, demure prospect, unambitous, unspoilt! The strange brightness of its verdure and the correctness of its miniature proportions make it seem, in the best sense of the word, artificial. If it had not been designed and executed with intense care, it is certainly the luckiest of flukes. Greater it might be, but not better. I feel that, for what it is, it is quite perfect. So it soothes me, and I am fond of it.
I am not a railway company, nor a builder, nor a County Councillor. I had no direct means of ruining Prangley Valley. But I have written my encomium of it, and now it is likely to be infested by all the readers of this book and by most of their friends. I have given away my poor Valley. The prospector will soon be prospecting it, and across its dear turf the trippers will soon be tripping. In sheer wantonness, I have ruined my poor Valley. Certainly, all true love has its ogreish element. [139-43]
Beerbohm, Max. “Prangley Valley.” More (1899). New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1922. 139-43.
Last modified 5 December 2011