n her Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (1959) Marjorie Hope Nicolson has shown how the theological controversy over the earth's present form, which engaged or influenced most of the important theologians, scientists, and men of letters of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, created a great interest in the natural sublime. When Thomas Burnet, Master of the Charterhouse and chaplain to King William, published his Sacred Theory of the Earth in 1681, he had hoped to add to science and theology by citing an alternate Biblical tradition which held that the earth, until the Deluge, had been a smooth, featureless, perfectly proportionate sphere, but that afterward it was marred by mountains and scarred by the deep, uneven beds of rivers and seas. According to Nicolson, Burnet was convinced that the terrestrial globe of the 1680s was not identical with the original world. Its gross irregularities and lack of symmetry offended his sense of proportion;
there appearing nothing of Order, or any regular Design in its Parts, it seems reasonable to believe that it was not the Work of Nature, according to her first Intention, or according to the first Model that was drawn in Measure and Proportion by the Line and by the Plummet, but a secondary Work, and the best that could be made of broken Materials. . . [Both earth and moon are] in my Judgment the Image or Picture of a great Ruin, and have the true aspect of a World lying in its Rubbish. [196-197]
But, as Nicolson has also shown, Burnet was a paradoxical man in a paradoxical age; for although he was prompted to condemn the mountains and seas of the earth on theological grounds, he was simultaneously attracted to them; and in his attraction we have the beginnings of landscape feeling, and of the love of the powerful and asymmetrical, which so moved Ruskin and his predecessors. In a physico-theology that became the expanding, changing work of a lifetime appear the interests that were characteristic of later writers on the sublime:
Burnet was "rapt" and "ravished" by the vast, the grand, the majestic. Before vastness he experienced the awe and wonder he had associated with God. But he could not understand his own emotions. He knew that his response was not to "Beauty." On every possible occasion, he sharply differentiated between response to Beauty and the new emotions inspired by the grandeur of Nature. Vast and irregular mountains were not beautiful, but, except for the vast and irregular night skies, nothing had ever moved Burnet to such awe or so led his mind to thoughts of God and infinity as did the mountains and the sea.
Burnet's interest in the overpowering aspects of nature, his concern with the effects of this awesomeness on man, his relation of this awe to religion, and his opposition of this new rapturous emotion to beauty prepared for a new aesthetic. Addison, Steele, Joseph Warton, Young, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, among many others, read and were moved by Burnet's Sacred Theory. In addition, the controversy that his ideas provoked, when theologians resisted the idea that the earth was a ruin, made his notions a matter of common currency among theologians, scientists, and writers, and turned their attentions to the attractiveness of the external world of mountains and seas. According to Burnet, therefore, "The greatest Objects of Nature are, methinks, the most pleasing to behold; and next to the Great Concave of the Heavens and those boundless Regions where the Stars inhabit, there is nothing that I look upon with more Pleasure than the wide Sea and the Mountains of the Earth" [Mountain Gloom, 214].
Last modified 1988