The Bar adopts at times the quietly assured purr of the contented cat who has seen the mouse and is merely waiting for a propitious moment to spring. In just such a tone of voice and with a single side-long glance he asked me what the Brown Advisor planned to do about Thomas Wright and whether, as the number of FAQs approached the promised 300, there would still be time to address this phenomenal man, colleague and contemporary of that generous Governor and great gardener, Capability Brown. Thomas Wright, astronomer, scientist, surveyor and garden designer – I fear that the many directions which his talent took have told against him.
As it happens this inquiry from the Bar coincides with another from Miss S of Whitby who asks how the designs of the magnificent Capability Brown would stand against the idea of infinity, and it is the idea of infinity that finds out Wright at his most lofty and potent. Here for example: ‘Since as the Creation is, so is the Creator also magnified, we may conclude in consequence of an infinity, and an infinite all-active power, that as the visible creation is supposed to be full of sidereal systems and planetary worlds, so on, in like similar manner, the endless immensity is an unlimited plenum of creations not unlike the known.’ In short Wright proposes an understanding of infinity (as something that necessarily includes everything that you can possibly imagine) that we can readily recognise today.
Wright goes on to call for humility ‘All this the vast apparent provision in the starry mansions seem to promise: What ought we then not to do, to preserve our natural birthright to it and to merit such inheritance, which alas we think created all to gratify alone a race of vain-glorious gigantic beings, while they are confined to this world, chained like so many atoms to a grain of sand.’
And to emphasise the good humour that is allied to the random turns of life: ‘In this great celestial creation, the catastrophy of a world, such as ours, or even the total dissolution of a system of worlds, may possibly be no more to the great Author of Nature, than the most common accident in life with us, and in all probability such final and general Doomsdays may be as frequent there, as even Birthdays or mortality with us upon the earth. This idea has something so cheerful in it, that I own I can never look upon the starts without wondering why the whole world does not become astronomers; and that men endowed with sense and reason should neglect a science they are naturally so much interested in, and so capable of inlarging their understanding, as next to a demonstration must convince them of their immortality, and reconcile them to all those little difficulties incident to human nature, without the least anxiety.’
Might not Brown have said something similar?
The apparently random pattern of stars has been with us more or less unchanged since the dawn of humanity. The vast majority of these stars could have disappeared without our notice or need for explanation because, astronomers aside, we do not remember even this most abiding of patterns save as a texture. Nonetheless the ‘serene dissociation’ of these dots of light, experienced by Tess Durbeyfield and her brother, is universally felt. We are improved by seeing the earth suspended in a vast family of stars, both more secure and less required to strive, because whatever the importance of our soul and our affairs, for Thomas Hardy as for Alexander Pope these are wisps in the immense velvet of the sky. To be comforted and at the same time prompted to humility is a profoundly religious impulse, an effect akin to cataracts and water-falls in the minds of the Romantics, wherein Coleridge found ‘the continual change of the Matter, the perpetual Sameness of the Form.’
The infinity of space and the distribution of stars provide a template for beauty in pre-human antiquity and it remains a paradox that we insist on imposing form and shape on what is inchoate, even though its randomness is precisely what we most respond to. We do not navigate the night by the dazzling diaspora of the spreading stars but by the patterns of constellations that we read in them, nor do we find our way by day by looking at the branching of trees, but instead by means of buildings, churches, pubs, or, failing that, by mountains, cliffs, rivers and seas.
The analogy between stars and flowers was often made before Brown was born, and might have manifested itself in the care with which William Kent made his trees appear to be randomly placed, but the poet William Mason comes even closer to Brown than Kent, and his dotting of single trees in parkland was to be an imitation of nature. He called on the ‘single stems’ on the plain to stand,
‘in wild, disorder'd mood, ‘As if the seeds from which your scions sprang ‘Had there been scatter'd from the affrighted beak ‘Of some maternal bird...’
His account provides an explanation for the disorder, however there did not necessarily need to be one. Indeed I think there necessarily needed not to be one, for what is the whole of Brown’s work if it is not a move away from design and towards the acceptance of things-as-they-are, and what is that if it not a humble acceptance of the smallness of mankind and the infinite immensities of Nature?