Previous Contents Index Next

The Temple of Nature

By Erasmus Darwin




Fond Fancy's eye recalls the form divine,
And Taste sits smiling upon Beauty's shrine. CANTO III. l. 221.
THE word Taste in its extensive application may express the pleasures received by any of our senses, when excited into action by the stimulus of external objects; as when odours stimulate the nostrils, or flavours the palate; or when smoothness, or softness, are perceived by the touch, or warmth by its adapted organ of sense. The word Taste is also used to signify the pleasurable trains of ideas suggested by language, as in the compositions of poetry and oratory. But the pleasures, consequent to the exertions of our sense of vision only, are designed here to be treated of, with occasional references to those of the ear, when they elucidate each other.

When any of our organs of sense are excited into their due quantity of action, a pleasurable sensation succeeds, as shown in Zoonomia, Vol. I. Sect. IV. These are simply the pleasures attending perception, and not those which are termed the pleasures of Taste; which consist of additional pleasures arising from the peculiar forms or colours of objects, or of their peculiar combinations or successions, or from other agreeable trains of ideas previously associated with them.

There are four sources of pleasure attendant on the excitation of the nerves of vision by light and colours, besides that simply of perception above mentioned; the first is derived from a degree of novelty of the forms, colours, numbers, combinations, or successions, and visible objects. The second is derived from a degree of repetition of their forms, colours, numbers, combinations, or successions. Where these two circumstances exist united in certain quantities, and compose the principal part of a landscape, it is termed picturesque by {81} modern writers. The third source of pleasure from the perception of the visible world may be termed the melody of colours, which will be shown to coincide with melody of sounds: this circumstance may also accompany the picturesque, and will add to the pleasure it affords. The fourth source of pleasure from the perception of visible objects is derived from the previous association of other pleasurable trains of ideas with certain forms, colours, combinations, or successions of them. Whence the beautiful, sublime, romantic, melancholic, and other emotions, which have not acquired names to express them. We may add, that all these four sources of pleasure from perceptions are equally applicable to those of sounds as of sights.

I. Novelty or infrequency of visible objects.

The first circumstance, which suggests an additional pleasure in the contemplation of visible objects, besides that of simple perception, arises from their novelty or infrequency; that is from the unusual combinations or successions of their forms or colours. From this source is derived the perpetual cheerfulness of youth, and the want of it is liable to add a gloom to the countenance of age. It is this which produces variety in landscape compared with the common course of nature, an intricacy which incites investigation, and a curiosity which leads to explore the works of nature. Those who travel into foreign regions instigated by curiosity, or who examine and unfold the intricacies of sciences at home, are led by novelty; which not only supplies ornament to beauty or to grandeur, but adds agreeable surprise to the point of the epigram, and to the double meaning of the pun, and is courted alike by poets and philosophers.

It should be here premised, that the word Novelty, as used in these pages, admits of degrees or quantities, some objects, or the ideas excited by them, possessing more or less novelty, as they are more or less unusual. Which the reader will please to attend to, as we have used the word Infrequency of objects, or of the ideas excited by them, to express the degrees or quantities of their novelty.

The source, from which is derived the pleasure of novelty, is a {82} metaphysical inquiry of great curiosity, and will on that account excuse my here introducing it. In our waking hours whenever an idea occurs, which is incongruous to our former experience, we instantly dissever the train of imagination by the power of volition; and compare the incongruous idea with our previous knowledge of nature, and reflect it. This operation of the mind has not yet acquired a specific name, though it is exerted every minute of our waking hours, unless it may be termed INTUITIVE ANALOGY. It is an act of reasoning of which we are unconscious except by its effects in preserving the congruity of our ideas; Zoonomia, Vol. I. Sect. XVII. 3. 7.

In our sleep as the power of volition is suspended, and consequently that of reason, when any incongruous ideas occur in the trains of imagination, which compose our dreams; we cannot compare them with our previous knowledge of nature and reflect them; whence arises the perpetual inconsistency of our sleeping trains of ideas; and whence in our dreams we never feel the sentiment of novelty; however different the ideas, which present themselves, may be from the usual course of nature.

But in our waking hours, whenever any object occurs which does not accord with the usual course of nature, we immediately and unconsciously exert our voluntary power, and examine it by intuitive analogy, comparing it with our previous knowledge of nature. This exertion of our volition excites many other ideas, and is attended with pleasurable sensation; which constitutes the sentiment of novelty. But when the object of novelty stimulates us so forcibly as suddenly to disunite our passing trains of ideas, as if a pistol be unexpectedly discharged, the emotion of surprise is experienced; which by exciting violent irritation and violent sensation, employs for a time the whole sensorial energy, and thus dissevers the passing trains of ideas, before the power of volition has time to compare them with the usual phenomena of nature; but as the painful emotion of fear is then generally added to that of surprise, as every one experiences, who hears a noise in the dark, which he cannot immediately account for; this great degree of novelty, when it produces much surprise, generally ceases to be pleasurable, and does not then belong to objects of taste.

In its less degree surprise is generally agreeable, as it simply {83} expresses the sentiment occasioned by the novelty of our ideas; as in common language we say, we are agreeably surprised at the unexpected meeting with a friend, which not only expresses the sentiment of novelty, but also the pleasure from other agreeable ideas associated with the object of it.

It must appear from hence, that different persons must be affected more or less agreeably by different degrees or quantities of novelty in the objects of taste; according to their previous knowledge of nature, of their previous habits or opportunities of attending to the fine arts. Thus before its nativity the fetus experiences the perceptions of heat and cold, of hardness and softness, of motion and rest, with those perhaps of hunger and repletion, sleeping and waking, pain and pleasure; and perhaps some other perceptions, which may at this early time of its existence have occasioned perpetual trains of ideas. On its arrival into the world the perceptions of light and sound must by their novelty at first dissever its usual trains of ideas and occasion great surprise; which after a few repetitions will cease to be disagreeable, and only excite the emotion from novelty, which has not acquired a separate name, but is in reality a less degree of surprise; and by further experience the sentiment of novelty, or any degree of surprise, will cease to be excited by the sounds or sights, which at first excited perhaps a painful quantity of surprise.

It should here be observed, that as the pleasure of novelty is produced by the exertion of our voluntary power in comparing uncommon objects with those which are more usually exhibited; this sentiment of novelty is less perceived by those who do not readily use the faculty of volition, or who have little previous knowledge of nature, as by very ignorant or very stupid people, or by brute animals; and that therefore to be affected with this circumstance of the objects of Taste requires some previous knowledge of such kinds of objects, and some degree of mental exertion.

Hence when a greater variety of objects than usual is presented to the eye, or when some intricacy of forms, colours, or reciprocal locality more than usual accompanies them, it is termed novelty if it only excites the exertion of intuitive comparison with the usual order of nature, and affects us with pleasurable sensation; but is termed {84} surprise, if it suddenly dissevers our accustomed habits of motion, and is then more generally attended with disagreeable sensation. To this circumstance attending objects of taste is to be referred what is termed wild and irregular in landscapes, in contradistinction to the repetition of parts or uniformity spoken of below. We may add, that novelty of notes and tones in music, or of their combinations or successions, are equally agreeable to the ear, as the novelty of forms and colours, and of their combinations or successions are to the eye; but that the greater quantity or degree of novelty, the sentiment of which is generally termed Surprise, is more frequently excited by unusual or unexpected sounds; which are liable to alarm us with fear, as well as surprise us with novelty.

Repetition of visible objects.

The repeated excitement of the same or similar ideas with certain intervals of time, or distances of space between them, is attended with agreeable sensations, besides that simply of perception; and, though it appears to be diametrically opposite to the pleasure arising from the novelty of objects above treated of, enters into the compositions of all the agreeable arts.

The pleasure arising from the repetition of similar ideas with certain intervals of time or distances of space between them is a subject of great metaphysical curiosity, as well as the source of the pleasure derived from novelty, which will I hope excuse its introduction in this place.

The repetitions of motions may be at first produced either by volition, or by sensation, or by irritation, but they soon become easier to perform than any other kinds of action, because they soon become associated together; and thus their frequency of repetition, if as much sensorial power be produced during every reiteration, as is expended, adds to the facility of their production.

If a stimulus be repeated at uniform intervals of time, the action, whether of our muscles or organs of sense, is produced with still greater facility or energy; because the sensorial power of association, {85} mentioned above, is combined with the sensorial power of irritation; that is in common language, the acquired habit assists the power of the stimulus.

This not only obtains in the annual, lunar, and diurnal catenations of animal motions, as explained in Zoonomia, Sect. XXXVI. which are thus performed with great faciltiy and energy; but in every less circle of actions or ideas, as in the burden of a song, or the reiterations of a dance. To the facility and distinctness, with which we hear sounds at repeated intervals, we owe the pleasure, which we receive from musical time, and from poetic time, as described in Botanic Garden, V. II. Interlude III. And to this the pleasure we receive from the rhimes and alliterations of modern versification; the source of which without this key would be difficult to discover.

There is no variety of notes referable to the gamut in the beating of a drum, yet if it be performed in musical time, it is agreeable to our ears; and therefore this pleasurable sensation must be owing to the repetition of the divisions of the sounds at certain intervals of time, or musical bars. Whether these times or bars are distinguished by a pause, or by an emphasis, or accent, certain it is, that this distinction is perpetually repeated; otherwise the ear could not determine instantly, whether the successions of sound were in common or in triple time.

But besides these little circles of musical time, there are the greater returning periods, and the still more distinct chorusses; which, like the rhimes at the end of verses, owe their beauty to repetition; that is, to the facility and distinctness with which we perceive sounds, which we expect to perceive or have perceived before; or in the language of this work, to the greater ease and energy with which our organ is excited by the combined sensorial powers of association and irritation, than by the latter singly.

This kind of pleasure arising from repetition, that is from the facility and distinctness with which we perceive and understand repeated sensations, enters into all the agreeable arts; and when it is carried to excess is termed formality. The art of dancing like that of music depends for a great part of the pleasure, it affords, on repetition; architecture, especially the Grecian, consists of one part being a repetition {86} of another, and hence the beauty of the pyramidal outline in landscape-painting; where one side of the picture may be said in some measure to balance the other. So universally does repetition contribute to our pleasure in the fine arts, that beauty itself has been defined by some writers to consist in a due combination of uniformity and variety: Zoonomia, Vol. I. Sect. XXII. 2. 1.

Where these repetitions of form, and reiterations of colour, are produced in a picture or a natural landscape, in an agreeable quantity, it is termed simplicity, or unity of character; where the repetition principally is seen in the disposition or locality of the divisions, it is called symmetry, proportion, or grouping the separate parts; where this repetition is most conspicuous in the forms of visible objects, it is called regularity or uniformity; and where it affects the colouring principally, the artists call it breadth of colour.

There is nevertheless, an excess of the repetition of the same or similar ideas, which ceases to please, and must therefore be excluded from compositions of Taste in painted landscapes, or in ornamented gardens; which is then called formality, monotony, or insipidity. Why the excitation of ideas should give additional pleasure by the facility and distinctness of their production for a certain time, and then cease to give additional pleasure; and gradually to give less pleasure than that, which attends simple exertion of them; is another curious metaphysical problem, and deserves investigation.

In our waking hours a perpetual voluntary exertion, of which we are unconscious, attends all our new trains of ideas, whether those of imagination or of perception; which by comparing them with our former experience preserves the consistency of the former, by rejecting such as are incongruous; and adds to the credibility of the latter, by their analogy to objects of our previous knowledge: and this exertion is attended with pleasurable sensation. After very frequent repetition these trains of ideas do not excite the exertion of this intuitive analogy, and in consequence are not attended with additional pleasure to that simply of perception; and by continued repetition they at length lose even the pleasure simply of perception, and thence finally cease to be excited; whence one cause of the torpor of old age, and of death, as spoken of in Additional Note, No. VII. 3. of this work.

{87} When there exist in any landscape a certain number and diversity of forms and colours, or of their combinations or successions, so as to produce a degree of novelty; and that with a certain repetition, or arrangement of parts, so as to render them gradually comprehensible or easily compared with the usual course of nature; if this agreeable combination of visible objects be on a moderate scale, in respect to magnitude, and form the principal part of the landscape, it is termed PICTURESQUE by modern artists; and when such a combination of forms and colours contains many easy flowing curves and smooth surfaces, the delightful sentiment of BEAUTY becomes added to the pleasure of the Picturesque.

If the above agreeable combination of novelty and repetition exists on a larger scale with more projecting rocks, and deeper dells, and perhaps with a somewhat greater proportion of novelty than repetition, the landscape assumes the name of ROMANTIC; and if some of these forms or combinations are much above the usual magnitude of similar objects, the more interesting sentiment of SUBLIMITY becomes mixed with the pleasure of the romantic.

III. Melody of Colours.

A third source of pleasure arising from the inspection of visible objects, besides that of simple perception, arises from what may be termed melody of colours, as certain colours are more agreeable, when they succeed each other; or when they are disposed in each other's vicinity, so as successively to affect the organ of vision.

In a paper on the colours seen in the eye after looking for some time on luminous objects, published by Dr. Darwin of Shrewsbury in the Philos. Trans. Vol. 76, it is evidently shown, that we see certain colours not only with greater ease and distinctness, but with relief and pleasure, after having for some time inspected other certain colours; as green after red, or red after green; orange after blue, or blue after orange; yellow after violet, or violet after yellow; this, he shows, arises from the ocular spectrum of the colour last viewed coinciding with the irritation of the colour now under contemplation.

{88} Thus if you make a dot with ink in the centre of a circle of red silk the size of a letter-wafer, and place it on a sheet of white paper, and look on it for a minute without moving your eyes; and then gently turn them on the white paper in its vicinity, or gently close them, and hold one hand an inch or two before them, to prevent too much light from passing through the eyelids, a circular spot of pale green will be seen on the white paper, or in the closed eye; which is called the ocular spectrum on the red silk, and is formed as Dr. Darwin shows by the pandiculation or stretching of the fine fibrils, which constitute the extremities of the optic nerve, in a direction contrary to that, in which they have been excited by previously looking at a luminous object, till they become fatigued; like the yawning or stretching of the larger muscles after acting long in one direction.

If at this time the eye, fatigued by looking long at the centre of the red silk, be turned on paper previously coloured with pale green; the circular spot or ocular spectrum will appear of a much darker green; as now the irritation from the pale green paper coincides with the pale green spectrum remaining in the eye, and thus excites those fibres of the retina into stronger action; on this account some colours are seen more distinctly, and consequently more agreeably after others; or when placed in the vicinity of others; thus if orange-coloured letters are painted on a blue ground, they may be read at as great distance as black on white, perhaps at a greater.

The colours, which are thus more distinct when seen in succession are called opposite colours by Sir Isaac Newton in his optics, Book I. Part 2, and may be easily discovered by any one, by the method above described; that is by laying a coloured circle of paper or silk on a sheet of white paper, and inspecting it some time with steady eyes, and then either gently closing them, or removing them on another part of the white paper, and the ocular spectrum or opposite colour becomes visible in the eye.

Sir Isaac Newton has observed, that the breadths of the seven primary colours in the sun's image refracted by a prism, are proportioned to the seven musical notes of the gamut, or to the intervals of the eight sounds contained in an octave.

From this curious coincidence, it has been proposed to produce a {89} luminous music, consisting of successions or combinations of colours, analogous to a tune in respect to the proportions above mentioned. This might be performed by a strong light, made by means of Mr. Argand's lamps, passing through coloured glasses, and falling on a defined part of the wall, with moveable blinds before them, which might communicate with the keys of a harpsichord, and thus produce at the same time visible and audible music in unison with each other.

Now as the pleasure we receive from the sensation of melodious notes, independent of musical time, and of the previous associations of agreeable ideas with them, must arise from our hearing some proportions of sounds after others more easily, distinctly, or agreeably; and as there is a coincidence between the proportions of the primary colours, and the primary sounds, if they may be so called; the same laws must probably govern the sensations of both. In this circumstance therefore consists the sisterhood of Music and Painting; and hence they claim a right to borrow metaphors from each other: musicians to speak of the brilliancy of sounds, and the light and shade of a concerto; and painters of the harmony of colours, and the tone of a picture.

This source of pleasure received from the melodious succession of colours or of sounds must not be confounded with the pleasure received from the repetition of them explained above, though the repetition, or division of musical notes into bars, so as to produce common or triple time, contributes much to the pleasure of music; but in viewing a fixed landscape nothing like musical time exists; and the pleasure received therefore from certain successions of colours must depend only on the more easy or distinct action of the retina in perceiving some colours after others, or in their vicinity, like the facility or even pleasure with which we act with contrary muscles in yawning or stretching after having been fatigued with a long previous exertion in the contrary direction.

Hence where colours are required to be distinct, those which are opposite to each other, should be brought into succession or vicinity; as red and green, orange and blue, yellow and violet; but where colours are required to intermix imperceptibly, or slide into each other, these should not be chosen; as they might by contrast appear {90} too glaring or tawdry. These gradations and contrasts of colours have been practically employed both by the painters of landscape, and by the planters of ornamental gardens; though the theory of this part of the pleasure derived from visible objects was not explained before the publication of the paper on ocular spectra above mentioned; which is reprinted at the end of the first part of Zoonomia, and has thrown great light on the actions of the nerves of sense in consequence of the stimulus of external bodies.

IV. Association of agreeable sentiments with visible objects.

Besides the pleasure experienced simply by the perception of visible objects, it has been already shown, that there is an additional pleasure arising from the inspection of those, which possess novelty, or some degree of it; a second additional pleasure from those, which possess in some degree a repetition of their parts; and a third from those, which possess a succession of particular colours, which either contrast or slide into each other, and which we have termed melody of colours.

We now step forward to the fourth source of the pleasures arising from the contemplation of visible objects besides that simply of perception, which consists in our previous association of some agreeable sentiment with certain forms or combinations of them. These four kinds of pleasure singly or in combination constitute what is generally understood by the word Taste in respect to the visible world; and by parity of reasoning it is probable, that the pleasurable ideas received by the other senses, or which are associated with language, may be traced to similar sources.

It has been shown by Bishop Berkeley in his ingenious essay on vision, that the eye only acquaints us with the perception of light and colours; and that our idea of the solidity of the bodies, which reflect them, is learnt by the organ of touch: he therefore calls our vision the language of touch, observing that certain gradations of the shades of colour, by our previous experience of having examined similar bodies by our hands or lips, suggest our ideas of solidity, and {91} of the forms of solid bodies; as when we view a tree, it would otherwise appear to us a flat green surface, but by association of ideas we know it to be a cylindrical stem with round branches. This association of the ideas acquired by the sense of touch with those of vision, we do not allude to in the following observations, but to the agreeable trains or tribes of ideas and sentiments connected with certain kinds of visible objects.

Sentiment of Beauty.

Of these catenations of sentiments with visible objects, the first is the sentiment of Beauty or Loveliness; which is suggested by easy-flowing curvatures of the surface, with smoothness; as is so well illustrated in Mr. Burke's Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful, and in Mr. Hogarth's analysis of Beauty; a new edition of which is much wanted separate from his other works.

The sentiment of Beauty appears to be attached from our cradles to the easy curvatures of lines, and smooth surfaces of visible objects, and to have been derived from the form of the female bosom; as spoken of in Zoonomia, Vol. I. Section XVI. on Instinct.

Sentimental love, as distinguished from the animal passion of that name, with which it is frequently accompanied, consists in the desire or sensation of beholding, embracing, and saluting, a beautiful object.

The characteristic of beauty therefore is that it is the object of love; and though many other objects are in common language called beautiful, yet they are only called so metaphorically, and ought to be termed agreeable. A Grecian temple may give us the pleasurable idea of sublimity; a Gothic temple may give us the pleasurable idea of variety; and a modern house the pleasurable idea of utility; music and poetry may inspire our love by association of ideas; but none of these, except metaphorically, can be termed beautiful; as we have no wish to embrace or salute them.

Our perception of beauty consists in our recognition by the sense of vision of those objects, first which have before inspired our love by {92} the pleasure, which they have afforded to many of our senses: as to our sense of warmth, of touch, of taste, hunger and thirst; and secondly, which bear any analogy of form to such objects.

When the babe, soon after it is born into this cold world, is applied to its mother's bosom, its sense of perceiving warmth is first agreeably affected; next its sense of smell is delighted with the odour of her milk; then its taste is gratified by the flavour of it, afterwards the appetites of hunger and of thirst afford pleasure by the possession of their objects, and by the subsequent digestion of the aliment; and lastly, the sense of touch is delighted by the softness and smoothness of the milky fountain, the source of such variety of happiness.