Dec 28 2019

Heidi and Sidney: Two Views of Arcadia

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The title character of Johanna Spyri’s (1827-1901) Heidis Lehr und Wanderjahre (Heidis Years of Wandering and Learning) (c. 1880) and its sequel Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) (c. 1881) lives in a true Arcadian paradise along the slopes of the Swiss Alps:

By now the sun was ready to go down behind the mountains. Heidi sat on the ground again and gazed at the bluebells and the rock-roses glowing in the evening light. The grass seemed tinted with gold, and the cliffs above began to gleam and sparkle….[1]

May had come. From every height the overflowing brooks were rushing down into the valley. Warm, bright sunshine lay on the mountain. It had grown green again; the last traces of snow had melted away, and the first little flowers were peeping up out of the fresh grass. The spring wind blew through the fir trees and shook off the old, dark needles, so that the young, bright green ones could come out and dress the trees in splendor. High above, the old robber-bird was swinging his wings in the blue air, and around the Alm hut the golden sunshine lay warm on the ground. [2]

Yes, as Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) has taught us beforehand, Heidi’s world is founded in that literary setting of poetic pastoral that so often can become (as Americans say) “tacky” with its kitsch motifs, followed by the inevitable banality in meaning behind them. As Johnson puts it:

In consequence of these original errours, a thousand precepts have been given, which have only contributed to perplex and confound. Some have thought it necessary that the imaginary manners of the golden age should be universally preserved, and have therefore believed, that nothing more could be admitted in pastoral, than lilies and roses, and rocks and streams, among which are heard the gentle whispers of chaste fondness, or the soft complaints of amorous impatience. In pastoral, as in other writings, chastity of sentiment ought doubtless to be observed, and purity of manners to be represented; not because the poet is confined to the images of the golden age, but because, having the subject in his own choice, he ought always to consult the interest of virtue. (Rambler no. 37, July 24, 1750)

Johnson is almost always right about this sort of thing. Still, it is good for children to read about the world Heidi lives in, for though it is a beautiful world, it is certainly not a paradise. Through her innocence and innate goodness, Heidi “was never unhappy, for she could always find something about her to enjoy.”[3] But those around her must struggle (and it’s important for children to read about this contrast, for depicting it is one of the things good fiction, for any age, tends to do).

There is, for example, the goatherd boy Peter, who has literally never eaten is fill, and a grand moment where he marvels when Heidi gives him some of her leftovers as they share a mountainside lunch.[4] And there is Heidi’s friend from Frankfurt, Clara, a girl (temporarily?) lame, perhaps from polio. Life is certainly not a paradise for Clara, which is one reason while Heidi comes to visit her. [5] There is the doctor who suffers melancholy and finds relief in the mountains. [6] And finally, there is Heidi’s grandfather, whom she loves dearly, but is someone who remains stubborn (for reasons never quite explained) in his unforgiveness toward the town beneath his mountain cabin.

But the Arcadia of the Heidi books is quite different from the original Arcadia (1580) by Sir Philip Sidney (1584-1586), which is a work that paints a world without children, but also a world full of young love and (occasionally) lust, as readers find at the end of Book III:

    Thus hath each part his beauty’s part;
But how the Graces do impart
To all her limbs a special grace,
Becoming every time and place,
Which doth e’en beauty beautify,
And most bewitch the wretched eye!
How all this is but a fair inn
Of fairer guest which dwells within,
Of whose high praise, and praiseful bliss,
Goodness the pen, heav’n paper is;
The ink immortal fame doth lend.
As I began, so must I end:
    No tongue can her perfections tell,
    In whose each part all pens may dwell.[7]

Upon encountering Sidney’s fictional work, I expected (as Johnson has taught me) green pastures and white sheep abounding. But here Sidney’s prose fiction rarely has anything to say about landscape. Instead there is a wild variety of poetry sprinkled throughout this strange prose creation, some of it beautiful, but some of it too rugged (in its style and structure) to be recited aloud with ease.

And I don’t know how reading these two highly contrasting works will ever make me a better writer (or reader), but after having read them, I do feel both better informed and thoroughly refreshed from the workaday world of Austin, Texas. As the doctor says to Heidi after recovering from his melancholy:

It is good to be on the mountain. Body and soul get well there, and life becomes happy again.”[8]

Happy New Year,

Christopher / Bookbread

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Picturesque at the family farm

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NOTES

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[1] Spyri, Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) in Heidi, illustrated Arthur Jameson, trans. Helene S. White [?], (Racine, WI: Whitman Publishing Co., 1944) I, iii, p. 36.

[2] Spyri, Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) (c. 1881) in Heidi, illustrated Arthur Jameson, trans. Helene S. White [?], (Racine, WI: Whitman Publishing Co., 1944) II, vi, p. 183.

[3] Spyri, Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) I, iv, p. 40.

[4] Spyri, Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) I, iii, p. 32.

[5] Spyri, Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) I, vi.

[6] Spyri, Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) II, iii.

[7] Philip Sidney, The Countess of Pembrokes Arcadia (The Old Arcadia) (c. 1580), ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones, (New York: Oxford UP, 1973; 2008) 210–11.

[8] Spyri, Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) II, iii, p. 164.