Mutating Idylls

Uses and Misuses of the Locus Amoenus in European Literature, 1850–1930

by Carsten Meiner (Volume editor)
©2019 Edited Collection VIII, 242 Pages


Mutating Idylls examines the surprising presence of the antique literary topos of the idyllic landscape, the locus amoenus, in European literature from the latter half of the nineteenth century. The book sets out to identify how this topos, which generally has no place in politically and socially realistic and naturalist literature, actually does have a role to play. Chapters on central nineteenth-century authors such as Flaubert, Zola, Fontane, Verga, Hamsun, Austen, Eliot, Wilde, Jiménez, Cernuda, and Galdós demonstrate both the presence and the multiple refunctionalizations of the locus amoenus. The theoretical aim of Mutating Idylls is to rehabilitate the notion of literary topos. This feature is present in the introduction as a possibility in literary studies today. The chapters all argue in the direction of a notion of topos, which is more flexible than the one Curtius defines along the lines of formula or cliché. In this way, the book intervenes in at least three major fields of study: nineteenth-century studies, classical philology, and literary theory. Through empirical analyses covering diverse authors who all, more or less unconsciously, use the locus amoenus, Mutating Idylls offers a new understanding of the culture of writing in the nineteenth century and contributes to literary theory a rehabilitation of the important notion of the topos.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Introduction: The History and Theory of the Locus Amoenus (Carsten Meiner / Peter Borum)
  • Chapter I. Landscape on Pause: Strong Feelings and the Locus Amoenus in Nineteenth-Century British Literature (Maria Damkjær)
  • Chapter II. Pleasure Is Not Fun: The Locus Amoenus in Knut Hamsun (Frode Lerum Boasson)
  • Chapter III. The Locus Amoenus in Nineteenth-Century Spanish Literature: From Meadows to Gardens: Doña Perfecta as a Micro-representation of a Topological Development (Katrine Helene Andersen)
  • Chapter IV. In the Shade of the Chestnut Trees: The Locus Amoenus in Giovanni Verga’s Writing (Pia Schwarz Lausten)
  • Chapter V. Defective Pleasant Places: The Locus Amoenus in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (Michael Høxbro Andersen)
  • Chapter VI. Derelictions of Contentment: The Locus Amoenus in Nineteenth-Century Landscape Painting (Charles Lock)
  • Chapter VII. The Locus Amoenus as a (Hetero-)utopia of Human Existence in Theodor Fontane’s Novel On Tangled Paths (Birthe Hoffmann)
  • Chapter VIII. Locus Amoenus and the Modern Spirit. A Topos of Melancholy in Three Spanish-Language Authors: Juan Ramón Jiménez, Luis Cernuda, and Julio Cortázar (Julio Jensen)
  • Chapter IX. Naturalizing Deviant Pleasure: Loci Amoeni in Zola (Carsten Meiner)
  • Contributors
  • Series Index

← vi | vii →


This book is the product of a series of seminars at the University of Copenhagen, which took place in 2016 and 2017 on literary topology and the locus amoenus. The seminars were funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark. ← vii | viii →

← viii | 1 →


The History and Theory of the Locus Amoenus

Carsten Meiner and Peter Borum

Literary Topology between Place and Phrase

The locus amoenus is defined by the Oxford Classical Dictionary in the following way: “Charming place, pleasance, a phrase (Cic. Fin. 2. 107; Isid. Etym. 14. 8. 33, etc.) used by modern scholars to refer to the literary topos of the set description of an idyllic landscape, typically containing trees and shade, a grassy meadow, running water, song-birds, and cool breezes.”1

This fairly conventional definition contains the conceptual tension that firstly motivated this volume. The locus amoenus, for all its conformist and predictable elements, holds an ambiguous status. It is both a “place” and a “phrase,” both a location and a literary device. The citation above seems to assert that the term “topos” integrates these two dimensions. The amenable place is more than just a real place as it circulates in ancient Greek, then Latin, and medieval literature to an extent where it transcends the mere reference to its real elements and becomes a literary commonplace. However, it still needs the specific real-world familiar elements (trees, shade, running water, etc.) to be recognized as a locus amoenus, which, paradoxically, enables it to transcend the limits of the actual world elements and obtain the status of literary discursive device. This topological duplicity, a topos being both a ← 1 | 2 → place and phrase, inspired this volume as the contributors each analyze the presence and uses of the locus amoenus in nineteenth-century European literature. The idea of the double topos could prove worthwhile in two ways, both with respect to the rehabilitation of literary topology, for instance, as a supplement to spatial studies, which have had its fair share of attention in literary studies since the beginning of the new century. But it could also shed light on the maybe surprising uses of set descriptions and rhetorical formulas in a century where various forms of literary realism and naturalism were skeptical toward rhetoric and the transmission of conventional literary forms. The volume sets out to accomplish a double gesture: a theoretical one consisting in rehabilitating literary topology and a historical one analyzing the forms and uses of a specific topos in a historical context, which on the face of it condemns the use and value of literary commonplaces.

The Locus Amoenus in Antiquity

Flexible Elements

The locus amoenus circulated in Greek, Roman, and medieval literature. It has, in a number of theoretical ways, been related to a variety of literary genres, (for example, the idyll, the pastoral, the bucolic, the eclogue) and, at various historical points in time, been related to different mythical places (for example, Arcadia, Eden, the hortus conclusus). However, as the quotation above from the Oxford Classical Handbook noted, the locus amoenus is a topos (not a genre, not a mythical place) and that is the methodological perspective upheld on the locus amoenus in the present volume. A literary topos is a conventional setting depending on the recurrence of a certain number of elements, which the authors considered as a poetical and rhetorical resource because the readers/listeners would immediately recognize the setting and its potential for staging action, for developing psychological and sentimental states of mind, and for highlighting moral values. However, the locus amoenus also has, in slight contrast to its fixed and conventional nature, a history in ancient literature, which is both identifiable in its poetological conceptualizations and in its specific literary use from the antique through medieval literary history.

The topos of the locus amoenus can be traced at least back to Homer, that is, as far back as written sources allow us to go in Classical literature. In the Odyssey, we find the following description of a place in the Cyclops’ island: “at the head of the harbour a spring of bright water flows forth from beneath ← 2 | 3 → a cave, and round about it poplars grow.”2 This spot is a locus amoenus, following the definition established by Ernst Robert Curtius in two seminal texts, “Rhetorische Naturschilderung im Mittelalter” and Chapter Ten—“The Ideal Landscape”—of his main work, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter) from 1948.3 Curtius, who singles out the functional origin of the locus amoenus as a shady resting place in the hot Mediterranean climate, sums up the topos’ main components as “a tree (or several trees), a meadow, and a stream or brook”4; birds and their song, and flowers, often participate as well. However, to Curtius, it is in the nature of the topos that it may expand or contract itself. It may for instance merge with the topos of a garden of plenty, another face of the Ideal Landscape, alongside which Curtius treats the locus amoenus. It is possible to imagine that the maximal contraction of the topos consists in omitting all elements but shade so that shelter is given under the trees. Such a reduction of the traditional elements would still allow the locus amoenus to be conventionally functional as it provides a soothing place to rest in peace. Other reductions are of course imaginable: in British literature, shielding from the sun might not be as important as the meadows. It is also possible, still according to the plasticity that Curtius endows it with, to imagine, not reductions of the topos but expansions hereof: the topos can be injected with new elements, which add narrative possibilities and moral values to the conventional idea governing the topos. We shall return to this functional elasticity.

Multiple Functions: Love, Solitude, Otium

In a historical light, this elementary flexibility finds a parallel in a functional flexibility. The topos seems to attract various significations, for instance, that of love and eroticism not necessarily tied to the topographical elements. Thus, in a fragment by Sappho (seventh century BCE):

here to me from Krete to this holy temple
where is your graceful grove
of apple trees and alters smoking
with frankincense.

And in it cold water makes a clear sound through
apple branches and with roses the whole place
is shadowed and down from radiant-shaking leaves
sleep comes dropping. ← 3 | 4 →

And in it a horse meadow has come into bloom
with spring flowers and breezes
like honey are blowing
[ ]

In this place you Kypris taking up
in gold cups delicately
nectar mingled with festivities:

This same merger of the locus amoenus with eroticism and love takes place in Plato’s Phaedrus (fourth century BCE), where Socrates ventures outside Athens together with the eponymous youth, in order to discuss, among other things, the nature of love. They do so in a locus amoenus that clearly invites love: “Phaedrus: Do you see that very tall plane tree? Socrates: What of it? Phaedrus: There is shade there and a moderate breeze and grass to sit on, or, if we like, to lie down on.”6 The scent of blooms and the sound of cicadas complete Curtius’ checklist.7

However, another and again slightly contradictory semantics is tied to the locus amoenus. According to Alberto Grilli who, simultaneously with, yet independently of, Curtius establishes the topos—as “‘blessed solitude’ in the countryside”8—Plato’s text is of the greatest importance in the propagation of the locus amoenus in Hellenistic literature (from where it of course migrates into Roman and later European literature).9 As can be seen from his nomenclature, Grilli stresses the possibility of solitude in the agreeable spot, and so of contemplation (the very topic of Grilli’s book). Thus he quotes—from Classical Medicine—a Pseudo-Hippocratic Letter (XII, to Philopemen) describing a condition in which the subject has retreated completely from any social and pragmatic relation to the environment, and has instead gone into a contemplative state, for instance in a spot with shady trees, soft grass, and running water.10

The retreat in Plato was first and foremost of a contemplative nature. However, another major theme of the Phaedrus is that of writing and this triad actually parallels what in the Greek topos of the locus amoenus was to become the three components in the Roman discussion of the category of otium: love or eroticism, contemplation, and finally writing. As outlined by Jean-Marie André, it is only toward the end of the Republic that the Romans come to terms with the otium (originally designating the state of not being at war) as a form of idleness that, precisely through writing, can gain a “postponed efficiency.”11 During the long period before that, however, the otium represents a ← 4 | 5 → danger, linked closely to the subversive potential of both eroticism and intellectualism. And, so André insists, this problematic is connected precisely to the notion of amoenitas (he does not address the topos, but the concept).12

The History of the Locus Amoenus

The Roman Locus Amoenus: Between Geography and Idea

The Roman conception of the locus amoenus holds another and much more interesting difference compared to the Greek one, as it is often a functional category of a geographical or topographical, and not literary, nature. When Sallust (first century BCE) tells of Sulla’s army going soft in Asia Minor, the expression he uses is that of loca amœna, or pleasant parts.13 The exact same expression is used by Isidore of Seville (sixth/seventh century CE), quoting, it is true, precisely two authors that are the contemporaries of Sallust, namely Verrius Flaccus and Varro, to the effect that loca amœna lend themselves to love (Varro) and are exempt of obligations (Verrius); this is in the geographical chapter of the Etymologies.14 The remarkable coincidence between the clusters of signification attached to both the literary topos and the geographical category, in its connection to the Roman question of otium, warrants their association, if not identification, as in Curtius.

Horace (first century BCE), whom Curtius mentions,15 if he does not speak of anything called locus amoenus in the opening of the Ars Poetica, does establish a continuity by textual contiguity between “fair fields” (amoenos agros) and the question of how to depict them in writing.16 Furthermore, topography and topos simply fuse in the case of the Thessalian Vale of Tempe which, as an actual referent, serves often as an image of the pleasant spot. Ovid, in Golding’s translation, presents the valley as shady and moist:

There is a land in Thessalie enclosd on every side
With woodie hills, that Timpe hight, though mid whereof doth glide
Penaeus gushing full of froth from foote of Pindus hye,
Which with his headlong falling downe doth cast up violently
A misty streame like flakes of smoke, besprinckling all about
The toppes of trees on eyther side (…)17

So much so that John Lemprière, in his early nineteenth-century Classical Dictionary, simply sums up: “The poets have described it as the most delightful spot on the earth, with continual cooling shades, and verdant walks, which ← 5 | 6 → the warbling of birds rendered more pleasant and romantic (…). All valleys that are pleasant, either for their situation or the mildness of their climate, are called Tempe by the poets.”18

But the literary topos, as Curtius claims, is an ideal landscape, in the very literal sense of its being an idea, and thus mobile and textual, beyond the fixity of any specific physical referent. Hence the strategic importance of two of his examples from the High Middle Ages: Petrus Riga (twelfth century CE) and Matthew of Vendôme (thirteenth century CE).19 In Petrus, the locus amoenus expands into covering what is splendid about the entire World (as opposed to the Heavens), thus loosening the attachment to any single spot or region, while in §116 of Matthew’s Ars versificatoria, it is quite simply presented as a way of describing any place at all: “thus can be a topographical description” (talis poterit esse topographia).20

The ideal landscape of Curtius is not, however, to be mistaken for the “spiritual landscape” (geistige Landschaft) of his contemporary, Bruno Snell.21 In Snell’s long influential view, the Greeks discover their own individual unity, as bodies, in the Classical Age,22 in the same process whereby they discover the “personal spirit” or “personal soul,”23 of the subject of Classical Greek Philosophy, Science, Art, or Politics. To Snell, Virgil’s Arcadia signals the demise of a Hellenic practical unity: “A deep abyss opens between the everyday and the significant. Besides the world of things steps in a world of art.”24 But the locus amoenus is not necessarily, like Snell’s vision of Virgil’s Arcadia, a piece of “golden” or “gilded” everyday life (vergoldeter Alltag),25 unto which a kind of autonomized poetry can project the ideality of feeling or the feeling of ideality. It is indeed highly debatable whether even the pastoral genres comply with Snell’s view of Arcadia (hence of the locus amoenus) as basically alien. To Snell, Arcadia is a symbol (“a land of symbols”26), and so it would matter little to him that neither all of Virgil’s eclogues nor for that matter any Roman eclogue at all after Virgil is explicitly set in Arcadia.27 In fact, the choice of Arcadia—as emblematic, rather than symbolic—depends upon traits of the referent, as Snell himself advances, when he gives as Virgil’s reasons for his choice the notions (taken out of the second-century BCE author Polybius) that Arcadian herdsmen hold singing contests and that Arcadia is the home of Pan, inventor of the syrinx.28 Likewise, the pastoral ones among Theocritus’ bucolics are simply set in his native Sicily. And when, in the late fifteenth century, Jacopo Sannazaro’s Arcadia reinvents the pastoral by fusing the verse eclogue with the pastoral novel (Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, third/fourth century CE), it is of course both an homage to Virgil and the choice of a setting ← 6 | 7 → that is remote neither in space—since Greece has long been dominated by the Italian states—nor in time: Sannazaro places himself in his narrated Arcadia, mentioning even the occurrence of a work by his contemporary Andrea Mantegna.29 And Jorge de Montemayor’s 1559 Diana is simply set in León. The remoteness of “Arcadia,” which no doubt plays its role in prompting Snell’s line of reasoning (whether this be correct or not, in any respect) may indeed be a relevant notion only from Sir Philip Sidney onward.30 In any case, neither any feeling of gilded ideality nor any remoteness is essential to the topos of locus amoenus, whose agility unfolds within an inherently open field, and crosses any boundary between Pre-Classical, Classical, or Post-Classical eras.

Early Modern Literature

The locus amoenus is well-established as a topos at the dawn of modern literature. When Ariosto lets Orlando go mad, it happens in a locus amoenus, complete as it is even with the element of writing.31 This is one of the conversions of a locus amoenus into a locus terribilis (already witnessed in Ovid), testimony to yet another aspect of the topos’ agility. Just as the contrast between serenity and terror can be seen as an expansion of the topos, enhancing its significance by embedding it with its contrary. This conversion can also be identified in the Poema del mio Cid (from the twelfth century) when the Infants of Carrión take El Cid’s daughters through the oaken woods of Corpes: the place in which they strip them bare, beat them, and leave them for dead is a “garden” (vergel) with a “clear source” (linpia fuont), surrounded by “high mountains” (montes (…) altos), trees that “strive for the clouds” (pujan con las nuoves) and “wild beasts” (bestias fieras).32 Six centuries later, Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse does not describe Saint-Preux’ retreat much differently: the ground is covered “with grass and flowers” (d’herbes et de fleurs) and small streams cross it “in cristal trickles” (filets de cristal), while all around is a “range of inaccessible cliffs” (chaînes de rochers inaccessibles) and “[f]orests of dark spruce” (forêts de noirs sapins).33 The topos has arrived unscathed at the threshold of the eighteenth century, Aphra Behn using it at length to convey the landscape of Surinam in a contemporary New World,34 and Fénélon to describe the delights of Calypso’s grotto in an Ancient Greece that would be “far away” (éloigné) in Thomas Pavel’s sense.35 Salomon Gessner’s Idylls from the 1750s, 1760s, and 1770s, which do constitute a “spiritual landscape” in Snell’s sense, of course use it. One example is the etiological idyll on the origin of Envy (“Eifersucht,” 1772), where the young couple ventures into the myrtle wood surrounding the temple of Venus, and comes across “a beautiful open space and soft grass” ← 7 | 8 → (ein schöner offner Platz und weiches Grass), with nightingales singing their “most tender songs” (zärtlichsten Lieder).36 The Sicilian poet Giovanni Meli’s lyrical Voyage Back in Time (Lu viaggiu retrogradu, 1787), written in Sicilian Dialect, no less fixes the poet’s rendezvous with Sicilian Daphnis (Dafni) “in a placid/tranquil forest” (in placida/Silva tranquilla) with “limpid still water” (acqua (…)/Limpida stilla) and “smiling meadows” (Li prati ridunu).37 The list actually could just go on, attesting the topos’ mobility through times, spaces, and modalities (one readily thinks of Dante and Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare, the Jena-writers and the young Goethe, La Fontaine or Chénier, for example). It will end, though, with Voltaire’s Zadig, and the question whether the locus amoenus is not clearly also the subtext of Zadig’s encounter with Astarte, Queen of Babylon, in a “meadow” (prairie) lying “on the grass” (sur le gazon), “leaning towards the creek” (penchée vers le ruisseau), writing Zadig’s name “Z-A-D-” in the sand?38

The Locus Amoenus in Nineteenth-Century Literature


VIII, 242
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Vienna, Oxford, Wien, 2019. VIII, 242 pp.

Biographical notes

Carsten Meiner (Volume editor)

Carsten Meiner is Professor of French Literature and Culture at the University of Copenhagen. He earned his PhD in philosophy and aesthetics from the Université de Paris VIII in 2001. His research concerns "commonplaces"—topoi—in modern French literature. He has authored and co-edited books in both French and English.


Title: Mutating Idylls
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