William Combe – The Tour of Doctor Syntax, in Search of the Picturesque, 1812

dr syntax gazing at some ruins-picturesqueSyntax.

NATURE, dear Nature,
is my goddess,
Whether array’d in
rustic bodice,
Or when the nicest
touch of Art
Doth to her charms new charms impart;
But still I, somehow, love her best
When she’s in ruder mantle drest:
I do not mean in shape grotesque.
But when she’s truly picturesque.

Thus the next morning as he stray’d,
And the surrounding scene survey’d,
Syntax exclaim’d. — A party stood
Just on the margin of the flood,
Who were in statú quo to make
A little voyage on the Lake,
The Doctor forward stepp’d to show
The wealth of his portfolio:
The ladies were quite pleas’d to view
Such pretty pictures as he drew;
While a young man, a neighb’ring ‘squire,
Expressed a very warm desire,
Which seem’d to come from honest heart,
That of their boat he’d take a part.

Now from the shore they quickl sail’d,
And soon the Doctor’s voice prevail’d.

” This is a lovely scene of nature;
But I’ve enough of land and water:
I want some living thing to show
How far the Picturesque will go.”


” See, Sir, how swift the swallows fly!
And lo ! the lark ascends on high;
We scarce can view him in the sky.
Behold the wild-fowl, how they spread
Upon the Lake’s expansive bed:
The kite sails through the airy way,
Prepar’d to pounce upon its prey:
The rooks, too, from their morning food.
Pass cawing to the distant wood.”


“ When with a philosophic eye
The realms of Nature I descry,
And view the grace that she can give
To all the varying forms that live;
I feel with awe the plastic art,
That doth such wond’rous pow’rs impart
To all that wing the air, or creep
Along the earth, or swim the deep.
I love the winged world that flies
Through the thin azure of the skies;
Or, not ordain’d those heights to scan,
Live the familiar friends of man,
And, in his yard or round his cot.
Enjoy, poor things! their destin’d lot:
But though their plumes are gay with dyes,
In endless bright diversities,
What, though such glowing tints prevail,
When the proud peacock spreads his tail;
What, though the nightingales prolong
Through the charm’d night th’ enchanting song;
What, though the blackbird and the thrush
Make vocal ev’ry verdant bush;
Not one among the winged kind
Presents an object to my mind:
Their grace and beauty’s nought to me ;
In all their vast variety
The Picturesque I cannot see.

A carrion fowl tied to a stake
Will a far better picture make,
When, as a scare-crow, ’tis display’d
To make all thievish birds afraid.
Than the white swan, in all its pride,
Sailing upon the crystal tide.
As a philosopher, I scan
Whate’er kind Heav’n has made for man:
I feel it a religious duty
To bless its use and praise its beauty:
I care not whatsoe’er the creature,
Whate’er its name, its form and feature.
So that fond Nature will aver
The creature doth belong to her.
But though, indeed, I may admire ^
The greyhound’s form, and snake’s attire,
They neither will my object suit
Like a good shaggy, ragged brute.
I will acknowledge that a goose
Is a fine fowl, of sov’reign use:
But for a picture she’s not fitted —
The bird was made but to be spitted.
The pigeon, I’ll be bound to show it.
Is a fine subject for a poet;
In the soft verse his mate he woos,
Turns his gay neck, and bills and coos.
And, as in am’rous strut he moves,
Soothes the fond heart of him who loves:

But I’ll not paint him, no, not I —
I like him better in a pie.
Well rubb’d with salt and spicy dust.
And thus embodied in a crust.
How many a bird that haunts the wood,
How many a fowl that cleaves the flood.
With their sweet songs enchant my ear,
Or please my eye as they appear.
When in their flight, or as they row
Delighted on the lake below!
But still, whate’er their form or feather,
You cannot make them group together;
For let them swim or let them fly.
The Picturesque they all defy.
The bird that’s sitting quite alone
Is fit but to be carv’d in stone;
And any man of taste ‘twould shock
To paint those wild geese in a flock:
Though I like not a single figure.
Whether ’tis lesser or ’tis bigger:
That fisherman, so lean and lank.
Who sits alone upon the bank.
Tempts not the eye ; but, doff his coat,
And quickly group him with a boat.
You then will see the fellow make
A pretty object on the Lake.
If a boy’s playing with a hoop,
‘Tis something, for it forms a group.

In painters’ eyes — Oh, what a joke^
To place a bird upon an oak!
At the same time, ‘twould help the jest.
Upon the branch to fix a nest.
A trout, with all its pretty dyes

Of various hues, delights the eyes;
But still it is a silly whim
To make him on a canvass swim:
Yet, I must own, that dainty fish
Looks very handsome in a dish;
And he must be a thankless sinner.
Who thinks a trout a paltry dinner.

” The first, the middle, and the last.
In Picturesque, is bold contrast;
And painting has no nobler use
Than this grand object to produce.
Such is my thought, and I’ll pursue it;
There’s an example — you shall view it.
Look at that tree ; then take a glance

At its fine, bold protuberance;
Behold those branches — ^how their shade
Is by the mass of light display’d:
Look at that light, and see how fine
The backward shadows make it shine:
The sombre clouds that spot the sky.
Make the blue vaulting twice as high;

And where the sun-beams warmly glow.
They make the hollow twice as low.
The Flemish painters all surpass
In making pictures smooth as glass:
In Cuyp’s best works there’s pretty painting,
But the bold picturesque is wanting.

William Combe, 1741-1823 with images by Thomas Rowlandson, 1756-1827
The Tour of Doctor Syntax, in Search of the Picturesque, 1812. CANTO XIV


Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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