George Herbert’s “The Storm” (1633)
Why does nature move us? Driving through the South Dakota Badlands this summer was a moving experience. The bare, jagged landscape evoked feelings of calm, happiness, and awe — how can a bunch of rocks have such emotional resonance?
Neurobiologists have struggled to understand the biological basis of a sense of beauty. As Bevil Conway and Alexander Rehding wrote:
Insofar as beauty is a product of the brain, correlations between brain activity and experiences of beauty must exist. At what spatial scale, and within what brain regions, do we find these correlations? What functions do the brain regions implicated serve in other behaviors? What signals during development and experience are responsible for wiring up these circuits? And perhaps most critically, how does the activity of these circuits integrate across modalities and time to bring about the dynamic, elusive quality of beauty?
We don’t know what it is about natural beauty that specifically activates those circuits, or even what those circuits are. But an psychological link between nature and our brains seems to be a universal trait.
In “The Storm,” the great English metaphysical poet George Herbert links the awe-inspiring action of a thunderstorm with the movement of his conscience.
If as the winds and waters here below
Do fly and flow,
My sighs and tears as busy were above;
Sure they would move
And much affect thee, as tempestuous times
Amaze poor mortals, and object their crimes.
Stars have their storms, ev'n in a high degree,
As well as we.
A throbbing conscience spurred by remorse
Hath a strange force:
It quits the earth, and mounting more and more
Dares to assault thee, and besiege thy door.
There it stands knocking, to thy music's wrong,
And drowns the song.
Glory and honour are set by, till it
An answer get.
Poets have wronged poor storms: such days are best;
They purge the air without, within the breast.
Image credit: Badlands National Park, Michael White, 2014.