What we read about Barthold Heinrich Brookes leaves us
with a confusing and contradictory picture.
The sources of Brookes' Irdisches Vergniigen have not been
adequately investigated, therefore conclusions drawn from
his work about his religion and his attitude to nature are
suspect, especially since he sometimes used foreign
material without acknowledgment.
Brookes' scientific poems read like versified paraphrases
of the work of some of the scientists of the Royal Society
and of the Boyle lecturers who preached sermons based on
their investigations. Their aim, the glorification of God
through the study of his creation, is also Brookes' aim,
and their theological interpolations are similar to his.
The theological and philosophical ideas of this group of
writers go back to the great philosophers and theologians
of the past. Cicero and Galen transmitted much of this
material. Brookes uses it as motifs in his poetry. The
topoi of the book of nature and the artisan God express
the relationship of the Creator to creation. By
contemplating God's handiwork man can raise himself to a
knowledge of God. Sometimes he is optimistic about this
quest, but sometimes he feels that knowledge is restricted
to the afterlife. God is active in creation. A passive
God would be the God of "atheism." Newton's theory of
gravity and other suitable evidence is given for God's
continuous presence in creation.
Most of these ideas are also expressed in the writings of
Brockes, Du Bartas, Blackmore, Thomson and several others.
The literary tradition goes back to Genesis and the
hexaemera of the Church Fathers. Motifs are also taken
from Lucretius and Virgil.
In several of his poems Brockes clearly opposes the
tendency to deify nature, yet he often writes about a
Natura figure or spirit of nature who is responsible for
plant growth, the changing seasons, instinct in the animal
world and many other mysterious processes. These ideas are
found in the work of the Cambridge Platonists and those
who were influenced by them. Contemplation of space and
the thought of God's infinity produce a kind of religious
ecstasy. This is also in the work of Norris, Traherne and
More. Brockes writes in the hymnic manner of Theocles'
apostrophes to various natural phenomena in Shaftesbury's
Certain aspects of Longinus' theory of the sublime are
transformed in the writings of Dennis, Addison,
Shaftesbury and Brockes into an experience in which the
imagination (or reason) capitulates in the presence of
something beyond its capacity. In this state man is raised
to thoughts of God. Vast expanses (sky, sea, mountains,
forests), wild natural forces (storms and earthquakes)
produce a pleasing kind of horror. Brockes finds material
of this kind in Burnet's Sacred Theory of the Earth
Brookes' sources are unexplored. Pope's influence has been
exaggerated. Brockes translated or adapted material from
many other writers such as Genest, La Motte, Voltaire,
Shaftesbury, Sarasa and others.
Brockes is considered as an unimaginative descriptive poet.
He is said to depict the quiet idyllic landscape. But
Brockes' best poems are the products of his imagination in
conformity with Addison's theories of the imagination. He
perceives nature by means of his senses but his knowledge
of scientific theories (Locke, Newton and the Royal
Society) makes hirn see things in a certain way. His imagination carries him beyond the actual object of description
to a higher kind of artistic reality.
The Irdisches Vergniigen is full of hymns and hymnic
passages. Brockes also translated hymns by other writers.
The traditional hymn form is used, but is enriched by the
motifs which we have been studying. The transformation of
Psalm 148 into Hilton's "Morning hymn" and Thomson's "Hymn
to the Seasons" illustrates this. The pagan hymn to the
sun develops in the same way. Brookes and Thomson gather
together material from widely differing sources in their
Brookes' Irdisches Vergniigen is a mystery as it has no
artistic unity. Banalities alternate with poems of near
genius. His successes could "be ascribed to the way in
which his imagination adapts and varies material gathered
from a wide variety of sources.