The Landscape Guide

Elysium (or Elysian Plain or Elysian Fields)

Homer wrote of the Elysian Plain as a land of perfect happiness, on the banks of the Oceanus River at the end of the Earth. Only the gods were immortal and Elysium was a place for their favoured relatives.

'The third man,' he answered, 'is Ulysses who dwells in Ithaca. I can see him in an island sorrowing bitterly in the house of the nymph Calypso, who is keeping him prisoner, and he cannot reach his home for he has no ships nor sailors to take him over the sea. As for your own end, Menelaus, you shall not die in Argos, but the gods will take you to the Elysian plain, which is at the ends of the world. There fair-haired Rhadamanthus reigns, and men lead an easier life than any where else in the world, for in Elysium there falls not rain, nor hail, nor snow, but Oceanus breathes ever with a West wind that sings softly from the sea, and gives fresh life to all men. This will happen to you because you have married Helen, and are Jove's son-in-law.' (Homer Odyssey Book IV)

In Pindar, Elysium was a land of the blessed to which the righteous would gain entry after a virtuous life.

Orphic cults, taking their name from Orpheus, a hero with musical skills, believed that the soul was judged after death and, if a man had been virtuous, his soul would go to the meadows of the blessed in Elysium.

William Kent gave the name Elysian Fields to a valley at Stowe (containing the Temple of Ancient Virtue and The British Worthies) and the idea featured in other landscape descriptions. Goethe wrote of Elysian Fields at Leipzig and there was an Elysium at Ermenonville.

St Augustine wrote in the City of God (Ch. 30), of Porphry, that 'He says, too, that God put the soul into the world that it might recognize the evils of matter, and return to the Father, and be for ever emancipated from the polluting contact of matter. And although here is some inappropriate thinking (for the soul is rather given to the body that it may do good; for it would not learn evil unless it did it), yet he corrects the opinion of other Platonists, and that on a point of no small importance, inasmuch as he avows that the soul, which is purged from all evil and received to the Father's presence, shall never again suffer the ills of this life. By this opinion he quite subverted the favorite Platonic dogma, that as dead men are made out of living ones, so living men are made out of dead ones; and he exploded the idea which Virgil seems to have adopted from Plato, that the purified souls which have been sent into the Elysian fields (the poetic name for the joys of the blessed) are summoned to the river Lethe, that is, to the oblivion of the past, "That earthward they may pass once more, Remembering not the things before, And with a blind propension yearn To fleshly bodies to return."

The Elysian Fields at Stowe