Whimsical warriors wage war with words

The Song of the Earth
April 6, 2001

What is the purpose of poetry in an era of high technology and environmental crisis? Can it restore us to the earth? And can we ever overcome the gap between nature and culture that emerged when we fell into language? Jonathan Bate asks many such questions in his excellent study of a range of (mostly English, mostly Romantic) literary works. His book is a plea for the value of poetry and an attempt to develop an "ecopoetic" critical practice, with which he aims to explore not only how writers describe nature but also "to reflect upon what it might mean to dwell with the earth".

Apart from Bate's own "preliminary sketch towards a literary ecocriticism", Romantic Ecology (1991), his book is the first notable British study of its kind. In America, however, ecocriticism is the fashionable new companion of feminist and post-colonial theory. Environmentalism is the last branch of 1960s activism to make an impact on literary studies. Most American critics in the field, such as Cheryll Glotfelty and Don Scheese, emphasise the political and consciousness-raising purpose of their work.

Bate's approach could hardly be more different; it is radical in its refusal to politicise its subject. His heart is firmly on the side of art rather than activism. When he attempts to reshape the canon, as in his pleas for the often-overlooked work of W. H. Hudson, John Clare and Basil Bunting, it is as much for aesthetic as for ideological purposes. He distances himself from the ambitions of what he - rather contentiously - calls the new didacticism in literary studies. "Ecopoetics seeks not to enframe literary texts, but to meditate upon them, to thank them, to listen to them," he suggests, just as one might thank and listen to the earth. And to this kind of reading, which aims to work with, rather than against the text, Bate devotes himself with enthusiasm and sensitivity.

One of the starting points for his erudite journey through Romantic and post-Romantic poetry is the break from the "state of nature" outlined in Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men . Bate is interested in how writers - and in particular poets - have found ways of achieving an imaginative reunion with the earth. In Keats's "To Autumn", the self is dissolved into a natural world that is not antithetic to the world of culture; in "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey", Wordsworth "connects his consciousness to the ecosystem". Bate's interpretations are not entirely new, but his emphasis on connectedness with nature is fresh and compelling. More unusually, he attempts to explain "To Autumn" and Byron's apocalyptic poem "Darkness" by studying contemporary meteorological reports, and this yields fascinating results.

Bate has no time for poems in which the language itself does not "do ecological work", such as the environmental poet Gary Snyder's propagandistic "Mother Earth: Her Whales". But his intentions are not, and cannot be, entirely apolitical. As he puts it: "The dream of deep ecology (a return to nature) will never be realised upon the earth, but our survival as a species may be dependent on our capacity to dream it in the work of our imagination." Not even in art can we escape from our dependence on technology and its consequences, as we "create culture by enslaving nature". Even Hudson's elegy for the lost rainforest, "Green Mansions", is "inscribed on the pulped cellulose fibres of fallen trees". But we can, in a poem, create a recreational space for the mind, which fosters a reverence for all living things. To Bate, poetry's ability to reawaken wonder is a perennial source of hope. There is a certain continuity between Romantic Ecology and The Song of the Earth . This is apparent in Bate's distrust of politically inclined criticism, his interest in how poets name the earth and his fondness for Wordsworth, John Clare and Edward Thomas. But The Song of the Earth is a richer work that should become a cornerstone of the ecocritical project. What has been added, above all, is theoretical grounding. For this he turns to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's critique of the Enlightenment, Gaston Bachelard's poetics of space and Martin Heidegger's philosophy of dwelling.

Bate's argument can be abstruse at times and is prone to vertiginous leaps between writers from different continents and eras. But these shifts are intrinsic to the charm and success of his work, as is his lucid style. His book is written as much for the general reader as for the academy; he even bothers to explain who the Romantic poets were. One can only hope that other critics will take up the challenge to produce ecopoetic works, especially if there is truth in his claim that "poetry is the place where we save the earth".

Madeleine Minson is tutor in English, University College London.

The Song of the Earth

Author - Jonathan Bate
ISBN - 0 330 37238 6
Publisher - Picador
Price - £18.00
Pages - 322

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