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The ecology of Victorian poetry.

In his recent books The Aesthetics of Environment and Living in the Landscape the philosopher Arnold Berleant has argued that the arts--and the aesthetic more generally--have an important role to play in generating an "environmental" consciousness through their explicit appeal to the senses and their general tendency to enliven us to the tissue of the world. The arts "embody their continuity with other human domains," writes Berleant, helping us to grasp, through their deliberate engagement of the conscious body, that "the perceiver is an aspect of the perceived and, conversely, person and environment are continuous." (1) Art renders the world in the fullness of its texture, Berleant writes, subtly illuminating the world from within the body of the perceiver and calling us to a consciousness of ourselves as environed beings.

Berleant's argument, which draws on Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology as well as John Dewey's insight, in Art as Experience, that modern art is often predicated on a "loss of integration with environment," (2) with its accompanying plea for renewed attention to the category of "experience," has a particular resonance for students of Victorian poetry. Victorianists will be quick to recognize the similarities between Berleant's ideas and those advanced by William Morris and John Ruskin in the nineteenth century--in such essays as "Art and The Beauty of the Earth" (Morris), "The Beauty of Life" (Morris), and "The Work of Iron in Nature, Art and Policy" (Ruskin)--arguing for a closer integration of cultural production and environmental awareness. But Berleant's argument is especially well-suited to Victorian poetry given how much criticism has been devoted, in recent years, to articulating the "epistemological uneasiness" of Victorian poetry, "in which subject and object, self and world, are no longer in lucid relation with one another but have to be perpetually redefined." (3) As long ago as 1952, E.D.H. Johnson spoke of Victorian poetry's "double awareness," whereby the poet's "inner" confidence is undermined by, or adapted to, the burden of an "outer awareness," at odds with the mainsprings of private poetic personality. (4) More recently, Isobel Armstrong has described the "formal ploy" of Victorian poetry as one "in which the uttering subject [of Victorian verse] becomes object and the poem reverses relationships not once but many times" (pp. 16-17). Similarly Carol Christ has characterized Victorian poetry by its "various attempts to construct an epistemology which derives the feeling with which we respond to objects from the objects themselves." (5) While these critics do not, it must be admitted, advance an explicitly environmentalist argument, their insights lend themselves readily to the dismantling of Cartesian categories that is part of environmentalism's philosophical strategy, while acknowledging--implicitly at least--that Victorian poetry is characterized by an embodied understanding that is one step away from Berleant's (and Morris's) full-blown environmental consciousness.

In this essay, then, I want to sketch out some directions that criticism of Victorian poetry might now take in the combined light cast by both its own recent tendencies and contemporary environmental aesthetics. One obvious place to which criticism might now turn is to the considerable body of Victorian poetry dedicated to the environment. Barbara T. Gates and Richard Bevis have already cleared a path in this direction; in the space of two important chapters, Bevis ranges widely over a number of (generally canonical) male Victorian poets in his fascinating map of The Road to Egdon Heath; and Gates's recent anthology In Nature's Name includes a number of poems by Victorian women dedicated to the living environment in its purest sense. (6) Yet it remains the case that Victorianists have traditionally left it to their Romanticist and Americanist colleagues--pre-eminently, the Harvard scholar Lawrence Buell (7)--to extrapolate the environmental implications of verse (often written by urban or metropolitan poets) that takes landscape as its subject. To call attention to a Victorian poetry of the environment, in this sense, is not, of course, to argue that such verse should necessarily be read according to a purely Romantic paradigm, in which the perceiving self (or "imagination"), while trying to come to terms with the objects of its own consciousness, only comes to realize its alienation from the natural world, thereby assuming what Carol Christ terms "a troubled consciousness of its own priority." Rather it is to focus on the implications of such verse from the perspective of the reader's active experience and to argue--as Berleant does for landscape painting--that such writing itself constitutes a participatory environment, inviting us to enter the space it demarcates and so become an active participant in the world it sets out to remake. (8)

Perhaps the most famous example of such a distinctively "Victorian" landscape poetry is Meredith's "The Woods of Westermain," with its opening injunction, "Enter these enchanted woods / You who dare. / Nothing harms beneath the leaves / More than waves a swimmer cleaves." Meredith's injunction explicitly acknowledges that the poem--if not the larger book ("leaves") of which the poem is part--is itself a participatory environment from whose "shadowed leagues of slumbering sound" we may "gather ripe / Pleasures flowing not from [any] purse." Consequently Meredith's poem is far more concerned with elaborating just what its readers might take away, freshly transformed by their encounter with a text that defies the very logic of disembodied cognition, than it is with the problem of locating, or giving adequate expression to, an authorial voice "behind" the poem as a way of "fixing" its implications. Indeed in this sense, simply to call Meredith's poem "landscape writing" or "nature writing" is to mis-describe it, since the very words "landscape" and "nature" institutionalize an objectification of environment that Meredith's poem strives hard to overcome. (As Berleant and others have argued, words like "environmental" or "ecological" are far better descriptors for the philosophy underwriting such verse as Meredith's.)

In practice, this turn to a Victorian poetry of the environment would bring renewed attention to a host of poets currently underrepresented in the canons of Victorian poetry. Besides that aspect of George Meredith best represented by "The Woods of Westermain" and "Hard Weather," I am thinking of such figures as William Sharp, Norman Gale, Katherine Tynan, and of much of the Brontes' verse. Some of these figures were very highly regarded in the last decades of the Victorian period, and their fall in critical esteem owes much to the critical agendas of Modernism. Yet even to speak of individual figures and "poets" cuts against the grain of what much of this poetry is about. For reasons that bear closer examination than they have yet received, William Sharp felt obliged to assume a poetic pseudonym ("Fiona McLeod") distinct from his name as an established man of letters; and as I have already hinted, Meredith (who declared a lifelong war on the Cartesian delusions of egotism) felt compelled to evacuate his poetry of any taint of self, crafting his poetry's physique in ways that call attention to the reader's experience rather than the author's intentions. Indeed one can sense in Victorian ecological verse a discernible effort to dissolve the confines of self in the dynamics of environmental interaction. One comes away from Emily Bronte's "High waving heather," for instance, struck by the almost complete absence of a speaking voice, detached from the environmental processes the poem describes:
 High waving heather 'neath stormy blasts bending,
 Midnight and moonlight and bright shining stars;
 Darkness and glory rejoicingly blending,
 Earth rising to heaven and heaven descending,
 Man's spirit away from its drear dungeon sending,
 Bursting the fetters and breaking the bars.

Bronte's almost elemental avoidance of subject nouns and pronouns, together with her accompanying insistence on the present participle as the active agent of life, brings the poem about as near to an enactment of pure process as it is possible to get. One can literally hear the human spirit "bursting the fetters and breaking the bars," if only in the relentlessness with which Bronte's poem defies both the logic of grammar and any sense that the poetic line (or "bar") constitutes a semantic unit in itself. In these respects, Bronte's poem suggests that a canon of Victorian ecological poetry can be identified only by first overturning both the Romantic ideology of "strong" poetic precursors and those author-centered readings that stress the uniqueness of the individual "voice." In Bronte's poem, as in "The Woods of Westermain," questions of reading, perception, and sensation assume an urgency greater than the kinds of matters (of authorship, intention, and the ontology of the perceiving imagination) that are a central preoccupation in Romantic nature poetry.

This turn to a Victorian poetry of the environment, in the simplest sense, would I suspect bear interesting fruit so far as scholars interested in matters of ethnicity and gender are concerned, in part because so much of it was written on the fringes of the English scene. One place where a comprehensive body of ecological verse can be found is William Sharp's 1896 anthology Lyra Celtica, an anthology usually connected with the Celtic Revival more than with any movement for ecological awareness. Yet Sharp's anthology makes clear that the Celtic Revival in poetry was predicated in part on a reaction against the forms and subjects most closely associated with the English metropolis as well as an accompanying embrace of precisely that domain--the rugged Celtic landscape--that had hitherto proven least susceptible to English imperial domination. For the Celtic Revivalists, the natural environment became a symbol of precisely that liberty from English rule that was proving so difficult to achieve in the political domain. That Sharp should have chosen to feminize himself as "Fiona McLeod" in order to embrace this environment imaginatively is a feature of Celtic Revival literature that warrants close scrutiny, to say the least.

But a Victorian poetry of the environment, in the sense I am describing it here, is not the only place to which critics interested in the ecology of Victorian poetry might turn. Berleant's argument for the ecological power of aesthetics, after all, turns on the capacity of art to expose the tissue of the world--to turn the relation between perceiver and perceived on its head, thereby enlivening us to the world art both describes and helps to make up. George Meredith's position somewhere near the front of the school I just named should alert us to certain continuities between this poetry and a body of verse not traditionally thought of as environmental but nonetheless possessed of certain tendencies that prove central to an ecological awareness. Meredith, who convinced himself he was a Welshman, turned to "nature" precisely for its capacity to dissolve the imagined outlines of selfhood and correspondingly to involve us in "sweet fellowship" with a world far different from that we have been educated to. As he put it in "The Woods of Westermain," "Drink the sense the notes infuse, / You a larger self will find: / Sweetest fellowship ensues / With the creatures of your kind." But Meredith's poetry shares an important feature with those Pre-Raphaelites whose subject matter is urban, erotic, and private. The visual and sensory details that feature so prominently in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poetry, for instance, are not objective correlatives of the poet's mood so much as they are "emblems of dynamic reflection" (9)--gravitational fields that pull the mind out of itself and thus bring about a continuous interaction with a larger world at once objective and animate. As Jerome McGann has recently remarked, Rossetti's poems are, in consequence of such features, more properly described as "dynamic fields of embodied and sensuous awareness" than as integral "works of art" (p. 148). In poem after poem, Rossetti re-enacts an imaginative symbiosis with the objects of his consciousness according to the primal logic of fascination and desire that he aptly termed "lovesight." This process ultimately produced a kind of crisis of self-awareness for Rossetti--Jerome McGann (following Ford Madox Ford) calls it a "game that must be lost"--registered most strongly in the torturous labyrinths of The House of Life, each sonnet of which enacts a restless search for a more complete intercourse with a beauty always out of reach, situated somewhere on the brink of sensation.

Rossetti called this drive a search for "the inner standing-point," explaining that "the heart of [any] mystery ... must be plucked from the very world in which it beats or bleeds," (10) and it can be sensed in much of Swinburne's and Morris' poetry too. Like Rossetti's "The Sea Limits," "Even So," or Whistler's Nocturnes, Swinburne's great sea and garden poems might be a good place to begin a discussion of the ecological implications of pre-Raphaelite literature and art--implications that become explicit in Morris' prose essays of the 1870s and 1880s and that can be felt also in Morris' relatively late poems such as "Thunder in the Garden" or in these lines from "Fair Weather and Foul":
 Speak nought, move not, but listen, the sky is full of gold,
 No ripple on the river, no stir in field or fold,
 All gleams but nought doth glisten, but the far-off unseen sea.
 Forget days past, heart-broken, put all thy memory by!
 No grief on the green hill-side, no pity in the sky,
 Joy that may not be spoken fills mead and flower and tree.

 Look not, they will not heed thee, speak not, they will not hear,
 Pray not, they have no bounty, curse not, they may not fear,
 Cower down, they will not heed thee; long-lived the world shall be.

An ecological approach to Victorian poetry would bring out, I suspect, a somewhat underrated side of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry, whose search for an adequate expression of "instress" shares much in common with Rossetti's exploration of the "inner standing-point." For all the psycho theological interest of his poetry, Hopkins is also one of the most impressive environmental poets of the Victorian era--a kind of poetic Cezanne--both in the sense of the clear love for the living world expressed throughout his poetry, and in terms of the drive Hopkins' poetry embodies to ncarnate fully that world in the very fiber of his verse. As with much explicitly environmental poetry, the tension between Hopkins' verse and the actual circumstances of its composition (urban, Jesuit, spiritualist) itself merits discussion from an ecological viewpoint.

As these examples might suggest, then, Victorian "aesthetic" poetry in the broadest sense seems to lend itself especially well to developing the kind of environmental awareness Berleant describes. As recent work has shown, much of this poetry strove hard in its own day to announce its own objecthood or "thingness" to the Victorian reader, chiefly by incorporating visual and decorative elements into the matter of the poem, as if determined to show that what Victorians called the body and the soul (and what we now term the "medium" and the "message") are in fact one. This effort to announce poetry's decorative condition--especially pronounced in the work of Rossetti, Morris, and Wilde, as well as in the work of publishers such as Edward Moxon and Elkin Mathews and the many Revivalists of Printing in the 1890s--possesses ecological implications in its own right since the production of highly decorative texts is, on one level, an effort to open the doors of perception as such, teasing the Victorian reader into a fuller realization of their concrete situation. Morris' Kelmscott Press was an attempt to revolutionize literature through a sudden activation of sensations and experiences once deemed crucial to the processes of reading but since dulled into passivity by the commercial exigencies of modern publishing. As Morris put the matter in his essay "The Lesser Arts,"
 it is one of the chief uses of decoration, the chief part of its
 alliance with nature, that it has to sharpen our senses in this
 matter: for this end are those wonders of intricate patterns
 interwoven, those strange forms invented ... in which the hand of
 the craftsman is guided to work in the way that she does, till the
 web, the cup, or the knife, look as natural, nay as lovely, as the
 green field, the river bank, or the mountain flint.

Literature, the decorative poets and their printerly cohorts of the late-Victorian period seem to say, takes place in an environment, not in isolation from it; and for this reason the effort to register poetry's textual environment at the most primitive levels--through the articulation of illuminated capitals, margins, bindings, catchwords, border designs, etc.--is itself an index of a larger impulse to break down the rigid stratification of "readers," "texts" and "world" in an effort to articulate the kind of imaginative symbiosis on which the futures of all species--not just our own--rely.


(1) Arnold Berleant, The Aesthetics of Environment (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1992), pp. xii-xii, 4. Berleant's work on the intersection of aesthetics and ecology is part of a growing movement to connect these two domains. For alternative voices in this debate, see also Allen Carlson, Aesthetics and the Environment (New York: Routledge, 2000) and Aesthetics in the Human Environment, ed. Pauline von Bonsdorff and Arto Haapala (Lahti, Finland: International Institute of Applied Aesthetics, 1999).

(2) John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934; New York: Peregee Books, 1980), p. 15.

(3) Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 17.

(4) E.D.H. Johnson, The Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry (1952; Hamden, Connecticut, Archon Books, 1963), p. ix.

(5) Carol Christ, Victorian and Modern Poetics (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 6.

(6) Richard Bevis, The Road to Egdon Heath: The Aesthetics of the Great in Nature (Montreal: McGill-Queen's Univ. Press, 1999), pp. 279-326; In Nature's Name: An Anthology of Women's Writing and Illustration 1780-1930, ed. Barbara T. Gates (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2002). See also Barbara T. Gates, Kindred Nature: Victorian and Edwardian Women Embrace the Living Worm (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998). Although a pathbreaking effort to construct a canon of Victorian ecofeminist writers, Kindred Nature generally eschews poetry in favor of prose.

(7) See Lawrence Buell's The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1995) and Writing For an Endangered WorM: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U.S. and Beyond (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2001).

(8) See Arnold Berleant, "The Viewer in the Landscape" in his Art and Engagement (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 53-75; also The Aesthetics of Environment, pp. 5-6.

(9) Jerome McGann, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and The Game That Must Be Lost (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2000), p. 25.

(10) Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "The Stealthy School of Criticism," in An Anthology of Pre-Raphaelite Writings, ed. Carolyn Hares-Stryker (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1997), p. 250.
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Author:Frankel, Nicholas
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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