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Introduction: Nature and the Environment

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In this lesson, we will deal with nature, the environment and ecology, with specific reference to the poetry of the English Romantics. Let us first look at how the English Romantic authors dealt with the environment and nature. It is commonplace to say that the English Romantic authors, especially of the Wordsworth era, were interested in nature as something ideal and pristine. But contemporary authors, especially Jonathan Bate and others, have discovered that a certain environmentalism runs through this generation of authors. This has been utilized by contemporary ecocritics as well. In other words, while we have always seen the Wordsworth generation as being fascinated by or worshipful of nature, ecocritics see present-day environmentalism as having found its original moments in the Wordsworth generation. (Refer Slide Time: 1:28) Nature as a pastoral ideal in rural England is a common theme. As we said about the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads: a certain organicist view of life is also being promulgated, man and nature are linked. There is no way you can distinguish human life from the settings in which that life is led – a point that several contemporary ecocritics are making. There is also the idea of nature as teacher, as seen in some of Wordsworth’s more famous passages in the Prelude, where when he has in some way violated nature, nature has taught him a lesson. A famous example here would be the incident where Wordsworth steals the boat, and after he has committed this heinous crime so to speak, finds himself being chased by a mountain. The next theme is that of nature ruined. This could be nature ruined through catastrophe, for which Byron’s poem “Darkness” is a great example, or through human efforts. Then there is the pet theme – of the rejection of the city as a place. The Wordsworth generation, particularly Wordsworth and Coleridge, saw the suburban and rural England countryside basically as a place of ideal beauty, ideal humanity, and humanitarianism. Consequently, they rejected London and the city as worthy of their attention. This is a huge divide that they created between London as a place of civilization or commerce, and England’s countryside as the better space of Englishness with more humanity. In poems like “Resolution and Independence”, “The Leech gatherers” and “The Old Cumberland Beggar”, Wordsworth would say that good, ideal human beings are to be found only in the countryside. There is thus a division between nature and culture, city and country which the Romantics put in place as they spoke about the environment. (Refer Slide Time: 3:46) The Romantics believed in the fusion of the soul of nature with the soul of specific humans. Not all humans are connected to nature. Wordsworth very strongly believed, as we will see in “Tintern Abbey”, that the more sensitive of the humans, such as poets, are far more connected to the soul of nature itself. The alert, sensitive, passionate and sentimental individual, such as the poet, is the one who is connected to nature. (Refer Slide Time: 4:16) The fusion with Nature, the oneness and organic connection with nature, could be along environmentalist lines. That is, the response to nature encodes a certain set of ecological concerns. The other approach embodied in the Romantic attitude to nature was more sentimental and even quasi-mystical. The poet responds to nature and its sights with his very soul. In other words, not all humans can respond to nature that way. It requires a different level of consciousness, sensitivity, and sensibility for anybody to respond to nature. It is only the poet who has that level of connection where his consciousness connects to nature. The poet responds to nature and its sights with his very soul. The English Romantics believed that to be situated in nature was not just a question of location. The person who is situated in nature must also be capable of absorbing the animate being of nature. Here is Wordsworth depicting such a fusion of nature and the soul of the poet, in Lyrical “Lines Written in Early Spring” from the Lyrical Ballads: To her fair works did nature link The human soul that through me ran. Wordsworth says here that nature’s work connects to the human soul in the poet. He says that nature’s link to the human soul is through me, that is the speaker, but also that nature responds to me, nature’s soul responds to me and appeals to me. Here is another famous example from “Tintern Abbey”, in which one can recognize the echoes of the lines we have just looked at from the Lyrical Ballads. (Refer Slide Time: 6:14) O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro' the woods, How often has my spirit turned to thee! And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought, With many recognitions dim and faint, And somewhat of a sad perplexity, The picture of the mind revives again: While here I stand, not only with the sense Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts That in this moment there is life and food For future years. As Wordsworth’s speaker stands amid the woods or near a river or mountains, he acknowledges that nature around him is imbibed by him, and gets into his soul. While Wordsworth is of course gathering material for future nostalgia as Vikram Seth will put it, something else is also happening here. It is not just a collection of memories for the future, and Wordsworth sees his consciousness as been forged in the lap of nature. It is when I am in nature that I have certain kinds of thoughts and it is an infusive process where I absorb the sense of place. (Refer Slide Time: 7:20) A sense of place must inform human consciousness, which sustains the poet in the present and in the future, suggests Wordsworth. The growth of the boy into a man, or the growth of the imagination is measured in terms of the increasing connection with nature. Wordsworth would spend a lifetime mourning the fact that as you grew up, the sensibility which you had as a child, the joy that you perceived when you were in nature is lost. The distinguished critic Karl Kroeber, in his reading of Wordsworth has proposed that in the Prelude, Wordsworth “defined, dramatized and evaluated” the power of the imagination according to its relationship with the power of nature. How you have evolved as a poet, how your imagination has evolved, is entirely dependent upon how you have learnt to deal with nature. According to Wordsworth, here is the poetic imagination and here is a child, and for the child to become a poet he needs to assimilate nature and modify his imagination – imagination is the effect of having imbibed nature in a certain way. This is an organicist view of the link between nature and human mind, human soul or human consciousness, and this view is shared by Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley among the Romantics. For instance, while one assumes that Shelley’s views on nature would be dramatically opposite those of Wordsworth, it is not so. In, for example, the famous West Wind Ode, Shelley would describe himself as a leaf in the wind. Consider these three famous lines from Shelley’s “Ode to the Westwind”: (Refer Slide Time: 9:18) “If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear” And: “Lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!” And finally suggests: “Be thou me, impetuous one!”. Now what is going on here? Look at the first one, if I were a dead leaf you will bear me from place as if the leaf will flow around, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud. (Refer Slide Time: 9:43) What is Shelley doing in the third line, “Be thou me, impetuous one”? Shelley is not drawing parallels between the poet and nature – that I am like nature – what he is saying instead is the poet is nature itself. Unlike Wordsworth, Shelley does not say that the soul of nature flows through him and then the poetry is produced. Instead he says, I am nature itself, the poet is nature itself. Thus in “Be thou me, impetuous one!” he does not say be thou like me, he does not say let me be like you, he says to the West Wind – you be me, you become me, impetuous one. In other words what he says is, I have assimilated the soul of nature and you are me now. Nature and the poet constitute a dynamic relation where the poet has assimilated the soul of nature. Critics have argued that there occurs a certain “revaluation of place in the sense of landscape [in Romantic literature] was also connected with the Romantic recovery of a sense of the divine as manifest in the more-than-human natural world” (Rigby 2004:53). In Rigby’s argument, nature is not just a backdrop. There is a sense of space, place, the landscape around as something more than human, as something approaching and approximating to the divine. For poets like Coleridge, however, there was a deeper ambivalence. In poems like “Dejection, An Ode” Coleridge would say that one cannot always look to nature for inspiration. One cannot always hope for the poet to assimilate nature and develop an imagination or consciousness; one has to search within. Keats would demonstrate the link between humans and nature in more sensual terms. (Refer Slide Time: 12:26) Nature as teacher is manifest as a theme in Wordsworth, as we shall see in a subsequent lesson. The ruin of nature was a major subject in many of the poets. Thus Byron mourns the death of nature in “Darkness”, a poem that looks forward to the ecodystopias of the 20th century. Having looked at nature as quasi-mystical and nature as a source of inspiration, and as I just said, nature as catastrophic apocalyptic, we now turn to environmental attitudes to nature. (Refer Slide Time: 12:57) Environmental attitudes to Nature appear in the form of not only the divinization of Nature seen above but also in the anger at the technologization and indsutrialization of England – which brought in the machinery and the factory – and the social reorganization of landscape and as a result labour and poverty. As we will see as the subject of poetry by John Clare and George Crabbe, the technologisation and modernisation of England led to the loss of common grazing lands. Open spaces were taken away by landlords. Enclosures, fencing and walls were built which bounded open nature, open landscape, and pastoral lands. Poets like John Clare were very upset by this, because what they saw happening was a loss of nature in its truly open sense. Here is John Clare’s critique of the privatisation of common lands. ‘The Village Minstrel’: (Refer Slide Time: 14:16) There once was lanes in nature freedom dropt There is once was paths that every valley wound Inclosure came and every part was stopt Each tyrant fixt his sign where pads was found To hint a trespass now who crossd the ground Justice is made to speak as they command The high road now must be each stinted bound – Inclosure thou art a curse upon the land And tasteless was the wretch who thy existence pland John Clare is writing out of anger, and anguish, at some point he says there was freedom – you could walk along this path, you could take that lane. With the enclosures, the paths were stopped because what was a path through the common land was now no longer a path because it was no longer common. The lands which were something all of us could traverse through became somebody’s property. They fenced up the lands, blocked access and converted the paths into private paths. Therefore Clare says, “The high road now much be each stinted bound”. Please recall what we had said about the chartered streets of London in Blake’s famous poem. (Refer Slide Time: 15:59) Clare is mourning the disappearance of the country and nature due to greed and so-called civilisation. The anger against cities in Wordsworth (and Blake before Wordsworth) are instances of the critique, implicit and often explicit, against industrial modernity that takes humanity away from Nature. (Refer Slide Time: 16:25) The sense of nature as a special state, pristine and uncontaminated, is a specific construct in the Romantics’ discourse. Nature is treated as the exact opposite of human culture. This binary, however, has been questioned by numerous scholars in the 20th century. Contradictions in such representations of nature as pure and pristine have been noted. The distinguished critic, Marjorie Levinson (1986) has noted that, in “Tintern Abbey”, Wordsworth chooses to ignore the charcoal industry around Tintern except as a very minor reference. (Wordsworth refers to the “wreaths of smoke” which he then, attributes to the “vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods”). He ignores the vagrant dwellers in the Abbey as well choosing instead to focus on the picturesque landscape as a clean/clear space devoid of the human presence. It is this erasure of the economic and social contexts of the Abbey that Marjorie Levinson marks as a major flaw in Wordsworth’s celebrated poetry of nature. What Levinson says of Wordsworth has been stated by Raymond Williams of 17th century poetry as well, that the landscape can only be celebrated by ignoring the labourers on it. Moreover, the materiality of labour is also erased when Wordsworth ‘naturalises’ it: (Refer Slide Time: 18:14) No Nightingale did ever chaunt More welcome notes to weary bands Of travellers in some shady haunt, Among Arabian Sands: A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird, Breaking the silence of the seas Among the farthest Hebrides. “The Solitary Reaper”, Wordsworth. This kind of idealisation and representation of nature as something pristine and pure is an untenable one. The very distinction between the nature and culture is not a distinction available in nature, but one that humans make. That is, the binary of nature and culture is itself the effect of culture. The Romantics were constructing very specific views of nature. I have in this session talked about the quasi-mystical, near magical one, and the angry John Clare whose discourse of nature is to say that those common lands have all been taken away and as a result there is no common nature any longer. There is a praise of certain kind of nature which says this is how nature is perfect and we draw our inspiration, our imagination from it. As we will see in a subsequent lesson or two, that is not something that was devoid of politics, and people like Coleridge were not very happy with this idealisation of nature. The various themes of the quasi-divine role of nature, nature as teacher, nature as angry but nature as poet, are also proto-environmentalist. They give a certain status to nature which you see 20th century environmentalism doing.