Ecocriticism (The New Critical Idiom)

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However, its long history and cultural ubiquity mean that the pastoral trope must and will remain a key concern for ecocritics. This chapter will explore these three manifestations of the trope. Classical pastoral precedes the perception of a general crisis in human ecology by thousands of years, but it provides the pre-existing set of literary conventions and cultural assumptions that have been crucially transformed to provide a way for Europeans and Euro-Americans to construct their landscapes.

The later popularisation of Romantic poetry has provided the language, imagery and even locations for the subsequent generalisation of pastoral in such diverse cultural forms as the novel, TV or promotional materials for conservation organisations. Some ecocritics claim, for instance, that the emergent environmental sensibility of Romantic pastoral suggests a kind of radicalism not recognised by anthropocentric political critics.

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Derivations from the Romantic model of course depend on the contexts in which they have developed, and American pastoral has followed its own distinct trajectory as a response to an environmental and social history very different from that of Britain. The Idylls of the Alexandrian poet Theocritus c. The emergence of the bucolic idyll correlates closely with largescale urbanisation in the Hellenic period. From the outset, pastoral often used nature as a location or as a reflection of human predicaments, rather than sustaining an interest in nature in and for itself.

At the same time, the joy and plenty of a good harvest comes through in Idyll VII with compelling immediacy. At several points, moreover, Virgil alludes to environmental problems associated with Roman civilisation, which have been blamed by some environmental historians for its eventual decline Hughes a. One of the key factors, it is widely agreed, was deforestation. This process may be traced back to Sumeria, the earliest civilisation in the region, which left us the Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest known literary work. Hughes a; Oelschlager ; Westling ; Fitter This key text does not mention ecology or environmentalism directly, but clearly situates its discussion in relation to the increasingly problematic place of technology in the American landscape.

Your very cradle will pour forth caressing flowers. Pastoral, then, need not always be nostalgic, but may be utopian and proleptic. Both Leo Marx and Williams identify this progressive potential, and both critics later associated it with the emergence of environmental politics see Williams We can set out three orientations of pastoral in terms of time: the elegy looks back to a vanished past with a sense of nostalgia; the idyll celebrates a bountiful present; the utopia looks forward to a redeemed future.

At the same time, the series of covenants between God and Man offer the possibility of present grace, as for example after the Flood, when God promises the continuance of nature as part of a renewed covenant. This must be taken into account alongside Lynn White Jr. These arguments will be considered in later chapters. Reading the verse they discuss makes it harder to dispute the case, because with few exceptions it betrays two preoccupations: an interest in the conventions of pastoral poetry themselves, and, with just as much self-regard and often sycophancy too, the celebration of the landed estate or ordered, productive countryside generally.

The willing Oxe, of himselfe came Home to the slaughter, with the Lambe, And every beast did thither bring pastoral Himselfe, to be an offering. On another level, though, Carew is representing the real distance between his patron and the things that sustain him, in that the ox could well have offered himself up for all the Lord might know. On yet another level, the conceit is so absurd that the text may seem a witty comment on pastoral idealisation. Classical pastoral was disposed, then, to distort or mystify social and environmental history, whilst at the same time providing a locus, legitimated by tradition, for the feelings of loss and alienation from nature to be produced by the Industrial Revolution.

He identifies a new sense of sympathetic interrelation of the creative human mind and the creative nature of which it is a part, but from which it seems curiously, painfully, apart According to Keith Thomas, during the early modern period and the eighteenth century, there had gradually emerged attitudes to the natural world which were essentially incompatible with the direction in which English society 39 40 pastoral was moving.

The growth in towns had led to a new longing for the countryside. The progress of cultivation had fostered a taste for weeds, mountains and unsubdued nature. The new-found security from wild animals had generated an increasing concern to protect birds and preserve wild creatures in their natural state. Economic independence of animal power and urban isolation from animal farming had nourished emotional attitudes which were hard, if not impossible, to reconcile with the exploitation of animals by which most people lived.

Several important examples are collected in an anthology of Wordsworth criticism that exemplifies the approaches ecocritics initially set out to challenge J. Williams Wordsworth Sales wants us to ask who drove the plough, who wrought the changes and for what reasons? Bate begins with the end of Soviet communism, emphasising the huge environmental problems which contributed to it and suggesting that, in this new era, the old political models of left versus right are no longer useful. This starting point has two functions.

First, it establishes a concern for nature not, as Marxist critics other than Williams have assumed, as a refuge from politics but as a potential form of political engagement. What Wordsworth has produced here is a logos of the oikos, the home. Moreover, his fervent advocacy led, long after his death, to the creation of a National Park there.

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Wordsworth is, on the whole, far more interested in the relationship of non-human nature to the human mind than he is in nature in and for itself. Romantic nature is never seriously endangered, and may in its normal state be poor in biological diversity; rather, it is loved for its vastness, beauty and endurance.

On a practical level, drainage for agriculture and peatdigging have reduced these wetlands so that few examples survive intact. In the work of Irish poet Seamus Heaney, the bog at least seems to have found a poet to speak for it.

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These quotidian landscapes, where economic and ecological values coincide or clash on the largest scale and with the greatest consequence, seem relegated by a Wordsworthian aesthetic to the realm of the merely pretty, and so lacking in the qualities which make for both beauty and fear. The relatively barren landscape of the Lake District could function as inspiration and education, in contrast to the fat, complacent but biologically diverse lowlands.

Compared to Wordsworth, John Clare — has a much better claim to be the true poet of nature. Schiller argues that the ancients were so little alienated from nature that they treated it as an extension of the human world, full of analogous conflicts, loves and jealousies. He was, in fact, skilled in the artifice of innocence, besides having a knowledge, based on agricultural labour and study of natural history, of his natural surroundings quite unparalleled in English poetry.

We might note also the unobtrusive presence of the gypsy, not glamorised or demonised as in so much Romantic writing, merely present in this filthy, freezing, unRomantic landscape. Like them, he insisted that man does not own the earth and is not entitled to do whatever he likes with it.

Instead he must treat it as a responsible steward, for his own sake and that of the other species rabbits, elms, cattle which also have a right to exist. Or can we conceive the possibility that a brook might really speak, a piece of land might really feel pain? Somewhat at odds with the usual ecocritical emphasis on the ways in which language refers to the world, Harrison is saying that we dwell not on Earth but in language. Williams sees him as an environmentalist with some leftist inclinations, Bate as a deep ecologist speaking for unenclosed nature, and yet neither provides direct evidence that the enclosure of common land, which Clare protested, had damaging ecological effects.

Indeed, enclosure may even have been beneficial by preventing a burgeoning population from overexploiting the commons. And yet this seems to occur at precisely the point where pastoral has gone beyond the jarring encounter with rural labour to a collision with a non-human nature no longer easeful, plentiful, pretty, instructive or enduring.

As Jonathan Bate re-opened the question of pastoral as posed, preeminently, by Raymond Williams, so Lawrence Buell interrogated the place of nature in an American canon shaped in part by the protoecocritical work of Leo Marx. However, British ecocritics have had to meet the Marxist challenge, whereas American readings of pastoral have pastoral responded to critique primarily by feminist and multicultural critics. Great differences of history and topography ensure differing meanings of pastoral on either side of the Atlantic.

Moreover, the more domesticated forms of pastoral seem in American literature and culture to emphasise agrarianism, a political ideology associated with Thomas Jefferson that promoted a land-owning farming citizenry as a means of ensuring a healthy democracy. As Chapter 6 suggests, American writing about the countryside emphasises a working rather than an aesthetic relationship with the land.

Nevertheless such distinctions have only recently emerged. However, as Marx points out, the quote above naturalises the sound of the train, comparing it to the call of a hawk, and throughout his meditation Thoreau betrays a profound ambivalence towards technology: The image of the railway on the shore of the pond figures an ambiguity at the heart of Walden. Man-made power, the machine with its fire, smoke and thunder, is juxtaposed to the waters of Walden, remarkable for depth and purity and a matchless, indescribable color — now light blue, now green, almost always pellucid.

The iron horse moves across the surface of the earth; the pond invites the eye below the surface. Marx explains this apparent contradiction by arguing that its resolution is not to be sought in the reconciliation of nature and culture through social or political change, but in literature, specifically in the pages of Walden itself.

In effect, Thoreau returns pastoral hope to its classical origins, as a witty and learned literary game. Later ecocritics would find fault both with this reading of Thoreau and the confident simplicity of the analytical dichotomy applied to it. And when America finally produced a pastoral literature of her own, that literature hailed the essential femininity of the terrain in a way European pastoral never had. As a nurturing maternal presence, the land could be the object of puerile but essentially harmless regressive fantasies. However, as a desirable Other of a self-consciously virile frontier society, the land might well become a lover to be subdued by aggression.

Moreover, the seeming literalisation of the stale Old World pastoral convention was a promise perennially situated just the other side of a frontier that was always receding westwards. Without fundamental change, androcentric conceptions of pastoral are doomed to shuttle endlessly between the regressive and aggressive poles of an essentially adolescent masculine symbolic order.

In particular, nature writing, which enjoys considerable popularity in the USA, has tended to be downgraded by academic prejudices favouring fiction over non-fiction, and human dramas over narratives of interaction of humanity and nature. Nevertheless, he suggests the following four criteria: 1. The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.

The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.

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Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text. The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were in hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun.

Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring. For African Americans, the meanings of pastoral are different again, reflecting the historical experience of plantation slavery and, later, rural lynchings. Slavery changed the nature of nature in African American culture, necessitating a break with the pastoral tradition developed within European American literature. The ambivalence of pastoral will not be eliminated but rather enhanced by ecocritical readings. They have fabricated a landscape which has transformed both natural environments and productive spaces into areas which conform to the idealisation of countryside as a place of leisure, refuge and alternative living.

For the most part it is an amenity landscape, designed to provide pleasure rather than economic sustenance. It is also a predominantly private landscape controlled by the power and exclusivity of property ownership.


At the root of pastoral is the idea of nature as a stable, enduring counterpoint to the disruptive energy and change of human societies. The Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries accepted the pastoral conception of nature, but refracted it through a new view of the Universe as a great mechanism designed by God. He argued that succession tended to lead from an immature state, with large numbers of a few pioneer species, towards a complex, highly organised state of balance and stability with more diverse species.

The long transition from abandoned cropland through shrubby birch woods to a mature, climax deciduous woodland would be typical. Clementsian theory was rejected by ecologists in the s, but its rhetoric continues to shape environmental discourse.

Ecocriticism (The New Critical Idiom) Ecocriticism (The New Critical Idiom)
Ecocriticism (The New Critical Idiom) Ecocriticism (The New Critical Idiom)
Ecocriticism (The New Critical Idiom) Ecocriticism (The New Critical Idiom)
Ecocriticism (The New Critical Idiom) Ecocriticism (The New Critical Idiom)
Ecocriticism (The New Critical Idiom) Ecocriticism (The New Critical Idiom)
Ecocriticism (The New Critical Idiom) Ecocriticism (The New Critical Idiom)
Ecocriticism (The New Critical Idiom) Ecocriticism (The New Critical Idiom)
Ecocriticism (The New Critical Idiom) Ecocriticism (The New Critical Idiom)
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