Eco-poetry and The Environment

‘A poet is a poet because they’re not happy with something in life.’

“Поетът е поет, защото не е щастлив от нещо в живота си.” Е. Щерионова (Shterionova)

You will find this to be perhaps historically true. I cannot think of poets who jumpstarted their career with a joyous serenade of what pleasant wheather they were having. So, are you happy with the weather?

In a time of complicated emotions, uneasiness, we turn to poetry. We write to ourselves and to imagined others. Love poems often comfort us in knowing our feelings aren’t for naught, elegies commemorate lost ones, hymns celebrate victories…

Now, in 2019, I think all of us have been a little bit more preoccupied with nature than before. We have marches, public speeches and other manifestations to fight against climate change.

I realise that what I’m about to do seems inconsequential in comparison to what can be done to help the environment. But stick with me for a minute, put your fist down, stop scrolling articles, let me do my job. The last thing this post will do is waste your time. If the primary texts seem too long, you can get something out even by skipping them (but I wouldn’t encourage it).

People read poetry to cope with what they’re suffering, to overcome an ordeal or to unite for a cause. Rather than offer you an inspiring or inflammatory call to action, I’ll ask you to take explore: in canonical poetry, has Nature been a lover, a lost one or a victory?

‘Lines Written in Early Spring’ (William Wordsworth)

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

[…]

The birds around me hopp’d and play’d,
Their thoughts I cannot measure,
But the least motion which they made
It seem’d a thrill of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.

If this belief from Heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?


Notice how in his elated description Wordsworth confesses, perhaps unintentionally: “Their thoughts I cannot measure“; “And I must think, do all I can, / That there was pleasure there.” Romantic poets were thought to be one of the few that could truly access nature and its deeper complexities, but here is a subtle admission of incapacity.

It is interesting to see the poet read pleasure in all that he sees – but I am going to argue that he sees pleasure in nature for that is all he feels.

He feels pleasure, and he projects his experience of nature onto the environment. Wordsworth is, as Woolf put it quoting Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, one of the priviledged educated and well-off English men of the 19th c. He certainly would not have found poverty and starvation within Nature.

And notice what is missing – in the Industrial Age we have a poet saying naught, nothing! of what effects production has on the environment. It is not “Oh, what has man made of nature!” – nature is doing perfectly fine. It is man and how cruelly he has twisted his own appreciation of nature.

Anyway. That’s just an ecological reading.

‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ (John Keats)

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

[…]

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
         For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
         For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
                For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
                A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

[…]


Here Keats reflects on the surface of an urn, and I think he offers a view of nature which he did not necessarily share. The scene depicted is of a “flowery tale” told “more sweetly than [his] rhyme”. But it is so exquisite because we do not have full access to it – we cannot hear the image or know everything about it: “What men or gods are these?” etc. In this way, the “nature” of the urn is interesting precisely because we do not know everything about it.

This is the complete opposite of Wordsworth, who ascribed an explanation in order to understand and, in a way, “control” the natural scene. Keats embraces the lack of knowledge. His description also reveals another preconception people usually have of nature: “[H]appy boughs! that cannot shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;”

I do not wish to suggest that people do not expect the rotation of the seasons or the shedding of trees; but they DO anticipate those seasons and only those seasons to regularly occur, do they not? In other words, this is the belief that nature is eternal and unchanging. This thought would exclude the possibility of humans having any influence over it.

This barely scratches the surface. (Speaking of, Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing would be an amazing book for an ecological reading.) But just reading a text and asking “What’s the author/character’s relation to the (fictional) environment/nature?” already produces an eco-critical reading.

So what was the point? Literature helps us process our own relations with the world. Breaking down and analysing others’ conceptions helps build our own, and prevent us from falling into self-deluded spectacles of birds around us full of pleasure, but whose thoughts Wordsworth cannot measure.

The people who don’t care about the environment don’t care because they’re comfortable. Maybe there’s a way to start queering that comfort; and maybe there’s an answer in Literature?


Them complaining about us
Making stupid excuses to go make bad decisions
When we’re just trying to save us,
Including them

-anonymous

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