Does Romantic poetry, paying particular attention to Wordsworth and Clare and selected poems, help or hinder eco-criticism in the 21st century?


The literature movement known as the Romantic period in eighteenth century Europe has always been closely linked to environmentalism even before the term and study of nature officially existed. As a reaction to the industrial revolution, the aristocratic dominance of the age of enlightenment and the scientific rationalisation of nature, Romanticism focused on emotion, individualism and nature with its tradition having always been considered to offer ‘a rich and varied set of responses to the natural world.’ (Mckusick, 2000:11) This is perhaps the reason that in eco-criticism today, the Romantic period has ‘proven to be a fertile and varied ground for eco-critical revisionism.’ (Buell, 2005:3) Romanticism raised awareness for the natural cause which encouraged people to appreciate and admire it. However, it is of concern to many environmentalists how useful Romanticism is in eco-critical revisionism due to a belief that Romantic writings were self-important instead of a real concern for the natural cause. William Wordsworth and John Clare were two Romantic poets that both addressed nature as the salient issue in their poetry as can be seen in the poems being analysed in this essay:’ To a Butterfly’ and ‘A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ by Wordsworth and ‘The Fallen Elm’ and ‘The Badger’  by Clare. The purpose of this essay is to discuss the idea that Wordsworth’s poems hinder eco-criticism whereas Clare helps. Important areas to debate are as follows: why Wordsworth and Clare have been chosen in particular and their contrasting approaches to Romantic poetry. Leading on from this, the focus will fall upon Schiller’s theory of sentiment and naivety and how being labelled as one or the other has impacted eco-criticism. The analysis will continue onto the influence of the sublime and the beautiful, theories developed by Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant.

Wordsworth and Clare had differing backgrounds which in turn, led to differing poetic styles and therefore, different portrayals of nature. Wordsworth, regarded as the more ‘famous’ poet of the two, came from a relatively wealthy background as the son of a legal representative and was educated at Cambridge. He had a particular penchant for nature and spent his time observing ‘beautiful’ landscapes such as his beloved home; the Lake District. He is considered to be one of the founders of human ecology after the publishing of Lyrical Ballads and The Prelude in 1798 in which the Romantic Movement is deemed to have officially started.  Wordsworth can be praised from an ecological stand point for his ability to achieve a ‘sense of participation that enables the reader to become vicariously invested in the world of the poem.’ (Mckusick, 2000:56). This encouraged people to become aware of the non-human world and to re-establish their connection with nature. Wordsworth had a genuine love for the natural world with mentions of ‘lofty cliffs’ (Worsdworth, 1798) and ‘mountain springs’ (Wordsworth, 1798) and an infinite amount of superlatives to laud upon nature. He ‘consistently opposed the “development” and “improvement” of rural landscapes’ (Mckusick, 2000:65) showing that he was passionate about nature. However, the ‘nature that Wordsworth valorises is not the nature that contemporary environmentalists seek to protect.’ (Gerrard, 2012: 48) Wordsworth’s chosen landscapes were often the most glamorous, ‘picturesque’ spots of nature which concentrated on the sublime rather than the less glamorous fens, bogs and marshes which suffered real endangerment but which were ignored because of the popularising of aesthetic nature. Wordsworth’s sublime, as well as being glamorised, became about the passions and thrills caused by such scenery and so became a self-exploration leading many environmentalists to think Wordsworth does more to hinder than help.

In comparison, Clare, the son of a farmer, was an agricultural worker in the town of Helpston who ‘witnessed the changes in land wrought by parliamentary enclosure’ (Bate, 2011:2643). Known as the ‘green man in London’ (Bate, 2003:239) after his publisher was based there, Clare’s poetry concerned itself with the welfare of nature, the cruelness of mankind and how the non-human and human world can build a relationship based on equality instead of subjectivity and objectivity. The main motive behind most of Clare’s writings was the Act of Parliament for the enclosure of Helpston which was passed in 1809 and came to fruition in 1820. Clare felt a lot of anger towards the powers in charge, the propaganda and lies the local people of Helpston were fed and the endangerment of the land and animals as a result of this. His experiences of enclosure and the pain caused by seeing the natural world around him being compromised and endangered meant that he ‘shared many of the insights of the modern green movement’ (Gerrard, 2012: 51) as the protests that environmentalists have today were shared by Clare in the nineteenth century. From his choice to become a writer of protest came an ethos ‘that man does not own the earth and is not entitled to do whatever he likes with it’(Gerrard, 2012:51) and the non-human world is in fact equal to humanity and should be treated so. Clare through the use of harsh reality, non-emotive language and a real anger and resentment towards the enclosures of Helpston seemed to have a much more real cause for the protection of nature suggesting that he helps modern day eco criticism.

Friedrich Schiller’s 1795 paper ‘On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry’ proposed a theory which categorised poets into one of two poetic relationships with the world. The naïve writer delivers a direct and real representation of nature ‘confining themselves to copying reality’ (Schiller, 1795). The sentimental on the other hand, is self-reflective and often ‘forsakes reality in order to rise to the world of ideas and command his material and transcend nature’ (Schiller, 1795). Schiller associated ‘the naïve with the realist and the sentimental with the idealist’ (Sychrava, 1989:2). Sentimentalism allowed writers to link human’s spirituality to the non-human ‘combining two necessary goods: moral reason and individual emotion’ (Bell, 2012:16). It is almost a way of convincing mankind of the ‘natural goodness of human affections’ (Bell, 2012:11) in terms of their actions and treatment of each other and the non-human. The sentimental writer is one that uses nature to improve humanity instead of seeking to protect it making the relationship between human and non-human one of gain and selfishness distancing them from eco-criticism today. The naïve writer, as oppose to this, promotes a sense of innocence. There is no self-reflection or deeper philosophical thoughts on how mankind can improve their moral being. There is no gain from nature. Instead the naïve writer is purely descriptive; there is no agenda but instead a real commentary on the non-human world indicating a passion to establish a relationship with and protect nature. Norman Kasper thought that ‘the innocent character of the naïve is thus not merely understood as an aesthetic but as an intellectual value’ (Kasper, 2012:115) because with their choice to avoid self-reflection they deliver a much more powerful message regarding the importance of the natural world.

The sentimental poet requires a thought process that extends on their observational skills. Wordsworth did exactly this. He turned the observation of nature into a self-reflection of how nature could be used to improve the human mind. Famous philosopher Descartes declared that ‘I think, therefore I am’ (Bate, 2011:2375). Wordsworth applies this to his work and ‘with this move, the mind and its processes become the starting point of philosophy; the rest of nature becomes separate and secondary’ (Bate, 2011:2375). Through engaging in self-reflection and consciously thinking about the effect of the natural world on the human mind Wordsworth actually distances himself from nature as it becomes an afterthought to his revelations. In ‘a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’ Wordsworth uses the landscape around him for ‘tranquil restoration’ (Wordsworth, 1798) pointing towards the poem becoming about the sustainability of the human mind rather than the sustainability of nature. Wordsworth uses the landscape to heal from the ‘weariness’ (Wordsworth, 1798) caused by the industrial revolution and urbanisation of towns and cities. In this respect he is condemning the industrial revolution but because of the effects it has had on his health rather than the health of nature. The landscape has provided nostalgia for Wordsworth as he looks out at it and he hopes the new memories he’s making at that moment will help him in future times as he declares

‘Thy memory be a dwelling place

For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! Then,

If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,

Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts

Of tender joy wilt thou remember me’. (Wordsworth, 1798)

He goes beyond detailing nature and explores the ‘Inter-relatedness of perception and creation and mediation on the networks which link mental and environmental space.’ (Bate, 2011:2572) Wordsworth wants to use the memory of nature to provide joy if fear or pain invades his thoughts. He is using nature for the sensations it provides; the sweet sounds and harmonies adding to his own spiritual gain. This distances the human and the non-human. His thoughts drift to nature being his medicine when he is older but the sporadic visits and lack of concern for how the scene he is looking at in that moment will look in the future confirms where his interests lie. The relationship balance is compromised and human’s become more important that the natural world and as a result, this hinders twenty first century eco-criticism.

Memory is a consistent theme in Wordsworth’s poetry where his nostalgic reminiscing of nature becomes a source of happiness. In ‘To be a Butterfly’ Wordsworth uses the captivating innocence of the insect to remind him of earlier days, ‘childish plays’ (Wordsworth, 1801) and his sister Emmeline and how they ‘chased the butterfly’ (Wordsworth, 1801) together playfully. However, in the chasing of the butterfly, Wordsworth becomes the ‘hunter’ (Wordsworth, 1801) disturbing the butterflies habitat and indicating a human dominance over nature. This is hardly the environmentalist of the twenty first century and in general shows a lack of understanding for the non-human world. There is a similar theme of reminiscing in ‘A Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’. Wordsworth considered himself to be a naïve observer that experienced the natural world around him through innocent eyes when he was younger. He went ‘wherever nature lead’ (Wordsworth, 1798) him whether that was ‘o’er mountains’ or ‘by the sides of the deep rivers’ (Wordsworth, 1798) it did not matter, he was simply experiencing and living in nature. He recounts here how his relationship with nature was pure and was experienced without self-reflection or the consideration as to what everything around him meant or what feelings it provoked. Shortly after his memories of nature as a child he seems to take issue with his past relationship with nature as the following lines indicate

‘For nature then

(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days

And their glad animal movements all gone by)

To me was all in all.-I cannot paint

What then I was.’ (Wordsworth, 1798)

Wordsworth here is discussing how when he experienced nature as a child he did not understand its true value. He did not realise that so much could be gained from the non-human world and almost criticises the naïve way of thinking and writing. However, what Wordsworth does not realise is that although he might not have understood nature and what he could gain from it, his relationship was much more equal and sincere. A natural bonding took place when he was a child that saw him be just an observer of nature and nothing more. The line ‘I cannot paint What I was then’ links to the idea of the sublime and aesthetics and how he looks at nature through the eyes of an artist rather than the eyes of an environmentalist. If he still had that bond his poetry might have aligned more with twenty first century eco-criticism.

At the other end of the sentimental-naïve spectrum is thought to be John Clare. He is thought of as the ‘transcriber of nature’ (Sychrava, 1989: 81) viewing nature with ‘an innocent eye’ (Sychrava, 1989: 81). He writes what he sees and does not divert the attention from what he sees to himself.  ‘The Fallen Elm’ describes nature and observes how the tree interacts with the children and with the birds.

‘The children sought thee in thy summer shade

And made their playhouse rings of stick and stone;

The mavis sang and himself felt alone

While in thy leaves his early nest was made,

And I feel his happiness mine own’ (Clare, 1821)

The tree is at the focus of this poem and is personified and treated like an old family friend. It is at the epicentre of the community. There is no afterthought by Clare or any reminiscing about lost days. Human and non-human exist holistically in equality. There is no philosophical gain. Instead the children, the song thrush and the tree all exist as equals and aid each other. The children are protected by the older tree like a parent as they play and the song thrush’s home is within the tree itself where his nest lays. The message here is that if the tree is cut down then it is not just the tree that suffers but all of nature as each part of the natural world, human and not human, are reliant upon one another. Clare’s descriptions create such a vivid and clear image of unity. There is a feeling of peace and appreciation but without the labelling of aesthetics and there is no human speaker that dominates the natural scene. The start of ‘The Fallen Elm’ is not without Romantic content though as the following lines prove

‘Old elm that murmured in our chimney top

The sweetest anthem autumn ever made

And into mellow whispering calms would drop’. (Clare, 1821)

If ever doubted, Clare was certainly a Romantic poet. The reader instantly feels as if they can see the same image Clare is describing. Jonathan Bate agrees with this view of Clare’s descriptive ability as he states that ‘even if you have never found a bird’s nest and wondered at it, you may by means of Clare’s poem begin to feel a sense of why bird’s nests matter’ (Bate, 2011: 2773) suggesting that Clare’s ability to relate so closely to nature distances him from Wordsworth as being a true eco-poet. Wordsworth tried to portray nature to create a similar feeling but it always feels as if he is writing from looking at a painting rather than being actually stood as a part of the scenery like Clare. This is because Clare avoids self-reflection, he avoids the sublime and he is a truly excellent observer of nature.

Clare’s label as ‘naïve’ however, may not be the case. Clare, in reflection, was not naive ‘because he was aware of the difference between the world and the text’ (Bate, 2011: 2885). He used his poetry to stand up for nature; it was not simply a description by an innocent child.  ‘The Fallen Elm’ is a poem about false freedom and oppression. The people of his hometown were promised freedom and were betrayed. The tree was sacrificed and taken down after years of being pivotal in the happiness of the community of human and non-human and endurance. Clare denounces those that had involvement in the enclosures and the chopping down of the tree.

Thou’st heard the knave, abusing those in power

Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free,

Thou’st sheltered hypocrites in many a shower’(Clare, 1821)

Clare criticises the propaganda used to justify the actions of cutting down the tree with claims that people would have the opportunity to buy their own land. He is calling out the hypocrites for promising freedom and then oppressing the free. The tree sheltered many of the hypocrites that are having it chopped down and this is a clear example of humanity exploiting nature. The rabbit ‘had not where to make his den’ (Clare, 1821) and ‘labour’s only cow was drove away’ (Clare, 1821). Both these lines express the harm of enclosure and the damaging of relations between human and non-human. The rabbit and cow are both being forced to relocate disrupting their habitat and destroying the bond between the human and non-human. Clare ‘viewed the ‘rights of man’ and the ‘rights of nature’ as co-extensive and co-dependent’ (Bate, 2011: 2841) and believed in the equality of human and non-human. Clare was ‘castigated for his failure to be explicitly ‘sentimental’, to draw moral or philosophical conclusions from nature’ (Sychrava, 1989: 81). His refusal to engage in sentimentalism however elevates the impact of his poetry as being something that stands up for the natural world. He did not need to be sentimental or the sublime to be effective.

The sentimental and the naive were ever present in Romantic works and another common theme that often appeared was that of the beautiful and the sublime. The beautiful originates back to Ancient Egypt where beauty was worshipped. Edmund Burke in 1757 discussed the concept of the beautiful and compared it to the sublime, a concept that came to prominence in the Romantic period. According to Burke the sublime is ‘whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible’ (Burke, 1757) which then excites pleasure and passion in the observer. Something that is considered beautiful according to Burke is usually small, smooth, polished, light and delicate and in comparison the sublime is considered to be vast, rugged, negligent, dark, gloomy and with associations of pain. Immanuel Kant also investigated the idea of the beautiful and thought that ‘for the beautiful in nature we must seek a basis outside ourselves, but for the sublime a basis merely within ourselves.’ (Kant, 1790:100). This can be linked to the sentimental and the naïve. The sentimental being Wordsworth in this instance does use the sublime in his poetry to explore the inner self whereas Clare, although it has been debated whether he was in fact naïve, tends to avoid the sublime and concentrate on the cause of nature. Both the sublime and the beautiful were commonly used in Romantic poetry but the question is whether these features help or hinder Wordsworth’s and Clare’s poetry when using them in modern day eco-criticism.

On one hand, the beautiful and the sublime gave nature something to be recognised by. The inclusion of them in Romantic poetry encouraged people to observe, rediscover and appreciate the non-human. Popularised by writers such as William Gilpin, they provided a platform for a relationship to be established between the human and the non-human. However, both the beautiful and the sublime have implications in eco-criticism. Nature being judged by its aesthetic quality can hinder its cause of protection due to the fact that only landscapes that are aesthetically pleasing and picturesque become worthy enough to be preserved. What originally began with a genuine love towards nature turned picturesque observers into ‘avid consumers of the natural world by turning natural settings – mountain ranges, lakes, rivers, woodlands, and pastoral vales – into aesthetic commodities or art objects.’ (Hutchings, 2007) Nature is taken to Hollywood by Wordsworth as it is glamorised and handpicked. This did not help the ecologically pressured areas and instead encouraged the subject object divide between human and non-human by labelling the sights he saw with the sublime and the beautiful and reaffirming the sense that humans were greater than anything non-human. Nature became something for humans to make art out of. Wordsworth does relatively little harm to the environmentalist cause with his use of just the beautiful. In a ‘Few miles above Tintern Abbey’ Wordsworth writes about ‘the landscape with the quiet of the sky’ (Wordsworth, 1798) which creates an image of serenity and peacefulness. It creates the feeling of nature and man becoming one and recognising their equality. The use of the sublime ruins this. The Romantics ‘tended to devalue or ignore non-spectacular landscapes like boreal forests and wetlands, the protection of which, as we now know, is vitally important to the Earth’s ecological health’ (Hutchings, 2007) which is very apparent in Wordsworth who glamorises the landscapes he observes by referencing the ‘steep and lofty cliffs’, ‘the tall rock’ and ‘the deep and gloomy wood’ (Wordsworth, 1798). He only pays attention to the landscapes that could be turned into an aesthetically pleasing piece of art. This prompts readers to think that the only parts of nature worth sustaining are that of grandness and aesthetic beauty. Another problem with the sublime is that, like the sentimental, it encourages the action of self-scrutiny and moral epiphanies. The sublime becomes about an inverted passion. In ‘A few miles above Tintern Abbey’ Wordsworth exclaims

‘I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused’ (Wordsworth, 1798).

Wordsworth ‘projects himself on to nature, gaining a sense of nearness to nature by virtue of its location.’ (Bate, 2011: 2119) The surrounding of nature causes Wordsworth to explore his own feelings and thoughts and so the sublime becomes about the observer finding a thrill rather than protection of the natural world. He is still taking from nature and is still treating it as if humans are superior. The reference to ‘a presence’ could be a metaphor for God and so Wordsworth is again thinking past what he sees and linking religion and nature and man and perhaps suggesting that God will look after nature if he has already provided such beauty he surely has to maintain it. The mention of ‘elevated thoughts’ is acclaiming humanity with having a higher intellectual standing and thus suggesting humans are more important as is the case throughout all of ‘A Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’ and ‘The Butterfly’. Wordsworth consistently places humanity at the top of the pedestal.

Clare generally avoided the use of the sublime and the beautiful. Clare’s earlier works did in fact explore the beautiful in nature. Poems such as ‘Winter Evening’, ‘Haymaking’ and ‘Wood Pictures in Summer’ celebrate the beauty of the world and the certainties of rural life, where animals must be fed and crops harvested. The Helpston enclosures changed his poetic outlook and style. In both his poetry and prose ‘he marked the tracks, the wayside benches, the names, the landmarks, the coppices and spinneys, the ponds and streams, of the lost fields and meadows of his youth.’ (Bate, 2011: 2643) as a result of the enclosures. This saw him write poems such as ‘The Fallen Elm’ which was an outcry against the political powers that forced the enclosure and ‘The Badger’. ‘The Badger’ is a poem that details a badger hunt which progresses from a description of a badger in its natural habitat, to the depiction of its treatment at the hands of cruel men, to finally the capturing, torture and death of the badger. The poem does not have any emotive language as can be seen in line nine where the humans ‘get a forked stick to bear [the badger] down’(Clare, N/A). Clare is critiquing the human presumption that they are greater than the non-human and the notion that they can treat nature however they wish. The badger is then viewed by humanity as the one in the wrong. As he fights back ‘a frightened woman’ (Clare, N/A) takes her boys away and suddenly the badger becomes this horrifying circus act gone wrong instead of what it actually is; a tortured and provoked victim. The badger is ‘kicked, torn and beaten out’ (Clare, N/A) where he is left to die. The poem highlights the brutality of humans towards the non-human and the harsh reality of the Romantic natural world. ‘The Badger’ is an example of Clare’s progression from an observer of nature to someone that genuinely cared for the natural cause and fought against the destruction of the natural world.

Despite Wordsworth’s seemingly good intentions to resist technological advancements in the industrial world his poetry became more of a retreat to escape urbanisation rather than an appraisal of nature. He in doing this distanced himself from nature. His greed for spiritual fulfilment and pleasure seeking exploited the natural world and treated it as if it is there for his gain. He was able to admire the aesthetics that nature provides but was not able to treat it as an equal. Clare’s main cause was for the protection of nature. He was not interested in self- improvement through the use of nature, nor was he interested in exploiting it. His modern thinking dictated that humans should appreciate nature for what it is. They should not seek to improve it, they should not disturb it and they should not judge it. He thought that humans should build a relationship with the non-human world; they should care for nature as nature has cared for them with the underlying ethos being equality. Because of this Clare’s Romantic poetry helps environmentalism today, Wordsworth’s does not. Can humans and nature ever be equal though? Can there ever be a bond created where there is no layers intervening. For that to happen would language have to not exist or be developed by the non-human world? There are some thoughts that ‘nature is the name under which we use the non-human to validate the human, to interpose a mediation to make humanity easier with itself.’ (Barry, 2009: p254) This suggests that the word nature becomes about the human-self meaning that ‘nature is nothing more than an anthropomorphic construct created by Wordsworth and the rest for their own purposes’ (Barry, 2009:253). Is Clare’s protection of nature actually about him protecting something to make himself feel morally satisfied; his ‘sublime’ if you will rather than a genuine concern for the natural world? This kind of thought could render this discussion as pointless but eco-criticism works towards making human and non-human more equal than it already is. Perhaps true equality amongst anything is impossible but there is certainly a need to protect and sustain the natural world and Clare’s motives seemed to be genuine enough to help this whereas Wordsworth’s ambition seemed to be to improve humanity rather than preserve nature.


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