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Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition by Jonathan Bate (1991)

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Book cover of Romantic Ecology. Image source: http://www.amazon.com/Romantic-Ecology-Wordsworth-Environmental-1991-06-18/dp/B019NEUJQS/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1462251715&sr=8-4&keywords=romantic+ecology+wordsworth

There are a large number of Wordsworth scholars and an even bigger number of published works concerned with both the poet and his catalog of works. Jonathan Bate manages to take a new look at Wordsworth in his book titled Romantic Ecology. The book was published in 1991 as a reaction against the trend of New Historicism in literary criticism. Bate states in the book that it is meant for the ‘common reader’ as well as scholars in the field. The large amount of disciplinary-specific language and citations of many literary critics of both the Romantic era and today would make it difficult to follow without having a working knowledge of Wordsworth. Bate attempts to situate Wordsworth in the modern tradition of ‘Green’ politics and an ecological perspective. He is arguing against the criticism of the sixties, seventies, and eighties in order to present Romantic Ecology as “a theory of ecosystems and unalienated labour” firmly rooted not in idealist and elitist texts, but in the pragmatic and populist texts of the time. (Bate 10). The main topics that Bate addresses in this text are the importance of nature to Wordsworth and the pastoral tradition, the notion of Ecology during the Romantic era, ecological ethics, and geography and place naming during the time period. Bate attempts to provide a “preliminary sketch towards a literary ecocriticism” (11).

Chapter 1: The Ruined College Edit

Chapter one focuses primarily on Wordsworth’s “The Ruined College.” Bate includes two famous critical reactions to the poem by De Quincey, who takes a more utilitarian approach and John Stuart Mill who takes a more Romantic approach interested in how the poem affects the reader.  Bate is more concerned with Mill’s type of reading and wants to move away from a reading of the Wordsworth that is concerned with what the poet ought to have done and instead is interested in how Wordsworth is reacting against the pastoral tradition.  In order to delve deeper into how exactly Wordsworth is attempting to affect his reader, Bate provides a history and short summary of pastoral. He speaks of the pastoral as the “great pastoral con trick” (18). The pastoral can present an illusionary and idealized past, and this is what many critics say that is what Wordsworth is doing. Bate argues that Wordsworth is using the pastoral to critique both the form and the ideal. Wordsworth and his poetry are not either liberal or conservative in terms of politics he is relying on a new, ecological model.

Wordsworth does not provide a picture of a truly “visionary republicanism”, he instead presents what Bate calls “a working paradise” (22). In The Prelude, Wordsworth compares the Bartholomew Fair (in the city) to the annual fair at Grasmere (in nature). He is critiquing industrialization and urbanization.  The pastoral is presented in a hardened, and different way than the traditional idealized pastoral; “he transposes the pastoral from the fictional Arcadian golden age to the severe life and landscape he knew” (23). This is paired with Wordsworth’s desire to use the Shepherd’s language, the language of plain and working people. Wordsworth is still presenting an idealized pastoral view and he does simplify what the traditional pastoral was doing, but his distinction lies in his change in landscape and language. This chapter provides great detail about the Pastoral and what Wordsworth is doing to react against tradition. More discussion of the type of language that Wordsworth is trying to use could be helpful in comparing types of Pastoral. Overall, Bate makes a strong argument for learning from Wordsworth as a way to re-think political lines and to complicate his association with liberal and then conservative ideals.

Chapter 2: The Economy of Nature Edit

Chapter two, “The Economy of Nature” provides a necessary definition of Ecology and how it was perceived during Wordsworth’s time. Bate takes the time to look at a variety of sources including Charles Darwin, Linnaeus, and Darwin Erasmus for context. Bate notes that “even freethinkers who denied the divine source shared the belief that nature has its economy and its economic laws” (37). Observing the natural world and trying to see what these laws and economics were was very important to the Romantics and the emerging scientists of the time. There is a great anxiety in Wordsworth’s and he is very concerned with the short and long-term effects of urbanization on the environment.

Bate also begins to explain A Guide to the Lakes, and how it is promoting a harmony with nature in the Lake District that Wordsworth called home.  Bate details the many editions of the Guide, and this, in addition to his descriptions of the political and economic situation involving ecology at this time in England, are valuable resources for anyone studying Romanticism. Bate is careful to provide a full picture of the ecological viewpoints in England. The anxiety in regards to air and water pollution, railways being built through the Lake District, and eventually the modern issue of mass tourism in the Lake District are described by Bate and are very important to the air of revolution and change during this era. Bate gives an interesting example when he tells of how Ruskin said that human’s progress could alter the configuration of weather across the globe people and he was said to be mad (Bate 61). Now, many years later this idea is becoming a reality. This context of ecology is vital for understanding attitudes during this time period, and Bate is very thorough in his explanations.

Chapter 3: The Moral of Landscape Edit

“The Moral of Landscape,” the third chapter in Bate’s book, opens with an overview of the reception that The Excursion received upon its original publication. This poem is one of the most philosophical poems that Wordsworth publishes, and it influences many other thinkers of the time. Bate spends a lot of time discussing Modern Painters and how Ruskin was drawing on Wordsworth’s The Excursion in order to elevate the status of Turner. Ruskin, Wordsworth, and Turner share a “vision [that] looks at the phenomena of nature and looks through them” (69). Ruskin refers to Wordsworth as “the archetypal modern in that he dreams and moralizes over nature,” in many ways, Wordsworth taught Ruskin to value nature and this was reflected in his work (77). Ruskin’s work promotes ecological consciousness, and Bate relies on this transition in literary criticism as a jumping-off point for modern literary criticism.  This chapter is helpful for understanding the effect that Wordsworth had on other writers and for understanding the moral implications of an ecological perspective. A more directly stated argument could have helped the reader follow along and recognize Ruskin’s relevance to Wordsworth sooner. The main point is strong, but the importance of Ruskin to Bate’s overall argument is overlooked until the end of the chapter.

Chapter 4: The Naming of Places Edit

The final chapter of Bate’s work is focused on “The Naming of Places.” Bate is interested in ecology and geography instead of the popular historical perspective. Wordsworth is “as much geographer as historian,” “[he] was a poet of Lakeland more than a poet of England” (Bate 85). Wordsworth is locally situated in the Lake Districts, and this influences his poetry and ecological perspective. Wordsworth’s prose piece,  titled ‘Essay upon Epitaphs’, is an in-depth discussion of immortality that relies on the practice of using letters to inscribe epitaphs on monuments and graves. Wordsworth is very concerned with the naming of people, places and locations in his poems.  Poems such as ‘Michael’ are located in a specific place, in this case “near the Lake of Esthwaite” and this enables the reader to feel the connection between the Shepherd and the land. Wordsworth names places and inscribes definitions onto the landscape. It “is an imagined inscription upon the place of a name that acts a mnemonic for the incident” (91). Wordsworth reflects on his naming poems and mentions that as he composes he “forgets its purpose, being softened by the images of beauty…and the delicious morning…I am caught in the trap of my own imagination” (98). Many times he is less concerned about reality and more concerned with his reaction and experience to a certain place or remembered event. This concern with naming enables Wordsworth to ‘own’ land that would otherwise be difficult to own because of the changing land-ownership laws in England. Bate’s main argument in this chapter is that as Lyrical Ballads progresses, there is a movement from sentimental to naïve that brings the reader back to nature. Wordsworth is a bridge between humans and nature. He allows those unable to actually hold land or influence the ecological situation in England to have a power or a hold on the natural world.

Bate situates Wordsworth in the Ecological environment of both the nineteenth century and today.  Romantic Ecology is a valuable contribution to literary scholarship and sparked an interest in literature and ecology in the discipline. The book is well researched and of great interest to individual studying Romanticism, Ecology, Ecological Criticism, the pastoral tradition, Wordsworth, or the changing landscape of literary criticism in the past two decades. 

Works Cited Edit

Bate, Jonathan. Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition. London: Routledge,1991. Print.

Contributed by Alicia Troby

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