The Song of the Earth

I’ve been reading The Song of the Earth by Jonathan Bate, first published in 2000 when he was King Alfred Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool. It’s a book that has been described as ‘the first ecological reading of English Literature’. As Bate explains in the preface:

This is a book about why poetry continues to matter as we enter a new millennium that will be ruled by technology. It is a book about modern Western man’s alienation from nature. It is about the capacity of the writer to restore us to the earth which is our home.

In a book that’s about both writing and philosophy, the English Romantic tradition is the essential thread, with readings to Wordsworth, Keats,  John Clare, Edward Thomas, and Ted Hughes, set alongside philosophical ideas from Rousseau and Martin Heidegger,to develop the idea of ‘ecopoetics’. Bate also draws in the work of 20th century poets  from other places, such as Gary Snyder, Elizabeth Bishop, and Les Murray, calling the latter ‘the major ecological poet currently writing in the English language’. Poetry, Bate concludes, can be ‘the place where we save the earth’.

In Chapter One, ‘Going, Going, Gone’, Bate discusses the divide between nature and culture that opens up with the Enlightenment, illustrating his argument with reference to the novels of  Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. These ideas are developed further in the second chapter, ‘State of Nature’, where Bate sets out how, from Oliver Goldsmith to Cobbett to Austen and Hardy and up to Philip Larkin, the rural idyll, the state of  nature, is always just behind us. But this myth of rural nostalgia is important :

Myths are necessary imaginings, exemplary stories which help our species make sense of its place in the world. Myths endure so long as they perform helpful work. The myth of the natural life which exposes the ills of our own condition is as old as Eden and Arcadia, as new as Larkin’s ‘Going, Going’ and the latest Hollywood adaptation of Austen or Hardy. Its endurance is a sign of its importance. Perhaps we need to remember what is “going, going” as a survival mechanism, as a check upon our instinct for self-advancement.

I thought it would last my time –
The sense that, beyond the town,
There would always be fields and farms,
Where the village louts could climb
Such trees as were not cut down;
I knew there’d be false alarms

In the papers about old streets
And split level shopping, but some
Have always been left so far;
And when the old part retreats
As the bleak high-risers come
We can always escape in the car.

Things are tougher than we are, just
As earth will always respond
However we mess it about;
Chuck filth in the sea, if you must:
The tides will be clean beyond.
– But what do I feel now? Doubt?

Or age, simply? The crowd
Is young in the M1 cafe;
Their kids are screaming for more –
More houses, more parking allowed,
More caravan sites, more pay.
On the Business Page, a score

Of spectacled grins approve
Some takeover bid that entails
Five per cent profit (and ten
Per cent more in the estuaries): move
Your works to the unspoilt dales
(Grey area grants)! And when

You try to get near the sea
In summer . . .
It seems, just now,
To be happening so very fast;
Despite all the land left free
For the first time I feel somehow
That it isn’t going to last,

That before I snuff it, the whole
Boiling will be bricked in
Except for the tourist parts –
First slum of Europe: a role
It won’t be hard to win,
With a cast of crooks and tarts.

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.

Most things are never meant.
This won’t be, most likely; but greeds
And garbage are too thick-strewn
To be swept up now, or invent
Excuses that make them all needs.
I just think it will happen, soon.

– Going, Going by Philip Larkin (1972)

Bate’s principal argument is that writers in the Romantic tradition, beginnning in the late eighteenth century, have been especially concerned with the progressive severance of humanity from nature that has licensed the ravaging of the earth’s finite resources. Romanticism, Bate asserts,  declares allegiance to what Wordsworth called ‘the beautiful and permanent forms of nature’. It proposes that when we commune with those forms we live with a peculiar intensity, and conversely that our lives are diminished when technology and industrialization alienate us from those forms. Bate regards poetic language as ‘a special kind of expression which may effect an imaginative reunification of mind and nature, though it also has a melancholy awareness of the illusoriness of its own utopian vision’. He labels  this broad  reinterpretation of  Romanticism as an ‘ecopoetic’, from the Greek poiesis (‘making’) of the oikos (‘home’ or ‘dwelling-place’). He says:

The freedom of birds – Keats’s nightingale, Shelley’s skylark – is a necessary imagining. I stand in the field behind my house, watching and listening as the skylark rises. My heart leaps up. But my mind has fallen into knowledge: a biologist will be able to explain to me why the lark rises. Freedom has nothing to do with it. The freedom ofthe lark is only in my imagination, just as the state of nature – Arcadia, Ariel’s island – is but a necessary dream. Maybe the true poets are those who hold fast to the dream even as they rccognize it as a dream. We have [been] thinking back to the island of the Shakespearean imagination which forces the European mind to re-examine itself. To end …let us hear a voice from a real island where Western man has again and again been forced to confront the strangeness, the beauty and the violence of a nature that is Other. The voice is that of Les Murray, Australia’s truest poet, meditating on a bird’s flight, then coming down to earth with knowledge of the food chain:

Upward, cheeping, on huddling wings,
these small brown mynas have gained
a keener height than their kind ever sustained
but whichever of them fails first
falls to the hawk circling under
who drove them up.
Nothing’s free when it is explained.

Not free when explained. But that does not stop us gaining the keen height each time we read the poem.

Bate compares Gary Snyder’s ‘Mother Earth: Her Whales’ with Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Moose‘, which, he argues, exemplifies the ecopoetic:

Worthy as [Snyder’s] sentiments may be, they do not in any sense grow from the poetry. The poem has been written as an expression of a set of opinions, not as an attempt to transform into language an experience of dwelling upon the earth. In this respect, it is not what I call an ‘ecopoem’; it is not a thinking of the question of the making of the oikos [ie, earthly dwelling place]’. By contrast, Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Moose’ celebrates the non-human without making a paraphrasable pronouncement.

Bate quotes Mariane Moore on Bishop: ‘At last we have someone who knows, who is not didactic. Bate argues that ‘The Moose’ is ‘a poem which knows why we need wild animals’. He goes on:

Bishop knows that we can only know nature by way of culture. The wood [described there] is “impenetrable”. The moose is encountered on the road, a road being a piece of land that has been transformed by the demands of culture, from city to city. The moose comes to the bus, rather than vice-versa. This is a poem not about getting back to nature, but about how nature comes back to us. It is a poem of wonder in the face of the sheer physicality of the moose: its smell, its size.

As a demonstration of what this approach to poetry might involve Bate analyses the poetry of John Clare: ‘the record of his search for a home in the world’ and, in Bates view,a form of early ecological protest. Here, Bate reflects on Clare’s ‘The Pettichap’s Nest’:

A human being can do everything except build a bird’s nest. [Bate is quoting an old French proverb.] What we can do is build an analogue of a bird’s nest in a poem. We can make a verbal nest by gathering and cherishing odd scraps of language, the words which stand in for the bits and pieces of hay, rotten leaf and feather that are the pettichap’s material. We spend our time as well in gathering words as in working over things. Even if you have never found a bird’s nest and wondered at it, you may by means of Clare’s poem begin to find a sense of why bird’s nests matter… For Clare, to be drawn to a nest, to stoop towards it but still to let it live, is to be gathered into the fabric of the earth and in being so gathered to secure the identity of the self.

Well! In my many walks I’ve rarely found
A place less likely for a bird to form
Its nest – close by the rut-gulled wagon-trod road,
And on the almost barefoot trodden ground,
With scarce a clump of grass to keep it warm!
Where not a thistle spreads its spears abroad
Or prickly bush, to shield it from harm’s way;

And yet so snugly made, that none may spy
It out, save peradventure. You and I
Had surely passed it in our walk today,
Had chance not led us by it! – Nay, e’en now,
Had not the old bird heard us trampling by
And fluttered out, we had not seen it lie,
Brown as the roadway side.
Small bits of hay
Plucked from the old propt haystack’s pleachy brow,
And withered leaves, make up its outward wall,
Which from the gnarled oak –dotterel yearly fall,
And in the old hedge-bottom rot away.

Built like an oven, through a little hole,
Scarecely admitting e’en two fingers in,
Hard to decern, the birds snug entrance win.
’tis lined with feathers warm as silken stole,
Softer than seat of down for painless ease,
And full of eggs scarce bigger even than peas!
Here’s one most delicate, with spots as small
As dust and of a faint and pinky red.

We’ll let them be, and safely guard them well;
For fear’s rude paths around are thickly spread,
And they are left to many dangerous ways.
A green grasshopper’s jump might break the shells,
Yet lowing oxen pass them morn and night,
And restless sheep around them hourly stray;
And no grass springs but hungry horses bite,
That trample past them twenty times a day.
Yet, like a miracle, in safety’s lap
They still abide unhurt, and out of sight.

Stop! here’s the bird – that woodman at the gap
Frightened him from the hedge: ’tis olive-green.
Well! I declare it is the pettichap!
Not bigger than the wren, and seldom seen.
I’ve often found her nest in chance’s way,
When I in pathless woods did idly roam;
But never did I dream until today
A spot like this would be her chosen home.

The Pettichap’s Nest by John Clare

There’s a poem by Les Murray (not quoted in the book) that I think contains the essence of its argument:

Everything except language
knows the meaning of existence.
Trees, planets, rivers, time
know nothing else. They express it
moment by moment as the universe.

Even this fool of a body
lives it in part, and would
have full dignity within it
but for the ignorant freedom
of my talking mind.

– The Meaning of Existence, Les Murray


4 thoughts on “The Song of the Earth

  1. You might be interested that Bate wrote the earlier *Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition* (London: Routledge, 1991) and that he credits Karl Kroeber with the earliest ecological reading of Wordsworth: “‘Home at Grasmere: Ecological Holiness” PMLA89 (1974): 132-41. Kroeber is also the author of the more recent *Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and the Biology of Mind*. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994 and was (he passed away in 2009) the brother of Ursula LeGuin, masterful sci-fi writer. Just some follow-ups to a very interesting post. Ashton Nichols

  2. “Everything except language knows the meaning of existence…..”

    doesn’t that just say it all, our words are often futile, unworthy, though some can make the ‘word become flesh’ at its most supreme and often its most simple.

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