The Song of the Earth
by Jonathan Bate
Picador, pounds 18, 322pp
WHAT ARE poets for in our brave new millennium?" asks Jonathan Bate in his critical meditation, The Song of the Earth. By now we are on the penultimate page of his Tempest; and he declares: "Reader, allow me a final test of whether you believe in eco- poetics, whether you are willing to hear the voice of Ariel".
"Believe in?" Yes - every bit as much as Arnold, Eliot or Leavis, Bate has been proselytising, and at last he invites a leap of faith. Were sentiment our guide, we might gratefully leap, for he has been intermittently persuasive and invariably beguiling. But "believe in"? No. Poetry is scripture in one Book only; and Wallace Stevens is the last writer to invite "belief" in this sense.
Building on work initiated in 1974 by Joseph Meeker in The Comedy of Survival: studies in literary ecology, Bate is not so much setting out a new stall in the critical market-place as rearranging the fruit and veg in new configurations. He finds and, when he cannot find, imposes eco-readings on poetry.
The Song of the Earth addresses the general reader, and it is written in a delightful and delighting style, risking enthusiasm (for Les Murray, Clare, Cowper), hacking its way through the jungle of theory and philosophy. His tutelary spirit is Wordsworth, both the nature writer and the civic poet; his Caliban is Byron; his most compelling Ariel is Elizabeth Bishop.
Bate proposes a place and a use for poetry in the ecological twilight of our planet. Nature is dead or dying, but in works of the imagination it survives - just as when God was dying, the century before last, he was invited to take up residence in the hostel of poetry.
This book "is about the capacity of the writer to restore us to the earth which is our home". Is the earth our home in this sense? Bate is a professor in Liverpool, but his ears are closed to the poetry of the city, to modernism. Bunting makes a brief appearance, Yeats flickers fitfully, but Eliot and Pound, Auden and Ashbery, are absent.
In the opening chapters, Bate considers the diverse implications of "nature" and "culture". He is in thrall to the 19th century, to notions of organic form, and to what Thom Gunn calls "the occasions of poetry" and how those occasions - weather, the political moment, a particular passion - affect creation and illuminate our reception of a work. The creative act is restored to the poet, the poet in time.
Bate's perspectives are radical, his strategies conservative. …