The Ecology of Victorian Poetry

Article excerpt

In his recent books The Aesthetics of Environment and Living in the Landscape the philosopher Arnold Berleant has argued that the arts--and the aesthetic more generally--have an important role to play in generating an "environmental" consciousness through their explicit appeal to the senses and their general tendency to enliven us to the tissue of the world. The arts "embody their continuity with other human domains," writes Berleant, helping us to grasp, through their deliberate engagement of the conscious body, that "the perceiver is an aspect of the perceived and, conversely, person and environment are continuous." (1) Art renders the world in the fullness of its texture, Berleant writes, subtly illuminating the world from within the body of the perceiver and calling us to a consciousness of ourselves as environed beings.

Berleant's argument, which draws on Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology as well as John Dewey's insight, in Art as Experience, that modern art is often predicated on a "loss of integration with environment," (2) with its accompanying plea for renewed attention to the category of "experience," has a particular resonance for students of Victorian poetry. Victorianists will be quick to recognize the similarities between Berleant's ideas and those advanced by William Morris and John Ruskin in the nineteenth century--in such essays as "Art and The Beauty of the Earth" (Morris), "The Beauty of Life" (Morris), and "The Work of Iron in Nature, Art and Policy" (Ruskin)--arguing for a closer integration of cultural production and environmental awareness. But Berleant's argument is especially well-suited to Victorian poetry given how much criticism has been devoted, in recent years, to articulating the "epistemological uneasiness" of Victorian poetry, "in which subject and object, self and world, are no longer in lucid relation with one another but have to be perpetually redefined." (3) As long ago as 1952, E.D.H. Johnson spoke of Victorian poetry's "double awareness," whereby the poet's "inner" confidence is undermined by, or adapted to, the burden of an "outer awareness," at odds with the mainsprings of private poetic personality. (4) More recently, Isobel Armstrong has described the "formal ploy" of Victorian poetry as one "in which the uttering subject [of Victorian verse] becomes object and the poem reverses relationships not once but many times" (pp. 16-17). Similarly Carol Christ has characterized Victorian poetry by its "various attempts to construct an epistemology which derives the feeling with which we respond to objects from the objects themselves." (5) While these critics do not, it must be admitted, advance an explicitly environmentalist argument, their insights lend themselves readily to the dismantling of Cartesian categories that is part of environmentalism's philosophical strategy, while acknowledging--implicitly at least--that Victorian poetry is characterized by an embodied understanding that is one step away from Berleant's (and Morris's) full-blown environmental consciousness.

In this essay, then, I want to sketch out some directions that criticism of Victorian poetry might now take in the combined light cast by both its own recent tendencies and contemporary environmental aesthetics. One obvious place to which criticism might now turn is to the considerable body of Victorian poetry dedicated to the environment. Barbara T. Gates and Richard Bevis have already cleared a path in this direction; in the space of two important chapters, Bevis ranges widely over a number of (generally canonical) male Victorian poets in his fascinating map of The Road to Egdon Heath; and Gates's recent anthology In Nature's Name includes a number of poems by Victorian women dedicated to the living environment in its purest sense. (6) Yet it remains the case that Victorianists have traditionally left it to their Romanticist and Americanist colleagues--pre-eminently, the Harvard scholar Lawrence Buell (7)--to extrapolate the environmental implications of verse (often written by urban or metropolitan poets) that takes landscape as its subject. …