William Wordsworth and the Ecology of Authorship: The Roots of Environmentalism in Nineteenth-Century Culture

By Osborn, Katie | John Clare Society Journal, July 2013 | Go to article overview

William Wordsworth and the Ecology of Authorship: The Roots of Environmentalism in Nineteenth-Century Culture


Osborn, Katie, John Clare Society Journal


William Wordsworth and the Ecology of Authorship: The Roots of Environmentalism in Nineteenth-Century Culture. By SCOTT HESS. Charlottesville and London, University of Virginia Press. 2012. 288 pp. £24.50.

Scott Hess's professed project is to show how William Wordsworth's poetry was shaped by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century contexts and practices, and how in turn Wordsworth's construction of nature has shaped our contemporary ecological consciousness and the discourse of the environmental movement. Each of the five chapters takes the same basic structure: Hess identifies a particularly problematic nineteenth-century cultural construct or context and then traces its influence into the modern era.

Hess observes that modern readers and critics of nineteenth-century female and labouring-class poets usually contextualise these writers in terms of their social position. He self-consciously takes a similar strategy with Wordsworth, arguing that Wordsworth's construction of nature cannot be disentangled from his privileged position as an educated, white, and middle-class man. Hess's central point is that definitions of nature, environmentalism, and even the aims of the environmental movement are not as self-evident as they appear to be. The brand of middle-class pastoral environmentalism inspired by William Wordsworth - one that sequesters in parks and landmarks spots of nature that are desirable or scenic according to a particular high-brow aesthetic, while ignoring the degradation of urban or working environments - is married to a problematic construct of nature, the 'ecology of authorship'. The ecology of authorship grew from Wordsworth's constructed identity as resident genius of the Lake District. It is a version of nature framed through Wordsworth, which prefers subjective and isolating individualism over communal life,· leisure and spirituality over everyday work, subsistence and economic activity,· and (perhaps most important to Hess) 'disinterested', high-aesthetic appreciation of nature over a more participative, sensually immersive relationship.

But Hess considers numerous other nineteenth-century and contemporary writers' versions of nature, especially, in a fairly long comparison, the very different 'natures' of William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth, and John Clare. Raymond Williams and John Barrell's influence on Hess is apparent throughout the book but especially in these sections, where Hess contextualises each poet's framing strategy in terms of their gender and class. …

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