Academic journal article Atlantis, revista de la Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos

The Rape of Mother Earth in Seventeenth Century English Poetry: An Ecofeminist Interpretation

Academic journal article Atlantis, revista de la Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos

The Rape of Mother Earth in Seventeenth Century English Poetry: An Ecofeminist Interpretation

Article excerpt

Through ecocritical and ecofeminist theory, this paper describes how and why the earth and women are closely associated in many, if not all, cultures. The specific example of seventeenth century English poetry is used to demonstrate how women are associated with the land in a period of colonisation and imperial expansion. The poetry of John Donne and John Milton attempts to justify both the domination of women and of the land by men, whether it be done by lovers, colonists, or theologians. The poetry of Aphra Behn and Margaret Cavendish, on the other hand, reveals how women were aware of the way both they and the land were downgraded, and as a consequence they identify closely with the earth's sufferings.

Key words: ecocriticism, ecofeminism, English poetry, Behn, Cavendish, Donne, Milton.

   O Earth, mother of all life!
   Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound (1971: 23)

The rise of ecocriticism, or ecological criticism, has, in recent years, allowed literary texts to be studied and interpreted in important new ways. Together with postcolonial and feminist critical theories, ecocriticism reveals how representations of the land in a variety of genres and from all periods are heavily loaded with ideological assumptions. The close association of many feminist and ecological issues has led to ecofeminism, a term which embraces not only literary and cultural theory, but also political activism. Ecofeminism has shown how both women and the land are exploited by patriarchal societies and institutions, and the purpose of this paper is to reveal how this is manifested, specifically, in seventeenth century English poetry; and how men and women poets of the period differ quite distinctly in the way they represent the earth in their work.

The earth as mother is a universal metaphor. According to Ninian Smart, "there are powerful connections with the idea of the supreme Female, with the earth as being our Mother, with fertility, with motherly love, with falling in love. A devotee could see the Goddess under so many disguises, as provider of food, of great creatrix of the world." Smart is referring here to the "creative power or sakti of the Ultimate" (1989: 93), whose origins stretch back 5,000 years to the Indus Valley civilization. Even the Bible, which steadfastly represents the creator in masculine terms (in common with Ancient Near East religions in general [Smart 1989: 195-213]) occasionally crosses gender, as the following passage from the Apocrypha demonstrates: "For ask the earth, and she shall tell thee, that it is she which ought to mourn for the fall of so many that grow upon her. For out of her came all at the first, and out of her shall all others come. . ." (2 Esdras 10: 9-10).

However, the earth as mother is part of a wider perception of nature as feminine. According to Kate Soper:

   The association of femininity with naturality represents a more
   specific instance of the mind-body dualism brought to conceptions
   of nature, since it goes together with the assumption that the
   female, in virtue of her role in reproduction, is a more corporeal
   being than the male. If we ask, that is, what accounts for this
   coding of nature as feminine--which is deeply entrenched in Western
   thought, but has also been said by anthropologists to be
   crosscultural and well-nigh universal--then the answer, it would
   seem, lies in the double association of women with reproductive
   activities and of these in turn with nature. As feminists from de
   Beauvoir onwards have argued, it is woman's biology; or more
   precisely the dominance of it in her life as a consequence of her
   role in procreation, that has been responsible for her allocation
   to the side of nature, and hence for her being subject to the
   devaluation and de-historization of the natural relative to the
   cultural and its "productivity." The female, de Beauvoir tells
   us, is "more enslaved to the species than the male, her animality
   is more manifest. … 
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