Academic journal article Scottish Literary Review

Environment, History, Literature: Materialism as Cultural Ecology in John Burnside's 'Four Quartets'

Academic journal article Scottish Literary Review

Environment, History, Literature: Materialism as Cultural Ecology in John Burnside's 'Four Quartets'

Article excerpt

In history as in nature, decay is the laboratory of life Karl Marx

   So death will be a slower, surer fade
   than any we imagine
   no mere extinction., but absolute decay
   where absence is a form
   of generation

John Burnside

John Burnside's stoical tenth collection of poetry, Gift Songs (2007), embodies literary geographic aesthetics to demonstrate how poetry and landscape might interrelate, how one might act as an interface for the other. Centred upon an analysis of the four quartets, which correlate to T. S. Eliot's transcendental, macro-imaginative lexis in his canonical quartets (1936-42), this essay clarifies Burnside's tentative shift from Eliotean tropes towards a material realm. Eliot's quartets are all named by places; they concern growth and decay on multiple scales. Moreover, Eliot's quartets offer cognitive ways through figural and symbolic oppositions to herald past-present-future dynamics. Burnside's quartets follow this model to speak of a cultural ecology over time within an aesthetic realm of self-content poetry that pursues no dramatic or epic purpose but instances richly woven, emotionally charged registers of kinship and humility. (1)


Ecopoetic texts foreground their cultural processes to clarify the idea of composition and making (Greek poiesis) as a crisis of subjectivity in the original sense of crisis: a separation, the power of distinguishing. Ecopoetics asks how are humans--and their art--separate from the biosphere; in so doing, ecopoetic artifice demonstrates in what respects a poem may offer degrees of reconstitution or reification of the dwelling place by being sensitive to how poetic consciousness can illuminate or imagine conditions such as settlement and alienation. These questions are central to Burnside's oeuvre. This impulse, scaled-up scientifically, questions how humans fit into the world; it is a '"poetico-eco-philosophical" perception' of what science is, (2) and it recovers an original sense of scientia, i.e. knowledge. In interviews and readings, the poet has spoken of this redress as a poetic 'site' or an amalgam of text events that challenge knowledge formation by foregrounding the creative imagination in continuum with world, rather than being separate. It is not deconstructive but is an aesthetic that acts as a form of 'short-circuiting' of the normative frame and registers a movement away from 'the political ground zero of the Imperium'. (3) There is something critically humanist and non-dualist about Burnside's position, which his four quartets articulate via deep relations between history (cultural memory) and environment (landscape) that point to historical materialist concerns. One example of this is a moment when Burnside redacts his statement on 'the commune' ('Ny-Hellesund' i.25) as 'some pledge in the world [that] recurs' (i.28): (4)

   so everything comes again, in another form,
   not in the shapes we leave
   to the tideless water,
   not in the phantoms haunting the summer quays
   like long-dead forebears, fixed in glass and silver,
   holding the pose of a self, through an already
   shifting regard, as something away to the left
   catches the eye a shadow, an animal presence
   and whatever they thought they could not do without
   is quietly abandoned, while the film
   still runs; (i.29-39)

In the opening stanza, the poem's spectatorial and photographic lens is set firmly on a man who hears a boat from afar in one of the sounds of the once populous seventeenth century harbour, Ny-Hellesund. The Sogne municipality in the south of Vest-Adger county, Norway, is now home to less than twenty residents. From the very beginning of the poem, distance and intimacy are central to Burnside's ideas about decline. In the second movement the technological frame slips, missing what is felt ('the animal presence'): it is a telling moment. An initial reading can be transfixed by the stress on 'form' and 'shapes' offering an elevated or transcendental view. …

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