Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

"Urbanatural Roosting" in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

"Urbanatural Roosting" in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney

Article excerpt

Wordsworth's "Composed on Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802" links the energy of his greatest nature poems to England's largest urban space, a relationship that I explored in Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism: Toward Urbanatural Roosting (11-14). The goal of Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism was to overcome one of the surviving Enlightenment dualisms: the long-held distinction between nature and culture, the sense that one "thing" exists in the streets of central London (human culture) while something very different exists in the hills of the Lake District (wild nature). From the perspective of the urbanatural, this distinction is overcome: London is nature (with the same air, the same water, and soil as the wildest wilderness of Northern England) and the Lake District is also culture (at least insofar as the mountains "contain" culture once the first human arrives, once any human speaks or writes about them in any way). The naturalist in Gore-Tex clothing (a petroleum product) traveling to the wild coast of Cumbria in a carbon-belching bus or airplane creates a powerful contradiction similar to the urbanist who claims he has nothing to do with wild nature, all the while eating fresh salmon caught in the North Atlantic and drinking bottled water from the springs of Scotland. These contradictions are resolved by linking the human with the nonhuman, city life with natural life, by acknowledging that the nonhuman natural places and experiences contain the fully human, cultural places and experiences, while the human cultural places and experiences contain the natural. That is what I have called "urbanatural roosting," the subtitle of Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism.

Here in Wordsworth's sonnet is a city of roughly one million people the largest city in the world in 1802, caught at that dawn-moment when the daytime is all anticipation, when the energy of the urban space can only be imagined, not yet physically experienced:

   Earth has not anything to shew more fair:
   Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
   A site so touching in its majesty:
   This City now doth like a garment wear
   The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
   Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
   All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. (1-8)

What is most powerful in these lines is precisely the lack of human agency in the scene. Even examples of human creation or activity--"Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples"--are secondary and implicitly dependent upon the natural power of fields, and sky, and air (the atmosphere).

   Never did the sun more beautifully steep
   In his first splendor valley, rock or hill;
   Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! (9-11)

Except for the speaker, there is no human activity--which reminds the poet of a completely nonhuman, scene: a rural scene composed of "valley, rock, or hill." The English Lake District comes to mind hut, at the same time, any particular scene in nature, without even the slightest sign of the urban, would not (and could not) be more beautiful than London in this moment captured just before dawn. Any sight of "valley, rock, or hill" in the natural world can lay claim neither to more beauty nor to more calm than this moment experienced in the "heart" of the largest city-space in this human-created urban landscape: "The river glideth at his own sweet will: / Dear God! The very houses seem asleep; / And all that mighty heart is lying still!" (12-14). "Dear God!" recalls a similar construction, one that the poet earlier invoked so powerfully in "The world is too much with us": "Great God! I'd rather be / A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn" (9-10). The pagan sentiment is outworn because creeds come and go, but the sea that ends this sonnet implicitly lasts forever (at least much longer than any creed). There is no magic here; nothing invisible except energy, that is, the physical forces of the material world.

The combination of matter and energy, water and light, houses and gravity, is pulling the tidal river Thames toward the distant North Sea. …

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