Getting Back into Touch

By Kavanagh, P. J. | The Spectator, June 3, 2000 | Go to article overview

Getting Back into Touch


Kavanagh, P. J., The Spectator


THE SONG OF THE EARTH

by Jonathan Bate

Picador, L18, pp. 322

This book is an analysis of the progress of our disconnection from `nature', though there is no mention here of our own creation myth, no Eden, no Fall. When, it is asked, did our alienation begin: the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution? And what can we do to plug ourselves back in? Jonathan Bates answer is startling (and flattering): it is by having recourse to poetry, and to poets, for poets alone have kept in touch. Bate, however, bases his idea on what seem to me shaky foundations:

The experiment is this; to see what happens when we regard poems as imaginary parks in which we may breathe an air that is not toxic and accommodate ourselves to a mode of dwelling that is not alienated ... The imagination is a perfect laboratory, cleansed of the contaminations of history.

It is possible to puzzle long over that last claim and still fail to discover what it means. Apart from the difficulty of defining Imagination - Coleridge spilled much ink trying to distinguish it from Fancy surely it is impossible to think of (to imagine) any imagination unaffected, `uncontaminated', by history, by the poet's own experience?

This rickety premise, this claim for 'ecopoesis', does not prevent Bate from coming up with some good things. He is particularly sound on the weather, always a favourite with poets, weather being one of the few things we cannot control or change (or so in our innocence we thought before 'global warming' made us anxious and guilty). He finds that Byron's 1816 poem 'Darkness', often absurdly used by Michael Foot as a prophetic polemic against nuclear war, was written during a long period of weather so bad that harvests failed and there was public disorder all over the hemisphere. Keats's ode `To Autumn', on the other hand, was written three years later, when the clouds at last lifted and the sun shone. 'The weather was clear and sunny for 37 of the 48 days from 7 August to 22 September', and the likely date of composition (15-22 September) was ten degrees hotter than it had been at that time for the previous three years. …

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