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Ecocriticism in the Classroom: A Reading of Select Poems

Sumi Bora, LOKD College, Dhekiajuli (Assam)

It is an interesting fact of the postmodern era that literary studies has to constantly redraw its boundaries and accommodate new trends that frequently change the contours of the field. That the environmental perspective has gradually made a foray into the way we respond to literature is such an act of involved response to contemporary pressures. No doubt, such a crucial response has not gained the needed momentum in academics, in spite of the works of scholars and researchers. While social movements such as the Civil rights and women’s liberation movements of the sixties and seventies have transformed literary studies, it appears that the environmental movement of the same era has had little impact. The present paper aims to address this exigent need of ecocriticism and the paths that teachers and students of literature can follow while reading and responding to literary texts.

The basic premise of this paper is Barry Commoner’s first law of ecology, “Everything is connected to everything else,” which invariably points to the undeniable fact “that literature does not float above the material world in some aesthetic order, but rather, plays a part in an immensely complex global system, in which energy, matter, and ideas interact” (Glotfelty, 1996: xix). Students of literature cannot be oblivious of the fact that there is an umbilical link between human culture and the physical world where both get affected by each another. The four sine qua non of literature are the writer, the world, the text, and the reader, where criticism synonymizes “the world” with society – the social sphere. Ecocriticism expands the notion of “the world” to include the entire ecosphere.

The present paper will have a dual structure: at first it will briefly analyze the reasons behind the lack of awareness of ecocritical perspective; secondly it will attempt to revisit some poems, covering the span of the 18th century to the 20th century that usually find place in most of the English literature syllabus, and re-appraise the relationship between the human and the natural world as reflected in them. Such an appraisal will be merely indicative in orientation where similar perspective can be applied to other literary texts.

Since Descartes, Westerners have been content to view the man/environment relationship in a very reductionist way. Human beings are treated not as part of an environment, not even as part of a body. The traditional mind-body problem, the view that man is his mind, that man is his thoughts and wishes, still predominates. But the paradox is that man’s marvelous mind, while it may wander without any barriers through the entire universe, is connected to the earth. As free as that mind may appear in its wanderings, thoughts rely on calories, because they are fuelled by some metabolic processes that make all other human activities possible. As Harold Fromm persuasively argues, “‘the problem of the environment’, which many people persist in viewing as a peripheral arabesque drawn around the “important” concerns of human life, must ultimately be seen as a central philosophic and ontological question about the self-definition of contemporary man” (Fromm, 1996: 38). This is very true because man’s relationship with Nature is non negotiable. Perhaps within a moderate range, man’s constitution is susceptible to adaptation, but in the light of the innumerable and arbitrary concurrences that make human life possible, man’s adaptability seems very limited indeed.

There have always been voices in literature who have tried to break the glass ceiling and point out that what is actually involved is a genuine intermingling of the parts of the ecosystem. There are no discrete entities. This brings up the question of what we really mean when we speak of man/environment relationship. But the only one that is really relevant to a discussion of man and environment is the relation of self to setting and this is what the poems selected for the present paper persuasively put forward. Selected from some of the representative poets of English literature, they showcase the different facets of nature.

Alexander Pope’s Epistle to Burlington dedicated to Richard Boyle, the Earl of Burlington, can be read in terms of eighteenth century ideas of landscaping. Burlington’s house embodied his consideration to finer details of architectural aesthetics, and his acumen in spending for the landscaping of his garden and villa space, helps us to investigate how the human-nature interface effected in urbanized locations. The poem meticulously details Burlington’s interest in nature and its ordering, which in turn starkly exhibits the eighteenth century poetics as the response to nature is sought to be filtered through cultivated refinement. Mere expenditure cannot account for the preservation or furthering of visual artistry, which can only be done by making nature an ally, and not subservient to human design:

To build, to plant, whatever you intend,

To rear the column, to arch the bend,

To swell the terrace, or sink to the grot;

In all, let nature never be forgot. (Choudhury, 2014: 8)

Pope endorses the ideology of having an intense bond with a location because it can play a pivotal role as only in coming to terms with the world of nature that can one embark for its utilization and understanding. It’s a fascinating facet of the Pope’s argument in the poem that in the appropriation of nature to human use, it must be natural, even though that is something which can only be brought about through proper for refinement and cultivation of taste. This may appear to hinge on a paradox as Pope is here appealing to impose order for the sake of appearing natural, but the context in which he locates the theme enables him to explicate the subject matter plausibly. He is referring to the utilization of wealth for the harmonious ordering of nature in a location meant for habitation, so that the world that he looks forward to is one where there is a happy conglomeration of nature and architecture as is manifested in his allusions to the noteworthy architects of his time:

You too proceed! Make falling arts your care,

Erect new wonders, and the old repair;

Jones and Palladio to themselves restore,

And whate’er Vitruvius was before (Choudhury, 2014: 13)

Similar perspective can be found even in the current age where the sense of nature as a picturesque commodity is reflected in the design and management of national parks and the glossy magazines that major environmental groups sell with an attractive vision of nature.

A different facet of nature is unraveled by William Blake in the poem, To Spring where he infuses a sense of divinity and anticipation. Structured in the form of an ardent address the note of submission is an interesting dimension to the poem. No doubt spring is personified but this act does not devalue the season, rather it adds an added dimension/aura to its stature in the cycle of season because it is awaited by nature:

The hills tell each other, and the list’ning

Valleys hear; all our longing eyes are turned

Up to thy bright pavilions. Issue forth,

And let thy holy feet visit our clime. (Choudhury, 2014: 29)

Blake uses the familiar structures to unravel the unfamiliar and divine side of the spring season. Such an exercise is to be scrutinized with utmost sensitivity because it opens up the avenue to enter in a dialogic relation with nature. This dialogic relationship is foregrounded when Blake delineates spring as an individual whose arrival is awaited by the land and the natural surroundings who look to the season to rejoice for the circumstances with which it is associated, but more than that there is a sense of participatory anticipation. This form of attribution makes the entire process of natural orientation that Blake indulges in here, an engaging one, but Blake also infuses a sense of mystery to the season by indicating the fact that spring is a season yet to fully realize itself. Blake marks the season in terms of physicality and desire as the perception of nature is understood through the use of the sense organs and its receptive processes:

O deck her forth with thy fair fingers; pour

Thy soft kisses on her bossom; and put

The golden crown upon her languished head

Whose modest tresses are bound up for thee! (Choudhury, 2014: 29-30)

Blake’s persistent use of the metaphors of longing as epitomized through the allusions to kiss and touch and the image of the falling hair (‘tresses’) suggests how the idea of the person enlivens the season’s features. It is interesting to see how spring is situated within the paradigm of divinity, for in the respect and admiration that it receives lie the indication of its stature among seasons, it is valued for the life it brings, and this is what makes the spring season so special and a subject of reverence. The poem veritably points that nature is the other but there is always an attempt to be close to it, not in order to appropriate and reduce it, but always to remain aware about its excesses.

One of the noteworthy autobiographical poems in the English literary tradition, The Prelude, by William Wordsworth renders its readers valuable insights into the life experiences of a poet who offered a novel perspective by imaginatively recreating and reassessing the things of the world. The boat stealing episode is one of the most striking experiences in the first book of The Prelude where the pervading impact of the natural world is recounted with the master strokes of an artist with full command over language. Wordsworth with consummate skill recreates a visually vibrant scene, highlighting the relevance of the surroundings and how it can serve to inspire and draw out the connections between what is felt and what is believed. No doubt the speaker restored the boat to its original place after rowing it; however he becomes aware of a presence, of a morally infused admonition that seems to emerge from the physical space around him which adds significance to the mundane boat stealing act. It is as if the the act of stealth created a sacrilege, which the speaker could have abstained from. The thematic orientation of the passage is not directed towards the portrayal of the scene alone, what is more notable is that the message of moral education is brought into the purview, in the form of a dialogue between the environment and the speaker:

…but after I had seen

That spectacle, for many days, my brain

Worked with a dim and undetermined sense

Of unknown modes of being;…

…No familiar shapes

Remained,…

But huge and mighty forms…. (Choudhury, 2014: 38)

In actual terms, there is no communication between the speaker and the world he occupies, or tries to get away from; but Wordsworth underscores that nature has its distinctive idiom and it is not the onus of nature to transfer lessons in the same way as the human tongue. The episode depicts the sublime aspect of nature – the excess which humans cannot comprehend through familiar structures – and adds an aura to nature. Nature operates in ways that suggest deeper and more fundamental issues and the boat stealing episode highlights how through the close affinity with nature the speaker’s understanding of both self and nature gets enhanced.

“…Nature, red in tooth and claw…” is how Tennyson, the representative Victorian poet of nineteenth century sought to understand nature. However, the reductionist view where at times this line is used out of context, fails to address the inherent intricacies and complexities involved. The subject of loss and recovery is spread out across numerous sections of In Memoriam, and though the theme is that of lamentation, there are other issues such as the interrelationship between man and nature, which is brought into sharp focus in the course of the narrative. In “Section 55”, Tennyson investigates the issue of interconnectedness between the soul and nature and enquires if God and Nature are “at strife.” The conflicting paradigm is brought through a series of questions: Is there a conflict between God and nature? If so how does it impact human life? However, Tennyson tries to understand such profound questions through the structure of faith and propounds the hypothesis that life may have bearing and importance beyond death as it is manifested in the natural world. In the world of nature one can discern the cyclic movement continuously at work which signifies that life never ends with the dissolution of the human body, and one can try to make sense of existence beyond that physical realm. As human beings do not have the knowledge and access to that world which eschews physical perception, not with certainty, the only way to grapple such questions revolve around the unflinching faith on God, on the succor that hope bestows and the meaning one can derive from the natural world and its cyclic orientation:

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,

And gather dust and chaff, and call

To what I feel is Lord of all,

And faintly trust the larger hope. (Choudhury, 2014: 98)

In “Section 56”, the issue is further extended to investigate the role of nature and its significance in the context of human life. In this section nature is made a kind of addressee and the poet attempts to read the intricacies of human existence. What, in view of nature, is the status of human beings, its “last” creation? Are they merely something that nature “…bring to life” and “bring to death” and does not care at all? Tennyson tries to evaluate and understand the position of human beings in the broad kingdom of nature. In spite of what human beings can do, or is capable of, the truth of existence that ends in death is something that is inevitable:

O life as futile, then, as frail!

O for thy voice to soothe and bless!

What hope of answer, or redress?

Behind the veil, behind the veil. (Choudhury, 2014: 99)

The concluding lines which introduce the metaphor of the veil, through which the possibility of “redress” is brought into purview, can be the entrance to a world which is not yet manifested. The section ends with a note of interrogation because answers to such complicated issues are not within the ambit of concrete resolution, hence the metaphorical use of the veil helps Tennyson to keep the matter open-ended, setting the issue of the interrelationship between man and nature that does not reveal the truth of the mystery of life.

D.H. Lawrence’s poem Snake is noteworthy in English literary tradition where he takes the snake as the subject, but does not project it allegorically by investing human attributes as is done in some animal poems in English literary tradition. Lawrence imports a rich array of traditions – from the beliefs about the colour of the snake in Sicily to the image of the albatross whose falling off in the poem by Coleridge is associated with the seeing of snakes in the water of the sea – and offers multidimensional perspective through which the snake is viewed. Such visualizations include juxtaposition of opposite standpoints where the speaker sees the creature as a source of peace on the one hand, and on the other, it is configured as one with whom there are associations of aggression and danger. The poem is a site which wonderfully exhibits the conflict that rages within the mind of man, and the altering conditions that the speaker finds himself in which he offers for evaluation. The speaker is well aware of the legacy that he inherits when it comes to the perception of snake, in spite of that the creature evokes in him an entirely disparate feeling of cordiality: “But I must confess how I liked him,/ How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet,…” (Choudhury, 2014: 141) It is the weight of his “accursed human education” which induces the speaker to throw a “clumsy log” at the snake; undoubtedly the action is unprovoked, and he realizes immediately after executing it, a deep sense of guilt of emanates, something he represents in the final line of the poem as “pettiness”:

And immediately I regretted it.

I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!

I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human

education….

And I have something to expiate:

A pettiness. (Choudhury, 2014: 143)

Thus, Lawrence locates the snake as a figure whose presence leads to a very interesting encounter between the speaker and the reptile. The impetus is more on the idea that the human being must take responsibility of nature and environment.

The afore mentioned study does not claim to be all encompassing which truly cannot be accomplished within the ambit of a paper; yet it ardently affirms that we as teachers and students cannot ignore the indisputable fact that the current environmental problems have spawned out as a by-product of culture. As historian Donald Worster explains,

We are facing a global crisis today, not because of how the ecosystems function but rather because of how our ethical systems function…Historians, along with literary scholars, anthropologists, and philosophers cannot do the reforming, of course, but they can help with the understanding. (1993: 27)

Literary scholars and students of literature specialize in questions of value, meaning, tradition, point of view, and language. It is through these areas that we can make a substantial contribution to environmental thinking. While interpreting texts and analyzing them in our classrooms as the present study has modestly attempted to do, we should bring the ecological perspective and highlight how the environmental crisis has been exacerbated by our fragmented, compartmentalized, and overly specialized way of knowing the world. As scholars in humanities we should increasingly make an effort to educate ourselves in the sciences and to adopt interdisciplinary approaches and instill the same spirit among our students.

References

Choudhury, Bibhash. Green Glades – Writings on Nature. Guwahati: Papyrus, 2014.

Coupe, Lawrence. (ed). The Green Studies Reader – From Romanticism to Ecocriticism. USA: Routledge, 2000.

Finch, Robert and John Elder. (ed.) The Norton Book of Nature Writing. New York: Norton, 1990.

Glotfelty, Cheryll and Harold Fromm. (ed.) The Ecocriticism Reader. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1996.

Morgan, Sarah and Dennis Okerstrom. (ed.) The Endangered Earth: Readings from Writers. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1992.

Waage, Fredrick O. (ed) Teaching Environmental Literature: Materials, Methods, Resources. New York: MLA, 1985.

Worster, Donald. The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination. New York: OUP, 1993.

Sumi Bora is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, LOKD College, Dhekiajuli (Assam). Her areas of interest are Literary Theory, Ecocriticism, Gender Studies and Translation Studies. Her publications include Research articles in National Seminar Proceedings, Journals and Newspapers.