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Ecological Literary Criticism

Romantic Imagining and the Biology of Mind

by Karl Kroeber

185 pages, paperback, Columbia University Press, 1994

Ecological Literary Criticism addresses the ecological and social ideas embodied in the work of the English Romantic poets. By exposing the failure of modern critics to recognize the deepest significance of the romantic poets' interest in natural processes, Kroeber demonstrates the importance of developing a more ecologically informed critical approach to literature.

Quotes from Ecological Literary Criticism

"Perhaps the most provocative expression of the moral difficulties of a proto-ecological attitude appears in Wordsworth's poem Nutting. Critics have observed that the story the poet tells of his expedition in search of hazelnuts . . . is an account of a rape. . . . For example, the clothing with which the young Wordsworth so ostentatiously armors himself against natural hazards manifests an almost military preparedness for his 'sallying forth.' He is garbed for 'forcing' his way through nature. The conventionality of this readiness to fight nature is exposed by the lovely hazel nook, whose pristine charm is realized through linguistic negatives, 'unvisited,' and with 'not a broken bough,' proving that self- protection 'more . . . than need was' reveals young Wordsworth truly unprepared for the beneficence of nature. Not bringing to the grove a 'heart that watches and receives,' the boy could not feel for long the enchantment of the idyllic coppice. He does bring, however, a heart capable of briefly luxuriating in the unspoiled sensual seductiveness of the 'virgin scene,' lying with his cheek on a mossy rock listening to the 'murmur and murmuring sound' of the 'fairy water breaks' of the gentle stream. Then, abruptly, he leaps up and ravages the grove, dragging 'to earth both branch and bough' so that the mossy bower is 'deformed and sullied.' Indubitably the poem's language suggests sexual violation . . . Yet the poem would not be so unusual were these suggestions not so firmly embedded within an account of the destruction of a part of the natural world, of a hazel grove."

"This kind of reading in no way dismisses the purely psychosexual interpretations that have dominated our criticism for two generations. But if we admit that Nutting is first and literally about our relations to the natural world, we will recognize that the poem foregrounds powerful and difficult ethical choices that may be obscured by psychologically universalizing interpretations. Because Wordsworth's proto- ecological view of the natural world is necessarily complex and holistic, such choices inevitably call to mind ideas about behavior that connect, if only tangentially, to feelings and attitudes that historically have usually been associated with religious experiences and religious ideals."

"The romantics' sense of responsibility to nature as central to their being socially valuable poets poses difficult issues of responsibility for their critics. Contemporary critics have preferred to dwell on the poets' ideological shortcomings or personality quirks rather than to inquire into the social responsibilities of their profession. As I survey the immense body of recent criticism of 'Nutting,' I am troubled by the consistent omission from it of serious concern for the literal circumstances, both of the young poet in the hazel grove and of the older poet's writing of his experience there, circumstances that seem to have been of enormous importance to Wordsworth. It is not that all the talk of phallic oedipalism, maternal discourse, and the like is nonsensical. There is something skewed, however, in recent criticism's reluctance to admit how the literal story of the poem raises profound questions about our relation to our physical environment, questions that appear to have played a decisive part in Wordsworth's writing of the poem. . . .By denying the importance of external nature in poems such as 'Nutting,' moreover, contemporary critics, while freeing themselves to explore interesting matters of ideology or private psychology, implicitly define both poetry and criticism as socially trivial."

. . .

"It is necessary to emphasize how relatively little and how uncertain was the scientific support in the romantic age for the poets' proto-ecological views. Nowadays it is easy for even literary critics to pay casual lip service to ecological ideas. In the early nineteenth century to think of nature as the romantic poets did required an originality that we ought not to undervalue."

. . .

"The primal paradox in the life and thought of Percy Shelley is that, although steeped in the ethos of the Enlightenment, he came to perceive Enlightenment thinking as delusional, especially in its definitions of humankind's appropriate relations to the natural world. The paradox echoes in Shelley's polemical representations of Wordsworth as a self-betrayer, because Shelley's verse persistently betrays the painful intensity of his responsiveness to Wordsworth's innovations in what used to be called 'nature poetry.' Perhaps the decisive emulative antagonism between the poets appears in the 'main haunt and chief region' of their songs, 'the mind of Man.' The elder poet celebrates mind in its individuality; to the younger, the human mind is fascinating as the fundamental medium of socialization."

Table of Contents of Ecological Literary Criticism

  1. Introducing Ecological Criticism
  2. Feminism and the Historicity of Science
  3. Surprised by Nature: Ecology and Cold War Criticism
  4. Poetic Ecosystems: Art for Nature's Sake
  5. Discovering Nature's Voice
  6. Malthusian Visions
  7. Refiguring Reason
  8. Shelley: The Socialization of Mind
  9. Biology of Mind and the Future of Criticism

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