Three "Natures": Teaching Romantic Ecology in the Poetry of William Wordsworth, Doroth Wordsworth, and John Clare
Three "Natures": Teaching Romantic Ecology in the Poetry of William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth, and John Clare
Scott Hess, Earlham College
One of the first things I try to teach my students, in any discussion of literature and environment (Romantic or otherwise), is that "nature" cannot simply be taken for granted. That is, there is no monolithic, clearly defined entity, "nature," to which we can appeal. Instead, as William Cronon puts it in Uncommon Ground, "nature is a human idea, with a long and complicated cultural history which has led different human beings to conceive of the natural world in very different ways," depending on their varying social and cultural backgrounds (20). With this understanding, as Cronon goes on to say, "it is not nearly enough to assert that something is ‘natural' and assume that this will end all discussion of what is to be done" (21). What counts for us as "nature," with all the rich connotation and emotional power that the term can carry, depends very much on our own social positioning.
I like to introduce this issue to students at the start of environment-related discussion because it is novel and challenging for many of them. Students often assume that "nature" is by definition independent of human meanings and values, and thus tend to project their own meanings and values all the more profusely and uncritically onto the term. Establishing that "nature" means different things to different people, and that our own meanings are not as self-evident as they sometimes seem, greatly increases a classroom's capacity for critical thinking and productive discussion. At the same time, establishing this connection between different models of nature and different social and discursive positions provides a powerful method for reading literary texts in relation to environment.
My favorite theoretical text on this topic, which I usually ask students to read right at the start of the semester, is Raymond Williams's wonderfully provocative and readable essay, "Ideas of Nature," in Problems in Materialism and Culture. This essay not only introduces the relationship between ideas of nature, self, and society, but also condenses an overview of the entire history of Euro-American ideas of nature into a concise nineteen pages. Williams's essay is both readily accessible (on some levels) and deeply challenging and provocative (on others)—I have read it ten times or more, and still find it offers me new perspective and insights with each rereading. The essay insists that we understand our relation to "nature" holistically, in terms of our larger social and economic situation; or as Williams puts it, "what is being argued, it seems to me, in the idea of nature is the idea of man; and this not only generally, or in ultimate ways, but the idea of men in society, indeed the ideas of kinds of societies" (70-71). In short, how we imagine nature always informs how we imagine ourselves, both as individuals and in our social relationships.
Even before I expose my students to Williams's essay, though, I like to give them an example of two very different versions of the same "nature" in literary texts, to let them experience just how differently the same environment can be represented. For this purpose, on the first day of class, before students have even read a single page or had any theoretical or other orientation, I often give them William Wordsworth's "I wandered lonely as a cloud" and Dorothy Wordsworth's description of the same scene in her journal, side by side. After briefly explaining the relationship between the two texts—William's composition of the poem two years or more after their shared experience, using Dorothy's journal to stimulate his memory and imagination—I ask students to compare their representations of environment. After we have established a general comparison, I then ask students to describe and compare the overall versions of nature expressed by the two texts. Finally, after I provide still more background information about the two writers, we discuss how William and Dorothy's social positioning and their representations of environment might be related.
By the time we have done all this and I have said a few words about the syllabus and the first assignment (which is often to read Williams's essay), the opening class is usually over. If the discussion goes quickly, however, and I have a particularly eager and brilliant group of students, I will sometimes ask them to look at a third poem, by John Clare, to give them yet another social position and version of "nature." More often, I turn to a Clare poem in the following class, in conjunction with our discussion of the Williams essay. One could use other texts by other Romantic writers to discuss varying representations of environment, of course, but I have found that these three writers provide an especially provocative range of techniques and social positioning that gives a broad frame of reference for discussing other Romantic texts. William Wordsworth's "I wandered lonely as a cloud" offers a short, memorable text in the male canonical Romanticism of the imagination, while Dorothy Wordsworth and John Clare's texts provide different alternative traditions associated with female and laboring class writing. None of these texts need to be presented as paradigmatic for an entire, coherent tradition—a position most scholars would likely contest, or at least heavily qualify—but they do present a broad range of social positions and environmental representations. This range alerts students right away that we will not be dealing with a single Romantic ecology, but with multiple Romantic ecologies, all with their own structures and significances.
This essay focuses primarily on that first comparative exercise in order to demonstrate a teaching methodology for environment-related texts in the period, but I have included links also to versions of syllabi I use in teaching Romanticism with an environmental emphasis: one version exclusively British, and one which combines British and American. In keeping with my preferred critical approach, these classes do not attempt to focus on environment exclusively, but in relation to other specific social themes: class and identity in the former example, gender in the latter. Because representations of nature are closely implicated in social positions, I have found that teaching Romantic ecology demands teaching these positions also. Given my interests, I like to build my Romantic period survey around the intersection of environment and one or more such significant issues (which might also include race, colonialism, or Revolution/politics).
I. Two Versions of the Same Environment: William and Dorothy Wordsworth
I'll begin with the texts I set side by side for students in this first classroom exercise (note that I usually use the three-stanza version of "I wandered lonely as a cloud," initially published in 1807, rather than the longer version of 1815 and subsequent editions, because it presents a similar position in condensed form; one could just as easily use the longer version).William Wordsworth, text from 1807 Poems, in Two Volumes [untitled]:
I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o'er Vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of dancing daffodils;
Along the Lake, beneath the trees,
Ten thousand dancing in the breeze.
The waves beside them danced, but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee:—
A Poet could not but be gay
In such a laughing company:
I gaz'd—and gaz'd—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the Daffodils.
Dorothy Wordsworth, from Grasmere Journal, 15 April, 1802:
It was a threatening, misty morning, but mild. We set off after dinner from Eusemere. Mrs. Clarkson went a short way with us, but turned back. The wind was furious, and we thought we must have returned. We first rested in the large boat-house, then under a furze bush opposite Mr. Clarkson's. Saw the plough going in the field. The wind seized our breath. The Lake was rough. There was a boat by itself floating in the middle of the bay below Water Millock. We rested again in the Water Millock Lane. The hawthorns are black and green, the birches here and there greenish, but there is yet more of purple to be seen on the twigs. We got over into a field to avoid some cows—people working. A few primroses by the roadside—woodsorrel flower, the anemone, scentless violets, strawberries, and that starry, yellow flower which Mrs. C. calls pile wort. When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the water-side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore, and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more; and at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and about them; some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here and there a little knot, and a few stragglers a few yards higher up; but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity, unity, and life of that one busy highway. We rested again and again. The bays were stormy, and we heard the waves at different distances, and in the middle of the water, like the sea. Rain came on—we were wet when we reached Luff's, but we called in. Luckily all was chearless [sic] and gloomy, so we faced the storm—we must have been wet if we had waited—put on dry clothes at Dobson's. I was very kindly treated by a young woman, the landlady looked sour, but it is her way. She gave us a goodish supper, excellent ham and potatoes. We paid 7/- when we came away. William was sitting by a bright fire when I came downstairs. He soon made his way to the library, piled up in a corner of the window. He brought out a volume of Enfield's Speaker, another miscellany, and an odd volume of Congreve's plays. We had a glass of warm rum and water. We enjoyed ourselves, and wished for Mary [Hutchinson, whom William married that October]. It rained and blew, when we went to bed. N.B. Deer in Gowbarrow Park like skeletons.
Although the description of the daffodils takes only a portion of Dorothy Wordsworth's journal entry, I deliberately give students the entire entry so that they can access the fuller context in which the description is embedded. One point that inevitably comes up during the discussion, in this respect, is the issue of form—the difference between an essentially private or semi-private journal entry and a lyric poem published for a largely unknown, mass print audience. The two descriptions of the daffodils are structured as much by form and audience expectation as by social positioning or sensibility. By providing a different version of the experience, however, the journal entry can indicate much that William did not include in writing his poem: the other people present and working in the landscape; social contacts before and after seeing the daffodils; the process of walking and repeated experience of resting; the kind and cost of dinner; the snug evening of reading in the inn afterwards; and, of course, the presence of William's sister, Dorothy, effaced in the poem's presentation of extreme individual isolation and even "loneliness."
I should say a word here, also, about pedagogical method. I teach at Earlham College, a small liberal arts college in Richmond, Indiana, adjoining the Ohio border in the east-central part of the state, which draws students from across the United States, together with a substantial number of international students. Classes at Earlham are quite small—the average for an upper level English class, such as my Romanticism class, is about 10-12, and rarely does any class exceed 25. Also, there is a strong culture of liberal arts, discussion-based education at Earlham. Students are used to sitting in a circle in all their humanities classes, and are generally expected to help shape the discussion as an active, group exploration of the material. On the whole, the students are wonderfully engaged and quite insightful—although, inevitably, some students more so than others, and all of them (like me) have their off days and their off semesters. Because of the school's Quaker traditions, students are also used to silence, so I can let my questions hang in the air for much longer than I could with the same group of students at a different institution.
My approach to teaching is very much determined by these contexts. I am used to presenting texts, setting up an issue or question, and letting discussion develop from there based on the students' own interests and initiative. I intervene with follow-up questions when discussion slackens or to direct attention to particular issues I feel we ought to address, if the students do not raise them on their own. As a result of this method, I tend to let discussions take their own shape within certain general parameters, rather than moving through a pre-determined checklist of points, and I can never predict the exact direction discussion will take or order in which issues will come up. I can't, therefore, present such a plan in the current essay. What I will try to present, though, are the kinds of issues which often do arise, and which I will sometimes prompt students to notice, at appropriate times, if they don't seem likely to emerge organically from the discussion. Different classroom cultures, I realize, will require different teaching strategies, but I trust that what follows will provide raw material for any teacher or professor to adapt to his or her particular classroom format and needs.
One of the first things students tend to notice in comparing the two texts is the difference between William Wordsworth's presentation of a solitary experience and Dorothy's record of shared experience. Characteristic of William's poetry generally, this poem begins with the word "I" and uses the word repeatedly, never using the third-person "we." Dorothy's journal entry, in contrast, characteristically uses the word "I" sparingly, far less than the communal "we." William's poem, in fact, removes all social context, even the company of his sister, to present the experience of the daffodils as a radically solitary and decontextualized one. Its narrator encounters the daffodils in an unspecified location, after a detached and "lonely" wandering that separates him from any specific set of social relations. The simile of the narrator as cloud indicates this sense of distance and detachment from the landscape, presenting the poet as literally floating free from his environment. The poem's final stanza then recreates this lonely detachment indoors, as the poet dramatically recollects the daffodils in "vacant or in pensive mood," transformed by memory into "the bliss of solitude." Even indoors, the narrator remains separated from any specific social context or relationship. So why, the first question arises, would William want to remove his sister and present a self isolated from all social contexts before, during, and after the experience? And how does this emphasis on the separateness of the self connect with the representation of the natural scene in the poem?
Once these issues are raised, students will often call attention to the communal metaphors within Dorothy's description of the daffodils and the social contexts within which her description is set. Dorothy presents the flowers as a "unity," or image of community, not disrupted by the fact that a few "stragglers" have separated from the common body (the term "straggler" suggests a positive communal norm). Yet Dorothy does not present the daffodils only as a single unified body or abstraction. Instead, she describes different individual behaviors within the group: some daffodils resting heads on stones as if on pillows, some straggling, others tossing and reeling and dancing and laughing in the wind. The daffodils are part of a community but recognized also as distinctly individual.
In contrast, William describes the daffodils always as a single monolithic body, without individual distinction: "ten thousand," "a crowd," "a host," "a laughing company." There is no sense of individuation here, only a collective "they." What purpose, I ask students, do these different characterizations of the daffodils serve? In William's poem, the collective "they" of the daffodils is represented primarily in relation to the isolated "I" of the narrator who describes them. Though they "outdo" the waves in glee and stand "along the lake, beneath the trees," the daffodils aren't defined in direct relationship to these other elements of the environment, but only as part of a scene composed from the unifying perspective of the central narrator. William's description, from this detached panoramic viewpoint above the landscape, has nothing like Dorothy's description of the daffodils resting their heads on the stones and laughing "with" the wind that blows "to" them, creating a sense of agency and relationship between the various elements in the scene. Although she projects her own emotions onto the daffodils in her valorization of their community, Dorothy does not make their significance depend on the central presence of the observer, as if the unity and beauty of the daffodils existed already before she arrived. Dorothy's journal entry presents her as merely another participant in a scene which already has its own relationships and values independent of her. William's daffodils, in contrast, are made to depend on the speaker and his overall composition of the scene. The narrators' positioning also indicates these differences: Dorothy situates herself among the daffodils, while William separates himself at an elevated distance.
Val Plumwood theorizes the processes of homogenization and separation evident in "I wandered lonely as a cloud," in her discussion of the philosophical structures of dualism in chapter 2 of Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. Dominant groups, she argues, tend to use the marginalized and supposedly inferior other to define their own identity, while at the same time stressing their radical separation from this other. Such groups tend to homogenize the subordinate others into a single monolithic category of identity, eliding differences and individuality within the other. Humans, for instance, impose the single homogenous category "nature" on a vast range of various beings and environmental features, eliding in that single term the complex networks of interactions and relationships among these entities. Humans often define their identity in relation to "nature" while at the same time claiming to be radically separate and superior to it. This same structure of homogenization and separation applies between dominant and oppressed human groups, as when men construct their identity in relation to the homogenized and essentialized category of "woman," or white Europeans or Americans construct their identity in relation to blacks, "Orientals," or "savages." For Plumwood, human relationships to environment are thus structured in the same way as human social relationships, often through overlapping and mutually reinforcing networks of oppression.
In Plumwood's terms, William Wordsworth constructs a hierarchical, dualistic relationship to the daffodils in his poem, while Dorothy Wordsworth in her journal entry constructs a non-hierarchical and relational model of difference. Even as he defines himself through his relation to the daffodils, the narrator of the poem stresses his superiority and radical separation from them, in terms of elevation, detachment, and mobility, including his ability to internalize and carry them within his memory. Dorothy, in contrast, even as she emphasizes the strong communal association of the daffodils, seems to recognize the differences between individual flowers and the complex networks of relationship within which they exist—both within the group and with other elements of their environment, such as the wind and the lake.
William Wordsworth's poem presents the daffodils in order to emphasize the autonomy and separation of the self, making that self the imaginative focal point for the production of unity and value in the scene. In order to do so, he also removes Dorothy's presence and alternate subjectivity entirely. Dorothy, in contrast, presents herself in relation to the daffodils both as an individual and as part of a collective "we" which also includes her brother. At the same time, she situates her identity in relation to a larger social community in her references to the Clarksons and "Mrs. C." She extends this inclusive sense of community to the daffodils as well, emphasizing her similarity to them rather than her difference. The daffodils seem to experience the same joyful immersion and companionship in their environment that Dorothy records in her journal; and they rest out of "weariness," just as she describes herself and her brother resting "again and again."
I want to emphasize that it is not just a matter of Dorothy observing the daffodils more closely or taking a more "objective" relation to the scene, as critics have argued, though both points are true enough in their way. Dorothy infuses the daffodils with her own meanings and values, just as William does; it's just that those meanings and values are different, constructing a communal, relational and participatory version of environment rather than an environment focused exclusively on the isolated human self. Another way to put it is that Dorothy's relational sense of identity, expressed throughout her journal, finds a metaphor in her perception of the community of daffodils, while William uses the daffodils instead as a metaphor for his models of creative imagination and solitary individualism. It's not a matter of one being truer to nature than the other, but of radically different modes of perceiving, organizing, and understanding the non-human environment. From this perspective, there is no single pre-given "nature" to relate to and represent, but radically different versions of "nature" depending on how we relate to and represent it. Pointing out that both William and Dorothy project aspects of themselves onto the daffodils and asking the class to explore the different effects of these projections is a good way to introduce this more general point about "nature."
Students may also notice differences in the narrators' perspectives and physical positioning in the two versions of the scene. Dorothy records the experience of moving through the landscape, encountering the daffodils at ground level. William, in contrast, presents an elevated perspective that separates him physically and imaginatively from the daffodils, just as he separates himself from them rhetorically. The opening lines establish this elevated position, as he compares his wandering to a "lonely" cloud, floating without connection above the landscape. Then he sees the daffodils, not gradually but "all at once" in a single panoramic spectacle. From this elevated position, William presents his relation to the scene as entirely visual—he "saw," and "gazed and gazed"—never acknowledging any other aspect of his embodiment, as if he is all eyeball. Although Dorothy's journal entry also describes the daffodils in primarily visual terms, she includes the feeling of the wind and a much more dynamic sensual and kinetic engagement with her environment. Instead of flashing upon the view all at once in a single panoramic spectacle, the daffodils in her journal entry emerge as a gradually developing experience, as the walkers encounter first a few and then the main body of flowers. The poem presents the scene in ways analogous to a landscape painting, in exclusively visual terms seen from the outside. The journal, alternatively, is more like an interactive art installation, bringing the reader into a continuously unfolding, ambient experience that involves a full range of embodied responses.
The forms and styles of the texts also reflect these differences. Dorothy Wordsworth's prose moves fluidly between various images, emotions, and metaphors, while William's verse uses punctuation, syntax, and stanza breaks repeatedly to frame the scene and separate observer and landscape: the semicolon after the forth line, the first stanza break, the colon and dash after the eighth line, the colon after the tenth line, and finally the stanza break after the twelfth line that separates the present scene from its later remembrance. The poem progresses in this way in tightly compartmentalized, two-line formal units, creating a sense of formal separation between viewer and scene, as well as a sense of separation between immediate perception and later acts of memory and imagination. Dorothy's description, on the other hand, spills dynamically from initial description to feeling ("I never saw daffodils so beautiful") to metaphor and then back to the physical activity of the observers, who, during and after the experience, "rested again and again." This phrase alone presents a fully embodied experience almost entirely elided from William's poem.
Students may need to be prodded to attend to these issues of form, but as a teacher I can often introduce such issues in ways that complement and build on points students have already made. I also ask students to attend to the way Dorothy's journal entry acknowledges the various kinds of human labor going on in and shaping the landscape, as opposed to the absence of labor or any other shaping human presence in William's poem. Even Dorothy's mention of Mrs. C.'s name for the pile wort, a seemingly insignificant detail, recognizes how other people shape her perception of her environment, while William's poem claims complete autonomy to define the landscape and his identity in relation to it, independent from all other human influence. Dorothy is also much more specific and detailed in her descriptions than William, here as throughout their writing. I also like to point out to students that William's description of the non-human environment in this famous "nature poem" in fact really occupies only four lines—from lines five to eight—framed in multiple layers of the poet's own separate observation and mental processing. This difference in emphasis dramatizes how much more the poem is concerned with the self and its mental processes than with the physical environment for its own sake, as is true in almost all Wordsworth's environment-related poetry. By abstracting the landscape and describing it in broad strokes, he can much more easily appropriate it for the construction of his own autonomous identity.
I also ask students why the final stanza of the poem creates a physical and temporal break, unfolding the full significance of the scene only in the future, as the poet lies indoors on his "couch [. . .] in vacant or in pensive mood." Why doesn't the narrator recognize the "wealth" the scene brings to him in the moment? Why does his heart only fill with pleasure and dance with the daffodils afterwards, when he has separated himself from them and from the rest of their environment in both space and time? Though he claims that he is joyful "in" the flowers' "laughing company" earlier in the poem, the entire structure and presentation of the experience belies this sense of immediate immersion in the scene, and the poet's imagination only fully participates in the scene after he has separated himself from it and internalized it in his memory. His heart can only dance with the daffodils when he has established a secure distance to keep him separate from them. Why, I ask students, does the poem end indoors? Why describe the process of viewing the scene as one of accumulating "wealth," from a "show?" Why does the narrator describe himself as first "pensive" and "vacant," before the daffodils flash on his memory and bring the "bliss of solitude?"
These are often hard questions for students, but such questions get them thinking—and more specifically, thinking in terms of very close reading right at the start of the semester, in a way that intense scrutiny of a short poem encourages. Such questions also allow me to introduce William Wordsworth's position as a poet in relation to his reading audience, another social context that informs his overall representation of "nature." As a publishing writer, Wordsworth does literally accumulate "wealth" (albeit not very much or very quickly) by turning his experience into poetry for readers to buy. The daffodils flashing on the narrator's memory, in this sense, may also evoke the process of composition, as he sits down years later with Dorothy's journal to help him compose—yet another aspect of human influence elided from the poem. At the same time, the narrator's final indoors relationship to nature presents the experience of most of William Wordsworth's readers, offering a model for how he might hope his readers will relate to the poem as the experience of the daffodils bursts, second-hand, on their consciousness as well through the activity of reading. Just as the memory of the daffodils, separated in time and space from their original environment, enlivens the narrator in times of loneliness and vacancy, so too the poem enlivens the solitary vacancy of the reader, whose individual heart is also invited to fill with pleasure and dance with the imagined daffodils from the secure distance of reading. The poem thus brings the daffodils both literally and figuratively indoors—into the text for solitary indoor reading, and into the mind for solitary individual imagination.
If I try to put these points together into a single coherent reading, I might argue that the poem converts the daffodils into the equivalent of imaginative aesthetic capital, for the individual production of meaning and value. Already separated from social contexts in the staging of the initial encounter, the daffodils are further separated from their natural environment when they are internalized in memory and imagination in the concluding stanza. The poet's protracted gaze converts the daffodils into both literal and symbolic "wealth" (line 12), accumulating a kind of portable imaginative capital for the production of future meaning and identity which it then transfers second-hand to the reader. Internalizing the daffodils in this form allows a vicarious participation in "nature," through private reading and imagination, which at the same time separates the self from both the human social and non-human natural environment. The daffodils become generalized symbols of "nature," affirming the autonomy of the self and converting its potential "vacancy" into the "bliss of solitude." The poem's version of environment, in short, authorizes a society of individual bourgeois writers and readers, claiming autonomy from one another while at the same time producing their identities and social relationships through this shared symbolic internalization of nature, apart from any specific local environment. Dorothy Wordsworth's journal entry, in contrast, supports a relational model of identity, produced through immersion in a specific environment and complex overlapping networks of human and non-human relationship—an identity which cannot easily be abstracted from its contexts.
By the time I get this far, my students' obvious conclusion is that English professors read too much into things. In practice, I wouldn't advise laying out this full position—or a comparable full reading of your own—for undergraduates in the first class of the semester, unless you have a very talented group of students indeed. By asking students to compare the two versions of the scene and the versions of nature, identity, and social relations that they support, however, you can introduce your class to a relatively sophisticated model of reading environment in literary texts and a useful framework for the study of Romantic ecologies.
At some point in the discussion, I also like to comment on the difference between William's position as a male poet, appealing to "nature" in part to support his poetic authority in relation to a potentially indifferent or scornful public, and Dorothy's more domestic position as a woman in the Wordsworth household, pointedly eschewing public authorship. I ask students to consider how these different social and gender positions might be reflected in the different presentations of the daffodils. As Anne Mellor and other feminist scholars have argued, Dorothy's relational self and greater attention to the physical details of her environment identify her with a larger tradition of female Romantic writers, as opposed to many male Romantic poets' attempts to transcend or imaginatively master their environment.
II. John Clare and the Aesthetics of Engagement
After this first comparative reading, I find it helpful to introduce students to another short text by a different Romantic-era author, to offer yet another version of "nature." Doing so right from the start breaks down binary models and makes it clear that we are not working with an either/ or framework, but with complex, multiple, and overlapping social positions which each author combines in unique ways into his or her own versions of nature. I like to use John Clare's poetry for this purpose, both because I want to introduce students to Clare and because he provides a significantly different approach to environment in terms of social class, writing from the tradition of laboring class or peasant poet (an identification about which he had mixed feelings, but which defined him at the time). Many of Clare's poems present a solitary first-person narrator moving through or exploring a landscape, in a way that offers useful comparisons with "I wandered lonely as a cloud," but with quite different modes of description, social positioning, sense of self, and relationship to environment.
One way to present a Clare poem in relation to Wordsworth's "I wandered lonely as a cloud" is by contrasting what I will call Wordsworth's "aesthetics of spectatorship" against Clare's "aesthetics of engagement," or participatory relation to environment. The first section of this essay has already suggested some of the ways in which William Wordsworth's poem takes a spectatorial perspective: it presents a disembodied visual experience of a panoramic spectacle, composed into unity by the observer's single perspective, and makes this solitary observer the sole focal point for the production of meaning and value in the scene. In taking these positions, Wordsworth's poem assumes the detached, spectatorial relationship towards environment characteristic of the Western landscape tradition, as described in the work of Dennis Cosgrove, John Barrell, Gina Crandell, and others. Presenting a single fixed perspective outside the pictured landscape, the poem's subject position resembles that of a landscape painting, and it dramatizes how this position can allow the viewer to construct a sense of autonomous identity and imaginative ownership over the scene. Wordsworth's poem also presents the daffodils as entirely isolated from ordinary daily experience, human social relations, and physical production or labor, in ways that match the emerging Romantic construction of the aesthetic as disinterested individual contemplation. Much of Clare's poetry, in contrast, exemplifies what the aesthetic philosopher Arnold Berleant terms an "aesthetics of engagement," offering a sense of participation in, rather than detached observation of, his environment. Clare's poetry typically presents a much more fully embodied experience than Wordsworth's, immersing the narrator in a more diverse and complex natural environment which also includes a wider array of other human presence and activity. In contrast with Wordsworth's tendency to frame the landscape as separate from the self and from ordinary social and economic life, Clare's sense of self and imagination cannot be easily separated from his immediate environmental and social contexts—at least not until some of his later, asylum poems take a more alienated "Romantic" position. Aesthetic experience, for Clare, involves active and present participation in environment and is not segregated from the rest of life. In many of the poems of his middle period, including his bird poems, Clare invites his readers to accompany him imaginatively into the scene, while Wordsworth more often invites the reader to share his position of detached observation and contemplation.
A variety of Clare's poems might be used to highlight these different relations to environment. The two poems I have used most often for this exercise in my teaching, and which I will discuss here, are the sonnets "The passing traveler" and "The Beans in Blossom." Both poems can be found in the Everyman's Poetry edition of Clare, edited by R. K. R. Thornton and entitled simply John Clare—a very inexpensive edition that can be used to bring a varied selection of Clare's poetry into the classroom, to supplement poor coverage of his work in most Romanticism anthologies. Here is the text of "The passing traveler," as edited from manuscript in Edward Blunden's 1920 edition:
The passing traveller with wonder sees
A deep and ancient stonepit full of trees;
So deep and very deep the place has been,
The church might stand within and not be seen.
The passing stranger oft with wonder stops
And thinks he e'en could walk upon their tops,
And often stoops to see the busy crow,
And stands above and sees the eggs below;
And while the wild horse gives its head a toss,
The squirrel dances up and runs across.
The boy that stands and kills the black nosed bee
Dares down as soon as magpies' nests are found,
And wonders when he climbs the highest tree
To find it reaches scarce above the ground.
Like Wordsworth's poem, this sonnet begins with a traveler coming upon a new and startling scene. Rather than presenting the scene from a single stationed point as a panoramic spectacle, however, Clare places the traveler or "stranger" as an embodied observer moving within the landscape. He "oft with wonder stops," implying full bodily movement, and even "stoops" to look into the stone pit—an active verb that catches the sense of the observer positioning his body to gaze down into the pit, as opposed to Wordsworth's blandly disembodied visual relationship to landscape in verbs such as "see" and "gazed." Unlike Wordsworth's lonely wandering I, Clare's traveler is not detached or separated from the environment in which he moves. His full participation and "wonder," stressed by the repetition of that word, occurs in the continuous moment of embodied experience instead of being framed by the spatial and temporal separation of Wordsworth's poem. Clare's traveler even imagines himself walking on the tops of the trees: an impossible but vividly physical imagination of relationship to the place, again implicating his full bodily feeling in his perception. While Wordsworth's poem takes the static visual position of a picturesque viewing station or someone viewing a landscape painting, Clare's poem presents his observer in active physical relationship with the scene
In addition to asking students to compare the role of the traveler in the two poems, you can also ask them to compare the poems' evocation of perspective, point of view, and agency. Why is the boy introduced in Clare's poem? Why all the animals? Wordsworth's environmental poetry tends to create an intense relationship between the speaker or poet and some one specific creature or entity in the natural world—a crowd of daffodils, a daisy, a lesser celandine, a butterfly, a cuckoo, a mountain, and so on—generally screening out the rest of the environment in order to define the narrator in exclusive relationship to this one entity. In screening out this ambient environment, Wordsworth's poetry tends to isolate each single non-human entity from its overlapping relationships with other entities in its environment, defined instead in exclusive relationship with the narrator. Isolating a single feature of the landscape also allows Wordsworth's poetic narrators to define themselves in separation from their wider social and environmental contexts, allowing him to define the self as isolated and autonomous. Clare's poetry, in contrast, tends to immerse the narrator in a more multi-faceted environment, full of multiple overlapping relationship between different creatures and elements of the landscape. The narrator is central to many of Clare's poems as well, but he does not present himself as central or necessary to the environment with which he engages, and whose multiple relationships he represents.
"The passing traveler" indicates these overlapping networks of relationships both in its shift from the traveler's perspective to that of the boy, with which the poem concludes, and by the wide range of animals and animal activities included within the poem. Though the poem never explicitly assumes a non-human point of view, even the "busy crow," the "wild horse" which "gives its head a toss" ("his" head in the Everyman edition), and the squirrel who "dances up and runs across" seem to show their own active agency and purposes. "Nature" here is thus not presented as a single framed view, seen from the outside by an essentially disembodied spectator, but as a multi-centered participatory experience from the inside, in which each living creature has its own agency and purposes independent of the observer. The traveler's wonder is not privileged over the boy's search for nests and desire to kill bees, or even the squirrel and the horse and the crow with their own unspecified, non-human purposes. To indicate this equality of perspective, the same word, "wonder," is used both for the traveler at the beginning of the poem and for the boy at the end, further undermining any sense of the traveler's superiority through greater elevation, mobility, or breadth of experience. Appropriate to an aesthetics of engagement, the boy's wonder breaks upon him in the middle of the intense physical activity of climbing a tree to get at the magpies' nest: suspended in the branches, he reaches the same height as the traveler and in effect lives out the traveler's imagined desire to walk upon the treetops. In contrast to the dominant tradition of landscape aesthetics, with its emphasis on disinterestedness, cool separation, and distance, the boy's aesthetic response erupts suddenly out of this intense participatory experience as he pursues a specific goal, finding himself literally immersed in the branches of the trees and the lives of the birds and squirrels that they support. This middle-of-the-tree perspective is about as far as one can get from the detached prospect position of the typical landscape poem or painting of the period, such as Wordsworth's poem.
Students may make many of these comparisons on their own initiative, especially if they have just finished discussing similar issues in William and Dorothy's texts. If not, a few leading questions should call their attention to such differences. Why does the point of view change from traveler to boy, and what associations do these two figures carry? Why is the word "wonder" used for both? Why does the poem begin from the traveler's perspective on the edge of the stone pit and end from the boy's perspective in the middle of the tree? What is the role of the animals in the poem, and why are there so many of them? Why aren't there any animals in Wordsworth's poem, and relatively few objects or features of any kind? What kinds of verbs do the Clare and Wordsworth poems use, in relation to their overall presentation of environment? What sense of bodily activity, or lack of activity, do the two poems evoke? Why does Wordsworth create a break in space and time in his poem, while Clare does not? And so on. As with the William and Dorothy Wordsworth texts, students' attention can also be steered to formal qualities: the accretive, run-on quality of Clare's poem, hurrying on from image to image without any clear grammatical hierarchy, as opposed to Wordsworth's more careful syntactical containment and framing of the scene. Clare's poem, like much of his poetry, is paratactic, while Wordsworth's is hypotactic. You can also compare Clare's social positioning as a "peasant poet" or "laboring class poet" with Wordsworth's more genteel poetic identity. Clare's typical ground-level point of view and participatory relationship to environment may reflect in part his lower-class status and ongoing experience working in the fields, even after he achieved poetic reputation. Clare also had far less experience with the aesthetic detachment of the traveler than Wordsworth, whose life was thoroughly informed by travel in the picturesque mode. The boy climbing into the treetops to come to the level of the traveler, in this respect, resonates provocatively with Clare's attempt to "rise" from his laboring class status to the level of genteel literary authorship. At the same time, Clare's poem challenges the period's standard equation of aesthetic appreciation with detachment, distance, and elevation, associated with elite social standing and disinterestedness, as John Barrell explores in his essay on landscape conventions and social class, "The public prospect and the private view: the politics of taste in eighteenth-century Britain."
Barrell's The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place offers another way to present the difference in subject positions between the two poems. The book argues that Clare's poetry emerged from a local sense of place at odds with the universalizing, cosmopolitan relation to landscape typical of eighteenth-century and Romantic art and poetry. The paratactic multiplicity and particularity of Clare's descriptions—what Barrell calls his "aesthetics of disorder" (152)—contrast with the picturesque, and specifically Claudian, conventions of unified landscape composition favored by elite culture at the time. Barrell argues that while Wordsworth generally tries to "see through" a landscape to underlying, universal truths, in the spirit of this picturesque cosmopolitanism, Clare's relation to his specific, local environment provides his primary subject matter in its own right. In related positions, Tim Chilcott claims in ‘A Real World and Doubting Mind' that Clare presents nature as autonomous, having its own value apart from human concerns and purposes (67, 223); and James McKusick argues in Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology that Clare's local knowledge and environmental advocacy mark him as the first "deep ecological" writer in English, conveying a place-based identity through his local "ecolect," or environmentally-attuned language, that contrasts with Wordsworth's tendency to subordinate descriptions of nature to his own autonomous subjectivity (78, 89).
Viewing different styles of landscape painting associated with the picturesque and the Romantic period provides another way to illustrate these differences in the classroom. Searching by painter in web art databases or clearinghouses such as The Web Gallery of Art <http://www.wga.hu/index1.html> or ArtCyclopedia <http://www.artcyclopedia.com>, you can show students examples of these painting styles and point out analogies with literary texts. The paintings of Claude Lorraine, for instance, use framing techniques and panoramic views to distance the observer from the landscape, in what became a standard Romantic-era aesthetic position of disinterested picturesque connoisseurship. William Gilpin's drawings illustrate the generalizing tendencies of the picturesque mode, in ways also similar to William Wordsworth's poem. Peter De Wint, in contrast, provides a counter-example of a Romantic era painter, celebrated by Clare in his "Essay on Landscape" manuscript, who provides a more intimate, ground-level sense of participation in the scene, with a greater emphasis on realistic natural detail—a point of view closer to that of Clare's poetic narrators.
Another Clare sonnet, "The Beans in Blossom," presents a first-person voice that demonstrates this typical ground-level engagement and participation. Here is the poem as it appeared in Clare's 1835 Rural Muse, much more heavily punctuated than in versions edited from manuscript (such as the Everyman edition):
The south-west wind! how pleasant in the face
It breathes! while, sauntering in a musing pace,
I roam these new ploughed fields; or by the side
Of this old wood, where happy birds abide,
And the rich blackbird, through his golden bill,
Utters wild music when the rest are still.
Luscious the scent comes of the blossomed bean,
As o'er the path in rich disorder lean
Its stalks; when bees, in busy rows and toils,
Load home luxuriantly their yellow spoils.
The herd-cows toss the molehills in their play;
And often stand the stranger's steps at bay,
Mid clover blossoms red and tawny white,
Strong scented with the summer's warm delight.
As with "The passing traveler," you can begin discussion of this poem by asking students to consider the speaker's point of view and relationship to his environment, including his sensual and embodied relationship to place. Instead of beginning with vision, the poem begins with the tactile experience of the wind against the speaker's face, and it evokes a rich range of sensual experience: the "wild music" of the blackbird, the "luscious" scent of the blossomed beans, and the concluding synesthesia of "the Summer's warm delight," combining touch and smell and indeed all the senses. The diversity of sensual experience in the poem contrasts with the almost entirely visual experience of Wordsworth's "I wandered lonely as a cloud." Though Wordsworth often invokes sound in his poetry, he rarely invokes the proximate senses of smell, taste, and touch with their much more intimate sense of participation in environment—perhaps because such proximal experience tends to break down boundaries between self and world and dissolve the self's claims to autonomy.
Clare's "Beans in Blossom" also gives the sense of physically moving through the landscape, complementing its evocation of embodiment and full sensual immersion. The reader almost has to duck to get through the "rich disorder" of the beans, which seem to lean over the path with an intimate sense of space, then is stopped short, together with the narrator, by the physical obstruction of the cows. Though Wordsworth's poem also begins with movement through the landscape, the metaphor of the cloud floating through the clear sky removes all specific sense of embodiment or sensual relation to an ambient environment, as opposed to Clare's rich invocation of the body moving through tactile and aural, as well as visual, space. In sum, Wordsworth presents his landscape, in the picturesque tradition, as a framed station or viewing point, isolating the spectator at a safe visual distance from the scene he surveys. Clare's landscape, in contrast, unfolds its significance unpredictably as the narrator moves through it, fully comfortable in his environment but without this secure sense of detachment. The sudden challenge of the cows that stops the progress of the poem epitomizes this difference between a spectatorial and participatory relationship to environment and makes the position of disinterested spectatorship impossible. Wordsworth's poem encourages the reader to forget his or her body in vision, and ultimately to internalize the landscape in imagination. Clare's playful and challenging cows confront the reader with the experience of embodiedness, in which the narrator is only one creature among many others, moving within and enjoying the "Summer's warm delight."III. Romantic Ecologies and the Significance of "Nature"
- In the end, getting students to compare different Romantic-era versions of "nature" goes beyond just literary and historicist investigation. Though it is important that students understand different Romantic-era approaches to environment in relation to the cultural and material history of the time, it is still more important for them to use this knowledge to consider their own material, social, and cultural relation to environment. How, I like to ask students at some point in the semester, do Romantic versions of nature continue to inform our current culture? How do you imagine your own relation to environment, and what are the implications for your sense of identity, modes of perception, and social positioning? "Nature" understood in this larger sense becomes a whole lot more interesting and challenging—no longer understood as a pre-given entity outside of us, but as a broad array of social, cultural, and environmental relationships which we must all actively negotiate. To play a slight variation on another Wordsworth poem, such a nature is half given, half created—given by our cultural legacy and social structures, created by how we negotiate and shape that inheritance. Yet contra Wordsworth, such a "nature" is not exclusively or primarily personal, but social as well.
One issue that comes to the foreground in comparing William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth, and John Clare's representations of environment is the issue of particularity versus abstraction in relating to environment. Although in my experience students tend to value what they see as the "down-to-earth" quality of Clare's poetry and Dorothy Wordsworth's journal writing, especially in relation to William Wordsworth's occasionally heavy-handed didacticism, they also frequently object that Clare and Dorothy Wordsworth focus too much on description and do not have enough greater meaning. In raising this objection, students unknowingly take their place in a long critical tradition, in which they have been trained. Such students have come to believe, evidently, that meaning is something that needs to be abstractable and transferable from particular situations and local environments; that truth, like nature, exists primarily in the abstract. I too believe in the value of certain kinds of abstraction—without it, a work of literature could only speak to its immediate time and occasion, and it would be hard to justify teaching literature at all. But if meaning is defined only by its ability to be abstracted or extracted in this way—if even environmental writing produces only general meanings and a generalized sense of identity and place—then how can texts teach us to inhabit our own environments in anything but abstract ways? How can we teach students generalizable skills and shared cultural traditions, while at the same time teaching them to be good environmental citizens, defining themselves in relation to specific places and relationships? Using McKusick's term, how can Clare's "ecolect" and intensely particular relation to place teach us to develop our own such language and relationships?
These questions raise issues which remain unresolved for me, but which lie at the heart of my purposes in teaching Romantic (and other) ecology. I want to teach my students to relate to and define themselves through their own local environments, both social and natural; but at the same time, I want to teach them the ability to generalize and compare, to understand and use rhetoric, to be able to extract the assumptions and implications of any given position. The college classroom, it seems to me, is set up to teach these general skills much better than the particular or localizing ones. It creates citizens for a "plug-in" culture, expert at analyzing and synthesizing information but only incidentally grounded in their local environments, ready to pack up and carry their skills away from college at the end of four years to another location, then pack up again as many times as necessary in the migratory experience of middle-class professional life for which we train them. Anywhere they go in this country, they can plug in to the same media sources, access the same web pages, buy their goods from the same stores, eat at the same chain restaurants, and use the same generalizable interpretive skills, independent of the local particularities of place. Environmental consciousness can all too easily become another generalized brand.
I have come to understand much of William Wordsworth's environment-related poetry as encouraging just this migratory sense of identity—providing the cultural capital, as in the daffodils poem, for the construction of individual identity and value regardless of any specific environmental or social relationship and commitment. Nature, like art or literature, takes on its meaning and value in this model precisely because of its independence from context, protected in its aesthetic sphere from the heartless mundanity of everyday life, as Wordsworth lays out so memorably in "Tintern Abbey."
I teach Romantic ecology in part to challenge this separation between a valued nature/art and a devalued everyday life, which remains a central part of Romanticism's cultural inheritance. In the end, I cannot provide answers for students, only questions; but with my questions, I try to get them to see "nature" in a broader sense, in the spirit of Raymond Williams's essay. Unless they can see nature as inseparable from issues of class, gender, identity, social structure, politics, and community (among other issues), it will remain only an impossible Romantic dream of transcendence, little different from the consumer fantasies that this idea of nature often claims to oppose. Nature, I want to teach them, is not something we simply return to or escape to; it is the total network of relationships within which we must actively negotiate our places, and it includes the human as well as the non-human. In the same way, I want them to learn, we should not just read or interpret literature from a secure aesthetic distance; we must actively negotiate our relationship to it in an ongoing, open-ended process, not only as individuals but as a classroom community, and ultimately as a society. This is the version of nature—and the version of literature—I want to model for them.
My hope is that by teaching students to recognize different versions of nature in the Romantic period and explore the assumptions and implications of these positions, I can teach them to bring that same kind of engagement to their own lives and environments. In presenting these models of relationship to environment for investigation, the literature we discuss offers students various aesthetic and moral positions to "try on" and explore: necessarily general models which they can then apply to their own particular local places and social positionings. I hope both to help them build these general skills and at the same time to foster their awareness of and commitment to particularity. At the very least, I hope my students will be impelled to take "nature" out of its heavily varnished and often invisible frame.
Citations and Suggested Further Reading
Clare, John. John Clare (Everyman's Poetry Library). Ed. R.K.R. Thornton, London: J.M. Dent, 1997.
---. John Clare: Poems Chiefly From Manuscript. Ed. Edmund Blunden and Alan Porter. London: R. Cobden-Sanderson, 1920.
---. "Essay on Landscape." The Prose of John Clare. Eds. J.W. and Anne Tibble. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951.
Wordsworth, Dorothy. Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. Ed. E. de Selincourt, 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1959.
Wordsworth, William. Poems, in Two Volumes, and Other Poems, 1800-7. Ed. Jared Curtis. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983).
Barrell, John. The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, 1730-1840. Cambridge, England: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1972.
A classic study of John Clare in his social and environmental contexts, with emphasis on the structure of his descriptions.
---. "The public prospect and the private view: the politics of taste in eighteenth-century Britain." Reading Landscape: country-city-capital. Ed. Simon Pugh. Manchester, England: Manchester Univ. Press, 1990, pp. 19-40.
Explores the relation between the aesthetics of landscape and social positioning in eighteenth-century Britain.
Berleant, Arnold. The Aesthetics of Environment. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1992.
Presents a model of an "aesthetics of engagement" in relation to environment, questioning traditional aesthetic models of detachment and disinterestedness.
Chilcott, Tim. 'A Real World and Doubting Mind': A Critical Study of the Poetry of John Clare. Hull, England: Hull Univ. Press, 1985.
Good overview of Clare's poetry and discussion of his style of description and syntax, complements Barrell's Idea of Landscape.
Cosgrove, Dennis. Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1984.
Influential exploration of the history of landscape representation and its social significance.
Crandall, Gina. Nature Pictorialized: the 'View' in Landscape History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1993.
History and significance of pictorial relationship to landscape.
Cronon, William, ed. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
A provocative and controversial exploration of how humans construct "nature" and the social significance of such constructions.
Homans, Margaret. Women Writers and Poetic Identity. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1990.
Useful consideration of women writers as an alternative social position and tradition within Romanticism, with a good chapter on Dorothy Wordsworth in particular.
Labbe, Jacqueline. Romantic Visualitues: Landscape, Gender, and Romanticism New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
Discusses various modes of landscape aesthetics in relation to gender.
Levin, Susan M. Dorothy Wordsworth and Romanticism. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1987.
Good overview of Dorothy Wordsworth's writing.
McKusick, James. Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.
A concise overview of the British and American Romantic environmental traditions and some of their major writers, including chapters on William Wordsworth and John Clare, with an emphasis on ecological consciousness and relation to the local.
Mellor, Anne. Romanticism and Gender. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Contrasts different masculine and feminine traditions of Romantic writing and varying constructions of gender, including different relationships to the physical or natural world.
Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London: Routledge, 1993.
Presents ecofeminism as a challenge to the dominant Western philosophical and environment tradition, from Greek philosophy through deep ecology. A challenging, theoretically sophisticated, and richly rewarding exploration.
Williams, Raymond. "The Idea of Nature." Problems in Materialism and Culture. London: NLB, 1980, pp. 67-85. Provocative and concise introduction to the changing history of "nature" in the Western tradition and the relation between ideas of nature and ideas of self and society.
SYLLABUS for ENGL355: Nature, Class, and Identity in British Romanticism
SYLLABUS for ENGL355b: Nature and Gender in British and American Romanticism
The John Clare Page (edited by Simon Kovesi, sponsored by Nottingham Trent University) <http://www.johnclare.info>
Excellent website on Clare with various resources, including contexts, scholarly articles, and debates.
T.C.G.'s Wordsworth Page (Thomas C. Gannon) <http://www.usd.edu/~tgannon/words.html>
Relatively little content, but a good collection of links on Wordsworth.
The Wordsworth Trust <http://www.wordsworth.org.uk>
Includes a virtual tour of Dove Cottage and other information and images on Wordsworth and Grasmere.
Women Romantic-Era Writers (Adriana Craciun) <http://www.bbk.ac.uk/english/ac/wrew.htm>
There's not much specifically on Dorothy Wordsworth on the web, but this link is a good resource for the exploration of Romantic women writers generally.
The Web Gallery of Art <http://www.wga.hu> and ArtCyclopedia <http://www.artcyclopedia.com>
The Web Gallery includes a substantial database of searchable art images; ArtCyclopedia provides a more comprehensive list of links to images on other websites, organized under the artist's name. Both databases can be used to access paintings that defined the picturesque style by artists such as Claude Lorraine, Gaspard Poussin, and Salvator Rosa, and landscape paintings by Romantic era painters such as William Gilpin, John Constable, J.W.M. Turner, or Peter De Wint.