Learning to Love the Fens: An Introduction to Romanticism, Ecology, and Pedagogy

Bridget Keegan, Creighton University
James C. McKusick, University of Montana

                            . . . what we have loved,
Others will love, and we will teach them how
William Wordsworth, The Prelude, 1850 (14: 448-9)

  1. As teachers, we always have designs upon our students, whether it is a set of skills we want them to master, a body of content we believe they should assimilate, or, in some cases, values that we wish to cultivate and nurture in them. It is usually quite simple for us to articulate what those designs are. We want our students to write well and to know historical context. And often too, though usually implicitly, we want them to love what we have loved.  Most of us teach literature because we believe that it has inherent value. We believe that poetry matters, that it is relevant, and that such value and relevance is transcendent regardless of the immediate material conditions in which we teach and students learn.

  2. At the end of The Prelude, Wordsworth confidently states that we will teach others to love what we have loved. Yet in this poem about the poet's own education and vocational training, he neglects to tell us precisely how to do this.  Lacking Wordsworth's confidence, many of us in literature and humanities departments may often wonder how best to convince students that literature matters at all—and what's more, that poetry from what students consider a "remote" historical era matters. How effective are we at communicating the value of literature to students, particularly when students are more and more likely to understand any subject's value in more crudely economic terms?  To put it more explicitly in terms of the core issues of this special number of Romantic Circles Pedagogy Commons: When students are more worried about getting a decent job after graduation (often in order to be able to pay back loans taken out to cover their rapidly rising tuitions), what chance do teachers have of convincing them that an aesthetic engagement with nature, either directly or through literature, is worth their time? How best to respond, when students, along with Mary Oliver, ask: "Is a poem, which after all is only a literary construct within an imagined framework, a reasonable way to understand the world?" (103).
  3. Of course it is, Oliver goes on to reply. But why is it? And how is it a reasonable way to understand the world?  In the prospectus for the Romantic Circles Pedagogy Commons Series, editor Laura Mandell sketches the goals for these online essays and resources—to emphasize not only the "what" of our teaching, but also the "how."  Although the essays represented here emphasize and illustrate the "how" of improving students' skills at explicating a poem or helping them to understand Romanticism's contribution to the history of modern environmentalism, it is around the issue of values that we as editors feel that these essays collectively raise their most important points. These essays will help us as teachers to demonstrate that a poem is "a reasonable way to understand the world."  And they may also help us to teach students to love what we have loved.

  4. The essays in this collection offer varied and complementary approaches to the issue of values in the teaching of Romantic poetry and prose. Gary Harrison, for example, in his course on "Romanticism, Nature, Ecology" engages students in a fundamental interrogation of the present value and relevance of Romantic-era texts. In Harrison's course, students are encouraged to examine "how such literature shapes environmental consciousness and action, and how Romantic poetry engages urgent issues that face us today about the relationship between human consciousness and nature."  Toni Wein likewise seeks to engage her students in a thorough scrutiny of personal values from the first day of class, when they receive a homework assignment asking them to write a descriptive essay on their "sacred place."  Wein elucidates the underlying purpose of such an assignment: "I wanted the students to feel doubly immersed or invested, both in the perspective we would bring to bear and in the generous enthusiasm Romantic writers expressed for their home lands."

  5. While it may be unfashionable or politically tendentious to talk about values in education, we would argue that the discussion of values has taken on a greater urgency in the current educational climate in the United States, Canada, and the U.K. This is due to the fact that, increasingly, the values that universities—from students to the highest-level administrators—seem to care most about are primarily economic values. As James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield argue, in their remarkable book Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money, "The fastest-expanding and often strongest motivation in American higher education is now money. While other aims and functions certainly persist, they are increasingly eclipsed by the ultimate goal of wealth accumulation" (2). In short, money has become an end in itself in education, and not simply a means to an end. Engell and Dangerfield's book is an erudite call to action, one that provides an important history and set of recommendations for teachers and scholars who wish to protect the values traditionally celebrated in education (such as becoming a good and informed citizen of the world) against the increasing pressure to measure value in strictly financial terms.

  6. For those of us in the academy who feel that what David Abram has called the "more than human world" is valuable as more than a resource to be bought, sold, harvested, mined, tapped, consolidated, ploughed under, reclaimed, or developed, Engell and Dangerfield's book is instructive reading, making a case for all of those in the humanities, and not simply those teaching and studying environmentally, to reclaim the discourse on values. Those of us who teach and study environmental literature are, in some respects, in a privileged position to demonstrate the practical as well as more abstract non-financial values and importance of literature. Many of the essays included in this collection make this point either implicitly or explicitly. In being alert to the environmental dimensions of the texts we teach and study, we are able to show that literature does have a very clear and direct connection to "the real world"—and that connection is more than nominal or spiritual. As Lawrence Buell has written in the Preface to his recent manifesto, The Future of Environmental Criticism, the role of the humanities is crucial to understanding and resolving our current environmental crises:

    For technological breakthroughs, legislative reforms, and paper covenants about environmental welfare to take effect, or even to be generated in the first place, requires a climate of transformed environmental values, perception, and will. To that end, the power of story, image, and artistic performance and the resources of aesthetics, ethics, and cultural theory are crucial. (vi)

    Buell's book provides a solid overview of the history of the many strands of the "movement" of environmental criticism to date, and these different strands are illustrated by the various approaches and tactics demonstrated in the following essays. Buell concludes by offering a cautious "prophecy" about where environmental approaches to literary studies may go during the remainder of the 21st century. As he rightly notes, the future of environmental criticism—and perhaps even the future of the environment writ large—depends on our success as teachers of environmental literature and environmental approaches to texts.

  7. All of the essays in this collection are closely engaged with practical aspects of teaching environmental literature of the Romantic period, and they should prove useful to both new and experienced teachers in a variety of classroom settings. Tilar Mazzeo examines the implications of teaching Romanticism outside the disciplinary boundaries of English studies; Timothy Ziegenhagen investigates how Romantic poetry can be used to frame the contemporary debate between developers, conservationists, and preservationists; and William Stroup challenges his students to explore what he calls the "field marks" of poetry. Several of these essays describe innovative ways to engage students in the experience of reading Romanticism; thus Timothy Brownlow seeks to create a more invigorating classroom environment through a restoration of orality and a revival of sensuousness, while Thomas Hothem urges his students to scrutinize the topographical subtexts and hidden agendas of popular anthologies of Romanticism. Scott Hess encourages his students to broaden their conception of what "nature" means, both in Romantic poetry and in their own personal experience: "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." Both inside and outside of the classroom, teachers of Romantic-era environmental literature are finding new ways to engage their students in discovering and responding to real-world environmental issues.

  8. The question remains, however: what is it in particular about teaching Romantic-period writers that is essential to the goal of instilling the values of environmental awareness or even environmental activism?  How can teachers help students to appreciate the value of literature over and against—or at least perhaps alongside of—the very real demands they may feel to justify their studies and interests in financial terms? To begin to answer that question, one can immediately point to the fact that many Romantic writers believed, with passion, sincerity, and sometimes with righteous self-delusion, that words (as much as cold hard cash) can and do change the world. Percy Bysshe Shelley memorably called upon the West Wind to "Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth / Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!" ("Ode to the West Wind," lines 66-67).

  9. Thus, perhaps the first step might be to remind students about the power of words. All too often, when they first encounter Romantic writing, and in particular Romantic nature writing, students struggle with it because they feel it is "just description"—just so many words piled on words. Thus, it is often one of our first aims when we teach Romantic nature writing to demonstrate that what a poet chooses to describe, and how s/he describes it, inflects that description with an ethical and political relevance, particularly with respect to environmental ethics and politics.

  10. For both of the editors of this collection, the poetry of John Clare has been a typical starting point to help students see that representation, particularly when it is a representation of nature, is never a transparent act. There is often a very important story being told in what is described and in how it is described. In one class, for instance, we might start with one of Clare's later poems, "The Fens."  The poem begins conventionally enough, with the poet describing what he sees while "Wandering by the rivers edge."  The poet fondly evokes the play of the waterfowl and the movement of willows in a way that students might initially take to be "just description."  However, it is useful to talk with students about the fact that Clare's perspective in the poem is not the typically elevated vantage point, looking down over what he describes (as was conventional in poetry like that of James Thomson, one of Clare's most significant poetic precursors). Clare here and elsewhere puts himself "on the same level" as what he describes, and students might be asked to consider to what extent that stance might be connected to Clare's social position. They might discuss how such a gesture suggests an ethical or political statement about the relationship between the human and the natural, challenging the more hierarchical and anthropocentric conceptions common in Clare's day.

  11. However, in teaching this poem in particular, it is important to remind students that Clare is representing a wetland environment. Thus, there is an entirely practical and literal reason why he doesn't "elevate" himself in his looking at the environment. In the relentlessly flat landscape of the fens, there simply aren't any hills or elevated places from which he could have taken in the scene:

    But here my fancys moods admire
    The naked levels till they tire
    Nor een a molehill cushion meets
    To rest on when I want a seat. (65-8)

    At this point it is useful to remind students that in Clare's time as in our own, wetlands were seen as essentially "unproductive" and even threatening or physically dangerous environments (for instance, causing the "fen ague" or malaria from which both Clare and his family suffered). In fact, Clare is one of the very first poets in the Western literary tradition to depict wetlands in a positive light. Students may already be aware that the archetypal monsters of English literature, Grendel and his mother, are creatures of the swamps. Likewise, Bunyan's Slough of Despond uses the wetlands as a site of allegorical moral peril. To demonstrate the novelty of Clare's description, it is useful to tell students about the history of wetland drainage in East Anglia, which began on a grand scale in the seventeenth century, and also to show students selections from Arthur Young's writing about the very same environments that Clare represents. Young comments pithily about the draining and enclosing of the fens, in The Agriculture of the County of Lincoln (1799): "So wild a country nurses up a race of people as wild as the fen; and thus the morals and eternal welfare of numbers are hazarded or ruined for want of an inclosure" (qtd. in Darby, 154). Once drained, reclaimed, and redeemed, the end result was "Health improved, morals corrected and the community enriched" (qtd in Darby, 142).

  12. For Clare, however, as is evident in the second half of "The Fens," the draining of the fens for profit prior to enclosing them is devastating rather than productive, and thus the poem illustrates how economic value has become preeminent, usurping all other sets of values, including those derived from an aesthetic engagement with nature. As Clare writes:

    Green paddocks have but little charms
    With gain the merchandise of farms
    And muse and marvel where we may
    Gain mars the landscape every day (81-4)

    Although this landscape is one that challenges the conventional pastoral aesthetics, it is nonetheless still one whose unconventional beauty transcends the reductive calculus of those seeking only gain.  From there, it may be possible to engage students more directly in discussing the ways in which poetry, literature and aesthetic engagement are still devalued by a society driven even more than in Clare's day by demands for "productivity."  One might even then talk with students about how their own education, structured to make them (fiscally) "productive" individuals, does not hold a love of nature in and for itself—let alone poetry about such a thing—in very high regard.

  13. In raising the issue of the place of nature, and of poetry about nature, in the present educational system, one might bring up Clare's own relationship to his education, both formal and informal. Students will likely be curious about Clare's style and diction (which is more or less apparent depending on which edition of Clare's poetry is being used—and students could be directed to Simon Kövesi's excellent John Clare website with information on the controversy). It is useful to point out to students that Clare's language, as much as the subject he elects to describe, also challenges conventional notions of natural description. Clare's diction reflects his status as a laboring-class provincial subject. As students are quick to realize, Clare's experiences as someone who was forced to work the land will be distinct from the experiences of those who view the landscape simply for pleasure.  His "day job" affects his relationship to nature and how he wrote about nature. One might then ask students to consider how the demands placed upon them to enter certain acceptable "day jobs" affect their own ability to think about their place in the more-than-human world and about their ability to enjoy nature and the poetry that celebrates it.

  14. Clare's poems can teach us how to love landscapes like the fens. If it is possible to do so without seeming to be profiting from disaster, discussing with students the issue of learning how to love wetlands is something that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, would perhaps also show students how Romantic nature poetry is connected to the real world, and to their world. Many scientists believe that had the wetlands around New Orleans been better preserved, they would have served as a protective barrier, absorbing the water that ended up flooding the city. Recent articles found at news websites for MSNBC, the BBC, and the Guardian make this connection clear.

  15. However, on the Gulf Coast and in Florida, as well as in other places around the country the economically-driven desire to make wetland areas or other "waste" spaces "productive" has destroyed important ecosystems (although today it is more likely by turning them into strip malls than into arable fields). How much money—how many lives—might have been saved if the long-term value—both economic and aesthetic—of the wetlands of Louisiana had been understood?  How many times will we have to be shown the unsustainable practice of making calculations based on only short-term monetary gains?

  16. Even in the face of seemingly intractable circumstances, Clare writes in protest against enclosure, giving voice to neglected landscapes and endangered creatures. While Clare's poetry did not eradicate the greed of the enclosers, or halt the "progress" of agribusiness, his poetry remains an act of preservation and positive protest, commemorating long-vanished vistas and offering a warning to respect the more-than-human world that is still worthy of being heard today. His work is a hortatory meditation on the value of nature and of poetry about nature. One can thus suggest that Clare's poetry is just description—description that aspires to a higher level of justice, rather than just or merely description. Clare's words, like the words of other writers about nature, are explicitly connected to "the real world" in their effort to depict it. And these words can remind us what in this real world should be of real and lasting value to us, even in the face of the preponderance of the culture of money that surrounds us and our students.

Works Cited

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage, 1996.

Buell, Lawrence. The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination.  Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

Clare, John. "The Fens" in John Clare: Major Works. Eds. Eric Robinson and David Powell. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.

Darby, H.C. The Draining of the Fens. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1956.

Engell, James and Anthony Dangerfield. Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money. Charlottesville: University of Virginia P, 2005.

Kövesi, Simon. The John Clare Page. 20 April 2006. <>

Oliver, Mary. Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Shelley, Percy. "Ode to the West Wind," in Shelley: Poetical Works. Ed. Thomas Hutchinson. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Wordsworth, William. The Prelude. Eds. Jonathan Wordsworth, M.H. Abrams and Stephen Gill. New York: Norton, 1979.