McKusick, "Introduction"

Romanticism & Ecology


James McKusick, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

  1. English Romanticism first emerged as a literary movement from a heady combination of political revolution and cosmic optimism, nowhere better expressed than in William Wordsworth's famous lines on the French Revolution: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!" (1805 Prelude, book 10, lines 692-693). With the fall of the Bastille and the triumph of the Rights of Man, the possibilities of human liberation suddenly seemed limitless. And this dramatic revolutionary process was not confined to the realm of political institutions; all of human society was caught up in the sweep of revolutionary transformation. In response to Tom Paine's The Rights of Man (1791-92), Mary Wollstonecraft penned her radical treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), arguing that women are entitled to full equality with men in politics, education, and economic opportunity.

  2. The unbounded liberation of human society was accompanied by a dawning realization of the interconnectedness between human beings and all other living things. Erasmus Darwin, in Zoonomia, or the Laws of Organic Life (1794), argues that "the features of nature . . . demonstrate to us, that the whole is one family of one parent." In his scientific epic poem, The Botanical Garden (1791), Darwin endows plants with lustful human attributes, and in The Temple of Nature (1803) he offers a theory of evolution that foreshadows that of his grandson, Charles Darwin, in seeking to demonstrate the affiliation of all living things in a family tree reaching back to the primordial slime. If humans are truly related to all living things, then all living things must be entitled to a share in the "natural rights" that will surely be vindicated in the progress of human liberation. The Rights of Man are only a staging-point along the road to the Rights of Animals, and this road in turn will lead eventually to the total liberation of all living things.

  3. Indeed, to many of the Romantic poets, the natural world was regarded as a full participant in the progress of liberty. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his poem "To a Young Ass" (1794), declares his brotherly love for this humble beast of burden: "Poor little Foal of an oppressed race!" (line 1). Wordsworth, in "Lines Written in Early Spring" (1798), expresses a deep sense of kinship with the entire natural world: "To her fair works did nature link / The human soul that through me ran" (lines 5-6). William Blake, in America: A Prophecy (circa 1793), offers a visionary narrative of the liberation of the natural world from slavery, tyranny, and oppression:

    The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations;
    The grave is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrapped up;
    The bones of death, the cov'ring clay, the sinews shrunk & dry'd.
    Reviving shake, inspiring move, breathing! awakening!
    Spring like redeemed captives when their bonds & bars are burst;
    Let the slave grinding at the mill, run out into the field:
    Let him look up into the heavens & laugh in the bright air;
    Let the inchained soul shut up in darkness and in sighing,
    Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years;
    Rise and look out, his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open.
    And let his wife and children return from the opressors scourge;
    They look behind at every step & believe it is a dream.
    Singing. The Sun has left his blackness, & has found a fresher morning
    And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear & cloudless night;
    For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease.
    (Plate 6)

    For Blake, the fall of Empire will result in the redemption of nature, a rediscovery of the human place in a dawn of almost ineffable beauty. The word "Spring" works in this passage as both verb and noun; the captive springs forth into a "fresher morning" of springtime. The Lion and Wolf, erstwhile fierce predators, will lie down with the lamb in a millennial rebirth of innocence. Harking back to the Biblical theme of a peaceable kingdom (most memorably expressed in Isaiah 11.6-7), Blake envisions a world where all creatures live in peaceful harmony, a redeemed community of living things no longer "red in tooth and claw." The same theme is apparent in the art of Edward Hicks (1780-1849), whose painting "The Peaceable Kingdom" offers an archetypal image of unfallen nature in the American Eden. For Hicks, the Biblical depiction of wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, lion and calf, peacefully dwelling together, provides a compelling model for the ways that people of different ethnic heritage can create a community of mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence. In the historical background of Hicks's painting, William Penn is shown in the midst of a semicircle of Native Americans, negotiating the peace treaty of 1682. By juxtaposing American history with Biblical archetype, Hicks implies that Penn's treaty offers a nonviolent alternative to the militaristic and ultimately genocidal practices of the American nation in its relentless westward expansion.

  4. For the English Romantic poets, nature is more than just a passive beneficiary of human endeavors to bring about social and political transformation. The natural world is pervaded by revolutionary energies that contribute to the cause of human liberation. Poised on the brink of revolutionary possibility, nature is imbued with an awesome life-giving potential, as well as a terrible power of destruction. For Percy Bysshe Shelley, the looming mass of Mont Blanc is an ominous harbinger of death, bearing a threat of apocalyptic devastation almost beyond the scope of human imagination:

    Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin
    Is there, that from the boundaries of the sky
    Rolls its perpetual stream; vast pines are strewing
    Its destined path, or in the mangled soil
    Branchless and shattered stand; the rocks, drawn down
    From yon remotest waste, have overthrown
    The limits of the dead and living world,
    Never to be reclaimed. The dwelling-place
    Of insects, beasts, and birds, becomes its spoil;
    Their food and their retreat for ever gone,
    So much of life and joy is lost. The race
    Of man flies far in dread; his work and dwelling
    Vanish, like smoke before the tempest's stream,
    And their place is not known.
    ("Mont Blanc" lines 107-120)

    Both natural and human communities are liable to be destroyed by the implacable power of the avalanche; no bird, beast, or insect can escape its dreadful wrath. Like the Old Testament Jehovah, Mont Blanc is utterly unpredictable, often wreaking terrible destruction upon the guilty and innocent alike. However, by invoking the concept of nature as a dwelling-place for all living things, Shelley suggests that there does abide a deep kinship between "the race of man" and the living creatures that surround and nourish us. The sheer vulnerability of humankind in the face of nature's destructive power may serve to remind us that we do coexist with other living things in a single dwelling-place, a global ecosystem. Moreover, Shelley asserts that Mont Blanc can exert a more positive influence upon the course of human events; it has "a voice . . . to repeal / Large codes of fraud and woe" (lines 80-81). Here again, as in Blake's America, nature is not merely a passive witness to human existence, but may become an active participant in the historical process of human liberation from tyranny and oppression.

  5. Shelley's political views were deeply influenced by William Godwin, who argued in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) that the process of human liberation is historically necessary and inevitable. In Godwin's view, personal volition plays no role in the gradual emergence of humankind from subservience into freedom and equality. Rather, like a force of nature, the progress of Reason will certainly triumph over "the spirit of oppression, the spirit of servility, and the spirit of fraud" (Book 8, Chapter 3). According to Godwin's doctrine of Necessitarianism, "the inherent tendency of human intellect is to improvement," and therefore humankind will inevitably succeed in establishing "a state of society [that] is agreeable to reason, and prescribed by justice" (Book 8, Chapter 5). Godwin offers a glowing description of this future state, where all people share equally in the "bounties of nature" and are free to "expatiate" in the realms of intellectual discovery:

    In a state of society where men lived in the midst of plenty, and where all shared alike the bounties of nature, these sentiments would inevitably expire. The narrow principle of selfishness would vanish. No man being obliged to guard his little store, or provide, with anxiety and pain, for his restless wants, each would lose his individual existences in the thought of the general good. No man would be an enemy to his neighbour, for they would have no subject of contention and of consequence, philanthropy would resume the empire which reason assigns her. Mind would be delivered from her perpetual anxiety about corporal support, and free to expatiate in the field of thought which is congenial to her. Each would assist the enquiries of all. (Book 8, chapter 3)

    In Godwin's view, the existing forms of law and government will simply wither away; there is no need for revolutionary insurgency or violent uprising. Although such a view might seem naively optimistic in its conception of human nature, it nevertheless offered a viable source of utopian ideas to many of the English Romantic writers, from Southey and Coleridge (with their egalitarian scheme of Pantisocracy) to Mary and Percy Shelley (who sought to realize an intellectual community with Lord Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva).

  6. Godwin goes on to describe the economic basis of this visionary utopian community. He claims that no one will have to work more than half an hour per day, while the rest of one's time will be spent in the pursuit of poetry, mathematics, and philosophical reflection. All superfluous luxuries will be abolished; commerce will cease; urban populations will be dispersed to the countryside. Godwin envisions a purely agrarian society in which every local community is self-governing and self-sustaining, living entirely upon the produce of the local soil:

    Every man would have a frugal, yet wholesome diet; every man would go forth to that moderate exercise of his corporal functions that would give hilarity to the spirits; none would be made torpid with fatigue, but all would have leisure to cultivate the kindly and philanthropical affections, and to let loose his faculties in the search of intellectual improvement. (Book 8, chapter 3).
  7. Such a community would offer an ideal mix of physical exercise and "intellectual improvement," along with a healthful diet and friendly social interaction with other community members. Godwin further envisioned an unlimited degree of sexual freedom (since marriage would be abolished as a retrograde social institution), and he optimistically foretold a time when humans would live practically forever. On the whole, this future society sounded like a pretty good deal to Godwin's contemporaries!

  8. Godwin's ecological utopia was not only influential in his own day, but has continued to serve as an archetypal basis for all subsequent experiments in the establishment of self-sufficient farming communities. During the 1840s, the American Transcendentalists sought to establish agrarian communities at Brook Farm and Fruitlands1, while Henry David Thoreau experimented with individual self-reliance by building a cabin at Walden Pond. In the twentieth century, thousands of Americans sought to go back to the land, with agrarian lifestyle experiments that range from the hippie communes of the 1970s to the sprawling suburban "farmettes" of the 1990s. Perhaps the most dramatic embodiment of Godwin's ecological utopia yet attempted in North America is the vast, expensive greenhouse known as Biosphere II, constructed in the desert mountains near Phoenix, Arizona in the late 1980s. Conceived as a hermetically sealed and totally self-sustaining artificial ecosystem, Biosphere II was also planned as an experimental community in which a group of "Biospherians" would be voluntarily locked inside the dome for up to eighteen months at a time. In theory, they would spend a few hours each day growing crops, with the rest of their time devoted to scientific research. In practice, however, the Biospherians found that their living conditions were far from ideal; they spent most of their time in a desperate struggle to survive. Crops refused to grow, ants and cockroaches infested the dome, the water became polluted with human waste, while the atmosphere grew saturated with carbon dioxide. Like most Godwinian experiments, this one failed.

  9. The inevitable failure of Godwin's ideal society was foretold by Thomas Robert Malthus in his Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers (1798). Malthus provides a fairly convincing demonstration that no conceivable form of social organization can satisfy the innate human desire for happiness in the long run, because population will always tend to outrun the available food supply. Human populations always tend to increase in an exponential progression, while their means of subsistence can only increase in an arithmetical progression. As a result, a given population will expand to the limit of subsistence, but will then be held in check by "the ravages of war, pestilence, famine, or the convulsions of nature" (Chapter 6). Malthus offers an extended critique of Godwin's Political Justice, arguing that even if the ideal society envisioned by Godwin were attainable, it would soon relapse into all the miseries of the normal human condition, because its rapidly growing population would rapidly outstrip all conceivable means of subsistence. As the grim forces of starvation and pestilence begin to take their toll, the ideal Godwinian community will quickly collapse into abject misery and selfishness: This beautiful fabric of imagination vanishes at the severe touch of truth. The spirit of benevolence, cherished and invigorated by plenty, is repressed by the chilling breath of want. The hateful passions that had vanished reappear. The mighty law of self-preservation expels all the softer and more exalted emotions of the soul. The temptations to evil are too strong for human nature to resist. (Chapter 10) With this grim depiction of human behavior in the face of "the chilling breath of want," Malthus provides an all-too-realistic portrait of the demise of an ideal Godwinian community. Perhaps the denizens of Biosphere II should have read Malthus before embarking upon their doomed experiment in a sealed artificial ecosystem.

  10. There is no escape from the grim calculus of Malthusian theory. Indeed, Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population has proven foundational to all subsequent work in population dynamics, and it provided a crucial impetus for Charles Darwin's discovery of evolution by means of natural selection. At the same time, however, we must concede that there is something quite depressing in the gesture by which Malthus deflates Godwin's grand speculation. Like the skeptical philosopher Apollonius, who cruelly intrudes upon the wedding celebration of Lamia and Lycius (in John Keats's poem Lamia), Malthus has a way of ruining every party that he attends. The ideal worlds created by the Romantic imagination have trouble sustaining themselves in the presence of Malthusian gloom. Keats trenchantly describes the pernicious process by which Philosophy will "unweave a rainbow":

    There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
    We know her woof, her texture; she is given
    In the dull catalogue of common things.
    Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
    Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
    Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine -
    Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
    The tender-person'd Lamia melt into a shade.
    (Lamia, lines 231-238)

    Mean old Apollonius! Given a choice between the luminous beauty of the rainbow and the "touch of cold philosophy" (line 230), who would not choose the former?

  11. Herein lies the essential dilemma of Romantic Ecology. The modern science of ecology is founded upon a bleak Malthusian calculus of scarcity, a world of limited resources where organisms must struggle to survive. The competition among individual organisms for scarce resources is absolutely essential, not only to the modern ecosystem concept, but also to the Darwinian theory of evolution, which necessarily entails "the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life."2 To be sure, modern ecological science also places significant stress upon the concepts of biodiversity, altruism, and symbiosis, and these concepts offer some scope for understanding an ecosystem as a place where collaboration and mutually beneficial exchange can occur alongside the more ruthless forms of competition. But there is really nowhere to hide from the underlying Malthusian dynamic of potentially limitless demand for scarce resources. To the extent that the science of ecology has had an impact upon the contemporary environmentalist movement, it is largely manifested in the doomsday scenario of global catastrophe that is said to be approaching in the very near future. According to this scenario, there is very little reason for hope; the exponential growth of human population, coupled with the environmental impact of pollution, global warming, and ozone depletion, will inevitably result in a total collapse of human civilization. Probably this will occur in our own (very short and miserable) lifetimes. Malthus was right!!! We are all doomed!!!

  12. And yet there may still be reason for hope. Perhaps, despite the dire predictions of Malthus, human civilization will find a way to avoid a swift and inevitable collapse. If so, the antidote to Malthusian gloom will almost certainly be found in Godwin's more optimistic belief in the ability of human beings, as rational agents, to build a sustainable society. The English Romantic poets, working with Godwin's vision of an ideal community founded on the instinct of benevolence, offered many different versions of such a sustainable society. Godwin contributed a great deal to the utopian vision that underlies much of Romantic poetry, and although it is generally difficult to construct the blueprint of an ideal society upon such an equivocal foundation, it is nevertheless useful to examine the possible relevance that Romantic idealism may have for our own historical moment. It is the underlying thesis of this collection of essays that Romantic poetry expresses an environmental ethic; that the ideal of community among all living creatures is essential to our own survival as a species; and that there is present relevance in the Godwinian aspiration to create a sustainable society on the basis of an agrarian mode of production in local communities.

  13. Each of the essays in this collection offers a distinctive new approach to Romantic Ecology. The lead essay by Ashton Nichols offers a historical overview of the methods of observational science in the century before Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), arguing that the connection between living things was conceived in this period mainly in terms of giving and receiving pleasure. Rather than engaging in a grim struggle for existence, living creatures were understood to be involved in an economy of intellectual sympathy, as described by Erasmus Darwin in his scientifically-detailed erotic poem on "The Loves of the Plants" (Part 1 of The Botanic Garden, 1791). In the next essay, Kurt Fosso offers some closely related insights, arguing that the Linnaean system of taxonomy enacted a Copernican revolution in the existing understanding of the place of humans in the natural world. No longer monarchs of all they surveyed, human beings were resituated as one animal among many similar, interconnected species. The Romantic poets' recurrent sense of kinship with animals emerges from this new scientific understanding of the underlying familial relationships among all living things.

  14. William Stroup's essay, "Henry Salt on Shelley: Literary Criticism and Ecological Identity," offers further evidence of the deep affinity between science and poetry in the nineteenth century. Stroup argues that one of Shelley's most perceptive Victorian readers, Henry Stephens Salt, is an important forerunner of modern ecocritical approaches to Shelley. By carefully examining Salt's interpretation of Shelley, Stroup elucidates the ideological uses to which "nature" has been put. Going beyond formalism, Salt engages with the challenging ethical and environmental ideas in Shelley's work, and explores their relevance to his own time. Modern readers of Shelley have much to learn from such an approach.

  15. Kevin Hutchings, in his essay on "Gender, Environment, and Imperialism in William Blake's Visions of the Daughters of Albion, examines the implications of the correlation between Bromion's brutal appropriation and rape of Oothoon's body and the figurative (but no less violent) "rape" of the natural world. Hutchings argues that Blake's poem, while overtly concerned with the issue of human slavery, is also very much concerned with the parallel conquest and "enslavement" of nature. Tim Fulford's essay, "Wordsworth's 'The Haunted Tree' and the Sexual Politics of Landscape," is likewise concerned with the issues of power and desire that lurk at the heart of male violence, whether it is directed toward the domination of landscape or of the female body. However, in Fulford's view, Wordsworth founds the English conception of nature not on rape and metamorphosis (as in Greek myth), but on a sensual playfulness - on looking but not touching. Fulford examines the political implications of this relationship to landscape, concluding that "Wordsworth's green England, by 1820 at least, is not [Jonathan] Bate's but [Edmund] Burke's, not revolutionary but conservative." For both Blake and Wordsworth, the natural landscape is figured as a domain for the enactment of male desire, whether transgressive or conservative in its political outlook.

  16. Timothy Morton has contributed the final essay in this collection: "'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" as an Ambient Poem; a Study of a Dialectical Image; with Some Remarks on Coleridge and Wordsworth." The key themes of this essay are in certain respects complementary to those developed by Hutchings and Fulford. Morton examines Jane Taylor's poem "The Star"—a nursery-rhyme that has received very little attention from critics of Romanticism—as an exemplary instance of "ambient poetry," that is, a poem that is engaged in the representation of female identity within domestic space. Such "domestic pastoral," in Morton's view, is necessarily implicated in a dialectic between the local and the global, and for this reason it offers a novel way of reading literature with a mind for ecology. Morton's essay provides an authentically new approach to Romantic Ecology by interrogating the representation of nature by a woman writer of the Romantic period. By exploring what Morton terms "a non-essentialist form of indigenousness," this final essay further broadens the boundaries of utopian discourse in the Romantic era.

Works Cited

Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman. Newly Revised edition. New York and London: Doubleday, 1988.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912.

Darwin, Erasmus. Zoonomia; or, The Laws of Organic Life. 2 vols. Dublin: P. Byrne and W. Jones, 1794-96.

Godwin, William. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness. 2 vols. London: Robinson, 1793.

Keats, John. The Complete Poems. Ed. John Barnard. 2nd ed. London: Penguin, 1987.

Malthus, Thomas Robert. An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers. London: J. Johnson, 1798.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley: Poetical Works. Ed. Thomas Hutchinson. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Wordsworth, William. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. Ed. Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940-49.


1  Brook Farm was an experimental farm at West Roxbury, Massachusetts. Founded in 1841 by George Ripley, this farm was an experiment in cooperative living that combined manual labor with education and intellectual conversation. Members included Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles S. Dana; visitors included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, William Ellery Channing, Horace Greeley, and Orestes Brownson. An intellectual success, but a financial failure, Brook Farm finally folded in 1847. Fruitlands was another experimental communal farm of the 1840s.

2  This phrase occurs in the title of Charles Darwin's book, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859).