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Kevin Hutchings, Imagining Nature: Blake's Environmental Poetics

Monday, March 20, 2006 - 05:13
Kevin Hutchings, Imagining Nature: Blake's Environmental Poetics. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002. xiv + 256 pp. $75.00/£57.00. (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-7735-2342-1).

Reviewed by
Dennis M. Welch
Virginia Tech

Because scholars since Northrop Frye's Fearful Symmetry (1947) have generally considered Blake an adversary of nature, he has largely been avoided in the recent emergence of eco-criticism among Romanticists.[1] Kevin Hutchings's book changes this situation and deserves much respect for doing so.

Imagining Nature seeks to delineate a "distinctively Blakean view of the relationship between humanity and nature," a view challenging "the traditional Western notion that humans should exercise a hierarchical and narrowly anthropocentric 'dominion'" over the non-human world (3). Hutchings's strategy involves a double focus, in which he finds Blake distinguishing between nature itself and Enlightenment discourses about it, opposing and critiquing mostly the latter instead of the former. Deeply aware of discursive ideological renderings of nature, Blake shows that Enlightenment philosophy, science, and religion colonize it with anthropocentric systems of thought.

Following the "Introduction" in Imagining Nature, Chapter 1 includes sections not only on the scholarship about nature in Blake's work but also on his environments while growing up and his views concerning industrialism, his relationship with the creation theology of antinomian and Miltonic traditions, his myth of Albion in terms of panvitalism and hylozoism, and his own anthropocentrism as it relates to environmental ethics and animal rights. Of these sections the last two are the most original and interesting. According to Hutchings, panvitalism and especially hylozoism provided Blake with perspectives that emphasize the interconnectedness of all creatures as integral parts of a unified divine organism, which he called Albion or the Human Form Divine. But whereas the hylozoism of a James Hutton was solely analogical, the poet's is literal. All natural phenomena are parts of Albion's physiology, whose cosmic organicism enables Blake to imagine that they are both interrelated and interdependent. Because it may preclude "the possibility of valuing non-human entities on their 'own' terms" (67), this cosmic anthropomorphism seems problematic. And yet it challenges deistic mechanism and hierarchy and poses fresh possibility for an environmental ethics because, "if all nature is considered human, the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' must necessarily be generalized to include literally 'every thing that lives's" (69). Whether or not this view leads to a practical ethics, as Hutchings suggests in terms of "merely letting creatures 'be'" (74), is uncertain, however. For what if those creatures multiply (as deer have in some regions), so that people can't travel the highways safely or maintain the plants in their yards?  Just letting the deer "be" gives those plants less opportunity to live.

Chapter 2 presents a subtle and fascinating analysis of The Book of Thel , arguing that Thel's initial abandonment of the vales of Har is a rebellion against its implicit anthropocentric violence, that she is at odds specifically with its emphasis on use-value (or instrumentalism), and that she is informed by the Cloud about a selflessness (3: 26-27) that raises the possibility of egalitarian holism, in which she might participate except for her own sense of hierarchy and the danger such holism "can be manipulated to serve the self-interested ends" of power and regulation (89). Hutchings contextualizes this holism and its political implications in terms of the concept of "nature's economy," which "epitomizes a highly ethical mode of mutual coexistence" that the alienated Thel "would do well to emulate" but also effaces the otherness of Har's natural creatures "by naturalizing various modes of social hierarchy" (90) that Thel herself needs to reject. Underlying this effacement is the fact that "nature's economy," which Blake understood probably through his familiarity with botany and, in particular, with Erasmus Darwin's Loves of the Plants (1789), was a sexual economy. The illustrations of Thel, especially its title-page, show Blake's awareness of this fact. But Hutchings, instead of using it (as most Blakeans have) in order to argue that Thel fails to embrace her own sexuality, shows that this gendered economy involves a masculinist discourse projected by Thel herself in hierarchical ways between the male and female creatures she encounters.

Central to nature's gendered economy in the eighteenth century was its discourse on harmony, which tended to valorize a secure and orderly status-quo of unequal relationships. Hutchings conjectures that the word "Har," which is followed in two instances by a grammatically unnecessary period (3:18, 4:10), is an abbreviation for "Harmony" and that Thel's abandonment of Har constitutes an intuitive dissent against its peaceful but patriarchal pastoralism. While the conjecture about "Har." as an abbreviation may be relevant, it's important to remember that the Erdman edition, which Hutchings uses for all quotations from Blake's texts, is a consensus version of them (Viscomi 181). This means that the unnecessary periods after "Har" probably do not appear in each copy of Thel and therefore "Har." is probably not an abbreviation. More importantly, as Joseph Viscomi observes, in Blake's texts there are "marks meant to be commas but that look like periods because of the way they had printed" (181). In both instances of conjectured abbreviation, commas would make more sense as the appropriate punctuation.

Chapter 3 of Imagining Nature shows how Blake "correlates the Satanic 'Selfhood' with Newtonian physical science, basing his critique of Satanic self-interest in part on social and quasi-legal implications of Newtonian atomism" (28). Although it was Donald Ault, who first elucidated the Satanic "Selfhood" in terms of Newtonian science, Hutchings's analysis of its social and legal import in Milton is fresh and illuminating. The analysis involves environmental concerns by showing—as in the design on plate 15, the imagery associated with Theotormon's Mills (27: 49-54), and the descent of Milton from heaven—how Blake critiques both the "deterministic model of cyclical recurrence" (125) and the self-reflecting legalism that are inscribed in Newtonianism and inclined to enclose nature in a dull round of atomistic and self-interested creatures.

Because Blake considers Newtonian circular time highly problematic, he formulates "imaginative alternative[s]" to it,  associated with such diverse forms as vortexes, larks, wild thyme, and visionary artists—each embodying "a profound commingling of discrete entities that prefigures the interrelationality crucial to ecological models" (136). In contrast to these imaginative alternatives, Blake also recognizes the eventual outcomes of mechanistic circularity and atomistic self-interest—i.e. , disrespect and even destruction of the natural world (M 38: 15-19). But perhaps even more relevant for Hutchings's argument than Newtonian science to self-interest and adverse effects on nature was the long history of self-interest per se in England. This history ranged from at least Hobbes and Locke to Mandeville, Hume, and Smith. Explored by such scholars as A. O. Hirschman and Stephen Holmes, self-interest, which became a euphemism for avarice, underscored the political economy of accumulation, consumption, waste, and abuse that has compromised nature at least as much as Newtonianism has.

Focusing mostly in Chapter 4 on Jerusalem, Hutchings continues to investigate the role that anti-relational self-interest plays in Blake's understanding of humanity's connections with nature. Albion's fall from emanative relationship ("Fibres of love"), which once united him with Eternity's inhabitants, leads him to solipsism and to anthropomorphic projections that divide, disregard, and damage nature. Given Albion's many projections on nature (Vala), Hutchings focuses on her role, which he sees (unlike most Blakeans) not as inherently harmful but instead as ideologically constructed by patriarchal science and religion. He makes this point partly by demonstrating Vala's associations with Newtonianism and deistic reason and by examining both her upbringing in the context of religious warfare (J 22: 4-7) and her adulthood amid male-centered relations such as the battle between Albion and Luvah for "dominion" over her body (43: 61-62).

Just as Vala is ideologically constructed, so also is the "Polypus," which is an especially problematic manifestation of materiality as a proliferating and consuming power capable of homogenizing humanity and nature. But just as this figure in Blake's work derives from his era's materialistic science, specifically on vegetative polyps, which Hutchings mentions and which Blake may have observed in William Hunter's Anatomical Theatre (Kreiter 114, Hilton 88), so also does the figure have definite associations with sensibility as a kind of physical, social, and economic "connective tissue" that bound men and women together in self-indulgent and mutually consuming relationships. These relationships played directly into the economics not only of marriage but also of household demand and commercial products in a vast consumer revolution, "a mighty Polypus" (15: 4), whose effects on natural resources and the environment were as extensive also as those of eighteenth-century science. Thus, the following would have been relevant in Hutchings's argument about Blake's concern with nature and its "female commodification" (183): namely, that he critiques the "Polypus of soft affections" (M 24: 38), that the "Fibres of Life" which Rahab and Tirzah "Weave" into human bodies "till the Great Polypus covered the Earth" (J 67: 4, 34) are probably nerve-related tissues, which (as Dr. George Cheyne had said to Samuel Richardson) women possess in greater (and hence more sensitive) abundance than men do, and that Rahab herself with "Lovely  Delusive Beauty" (FZ 8.109.11) enters Albion's heart (J 66: 28-29) "in many tears" (or great sentiment) and, with her "locks of shadowing modesty" and "features, soft flourishing," functions as a figure of deceptive and corrupt sensibility, "consuming lives of Men [as well as other entities] / In fires of beauty" (J 70: 22, 23, 27-28).

In a "Coda" to Imagining Nature Hutchings asks if "the humanization of nature that occurs in Jerusalem's apocalypse" can be trusted as an "appropriate resolution" to the problem that "human conceptions of nature are largely the cause of nature's devaluation" (207). He answers this question, arguing that "poetic anthropomorphism prevents a purely utilitarian approach to the natural world" (207) by avoiding hierarchy and imposition, as in the case of Jerusalem's apocalyptic moment when nature's animals "Humanize / In the Forgiveness of Sins" (98: 44-45). This reconciliation between the human and animal is interpreted by Hutchings as mutual, "actualizing the cosmic covenant God establishes in Genesis between himself, humanity, and literally 'every living creature'" (217). In this apocalypse, however, the natural or material—in particular, the body's "excrementitious / Husk & Covering"—will be cut away, "Driving outward the Body of Death" (98: 18-19, 20). The new body succeeding the old and resembling the Pauline "spiritual body" (1 Cor. 15:44) will be like nothing humanity and nature have ever known, for all creatures will partake in it as parts of Albion's (risen) body. And if they do not, then Albion will return to a hierarchical order, with his embodiment existing at a higher plane metaphysically and ontologically than any other. The point is that nature and embodiment in the Blakean apocalypse differ fundamentally from nature and embodiment in this world.

Except for neglect of this difference and the discursive histories of self-interest and sensibility in England, no significant gaps appear in Hutchings's book. On the contrary, it includes numerous fascinating discussions of both minute and significant particulars in Blake's work. Posing and working through competing interpretations in mutually instructive ways, Hutchings's book is well balanced and illuminating. Permanently altering the old misconception that Blake is an adversary of nature, the book makes judicious use of modern ecological thought and is a significant contribution to both "green" Romantic studies and Blake scholarship.

[1] Lussier and McKusick are exceptions. [back]

Works Cited

Ault, Donald D. Visionary Physics: Blake's Response to Newton. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1974.
Hilton, Nelson. Literal Imagination: Blake's Vision of Words. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983.
Hirschman, A. O. The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977.
Holmes, Stephen. "The Secret History of Self-Interest."  Beyond Self-Interest. Ed. Jane J. Mansbridge. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990. 267-86.
Kreiter, Carmen S. "Evolution and William Blake." Studies in Romanticism 4 (1965): 110-18.
Lussier, Mark. "Blake's Deep Ecology." Studies in Romanticism 35 (1996): 393-408.
McKusick, James. Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology. New York: St. Martin's, 2000.
Viscomi, Joseph. Blake and the Idea of the Book. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.