Category Archives: Green Studies

Edward Thomas


Dymock Poets and Friends, No. 14 (2015), pp 36-51




Laurence Coupe


Based on a talk given to the Friends of the Dymock Poets on 22 March 2014.


I want to assess how far the discipline of green studies has appreciated Edward Thomas, and how it might now proceed to appreciate him, given that he clearly anticipated its concerns.

First, then, we need a definition of ‘green studies’ (a term always used as a singular). Put briefly, it is the UK version of the discipline known in the USA as ‘ecocriticism’, which is an abbreviation of ‘ecological literary criticism’. The idea is to explore the relation between literature and nature: in particular, the literary representation of nature and, just as importantly, the power of literature to inspire its readers to act in defence of nature. Where Marxist criticism focuses on class, feminist criticism on gender, and postcolonial studies on race, green studies is concerned with the theme of the fate of the Earth itself – one which contains, as it were, those other themes.

To appreciate the significance of green studies, we need to be aware that prior to its emergence in the later twentieth century a dominant trend in that academic area known as the humanities was simply to privilege culture over nature. One might say that the very word ‘humanities’ indicates the anthropocentric, or human-centred, focus of the enterprise; but it was mainly in the mid-twentieth century that the idea of nature as nothing more than a human construct took hold. Language created reality, culture created nature, words created the world. Though this way of thinking goes back as far as Plato, it was comparatively recently that wholesale ‘cultural constructionism’ took hold in the fields of philosophy, literary studies and (inevitably) cultural studies. Its accompanying refrain, always delivered with an air of self-congratulation, was ‘There is no such thing as nature.’

This phenomenon is something I challenge in my general introduction to The Green Studies Reader, where I refer to ‘the semiotic fallacy’: that is, the privileging of the ‘sign’ (word) over the ‘referent’ (thing), to the extent of denying the independent existence of the latter. In that same introduction, however, I try to point out that exposing the fallacy does not mean we resort to a crude realism: we have to bear in mind how language gives human shape and significance to the natural world which surrounds and contains the human world. What is needed is to see ‘nature’ as a site of struggle: both actual and imaginary, both ecological and ideological. It exists in its own right, over and above what we choose to say about it; but at the same time, it is open to interpretation, and its human meaning emerges in the course of the claims we make about it. ‘Green studies debates “Nature” in order to defend nature.’[1]

To indicate the possibility that Thomas was something of a prophet of green studies, let me begin by quoting his own definition of nature, given in the course of a letter to his friend Walter de la Mare in 1908, shortly after the publication of Thomas’s book Richard Jefferies:

 You ask me to define Nature. I used it [in Richard Jefferies ]vulgarly for all that is not man, perhaps because man contemplates it so, as outside himself, and has a sort of belief that nature is only a house, furniture etc round about him. It is not my belief and I don’t oppose Nature to Man. Quite the contrary. Man seems to me a very little part of Nature and the part I enjoy least. But civilization has estranged us superficially from Nature, and towns make it possible for a man to live as if a millionaire could really provide all the necessities of life, food, drink, clothes, vehicles etc., and then a tombstone.[2]

 Here let me add this remarkable observation, prompted by Thomas’s visit to Salisbury Plain:

 [It] makes us feel the age of the earth, the greatness of Time, Space, and Nature; the littleness of man even in an aeroplane, the fact that the earth does not belong to man, but man to the earth. And this feeling, or some variety of it, for most men is accompanied by melancholy.[3]

 Paraphrasing Thomas, we may say that he puts humanity in its place. To use David Abrams’ terminology, he situates it in the larger context of the ‘more-than-human’ world of nature.[4] In so doing, he challenges the anthropocentric assumptions that came to a head with the cultural constructionism to which I alluded above.

My task here, however, is less to itemise each and every way that Thomas foresaw the agenda of green studies (though we will return to this issue) than to consider how green studies has understood him. In this context, it goes without saying – though let me say it anyway! – that we are all immensely indebted to the scholarly work of Edna Longley, who in the course of collecting and annotating Thomas’s poetry and prose has demonstrated how amenable he is to an ecological reading. Here she reflects on the poetry:

 Few poets can match Thomas’s historical imagination. In fact, his post­-Darwinian approach to ‘the mystery of the past’ is ultimately ‘eco-historical’… Of all the ways in which Thomas’s poetry anticipates ideas that help us to read it, his ecological vision may be the most inclusive. Taken together, his poetry and prose pioneer ‘ecocriticism’.[5]

Elsewhere she reflects: ‘Thomas’s ultimately unifying idea is that of being an “inhabitant” or “citizen of the Earth”.’[6] What I like especially about this latter remark is that Longley actually uses Thomas’s own phrasing. It occurs in his study of George Meredith, an extract of which Longley includes in her selection of Thomas’s prose. She is surely right to draw attention to his wording, which I myself would interpret as Thomas’s way of reminding us that human culture (as suggested by ‘citizen’) can only make sense when seen in the context of more-than-human nature (as suggested by ‘Earth’). Before proceeding, let me provide the context for the phrase, to emphasise how seriously, how reverentially, Thomas spoke of ‘Earth’:

 Nature to him [George Meredith] was not merely a cause of sensuous pleasure, nor, on the other hand, an inhuman enchantress; neither was she both together. When he spoke of Earth, he meant more than most mean who speak of God. He meant that power which in the open air, in poetry, in the company of noble men and women, prompted, strengthened, and could fulfil, the desire of a man to make himself, not a transitory member of parochial species, but a citizen of the Earth …’[7]

 It is hard to realise that that way of thinking was expounded a hundred years ago rather than twenty, or even less. It is certainly a point of view that green studies is obliged to take seriously.


If green studies had a pioneer, it was undoubtedly Raymond Williams. Though largely associated with a Marxist account of literature and with the rise of cultural studies, he it was who developed in his later years a much greener worldview which became known as ‘socialist ecology’. The key work is The Country and the City. An ambitious survey of poetry and fiction over several centuries, including the twentieth, it charts the problematical relationship between urban and rural experience. Williams regards the genre of ‘pastoral’ as particularly important, because it is there that we witness the idealisation of the countryside, usually undertaken by writers removed from rural reality. As such, it is a falsification, which allows readers to enter into an idyllic world, with complete disregard for the harsh experience of those actually engaged in tilling the soil. Worse still, this pastoral ideal serves to mystify the real foundations of history and class struggle.

It would be gratifying to report that Williams, so important as a founding figure for green studies, recognises Thomas’s importance as an ecological writer in the relevant section of The Country and the City. Unfortunately, he does not. Firstly, he dismisses the Georgian school of poetry: ‘The self-regarding patriotism of the high English imperialist period found this sweetest and most insidious of its forms in a version of the rural past.’ Secondly, he takes Thomas to be simply offering his own version of the Georgian evasion of history and of the reality of the land. Thirdly, he ignores the vast body of Thomas’s writing, and takes that admittedly rather peculiar poem ‘Lob’ as representative. In doing so, he fails to do him justice. Consider this dismissive account:

 … a working man become ‘my ancient’ and then the casual figure of a dream of England, in which rural labour and rural revolt, foreign wars and internal dynastic wars, history, legend and literature, are indiscriminately enfolded into a single emotional gesture. Lob or Lud, immemorial peasant or yeoman or labourer: the figure was now fixed and its name was Old England …[8]

 I would not want to claim ‘Lob’ to be one of Thomas’s best works, but the point is that Williams is taking full advantage of its ambiguity in order to dismiss a body of work that, as a whole, mystifies neither England nor the history of its people, but rather encourages the reader to consider both in a larger perspective – such as was indicated above by Edna Longley.

Williams goes on to quote the second verse of another poem by another poet, namely Thomas Hardy’s famous lyric, ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”, in order to demonstrate its superiority to anything his successor and admirer Edward Thomas ever wrote. We will recall the opening, with its ‘man harrowing clods’ and its ‘old horse that stumbles and nods’. Then comes the verse which Williams quotes:

 Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

 His point in praising Hardy here is to dismiss Thomas and his peers: ‘That is the feeling of the persistence of land work through what seem the distant accidents of political history. But the Georgian version used rural England as an image for its own internal feelings and ideas.’[9] (258) Williams overlooks the fact that it was Thomas more than any of his contemporaries who admired Hardy’s poetry and who learnt how one might incorporate the stuff of rural life in seemingly slight lyrics.

We should also note that, in invoking Hardy, Williams fails even to refer to a poem of Thomas’s that really does seek to incorporate the harsh realities of the day. I mean ‘As the team’s head-brass’, of course. We recall how the poet first sets the scene:

 As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. …

 That plough is not merely a feature in the scene, however. In time, we hear the ploughman speak, as he enters into conversation with the poet:

 ‘… Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.’

 Finally, the poet stands back again to survey the scene:

 … Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.                      (123-4)


The idea that Thomas ignores actuality and opts for archetypal meaning, divorced from history, cannot withstand even a cursory reading of the poem. Here we are put in touch with the world of human labour; here we have not a solipsistic meditation, but the presentation of a genuine dialogue between poet and agricultural labourer; here we register the impact of history – not only the effects of the decline of agriculture in the England of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the consequences for those remaining to work the land, but also the trauma of the Great War. Nor should we forget the reminder of how different lives run concurrently, the lovers pursuing their love in parallel with the poet and ploughman ,each seeking to make sense of the land and its history. No wonder Hardy admired Thomas so much, and no wonder Thomas saw himself as working in continuity with the great master. How Williams could overlook such continuity remains a mystery.


If Williams represented the central assessment of Thomas’s work within green studies, mine would be a disappointing venture. Fortunately, we find a rather more positive account when we turn to the work of Jonathan Bate – even though it may not be one with which we want wholly to concur. In his Romantic Ecology (1991), he puts forward the idea of a Romantic environmental tradition, originating with Wordsworth and eventually including Edward Thomas. By way of a rejoinder to Raymond Williams, Bate defends pastoral as a potentially radical force, given that it rests on a positive view of the countryside and involves a critique of the given urban hierarchy. In Wordsworth’s hands, muses Bate, it involves advocacy of rural community and democracy as well as sympathy with the surrounding world of nature. Thomas he sees as taking up the Wordsworthian baton:

For Thomas, as for Wordsworth, pastoral was not a myth but a psychological necessity, an underpinning of the self, a way of connecting the self to the environment. . In literature as in life, connection with the external world is dependent on what [John] Clare called ‘The Eternity of Nature’, dependent on the survival of the daisy and the return of the swallow.’[10]

 But the connection which Bate is most keen to trace is that between Wordsworth’s ‘Poems on the Naming of Places’ and Thomas’s ‘Household Poems’, written for his wife and children – the latter being directly inspired by the earlier sequence. It is the sense of locality and the need to name, know and revere particular places that unites Wordsworth and Thomas most particularly.

Now, while fully acknowledging Bate’s contribution to our understanding of Thomas in relation to the poetic canon, I would demur as to the choice of predecessor. To my mind, Thomas’s vision has far more in common with another Romantic poet, namely John Keats. For one thing, Thomas wrote his own short study of Keats; for another, several of his own poems seem to have been inspired by Keats – ‘Melancholy’, for instance, clearly deriving from the famous ‘Ode on Melancholy’. But let me make my case briefly by first quoting from one of Keats’s letters:

 I lay awake last night–listening to the Rain with a sense of being drown’d and rotted like a grain of wheat — There is a continual courtesy between the Heavens and the Earth. — the heavens rain down their unwelcomeness, and the Earth sends it up again to be returned to morrow.[11]

 Now compare this with Thomas’s reflections from his prose work The Icknield Way (1913):

 I am alone in the dark still night, and my ear listens to the rain piping in the gutters and roaring softly in the trees of the world. Even so will the rain fall darkly upon the grass over the grave when my ears can hear it no more… Now there is neither life nor death, but only the rain… the rain falls for ever and I am melting into it. Black and monotonously sounding is the midnight and solitude of the rain. In a little while or in an age — for it is all one — I shall know the full truth of the words I used to love, I knew not why, in my days of nature, in the days before the rain: ‘Blessed are the dead that the rain rains on.’[12]

 Though at one point in this passage Thomas complains that he does not feel himself to be ‘a part of nature’, that wording is surely meant to indicate his sense of isolation. Otherwise, his reflections echo those of Keats. Indeed, I would say that despite his complaint, the mood that both writers share is that of desiring to merge with the more-than-human world and to have done with the burden of individual identity. In other words, the desire for union with nature and the desire for death are entertained concurrently. What both involve is a process of what we might call un-selfing.

Here are three further statements from Keats’s letters, in which we see that the readiness to merge with nature is part and parcel of his thinking about what constitutes great literature:

 I scarcely remember counting upon any happiness – I look not for it if it be not in the present hour – nothing startles me beyond the moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights — or if a sparrow come before my window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.

 … it struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously. I mean negative capability: that is, when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

 … as to the poetical character itself (I mean that sort of which, if I am anything, I am a member — that sort distinguished from the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime, which is a thing per se and stands alone), it is not itself — it has no self — it is everything and nothing — it has no character — it enjoys light and shade — it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.[13]


We note, pace Bate, the repudiation of the Wordsworthian aesthetic in that last quotation: unfair as the judgement no doubt is, Keats rejects his predecessor’s way of depicting nature because, instead of celebrating nature in all its variety and wonder, it always seems to return to a celebration of his own magisterial soul. As to the second quotation, it would be tempting here to expound upon that profound and endlessly fruitful phrase, ‘negative capability’, but suffice it to say that the impulse behind it – to cease to exist as an individual and to be at one with that which lies beyond the ego – is clearly bound up with that readiness to identify with the sparrow in the first quotation. As to its literary manifestation, we might refer to this, probably the most famous stanza of one of his most famous poems, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’:

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.[14]

 Now let us turn back to Thomas. We quoted him above, pondering the wet weather in the course of one of his prose works. Here is the complementary poem, ‘Rain’:

 Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.        (105)

 Specifically, the phrase ‘love of death’ comes directly from Keats; in general, the mood of the poem and the disposition of the poet are so thoroughly Keatsian that it is hard to see how any green-minded critic could think that Wordsworth was Thomas’s mentor.

Aware that we have traced this connection at some length, let me draw this phase of our discussion to a close by quoting from Thomas’s short but inspiring study, Keats (written late 1913; published 1916). Here he defends his poetic hero from the charge of weakness and self-indulgence. With Lord Byron’s dismissive comments in mind, Thomas is emphatic in his riposte to such hostile misunderstandings of the kind of genius that he himself admired so much, and to which (I would suggest) he was himself so close in spirit:

 These last months of dissolution coupled with the most obvious qualities of his earlier poems have given colour to the belief that Keats was an invertebrate, one to be ‘snuffed out by an article’. He was himself the first discoverer of that ‘morbidity of temperament’. That he did discover it, that he had a wonderful self-knowledge — not mere self-analysis — calm and penetrating, never coldly submissive, is a proof that it was not the whole truth. The morbidity was the occasional overbalancing of his intense sympathy, his greatest passive power.[15]


Here it seems appropriate to quote from a poem of Thomas which might itself be misconstrued as an expression of morbidity, when it is in fact an affirmation of a willingness to accept one’s own contingency and to acknowledge the absolute emptiness that contains the apparent fullness of all our lives. In ‘Old Man’ the poet ponders the plant, then the name of the plant, the relation between word and thing which thinking about the plant prompts, then the personal memories associated with the plant … and then makes a final leap of consciousness:

Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.
I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,
Sniff them and think and sniff again and try
Once more to think what it is I am remembering,
Always in vain. I cannot like the scent,
Yet I would rather give up others more sweet,
With no meaning, than this bitter one.
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
For what I should, yet never can, remember;
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.             (36-7)


 If Bate’s choice of precursor for Thomas in Romantic Ecology is open to question, a more promising perspective might seem to be provided in his later study in ‘ecopoetics’, The Song of the Earth (2000). Here the dominant figure is not the English Romantic poet Wordsworth but the twentieth-century German thinker Martin Heidegger. Let us consider briefly how Bate’s attempt to trace an affinity between philosopher and poet works out. I will necessarily have to simplify matters. Heidegger was a notoriously obscure thinker, who coined an esoteric vocabulary, the meaning of which is still contentious today. Here I offer my own summation rather than convey the full extent of Bate’s exploration of Heideggerian thought.

It is the later Heidegger who matters most to those engaged in green studies. His preoccupation is with the nature of poetic ‘dwelling’. It is through language, and above all through the intense language of lyric poetry, that humanity learns reverence for earthly things, for it is in so doing that it achieves a revelation of earthly things. These ‘things’ include ‘rocks and stones and trees’ (here I invoke Wordsworth); but they also include those artefacts and tools which are created by traditional craft, which in turn expresses ‘care’ for the Earth. Heidegger is anxious to distinguish these artefacts and tools from the objects churned out in processes of mass production. To appreciate a tree, to appreciate a tool: this is to effect an ‘unconcealing’ of the ‘Being’ of things. ‘Being’ for Heidegger is rather like ‘Brahman’ in Hinduism, the ‘Tao’ in Taoism, and the ‘Buddha-mind’ in Buddhism: that is, it is the divine source underlying the natural world which we see all around us. Poetry matters, because the poet is the ‘guardian of Being’, the ‘shepherd of Being’: it is through poetry that we align ourselves with nature, and with the spirit that sustains it.

So, then, we have complementary forces in Heidegger’s thought: language and ‘Being’, poetry and nature, logos (word) and oikos (Earth, understood as our true home). The question arises for Bate that, if it is through the former that humanity apprehends the latter, does that mean that humanity is always separated from the source it seeks? Are we condemned only to know oikos in terms of logos, rather than to find final reconciliation with it? His answer, on behalf of Heidegger, is as follows: ‘If mortals dwell in that they save the earth and if poetry is the original admission of dwelling, then poetry is the place where we save the earth.’[16]

It is in the final pages of his book that Bate attempts a Heidegerrian reading of Thomas. Given that the philosopher speaks so much of ‘dwelling’, he chooses one of the poems which Thomas entitled ‘Home’: in this case, the second one (‘Often I had gone…’).The first one is about difficulty of finding home; this one is about arriving there. ‘Home’ 1 is a poem of restlessness; ‘Home’ 2 is a poem of dwelling.

Here are two key passages from Thomas’s poem. First, the setting of the scene in the opening lines:

 Often I had gone this way before
But now it seemed I never could be
And never had been anywhere else;
‘Twas home; one nationality
We had, I and the birds that sang,
One memory. …

 Thomas imagines – or rather, is convinced – that the birds are welcoming him back. Their insouciant song tells him that they are no more heedful of the fact that the day is closing than is he. Thus Thomas proceeds to his final reflection: this time, not on the countryside itself nor on the birds, but on the work being carried out by a rural workman who lives close by:

 … Then past his dark white cottage front
A labourer went along, his tread
Slow, half with weariness, half with ease;
And, through the silence, from his shed
The sound of sawing rounded all
That silence said.                                              (81-2)


If I may summarise Bate’s reading, he notes in particular that the poet, the birds and the natural environment all speak the same language: all is one. Into this idyllic setting is introduced the sound of the labourer’s sawing, but this is not an intrusion: his work does not represent mindless technology, but rather a necessary craft, since humans must dwell locally and plant, then fell, trees to survive. The silence of nature is ‘rounded off’ by the human act. Bate sees the poem as enacting exactly what Heidegger means by ‘dwelling’. Though the words of the text are haunted by the split between subject and object, as asserted by the early-modern philosopher Descartes, the poem allows us to experience, if only momentarily, what it might be like to dwell poetically upon the Earth.

There are, however, some problems in invoking Heidegger in order to celebrate a poem by Thomas. Most obviously, but still debatably, there is the undeniably fascist element in his thinking. As a member of the Nazi party in the 1930s, Heidegger was subscribing to the same cult of the Aryan peasant and rural craft as was officially sanctioned by Hitler and Goebbels in their pursuit of German nationalism. Here is not the place to enter into the ongoing debate about Heidegger’s politics, but my instinct is that Edward Thomas would have found them uncongenial and, had he lived, would have repudiated them. Even though he loved the English countryside, and though he fought for England in the Great War, his own aim was to be ‘a citizen of the Earth’, not a narrow nationalist (no matter how sophisticated).

Again, we have to recognise that, for all Heidegger’s talk of the need to serve and guard ‘Being’, there is a strongly anthropocentric quality to his thinking. After all, in emphasising the primacy of poetic dwelling he is implicitly privileging the human world as offering special access to the truth of the Earth. Human beings are unique, and uniquely gifted, in this respect: it is not a capacity granted to birds and other beings. Lastly, it is ironic that Thomas the impoverished, practising poet would most likely disagreed with Heidegger the privileged professor about the status of poetry: for Heidegger, it was the answer to everything; for Thomas, who did not build up the confidence to start writing verse until he was 36, it was just one discipline that might help us appreciate the natural order.

To elaborate briefly on just one of those points: as far as nationalism is concerned, Thomas’s understanding, as indicated by the fourth line of ‘Home’, is that an England that does not include the birds is not a proper nation. Nor should we overlook the subtle way that, in his prose, he ponders the interplay of locality and the land as a whole:

[A]ll ideas of England are developed, spun out, from such a centre [ie, a specific place] into something large or infinite, solid or airy, according to each man’s nature and capacity; that England is a system of vast circumferences circling round the minute neighbouring points of home.[17]


Here I might mention a work that, though not strictly a contribution to green studies, is an excellent guide to the whole question of nation, landscape and ideology: Roger Ebbatson’s An Imaginary England (2005). Ebbatson manages to demonstrate that the natural world is always open to conflicting interpretations, without subscribing to a reductive ‘cultural constructionism’. In his discussion of Thomas, he addresses the way that he persistently repudiates the ‘official’ idea of England and sets out the grounds for an alternative idea of England. A stimulus to this discussion is this, Thomas’s remarkable statement about the need to view a place as an imaginative challenge not a definable location:

 This is not the South Country which measures about two hundred miles from the east to the west and fifty from north to south. In some ways, it is incomparably larger than any country that has ever mapped, since upon nothing less than the infinite can the spirit disport itself.[18]

Ebbatson is interested in the way Thomas defamiliarises cultural stereotypes of rural nostalgia, suggesting a much more unsettled land: ‘Indeed a national sense of identity or a settled Englishness is radically undermined by the darkness Thomas detected within himself in his almost hallucinatory degree of self-consciousness and division …’ Hence his fascination with outsiders and the dispossessed: ‘The nomadic wanderers who haunt Thomas’s texts, as figures for the poet, represent an otherness antithetical to settlement and modernity through their investment in libertarian displacement and cultural authenticity.’ (Ebbotson p 171) Hence too his sense of his own contingency, reflected in the restless, unfinished quality of his art: ‘Edward Thomas’s poems are clearly characterised … by a sense of incompletion, unsettlement and resistance to the centralising forces of an increasingly administered culture.’[19] (p 173) None of this, we might add, marks him down as the spiritual companion of one Martin Heidegger.


Where, then, does Thomas stand vis-à-vis green studies? My own instinct is that to appreciate fully his significance as an ecologically-oriented writer, we need to invoke a green theorist who – paradoxically – never actually wrote about him. I refer to the late American thinker, Theodore Roszak.

Before explaining Roszak’s position, let me provide another quotation from a prose work of Thomas’s which we have already cited, The South Country (1909). In a chapter on

‘History and the Parish’, he reflects:

The eye that sees the things of today, and the ear that hears, the mind that contemplates or dreams, is itself an instrument of an antiquity equal to whatever it is called upon to apprehend. We are not merely twentieth-century Londoners or Kentish men or Welshmen… And of these many folds in our nature the face of the earth reminds us, and perhaps, even where there are no more marks visible upon the land than there were in Eden, we are aware of the passing of time in ways too difficult and strange for the explanation of historian and zoologist and philosopher.[20]          

We sense here that long perspective which preoccupied Thomas throughout his adult life, both as poet and prose writer: he always insists on putting humanity in its place, within a larger context, both spatially and temporally. Here it is time, and specifically the time of evolution, which concerns him. Elsewhere, he frequently reflects on how humanity must find accommodation with the larger space of nature – as in the letter to De La Mare with which we began.

Here we might remind ourselves of the closing two verses of one of his most strikingly stark poems about the insufficiency of humanity and the necessity for it to learn how to follow the rhythm of the Earth upon which it depends. I never saw that land before’ ends as follows:

 I neither expected anything
Nor yet remembered: but some goal
I touched then; and if I could sing
What would not even whisper my soul
As I went on my journeying,

I should use, as the trees and birds did,
A language not to be betrayed;
And what was hid should still be hid
Excepting from those like me made
Who answer when such whispers bid.              (120)

 Such privilege as Thomas here claims for the poet is that of understanding the need for service, not the advantage of mastery or of superior knowledge. In learning how to use ‘A language not to be betrayed’ he is simply familiarising himself with the wisdom of the more-than-human world. If asked to sum up Thomas’s position, I would do so as follows. Nature is that larger culture which contains the narrow sphere of human culture, and into which human beings may have occasional insights if they purge themselves of their arrogant anthropocentrism.

Roszak’s work is also about the wisdom of humility. Here let me summarise the principles of the discipline which he founded, and which he called ‘ecopsychology’. In essence, he is saying that humanity has become increasingly divorced from nature, that ‘person’ has been detached from ‘planet’. Our conscious human actions are destroying the Earth, but most of the time we ignore the fact, so it is left to the ‘ecological unconscious’ to register the catastrophe. Manifestations include illness, anxiety, mental disturbance. In short, ecospychology is the study of our ability to register pain at what we are doing to the Earth. It aims to bridge the longstanding gulf between person and planet, mind and nature. The title of Roszak’s key work on this subject, The Voice of the Earth (1992) speaks of the need to regain a ‘transactional bond’ with nature: a bond which was severed with modernity and the myth of progress.[21]

In light of Roszak’s work, we might see Thomas as environmental prophet. Firstly, he laments the decline of rural life, and in particular the collapse of English agriculture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Secondly, he laments the urbanisation and homogenisation of civilisation: he looks to marginal groups for his vision of ‘England’. Thirdly, he sees the war as a representative act of collective violence – against nature as well as humanity itself. Fourthly, and most importantly, he registers the pain of modernity in his own mental anguish, which he manages to depersonalise in the act of writing.

I would like to stress that last point. With Thomas, we are concerned with more than individual pathology. The mental anguish which he endured – often finding expression in attempted suicide, as we know from the diaries – is the result of his extreme sensitivity to the damage done by humanity in the name of technological advancement.

Let me end by quoting some lines from some poems to which we have not yet referred, by way of bringing our survey to an end. Please think of what I said above about Roszak and Thomas when reading them. For instance, in ‘The Mill Water’, human labour is seen as one small part of the workings of the Earth:

 All thoughts begin or end upon this sound,
Only the idle foam
Of water falling
Changelessly calling,
Where once men had a work-place and a home.          (98)


Again, in ‘The Mountain Chapel’, the wind’s voice which is heard across the graveyard adjacent to the sacred building speaks with an authority to which we know we must submit:

 ”Tis but a moment since man’s birth,
And in another moment more
Man lies in earth For ever; but I am the same
Now, and shall be, even as I was
Before he came;
Till there is nothing I shall be.’ …

When Gods were young
This wind was old.                                                        (43)


Even in that most familiar of his poems, ‘Adlestrop’, the comings and goings of humanity, the power of the train engine: these are put in place by the larger context of nature:

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.                           (51)

Though the counties are precisely named, and to that extent humanised, the effect is of an endless movement outwards into a more comprehensive sphere of existence. It is this sphere which provides solace for the tormented soul, all too aware of the breaking of the bond with nature, in ‘Beauty’:

This heart, some fraction of me, happily
Floats through a window even now to a tree
Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale;
Not like a pewit that returns to wail
For something it has lost, but like a dove
That slants unswerving to its home and love.
There I find my rest, and through the dusk air
Flies what yet lives in me. Beauty is there.                 (58)

 Finally, we might read the full text of ‘The Word’, a meditation on how human endeavours relate to the processes of the Earth, how human culture relates to the larger culture of Earth, and how human language relates to the voice of the Earth. It is a poem about how to learn to be ‘a citizen of the Earth’, how to find peace by acknowledging the green world that surrounds us as our only true home, and which speaks a language beyond our own limited vocabulary:

 There are so many things I have forgot,
That once were much to me, or that were not,
All lost, as is a childless woman’s child
And its child’s children, in the undefiled
Abyss of what can never be again.
I have forgot, too, names of the mighty men
That fought and lost or won in the old wars,
Of kings and fiends and gods, and most of the stars.
Some things I have forgot that I forget.
But lesser things there are, remembered yet,
Than all the others. One name that I have not —
Though ’tis an empty thingless name — forgot
Never can die because Spring after Spring
Some thrushes learn to say it as they sing.
There is always one at midday saying it clear
And tart — the name, only the name I hear.
While perhaps I am thinking of the elder scent
That is like food, or while I am content
With the wild rose scent that is like memory,
This name suddenly is cried out to me
From somewhere in the bushes by a bird
Over and over again, a pure thrush word.                  (93)


Note on contributor:

Laurence Coupe is visiting professor at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he previously worked as a senior lecturer and where he pioneered ‘green studies’. Besides being the founding editor of the journal Green Letters, he is the editor of The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism (Routledge, 2000). Other books include Myth (Routledge, 1997; 2nd ed. 2009), Marina Warner (Northcote House, 2006), Beat Sound, Beat Vision: The Beat Spirit and Popular Song (MUP, 2007), and Kenneth Burke: From Myth to Ecology: (Parlor Press, 2013).


[1] Laurence Coupe, ‘Introduction’, The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism (London: Routledge, 2000), p 5.

[2] Edward Thomas: Selected Letters, ed. R. George Thomas (Oxford: OUP, 1995), p 51

[3] Edward Thomas, In Pursuit of Spring (London: Thomas Nelson & Son, 1914), p 12.

[4] See David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World (New York: Random House, 1966).

[5] Edna Longley, ‘Introduction’, Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2008) p 22. All poems of Thomas quoted here will be taken from this volume.

[6] Edna Longley, ‘Introduction’, A Language not to be Betrayed: Selected Prose of Edward Thomas (Manchester: Carcanet, 1981), p xix.

[7] Edward Thomas, A Literary Pilgrim in England (London: Methuen, 1917), p 52.

[8] Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London: Hogarth Press, 1973), p 258.

[9] Ibid., p. 258.

[10] Jonathan Bate, Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition (London: Routledge,1991), p 115.

[11] To save space I am not including dates or names of recipients. In this particular case I use an online version: [accessed 15 March 2014]

[12] Edward Thomas, The Icknield Way (London: Constable, 1913), pp 280, 283.

[13] Keats’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Jeffrey N. Cox (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2009), pp 103, 109, 294-5.

[14] Keats’s Poetry and Prose, p 459.

[15] Edward Thomas, Keats: His Work and His Character (London T.C. & E.C. Jack, 1916; repr. Cheltenham: Cider Press, 1999 ), p 52.

[16] Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth (London: Picador, 2000), p 283.

[17] Edward Thomas, The Last Sheaf, published 1928; included in A Language Not To Be Betrayed, p 231.

[18] Thomas, The South Country, p 8.

[19] Roger Ebbatson, An Imaginary England: Literature and Landscape 1840-1920 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), pp 170, 171, 173.

[20] Thomas, The South Country, pp 151-2.

[21] Theodore Roszak, The Voice Of The Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology (Grand Rapids, MI: Phanes Press, 1992; 2nd ed 2001), p 81.

Two important green books


European Journal of English Studies, 3, 1 (1999), pp 112-16

The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology
Edited by Cheryll Glotfelty & Harold Fromm
(Athens & London: University of Georgia Press, 1996)

Ecopolitics: The Environment in Poststructuralist Thought
By Verena Andermatt Conley
(London & New York: Routledge, 1997)

If the ‘neo-futurist’ thinker Paul Virilio is right, the ecological struggle is ‘the only battle worth fighting’. Yet on the evidence of most departments of literary and cultural studies, one might be forgiven for thinking that the state of the planet is something to pass over in silence and with embarrassment. One simply does not mention such things. We are all too busy producing more and more subtly Lacanian readings of Hamlet or Blue Velvet to notice that the life of most species, including the human, might soon be unsustainable. As Glen A. Love pertinently asks in Glotfelty & Fromm’s volume: ‘Why are the activities aboard the Titanic so fascinating to us that we give no heed to the waters through which we pass, or to that iceberg on the horizon?’ The very publication of The Ecocriticism Reader is immensely important, then. Though Glotfelty’s introduction modestly defines ecocriticism as ‘the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment’, it leaves us in no doubt of the stakes involved. ‘If your knowledge of the outside world were limited to what you could infer from the major publications of the literary profession,’ she declares, ‘you would quickly discern that race, class and gender were the hot topics of the late twentieth century, but you would never suspect that the earth’s life-support systems were under stress.’

Having made her intervention, she manages to make the discipline of ecocriticism sound as though it were just as ‘natural’ — just as culturally necessary — as post-colonial theory, Marxism and feminism. Assuming a literary tradition of ecological concern — which in the United States goes back to Thoreau and beyond — Glotfelty indicates three ‘phases’ or aspects of ecocritical activity. First, there is the consideration of the way nature is represented, whether as paradise or as wilderness. Second, there is the legacy of ‘nature writing’: a genre which derives from Walden, but which has been remarkably varied, ranging from poetic to scientific discourse and back. Third, there is the more abstract thinking known as ‘ecotheory’, which worries away at the dualism of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’. The third informs the other two, and all three ‘phases’ suggest that ecocritics are willing to learn from any theories which are current on the Titanic, provided that we do not lose sight of either the surrounding waters or the iceberg ahead.

Thus Sue Ellen Campbell takes the notion of ‘desire’ as a meeting point for poststructuralism and ‘deep ecology’. Frederick Turner, in a vein more structuralist than poststructuralist, reflects that if we oppose the ‘natural’ to the ‘human’, then humanity becomes totally artificial; if, on the other hand, we oppose the ‘natural’ to the ‘cultural’, then ‘human nature’ becomes asocial. The point is to think of humans as always implicated in the highly responsible process of ‘mediating’, as best exemplifed by the arts. Ursula Le Guin becomes more specific by comparing the male ‘weapon’ approach to nature (aggressive, negative, linear) with the female ‘carrier bag’ approach (receptive, affirmative, cyclical), and finding that each of them produces a different conception of narrative. Again, Scott Slovic reflects on nature as both ‘correspondence’ and ‘otherness’, both ‘intimacy’ and ‘distance’, with ‘nature writing’ offering the model of mediation. Along with such new material (new to me, at any rate) it is good to find pioneering work that may by now be deemed ‘classic’ ecocriticism. There is, for instance, a chapter from Joseph Meeker’s The Comedy of Survival: Studies in Literary Ecology (1972), in which the comic mode is defended against the tragic as more alert to the ‘mature complexity’ of the ecosystem. We find also William Rueckert’s polemical article ‘Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism’ (1978), which attempts to formulate a ‘generative poetics’ by which we might see ‘poems as green plants’ within a literary environment. (This is a notion which is not as whimsical as it sounds.) Rueckert being the leading advocate of the ideas of Kenneth Burke — whose own pioneering work was done between the thirties and the seventies — it becomes clear that this volume is by no means the reflection of a passing fashion. Indeed, one passing cause of regret is that more might have been made of Burke, whose own exposure of the logic of ‘hyper-technologism’ complements the most substantial body of literary theory produced in the States this century.

My only other qualm (again, a minor one) is that, though contributors to The Ecocriticism Reader continually alert us to the complexity of the word ‘nature’, the volume might have benefited from a working definition against which to test the various usages. For this we have to turn to Conley’s Ecopolitics, though there it is curiously confined to an unadventurous footnote: ‘I shall use the term “nature” in its common meaning of flaura and fauna.’ But this semantic timidity is not, I am glad to say, representative of Conley’s argument as a whole, which manages to be radically innovative and reliably introductory at the same time. Her not-so-modest proposal is that too many of those theorists who regard themselves as poststructuralists have forgotten, or rather repressed, the moment of 1968, when a new politics began to emerge, subversive of old ideas of progress and human conquest. The intellectual complement of the ‘events’ of that year is the structural anthropology of Levi-Strauss, with its decentering of ‘man’, not the existentialist Marxism of Sartre, with its privileging of the alienated Cartesian ego. Conley convincingly links Levi-Strauss’s ecology (a position he explicitly espouses in The View from Afar), with the ‘pre-Socratic’ science of flux advocated by Michel Serres, and with Paul Virilio’s exposition — or rather, exposure — of a ‘culture of speed’. She also relates all three to Heidegger’s defence of ‘poetry’ (mystery of nature) against ‘technology’ (mastery of nature).

One strength of this book lies in having such ideas articulated so cogently, even if the cogency borders on clumsiness at times. Conley would seem to think stylistic elegance is in poor taste at a time of ecological crisis. But then, she really does have important work to do here, not least the exposure of the vacuity and banality of the ideas of Jean Baudrillard. His position, she explains with laudable lack of tact, is one of ecological ‘disparagement’: in particular, his ‘simulation model’ of culture relies on ‘unbridled capital development’, the disastrous consequences of which he treats as mere ‘simulacra’. From his cynical scenario Conley might well turn with relief to the passionately ‘feminine writing’ of Cixous and Irigaray, who resume the legacy of 1968 and the link with Heidegger. However, though it would have no doubt suited her purposes to conclude with an unreserved advocacy of Cixous and Irigaray, particularly their rethinking of ‘nature and woman’, she feels compelled to recognise and regret a dangerous tendency to essentialism in their very resistance to the logic of patriarchy and pollution.

Thus Conley’s argument is clinched not by approving a theoretical position but by reminding us of an historical catastrophe. This is the Vietnam war, which not only was the most powerful referent for the sixties’ counterculture but also set the tone for our increasingly destructive age. Indeed, it was the war which, constituting ‘an attempt to impose the simulation model all over the globe’, made us realise that today ‘all wars are waged against nature’. The image that resonates most strongly in Conley’s powerful book is that used by General Westmoreland, who declared that he was going to turn Vietnam into one vast ‘parking lot’. Put this alongside the arresting trope from Glotflety & Fromm’s reader — that of the academy as Titanic, its passengers oblivious to both environment and imminent disaster — and the two images might serve as timely reminders why ecology should be acknowledged as crucial to literary and cultural studies.

Laurence Coupe

The Green World: Nature in English Poetry

The Green World: Nature in English Poetry

Laurence Coupe

E-Magazine 57 (September 2012), pp 27-31

Laurence Coupe looks at the ways in which poets have understood the human need to relate to the non-human environment.



In Book I of his poem Endymion, John Keats offers us a vision of nature as a healing whole. We can, he says, cure our ‘dark spirits’ by contemplating ‘Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon / For simple sheep’, and ‘daffodils / With the green world they live in’. I’ve always been struck by the simplicity and beauty of that phrase, ‘the green world’. I even used it for the title of a university course I launched on literature and the environment. Here I want to trace how nature, ‘the green world’, has been represented by English poets down the centuries.

A natural bond

If we go back to the father of English poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400 approx), we will find that in the ‘General Prologue’ to his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, the affinity between nature and humanity is clearly celebrated. Here is his description of the arrival of Spring:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour …
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages …*

The plants and birds are part of an order that includes human beings. Just as nature stirs into life, so do people feel the need to journey to sacred places so that they can honour God and his saints. Each pilgrimage is at once a natural activity and a religious ritual; there is a bond between God, his creation and humanity.

Having begun with Chaucer, we cannot discuss the place of nature in the tradition of poetry without initially moving from Chaucer to Shakespeare (1564-1616). If we look at his poetic drama, whether it be comedy (for example, As You Like It) or romance (for example, The Tempest), we find that there is always an important role ascribed to nature, which is associated with magical transformation. The critic Northrop Frye, in his A Natural Perspective (Columbia University Press, 1965), actually uses Keats’s phrase, ‘the green world’, to indicate that realm where Shakespeare’s characters lose their former selves and are reborn. Whether it be the forest in As You Like It or the island in The Tempest, nature is celebrated as a process of renewal that is also a pattern of redemption.

On this evidence, we may say that Shakespeare has obviously inherited Chaucer’s worldview, so confident is he in his depiction of the benign power of nature. Both in turn have inherited the vision of paradise, as depicted in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. The garden of Eden, in which our first parents, Adam and Eve, were placed in order to be eternally happy, lies behind all western representations of nature in its idyllic aspect. Thus Shakespeare’s comedies and romances are, in a sense, about regaining paradise – temporarily, at least.

True, the main part of the comic action involves a confusion of identity, in which the young lovers don’t know who they are or whom they really love, and we have a sense that the normal rules of society have been suspended; but it is only by having the courage to enter into this topsy-turvy world that the protagonists can glimpse their lost Eden. What we are witnessing is the power of transformation that Perdita, the heroine of The Winter’s Tale, attributes to ‘great creating nature’. It is this power which – as Polixenes, the royal father of the young man who loves her, reminds her – is the source of all art, no doubt including the play in which they appear. As he says, the very art that we think ‘adds to nature’ is ‘an art /   That nature makes’ (IV.iii).

Through the wilderness

Amid all this talk of paradise and redemptive transformation, we should not forget that Eden makes no sense to us unless we have something to contrast it with. In the Bible, we learn about a wilderness, through which Moses and the Israelites wander in search of their ‘promised land’. It represents the condition of humanity after the fall from the garden, caused by Adam and Eve’s defiance of God’s order. This condition is depicted in Shakespeare’s tragedies.

The paradise which we have lost, on the one hand; the wilderness of this world, through which fallen humanity is condemned to wander, on the other: these may seem stark opposites. But they are both aspects of nature. If Shakespeare in his comedies shows the former condition being rediscovered and a new way of living revealed, then in his tragedies he shows the latter condition leading to a realisation of error and a final repentance in the face of death.

So it is that in King Lear the aged monarch who divides his kingdom between two of his daughters, Goneril and Regan, only to be rejected by them, can only come to an understanding of the human condition once he has gone out onto the wild heath and endured a terrible storm. Crying out to the lightning and thunder, he calls on them to ‘Crack Nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once / That makes ingrateful man’ (III.ii). In other words, he comes to the point of wishing that nature had not produced humanity, that it would be better off without people such as Goneril and Regan. But it is the severe discipline of nature – the torment and madness which he has endure on the heath – that brings him to the point of awakening. Reflecting on the sufferings of the ‘Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are / That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm’, he renounces his privileged position and identifies himself totally with all those who are dispossessed (III.ii). In tragedy, the wilderness has redemptive power, just as strong as that of the rural idyll of comedy.

The true opposite of ‘the green world’ is not the seemingly hostile heath but the corrupt court or city. This opposition derives from what we call the ‘pastoral’ convention, pastoral being a kind of poetry that idealises the countryside; it goes way back, as far as the ancient Greeks. In King Lear, that corruption is embodied by Edmund, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, one of Lear’s courtiers. It is Edmund who voices an alternative view of nature: not as a restorative ‘green world’ but as a place of violence and lawlessness. His evil derives not only from a literary convention, though. When he declares ‘Thou, nature, art my goddess,’ meaning that he subscribes to a non-Christian world of aggressive competition, he speaks as the ‘new man’ of Shakespeare’s day. This kind of adventurer has no respect for the medieval ‘chain of being’, as it has sometimes been called. For him nature is all about getting one’s own way, regardless of the consequences for others. It is hard to forget, once heard, the defiant declaration which concludes this speech: ‘I grow; I prosper: / Now, gods, stand up for bastards!’ It is left to Lear’s third and youngest daughter, Cordelia, to defend the idea of nature as an ideal order; and she pays for doing so with her life.

Thus Chaucer and Shakespeare both assume that between nature and humanity there lies a ‘bond’ – this being the word that Cordelia herself uses. The difference between the two poets lies in the fact that Shakespeare is writing at a time when that link is being severed: a process he condemns, but which he feels obliged to depict.

Having said that, it would be naïve unquestioningly to associate the medieval model with perfection. After all, it appealed to an eternal ideal of natural order as a sanction for a specific, historical organisation of society, namely the feudal system (kings, lords, knights, serfs). But that in itself does not discredit the notion of nature as a norm. Moreover, capitalism, as represented by Edmund in King Lear, had no more right to invoke nature to justify naked self-interest, than had feudalism to justify a rigid social hierarchy.

Poet as nature’s priest

Long after the medieval model of the ‘chain of being’ had been set aside, William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was inspired by the French Revolution, seeing it initially as an expression of natural justice, by which the oppressors were overthrown and the will of the people established. But as revolt turned to totalitarian terror, with thousands of innocent people being executed, he looked to nature not as political inspiration but as spiritual presence – one that would heal the wounds of the revolution. He yearned to become one with it, and to feel at peace. In his poem ‘Tintern Abbey’, in which he describes his journey to a much-loved landscape after a lapse of five years, he realises that, where previously he has responded to the energy and vigour of nature, now what he needs is its healing calm:

… a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

The poet speaks as the recipient of a sacred revelation: the idea of nature as an all-inclusive harmony, a living principle that has the same authority and grandeur as previously attributed to God. The duty of human beings is to regain their connection with outer nature, and to understand that our inner nature is inseparable from it.

It is this Romantic view of nature that has proved so influential on the modern world, as people realise how far we have lost our connection with what we significantly call our ‘roots’.  The Romantic poets, indeed, are now widely regarded as anticipating the discipline  of ecology, which concerns the relation between individual and environment. For poets like Wordsworth were reacting not only against political atrocities but also the horrendous damage that was being done to the land by what we call the industrial revolution. No wonder it seemed the duty of poets to defend nature, and to proclaim its supreme importance.  In doing so, they came close to substituting for the traditional Christian idea of nature as a manifestation of God the ‘pantheistic’ idea of nature and God as equivalent.

Which brings us back to Keats (1795-1821). A later Romantic, and a very different poet from Wordsworth, he yet inherited the older poet’s reverence for the natural world. He inherited, too, the idea of the poet as nature’s priest. Perhaps, though, he takes the idea further when he begins the unpromisingly entitled sonnet, ‘On the Grasshopper and the Cricket’, by affirming: ‘The poetry of the earth is never dead…’ By implication, it is the poet who shows us how to open ourselves up to the poem which is nature. He shows us how to identify with all natural objects, in a spirit of what he elsewhere calls ‘negative capability’: that is, a willingness to open oneself up to experience, without any ‘irritable reaching after fact and reason’. These words come from his letters, in which we also read this: ‘The setting sun will always set me to rights, or if a sparrow come before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.’ Instead of imposing himself and his ideas on creation, Keats wanted to let creation in – to the extent of letting his conventional self  be overwhelmed.

Defending the green world

For Keats, it was in this capacity for empathy with nature that he differed from Wordsworth. He strongly rejected – once again, in his letters – what he called ‘the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime’. By this he meant that, where the older poet seemed to be enthusing about mountains and rivers, he was actually projecting his own idea of himself onto the landscape. I happen to think that this is an unfair charge, but if we turn from Wordsworth to a contemporary of Keats, John Clare (1793-1864), we do get a far greater sense of familiarity with the workings of nature than we get from reading the older poet. This no doubt has to do with the fact that Clare was an agricultural labourer, who had spent most of his spare time as a boy getting to know the ways of birds, badgers and other creatures which he regarded as fellow-members of the same rural community. No other English poet has depicted the lives of non-human creatures as sensitively as does Clare.

When the subsistence farming he knew was destroyed by the introduction of the ‘enclosure’ system – by which rich landowners appropriated the common land, ripping down hedges and blocking off meadows, woods and paths, in order to gain huge profits from the commercial exploitation of the land – his whole world changed. He felt as though his childhood Eden had been destroyed; the enclosure system was his equivalent of the original fall from the earthly paradise. In ‘The Mores’, written in Clare’s apparently clumsy but actually precise vernacular, he rails against those who have brought about this disaster, which he sees as an offence against nature itself as well as against all those who live close to the earth, whether human or non-human:

… Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine
On paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung
As tho the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go
This with the poor scared freedom bade good bye
And much they feel it in the smothered sigh
And birds and trees and flowers without a name
All sighed when lawless laws enclosure came…

Clare represents those who do not have a voice: not only dispossessed labourers with no means of subsistence but also birds whose familiar habitat is destroyed – not forgetting the trees and flowers. Never before has the green world been shown to matter in such vivid detail, nor its loss mourned so movingly.

Survival of the fittest?

The Romantic yearning to find peace by becoming one with a nature which it regarded as divine might be said to have been radically challenged in the middle of the nineteenth century with the publication of a scientific work by Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (1859). Or rather, it was the impact that the book had, and the way in which it was interpreted, that was decisive.

Darwin’s own thesis was that all creatures, including human beings, evolve by adaptation to their environments. He stressed that this involved cooperation just as much as it involved competition. But it was only the latter notion that entered the popular mind, subsequently enforced by one of Darwin’s followers, Herbert Spencer, coining the phrase, ‘survival of the fittest’. If Shakespeare’s Edmund had stood for the individual human being’s right to assert his rights regardless of any divinely ordained harmony others might believe in, now violent competition seemed to be the rule for all of creation.

Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-92) anticipated this pessimistic viewpoint in a long poem dedicated to his deceased friend, Arthur Hallam, published in 1850. Voicing his despondency in In Memoriam, Tennyson refers to ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw.’ That phrase is even now used by people who may never have read that poem, as a convenient way of summing up what they understand Darwinian theory to imply.

The idea of human beings struggling for survival in a hostile world was one main assumption that took hold in the England of the later nineteenth century: in particular it was used to explain, and sometimes excuse, inequality within human society itself. More importantly, and more accurately, some writers understood that the key factor was the displacement of humanity from its previously central place in a God-given (or, in the case of the Romantics, Godlike) order. One of these was Thomas Hardy (1840-1928).

Writing his greatest poetry after he decided to discontinue the novels for which he is mainly famous, Hardy frequently ponders what it means to be human when one realises that humanity might not, after all, be as important as we once thought. Here is the opening verse of a short untitled poem:

Let me enjoy the earth no less
Because the all-enacting Might
That fashioned forth its loveliness
Had other aims than my delight.

This ‘Might’, being indifferent to our claims for attention, is offering no promise of exclusive redemption to us. Indeed, it is more likely to care about the non-human population, which may well outlive us. So if paradise exists, the poet ‘will lift glad, afar-off eyes / Though it contain no place for me.’ Neither the garden of Eden nor the promised land were intended for us.

The modern waste land …and beyond

With Hardy, we approach our own world. His career overlaps with that of T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), an American who settled in England prior to publishing the most famous modern poem of all, The Waste Land, in 1922. Its main subject is the cultural decline of the West, particularly its loss of religious faith; but it addresses the theme of nature as well. Its opening lines take us back to Chaucer, but now with an ironic twist:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Instead of nature and humanity rejoicing together at the coming of spring, the renewal of the natural cycle is a cause for fear and despair. Life has become meaningless and oppressive: made all the more painful by the reminder of the burst of new life in nature, which is unattainable for mankind.

In the poem, nature offers no solace; we can only see it as a confirmation of what we already know all too well. The wilderness has entered the soul of humanity, only now it is a waste land without spiritual potential:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

Though the title phrase of Eliot’s poem is usually taken as a metaphor, the insistent depictions of desert and drought may also be taken as literal references to the way human beings have laid waste the Earth in the modern era. The distance from Chaucer, and for that matter from Wordsworth and Keats, could not be more obvious.

Various poets who came after Eliot tried to restore the broken bond with nature, seeking at the same time to raise environmental awareness. Ted Hughes (1930-98) is perhaps the most challenging: he rejects the Christian universe, with its idea of a creator God who transcends his own creation; he returns to pre-Christian nature religion, but not in a self-conscious or sentimental manner. He does not idealise nature: his ‘Hawk Roosting’ proudly admits that ‘I kill where I please because it is all mine,’ and ‘My manners are tearing off heads.’ At the same time, he does not subscribe to a crudely Darwinian worldview.  His recurrent theme is the need to abandon anthropocentrism, the idea that humanity is at the axis of all creation, and to admit our own animal nature in all its complexity.

For Hughes, the better way is to leave off trying to manage and manipulate the non-human environment, and to find spiritual truth in learning to dwell on the earth with respect for the life that teems around us. ‘That Morning’, in which Hughes describes fishing with a companion in Alaska and seeing two bears come down to catch salmon nearby, concludes:

So we found the end of our journey.
So we stood, alive in the river of light
Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.

In this spirit, our species might yet survive, and ensure the survival of others.

If this question of how nature is represented in literature and culture interests you, then you might want to find out more about a recent movement in critical theory, known generally as ‘green studies’ and more narrowly as ‘ecocriticism’. Whatever we call it, its focus is on how the representation of nature affects the way we treat it, and what our responsibilities are, as both citizens and literary scholars, towards ‘the green world’.

Laurence Coupe


*Note: ‘The Green World’ was not published as an academic article, so I have not provided references for the poetry quoted throughout.

Please note also that I have restored a sentence to the paragraph beginning ‘Various poets…’ in the final section of the article, in order to clarify Hughes’s position.


Further reading:

Laurence Coupe (ed.), The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism (London & New York: Routledge, 2000)

Laurence Coupe, Myth, 2nd edition (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009). [See especially Chapter 7, ‘Earth’.]

Laurence Coupe, ‘Green Theory’, in The Routledge Companion to Critical and Cultural Theory (2nd ed), edited by Simon Malpas and Paul Wake (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), pp 154-66