All posts by Laurence Coupe

Reading and Writing

Robert A. Segal & Kocku von Stuckrad (eds), A Vocabulary for the Study of Religion, Volume 3 (Leiden & Boston: Brill Press, 2015), pp 196-202.


Reading and Writing



This article offers an overview of the relationship between writer and reader, as understood from the ancient world to the present day. It traces this relationship through Greek philosophy, Elizabethan poetics, eighteenth-century criticism, and so to Romanticism and its legacy. It then addresses the twentieth-century attempt to put the writer and reader in their place, before commending the contribution of one particular thinker—a Christian philosopher—to the debate. 


The relationship between reading and writing might seem natural and inevitable: writers write so that readers can read. Over the centuries, however, secular literary theory in the West has returned again and again to the issue of what that relationship involves and, more specifically, what effect the writer’s efforts have on the reader.

Early Views

Our starting point must be ancient Greece, and the radical disagreement between the philosopher Plato and his pupil Aristotle. One of the reasons that Plato banished poets from his ideal republic was that their works encouraged indulgence in emotions rather than a state of contemplative reason. Aristotle’s response was his theory of “catharsis”, which he formulated in the course of his account of the structure and function of tragic drama. Tragedy, he proposed, necessarily aroused two main emotions—“pity” (for the suffering protagonist) and “fear” (of the power of the gods who administered his or her punishment)—but with the very purpose of purging the audience of those emotions by the end of the play. Even though the events performed on stage were illusory (an actor playing a king in a story that may never have happened, for example), the result had a healing effect on the lives of those who witnessed them. This impact was succinctly summarised in the words of the English poet John Milton, who produced his own Christian version of classical tragedy in Samson Agonistes (1671): the desired state was “calm of mind, all passion spent.”

It might be said that the whole history of literary theory goes back to the disagreement between Plato and his pupil. Certainly, Aristotle’s defence of literature on the grounds that it has a beneficial impact on the reader has been repeatedly invoked in various forms over the millennia. The Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney may have been conveying the wisdom of his own age when, in his Defence of Poesy (1595), he stated that the point of poetry was “both to delight and to teach” (Sidney 1968: 9); but he was also invoking classical authority, given that his statement was based on sentiments uttered in the ancient world by the poets Ovid and Horace, themselves very much aware of Aristotle’s thesis.

Of course, the very claim that literature improves readers by presenting them with an inspiring illusion only begs the question of how far literature tells the truth about reality. We are not here directly concerned with this issue of “mimesis”, or representation, but it relates to the reader’s dilemma: How much trust should she or he place in the author’s words? Sidney believed that that trust should be absolute, for the poet improves upon the reality we know: “Nature never set forth the earth in so rich a tapestry as divers poets have done, neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden” (Sidney 1968: 7). Hence it will be a foolish reader who looks to the writer for factual, as opposed to imaginative truth: “Now, for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth” (Sidney 1968: 733).

The principle at which Sidney is hinting here is what he refers to elsewhere in his Defence as “feigning”. That this was a popular notion of the period is evident from the fact that four years later, Shakespeare had one of his comic fools, Touchstone, declare: “the truest poetry is the most feigning” (As You Like It, III.iii.15). That creative writers ‘feign,’ that is, invent or pretend, means that their works have to be taken on faith by the reader, with the hope that the benefits will be sufficient to make the act of reading worthwhile. In the words of the Romantic poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose admiration of Shakespeare’s art knew no bounds, it is necessary to adopt “that willing suspension of disbelief … which constitutes poetic faith” (Coleridge 1971: 248).

Before the Romantics, however, English criticism of the earlier eighteenth century—what we often refer to as the neo-classical period—had produced its own model of literature, rather more measured and sober than Sidney’s. “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it”: so wrote Samuel Johnson, the great spokesman for critical common sense in that period (Johnson 1984: 536). His own preoccupation being endurance rather than enjoyment, Johnson famously objected to Shakespeare on the grounds that he did not offer improvement for his readers: in short, that his plays lacked “moral purpose”. This in turn prompted Johnson to state what he took to be a general truth: “It is always a writer’s duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independent of time or place” (Johnson 1968: 71). Through those words we can intuit the confidence which the neo-classical period had in the idea of a culture of shared values, a public sphere of agreed assumptions—what Johnson encapsulated in his famous phrase, “the common reader.”

However, there being in most cases a considerable distance between the author sitting down to write and the reader sitting down to read—in some cases, several centuries—the problem had to be addressed of how far the reader’s interpretation may legitimately depart from the author’s text. Writing not long before Johnson, the poet Alexander Pope gave the following advice in his versified “Essay on Criticism”: “In every work, regard the writer’s end / Since none can compass more than they intend” (Pope 1963: 152). It sounds eminently reasonable to say that readers should not, for example, read Milton’s Paradise Lost in order to find out about gardening (though the descriptions of the garden of Eden might please them); but is the reader always to be constrained by what he or she knows of “the writer’s end”?


The era of Romanticism, which departed so radically from the critical assumptions of the earlier decades of the eighteenth century, was if anything even more preoccupied with the notion of the ‘authority’ of the author than the neo-classical era had been. This in turn had implications for the way the reader should regard him or her. With the Romantics, the idea of the author as solitary genius came to the fore; and with it, the idea of the reader as initiate worshipping at the shrine of creativity. The poet and painter William Blake famously declared to a correspondent in 1799: “You say that I want somebody to Elucidate my Ideas. But you ought to know that What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak men” (Blake 1988: 702). Only those of strong disposition, who are willing to make the effort to follow the trajectory of the author’s majestic imagination, need apply for the role of reader.

How far that imagination should follow its own laws is another matter. If it is given total freedom, the result may be confused and obscure; if it is constrained too much by form and decorum, the result may be dull and obvious. The Romantic poets pondered this dilemma at some length. When William Wordsworth joined with his friend Coleridge to produce a volume called Lyrical Ballads in 1798, it met with incomprehension. This was due to their refusal to imitate the “poetic diction” of their predecessors, and their desire to celebrate the earthy, passionate life of rural folk. Their audacious decision to explore the psychological depths of their subjects, and of themselves, produced some unsettling verse which was received badly by the critics. Wordsworth felt obliged to set out the two authors’ intentions in his preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, which appeared two years later. In doing so, he developed his ideas about the relationship between writing and reading.

It is in this preface that Wordsworth famously defines the poet as “a man speaking to men.” This definition in itself would hardly have offended Pope and Johnson. However, he has no sooner offered it than he qualifies it significantly: “He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than one supposed to be common among mankind …” (Foakes 1968: 35). What Wordsworth is trying to do is reconcile a model of linguistic communication, whereby the writer addresses the reader directly as an equal, with a model of imaginative consummation, whereby the writer’s genius moves him or her to use language in a way that the reader never could. The import of the latter model is that, if that reader is prepared to surrender to the writer’s spell, she or he may catch something of that “spirit of life” which informs the poem.

Imaginative consummation is what Wordsworth’s friend Coleridge came to believe was the more important characteristic of poetry. Indeed, the figure of the “man speaking to men” did not feature significantly in the latter’s extensive speculations in the years following Lyrical Ballads. His preoccupation in Biographia Literaria (1817) is with the very name and nature of ‘imagination.’ What he meant by it may be briefly conveyed by a phrase from one of his most famous poems “Dejection: An Ode,” which he wrote fifteen years earlier. Here he laments the decline in his own loss of formative creativity, even while seeking to define that power: Every moment of despair that he experiences “Suspends what Nature gave me at my birth, / My shaping spirit of Imagination” (Coleridge 1971: 107).

The idea that great poetry works according to a quasi-divine force (“Nature” for Coleridge being a sacred totality), which enables us to find pattern and meaning in our experience, is at odds with Wordsworth’s more modest claim. Wordsworth may regard the writer as possessing superior faculties, but he assumes that he has a duty to speak as directly as possible to the reader. Coleridge may believe that all human beings are capable of imagination, but he does not believe that the poet’s privileged access to the “shaping spirit” should be compromised due to an assumed demand for immediate sense. Hence his two most famous poems, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan”, are celebrated not for their communicative power so much as for their elusive and haunting beauty. The reader of these poems must not expect an easy journey or a conveniently packaged message. For the poet’s obligation is to his “shaping spirit,” which moves in a mysterious way, not to the casual reader seeking diversion.

Coleridge’s “shaping spirit” and Wordsworth’s “man speaking to men” each fostered a strain of nineteenth-century thinking about literature. The “shaping spirit” led ultimately to the aesthete who practises “art for art’s sake.” The “man speaking to men” led to the Victorian sage who offers moral advice to his age. The poet and critic Matthew Arnold united both strains. In “The Study of Poetry” (1880), he argued that the decline of religious faith meant that literature itself was filling the void, both as moral guide and as aesthetic refuge: “More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us.” (Arnold 1964: 47). There could not be a more explicit case for the idea that the writings of great minds had a beneficial effect on its readers.

The Twentieth Century

The relationship between writers and readers, far from being hereafter taken for granted, was debated at length in the twentieth century. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), the Anglo-American poet and critic T.S. Eliot suggested that the “individual talent” meant nothing without the “tradition” to which it belonged, even while that talent might extend that tradition, or else help us appreciate it anew. On this basis, he advocated a doctrine of “impersonality”, which stated that the person who writes the poem should be of no interest to the reader. Speculation about the state of mind, heart or soul of the author was futile: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality” (Eliot 1975: 43). Effectively, Eliot had offered a rebuke to the Romantic manifesto articulated by Wordsworth in the preface to Lyrical Ballads. Eliot was also implicitly querying Arnold’s idealistic claims for the impact of poetry, even though he himself revered “tradition” in a quasi-religious manner.

By the time we get to the North American movement of the mid-twentieth century known as the New Criticism, all talk of the writer’s aims in writing and of the reader’s benefits in reading was becoming suspect. W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley produced two uncompromising essays: “The Intentional Fallacy” (1946) and “The Affective Fallacy” (1949). The first of these argues that the intention of the author is “neither available nor desirable” as a standard for judging the success of a work of literature. The work should be read objectively, in its own right, and should be assessed only on intrinsic grounds (see Wimsatt 1954: 3-20). If the author’s life is banished from his own poem in that first essay, the second essay banishes the reader’s life from the act of reading: to equate the meaning of the poem with its psychological impact on the reader is to surrender to “impressionism and relativism.” It does not matter what various people of different times and places have discovered in a poem; what matters is the poem itself (see Wimsatt 1954: 21-39).

Though New Criticism was based in the USA, it had been anticipated in England by such works as I.A. Richards’ Practical Criticism (1929), which resulted from Richards’ experience of seeking responses from his Cambridge students to poems that were provided without attribution of author, or even date. Richards had been shocked by a general failure to understand what the poems were about, let alone recognise the importance of tone, imagery, and so forth. He set himself the task of outlining a proper method for analysing literature, which this and other books of his laid out. A younger Cambridge academic, F.R. Leavis, was initially much influenced by Richards’ “practical criticism,” but subsequently recuperated the Romantic idea of the great author. The genius who expressed his or her affirmation of ‘life’ (a word Leavis never tired of using), would thereby encourage in the reader a parallel affirmation. Taking his career as a whole, we may say that Leavis owed far more to Arnold than he ever did to Richards.

Leavis died in the 1970s, at about the time when French literary theory had begun to encroach upon English academic criticism. No doubt due to an entrenched empiricism, the latter had been slow to respond to structuralism, which offered a highly abstract key to all possible sign-systems. It saw all language, including the literary use of it, as a self-perpetuating system of signification rather than as a means of individual expression. Roland Barthes, who had early on been an exponent of structuralism, did not begin to have any impact in England or the United States until he took the structuralist approach to its limit, thus indirectly providing a manifesto for what became known as post-structuralism. In his essay “The Death of the Author” (1968), he might seem to be simply restating the New Critical orthodoxy that the writer is not a legitimate reference point for the reader who wishes to understand the writer’s work. Again, to demonstrate how an individual author relies on the collective code of language was already acceptable structuralist practice. However, here Barthes is going much further.

Echoing the “deconstruction” of Jacques Derrida, which challenges the idea of a fixed meaning, and anticipating the “reader-response theory” of Stanley Fish, which challenges the idea of a fixed text, he subverts simultaneously the idea of fixity and the idea of authority, which he sees as synonymous. As the writer disappears from view, readers are free to engage with the language of the text in any way they choose; there are no constraints, because there is no author/authority. Instead of a stable text, the product of the writer’s mind, we are dealing with unstable ‘texture’ – with ‘writing,’ a tissue of signs which has no hidden ‘secret’ to reveal: “To give a text an Author [sic] is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.” The reader, by contrast, is a far less predictable entity, and so a more promising figure altogether  — one who may reconstruct the text just as he or she wants. Thus: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (Newton 1988: 157).

If we no longer feel obliged to “regard the writer’s end,” in Pope’s words, then an obvious danger is an anarchy of interpretation; Barthes was fully prepared to run that risk. Anglo-American criticism was not prepared to go all the way with Barthes, however. In Structuralist Poetics (1975), Jonathan Culler seemed to concede a good deal to post-structuralism by focusing on the reader, but he did so only in order to seek a new sense of order: the need, as he saw it, to delineate the nature of “literary competence”, which meant formulating the legitimate “conventions” by which readers made sense of texts (Culler 1975: 258). However, Culler’s assumption was that these readers were affiliated to an existing, stable institution, namely a university, in which consensus was essential to the well-being of the academic community. In his later work, Culler made much more allowance for the variety of interpretation, and the fact that readers of different times and places would read the same text differently.


Ricoeur’s Discourse Theory

Legitimacy and variety of interpretation are issues that have long since been addressed in the study of the Bible, but rather than provide a lengthy overview of the development of biblical study in relation to secular literary theory, it might be useful to look briefly at one particular contribution to secular literary theory which is informed both by scriptural scholarship and religious faith. I am referring to the work of the Christian philosopher, Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005). Ricoeur more than anyone addressed the relationship between the writer and the reader, and the status of the text which lies, as it were, between them.

Reacting against the structuralist model of language as system and linguistic unit as word, Ricoeur opts for that of discourse theory, which sees language as event and linguistic unit as sentence. As he reminds us, “the first and fundamental feature of disourse” is that “it is constituted by a series of sentences whereby someone says something to someone about something” (Ricoeur 1991: 82-83). This function is not radically altered when we turn from spoken communication to literary communication; but of course, the place and function of the text has to be addressed—and Ricoeur duly does so.

As we have seen, Romanticism gave us the idea of the writer as genius, with whom the reader seeks to empathise, hoping to experience the world in the same way, albeit at a lesser intensity. But New Criticism reminded us that it is only the author’s work, and not the author’s state of mind, that is available to us; and structuralism raised the question of whether language is a mode of individual expression at all. Thereafter post-structuralism gave full approval for the reader to respond to the text with complete disregard for any authority, authorial or otherwise. Ricoeur may be seen as comprehending these issues by addressing “the very historicity of human experience,” which involves “communication in and through distance” (Ricoeur 1991: 76). Hence he articulates the dialectic between “participation” and “distanciation”, between “understanding” and “objectification”, between the response to the event of “saying” and the recognition of the fixity of the “said”—a fixity which in literature is known as the text (Ricoeur 1991: 78).

When discourse passes from speaking to writing, we find that meaning becomes much more problematical but also much more promising. As Ricoeur reminds us: “writing renders the text autonomous with regard to the intention of the author. What the text signifies no longer coincides with what the author meant …” (Ricoeur 1991: 83). To recognise this, however, is not necessarily to abandon any notion of reference, to confine ourselves to an arid description of the language of the text, or to surrender to interpretative chaos. Ricoeur, drawing on his knowledge of hermeneutics, or theory of interpretation, asks to us to take as our focus “the world of the text”. It is this notion that permits us to attribute referential meaning to literary works. For “there is no discourse so fictional that it does not connect up with reality” (Ricoeur 1991: 85). But such discourse refers not to the first-order reference that we get in spoken discourse, when the speaker is able to point to a reality which is common to both him and the listener. Rather, we are dealing with a second-order reference which offers a much richer sense of reality.

Essentially, what is at stake here is a new model of the reader: one which must be clearly distinguished from the freewheeling and high-handed figure celebrated by Barthes. Consider Ricoeur’s own, very careful formulation of what is involved in the act of ‘appropriation’ which the reader performs. Despite the connotations of this term, what Ricoeur envisages is as far from interpreting the text just as one pleases as it is from expending all one’s energies on locating the supposed meaning of the author. “Ultimately, what I [as reader] appropriate is a proposed world” (Ricoeur 1991: 87-88). This is “not behind the text, as a hidden intention would be, but in front of it, as that which the work unfolds, discovers, reveals. Henceforth, to understand is to understand oneself in front of the text.” Though the reader is destabilised, the point is that it is the text which is doing the destabilising: “It is not a question of imposing upon the text our finite capacity for understanding, but of exposing ourselves to the text and receiving from it an enlarged self, which would be the proposed existence corresponding in the most suitable way to the world proposed” (Ricoeur 1991: 88).  To apprehend such an existence demands a risk, or wager, of interpretation on the part of the reader: “just as the world of the text is real only insofar as it is imaginary, so too it must be said that the subjectivity of the reader comes to itself only as it is placed in suspense, unrealized, potentialized. In other words, if fiction is a fundamental dimension of the reference of the text, it is no less a fundamental dimension of the subjectivity of the reader. As a reader, I find myself only by losing myself” (Ricoeur 1991: 88).

Most people consulting the present volume will no doubt catch the allusion in that last statement to the Gospels. It is no coincidence. Ricoeur’s model of interpretation for secular texts works just as well for sacred texts. For in both cases, the goal of the reader is not to recover an authorial meaning that precedes the act of writing. Rather, it is to enter into the “world” of the text and to allow the realm of the “possible” to enter one’s life. In short, the end of the act of reading is revelation, which Ricoeur would have us conceive in the fullest sense, with all the Biblical connotations in play.

But even if one wishes to refuse the spiritual aspect of interpretation, one can still  agree that Ricoeur offers a most satisfying account of the relationship between writing and reading, event and understanding, even taking into account the brief history of that relationship which we have here provided.



Abrams, M.H., The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition, Oxford, 1953.

Arnold, M., Selected Essays, London, 1964.
Barthes, R., Image Music Text, trans. S. Heath, New York, 1977.
Blake, W., The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. D.V. Erdman, New York, 1988.
Coleridge, S.T., Select Poetry and Prose, ed. Stephen Potter, London, 1971.
Culler, Jonathan, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature, London, 1975.
Eliot, T.S., Selected Prose, ed. F. Kermode, London, 1975.
Foakes, R.A. (ed.), Romantic Criticism: 1800-1850, London, 1968.
Johnson, S., Preface to Shakespeare, New Haven, 1968.
Leavis, F.R., The Living Principle: ‘English’ as a Discipline of Thought, London, 1975.
Newton, K.M. (ed.), Twentieth-Century Literary Theory, London, 1988.
Pope, A., The Poems of Alexander Pope, ed. J. Butt, London, 1963.
Ricoeur, P., The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics, ed. D. Idhe, Evanston, 1974.
Ricoeur, P., Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning, Fort Worth, 1976.
Ricoeur, P., From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics II, Evanston, 1991.
Russell, D.A., and M. Winterbottom (eds.), Ancient Literary Criticism: The Principal Texts in New Translations, Oxford, 1971.
Ruthven,, K. K., Critical Assumptions, Cambridge, 1979.


Sidney, P., Defence of Poesy, ed. D.M. Macardle, London, 1968.
Scholes, R., Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction, New Haven, 1974.
Selden, R., and P. Widdowson, A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory, London, 1993.
Sturrock, J., Structuralism, London, 1986.
Wimsatt, W.K., The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry, Lexington, 1954.




Robert A. Segal & Kocku von Stuckrad (eds), A Vocabulary for the Study of Religion, Volume l (Leiden & Boston: Brill Press, 2015), pp 517-524.





The word ‘environment’ is here used to refer to both the human and non-human spheres, but with special emphasis on the dependence of the former on the latter. We explore the range of associations of the term in ecology, in the theory of evolution, in the ‘Gaia’ hypothesis, in religion, and in literary criticism. New advances in thinking are celebrated, but ancient wisdom is also invoked.


Perhaps the most comprehensive definition of ‘environment’ is that given in the Oxford Dictionary of Ecology: “The complete range of external conditions, physical and biological, in which an organism lives. Environment includes social, cultural and (for humans) economic and political considerations, as well as the more usually understood features such as soil, climate and food supply” (Allaby 1998: 143). Those human ‘considerations’ and those non-human ‘features,’ while they may be studied separately, are necessarily complementary. At first sight, it is the former that the English literary critics F.R. Leavis and Denys Thompson seem to have in mind in their influential Culture and Environment (1933). After all, the avowed aim of the book is to offer a means of resisting the ‘standardization’ of life brought about by mass production and entertainment. But as their argument develops, we see that, in alerting their readers to the deterioration of their culture, they cannot help but talk about nature.

For, considering further that title of Leavis and Thompson’s volume, it is clear that by ‘environment’ they mean two different things. Firstly, they mean the social context of modern, urban England. This they see as having suppressed a living ‘culture’—the rural way of life which had been expressed most powerfully in the language of Shakespeare and whose demise is documented by writers such as George Sturt, author of The Wheelwright’s Shop and Change in the Village. This brings us to Leavis and Thompson’s second meaning. Because for them the world of Shakespeare and Sturt had ‘roots’ in a way of life which itself had ‘roots’ in the land, the critics see the ideal ‘culture’ as an embodiment of the ‘environment,’ in this sense: the  rhythms of a natural order, manifest in a specific (i.e. English) locality.

The word that Leavis and Thompson use to make the link between social environment and natural environment is ‘organic,’ as in the phrase ‘organic community.’ The idea that there once was a human way of life that was in tune and in keeping with the order of nature, and that its memory should be kept alive, has over the decades since the book’s publication been dismissed as sentimentality. However, it might well seem all the more necessary today, as the very survival of life on Earth will depend on human beings acquiring sufficient respect for the natural environment to avoid doing further, irrevocable damage.

The challenge is to take responsibility for one’s locality without forgetting the larger, global context. We may say that ecology addresses the relationship between organism and environment; but the question arises as to how extensive that environment is. Most of the time, the individual will be thinking only of habitat, that is, the physical locality in which he or she lives, along with other organisms, whether plant or animal. But beyond that lies the whole landscape of the country of which he or she is a citizen; and beyond that are the seas and lands of the rest of the globe, with all their varied inhabitants. The connections multiply. The Greek root of the word ‘ecology’ is oikos, ‘home’: to think ecologically is to understand that one’s home extends from locality to planet.

The term for the relationship between specific organisms and a specific environment is ‘ecosystem.’ But again, the extent of a given ecosystem depends on the decision of the person analysing it. The pond in one’s garden counts as an ecosystem; so too does a whole ocean. To have a coherent environmental worldview, one must be able to see that the relationships we discover in a chosen locality are indices of the larger relationships that keep the Earth functioning, which may be seen as an ecosystem on a grand scale.

Charles Darwin was someone who understood the larger picture, but his discoveries about nature came about through very particular observations. Consider the following descriptive passage from The Origin of Species (1859):  “It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us” (Darwin 1985: 459). Darwin was particularly good at noting relationships which the casual observer would probably overlook. This skill, of course, helped him in his deductions about the way the natural world in its entirety had evolved.

Darwin’s followers tended to emphasise the idea of competition between organisms, as in the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ (often attributed to Darwin, though it actually was coined by the political theorist Herbert Spencer); but Darwin himself had much to say about cooperation. It is also worth pointing out that Alfred Russel Wallace, a scientist who has as much claim as Darwin to be the originator of the theory of evolution, made even more of cooperation, and demonstrated that the theory had implications for the way we view ourselves in relation to the planet. In short,  Wallace’s notion of environment was holistic, and he was hopeful that human beings would come to see the importance of connecting culture with nature, and of connecting both with a larger, spiritual totality (see Flannery 2011: 27-32).

The “Gaia” Hypothesis

The idea that the total environment of the Earth might itself be sustained by a unifying force has in recent years been especially associated with the name of James Lovelock. His ‘Gaia’ hypothesis, while being thoroughly scientific, gains its imaginative appeal from its declared association with the eponymous goddess, the earth mother of ancient Greek religion. The theory itself sounds rather arid in summary formulation: “A view of the Earth that sees it as a self-regulating system made up from the totality of organisms, the surface rocks, the ocean and the atmosphere tightly coupled as an evolving system. The theory sees this system as having a goal—the regulation of surface conditions so as always to be as favourable as possible for contemporary life” (Lovelock 2007: 208). Lovelock realised early on that his idea would never take hold of the popular imagination if he called it ‘Earth System’ theory. It was his friend, the novelist William Golding, who suggested the name ‘Gaia.’ Lovelock has since defended his decision to adopt his friend’s suggestion: “I know that to personalize the Earth System as Gaia, as I have often done and continue to do in this book, irritates the scientifically correct, but I am unrepentant because metaphors are more than ever needed for a widespread comprehension of the true nature of the Earth and an understanding of the lethal dangers that lie ahead” (Lovelock 1989: 188).

We are not here concerned with the legitimacy of using a figure from ancient Greek myth to represent a contemporary scientific theory. What matters is the significant impact that Lovelock’s thinking has had on our understanding of the environment. The ecological philosopher Colin Johnson explains: “The presence of sufficient living organisms on a planet is needed for the regulation of the environment. Where there is incomplete occupation, the ineluctable forces of physical and chemical evolution would soon render it uninhabitable.” Thus, “increased diversity among the species leads to better regulation” (Johnson 1991: 118). Moreover, if environment and evolution are inseparable, then Lovelock’s theory forces us to rethink the latter:

Our interpretation of Darwin’s great vision is altered. Gaia draws attention to the fallibility of the concept of adaptation. It is no longer sufficient to say that ‘organisms better adapted than others are more likely to leave offspring.’ It is necessary to add that the growth of an organism affects its physical and chemical environment; the evolution of the species and the evolution of the rocks, therefore, are tightly coupled as a single indivisible process (Johnson 1991: 118).

Nor is it enough to offer notional, abstract assent to Lovelock’s findings. For Johnson and other ‘green’ thinkers, real, concrete assent is required: “To create sustainable ways of living for the future, humanity has to accept the limits of those dynamics (as well as those imposed by finite resources) and devise ways of living and means of fulfilment within the Gaian whole, accepting our rights and responsibilities as part of a coherent web of life” (Johnson 1991: 118).

One problem in discussing the Gaia theory is the apparent contradiction between Lovelock’s idea of life on Earth as constituting a self-regulating system and the argument of the many green campaigners who draw on it in order to encourage people to take responsibility for its welfare. How can Gaia be both an order that continually repairs itself, and at the same time an invalid who relies on human care for her welfare? The contradiction is, as I say, only apparent, for Lovelock has increasingly insisted that if humanity does not act responsibly, it will itself become the invalid:

We have made this appalling mess of the planet and mostly with rampant liberal good intentions. Even now, when the bell has started tolling to mark our ending, we still talk of sustainable development and renewable energy as if these feeble offerings would be accepted by Gaia as an appropriate and affordable sacrifice. We are like a careless and thoughtless family member whose presence is destructive and who seems to think that an apology is enough. We are part of the Gaian family, and valued as such, but until we stop acting as if human welfare was all that mattered, and was the excuse for our bad behaviour, all talk of further development of any kind is unacceptable. (Lovelock 2006: 189)

So grim is the scenario which Lovelock depicts, that he proposes the idea that a group of concerned environmentalists should produce a Gaian ‘Bible’ to guide those who can see catastrophe ahead and the few who might survive it:

We need a new book like the Bible that would serve in the same way but acknowledge science. It would explain properties like temperature, the meaning of their scales of measurement and how to measure them. It would list the periodic table of the elements. It would give an account of the air, the rocks, and the oceans. It would give schoolchildren of today a proper understanding of our civilization and of the planet it occupies. It would inform them at an age when their minds were most receptive and give them facts they would remember for a lifetime. It would also be the survival manual for our successors. A book that was readily avail­able should disaster happen. (Lovelock 2006: 203).

Mention of the need for a body of scripture may remind us that the idea of the natural environment as a total system to which humans must conform—a network of being which contains and sustains them, and which they challenge at their peril—might be difficult for many people of a religious persuasion to accept. The view of the natural environment associated with the Jewish and Christian Bible seems to be diametrically opposed to the Gaian. In the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis we read:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth (Genesis 1:26-28).

For those believers who want to read it literally, the Biblical story of origins is obviously incompatible with such a theory as Lovelock’s. The former has humanity at the centre of creation; the latter sees the natural environment as the totality which contains human and non-human life alike.

A transcendent, solitary God who creates the world through uttering his edicts from on high; human beings whom God creates ‘in his own image’ in order to rule over the rest of creation: these are not very promising elements in a story of origins, if the natural environment is your main concern. Monotheism and anthropocentrism are precisely the principles that have, according to ‘green’ thinking, caused most of the problems that now face us: the exhaustion of resources, the extinction of species, the intolerable increase in the human population, and global warming. The key word in the passage quoted is, of course, ‘dominion.’ However, as always, the Bible is here open to alternative interpretations: for instance, the fact that the creation narrative of Genesis 1 may be taken to mean that with dominion comes responsibility for a creation which God deems ‘good.’ Going further, a legitimate case for a ‘green’ spirituality could be made by pointing to Genesis 2, in which the role of Adam and Eve is presented more in terms of stewardship than dominion. Again, there are passages in Isaiah, in Job, and in the Psalms which present the natural environment as worthy of human respect. For example: “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy before the Lord” (Psalm 96:11-13). Of course, there is still the residual assumption evident here that nature is beautiful only because it reflects God’s glory, not because it is intrinsically good. For a fully ecological religious faith in the West, we have to wait until St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), who regularly used familial terms to address the non-human world: ‘Brother Sun,’ ‘Sister Moon,’ ‘Mother Earth,’ ‘Brother Donkey,’ etc. Even here, though, the objection might be made that, while Francis celebrated the natural environment, he still anthropomorphised it, that is, depicted it in human form. There again, the same charge could be levelled at Lovelock for his mythic personification of the ‘Earth System’ as ‘Gaia.’


 Eco-Spirituality and Eastern Religions

Coming closer to our own time, it is worth noting that one of the main developments in theology in the past fifty years or so has been in what is sometimes called ‘eco-spirituality.’  One of the most important exponents of this in the United States was Thomas Berry, a Christian ecologist who described himself as a ‘geologian’ rather than a theologian. The Dream of the Earth (1988) is an extended invitation to begin considering what it might be like to participate, physically and imaginatively, in the nature which is our true home. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (1999) could be seen as a draft of the Gaian ‘Bible’ proposed by Lovelock. It is a guide for the coming ‘Ecozoic Era,’ during which we will take our modest and respectful place within the Earth community after centuries of destructive arrogance. Such a transformation will only come about through the rediscovery of both ancient and native wisdom, by way of a corrective to technocratic modernity. The hope is expressed that such wisdom might in due course be reconciled with a Biblical tradition which has been purged of its anthropocentrism.

There are, of course, environmentalists who see that tradition as part of the problem, and consider that Judaic and Christian thinking have had an irredeemably detrimental influence on the Western mind, yet who still seek a spiritual worldview. Many have turned to the ancient religions of the East. Taoism in particular has provided the necessary conjunction of holism and reverence required for a coherently ecological spirituality. Originating in the classic period of Chinese philosophy (roughly 550 to 250 B.C.E.), and associated with the names of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, Taoism was more of a path of wisdom than a fully-fledged religion. Indeed, when it did fledge, in the early years of the common era, the original impulse, that of aligning oneself with the ‘Tao,’ or ‘Way,’ of nature, became obscured by a superstitious obsession with immortality. That impulse was informed by the idea that everything is interconnected, and that humble acceptance of that interconnectedness is the key to spiritual revelation. The religious philosopher Alan Watts, in his Tao: The Watercourse Way, defines Taoism as “the way of man’s cooperation with the course or trend of the natural world” (Watts 1979: 42). In other words, and taking up that key term of Watts’ subtitle “Watercourse,” it is about ‘going with the flow’ of nature.  In the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Lao Tzu, we read: “Humanity follows the earth. Earth follows Heaven. Heaven follows the Tao. The Tao follows what is natural” (Palmer 1991: 6).

Though other Eastern religions, notably Buddhism, stress the interconnectedness of all things, and though many Buddhists have gleaned an environmental message from the Buddha’s teachings, it is the early form of Taoism which most obviously endorses the belief that the natural environment itself offers all the spiritual meaning necessary. One does not need much imagination to see that the Tao is a force analogous to Lovelock’s Gaia: an integrated whole to which humanity will do well to subordinate its own whims and wants.



While the less environmentally-oriented model of Genesis 1 might seem to have held sway in the West, there was a significant rebellion against it in the later eighteenth century, when poets and painters repudiated the anthropocentrism of the received Biblical worldview. William Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ (1798) may be taken as representative:

… I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; 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. (Wordsworth 1994: 68)

Note how ‘the mind of man’ is included in the overall picture of the natural environment almost as an afterthought. More generally, note how the very sequence of phrases suggests the poet’s repeated attempts to define the force that underlies the natural environment which contains that mind; as elsewhere in Wordsworth’s writings, the word ‘something’ is made to do much of the work. Whatever he means, though, it has obvious affinities with both the Tao of Lao Tzu and the Gaia of James Lovelock.

Wordsworth in the above passage may subordinate the human to the non-human; but the burden of his work as a whole is the reciprocity of nature and culture. The English critic Jonathan Bate, in his study of the poet as representative of the English ‘environmental tradition,’ demonstrates that the poet’s sense of place was informed by an affection and respect for the rural communities of Cumberland, where he grew up, and that his ecological vision was also a social vision. Certainly, we may say that Wordsworth’s belief that to find how to relate to nature was also to find how to live in society influenced the Victorian sage John Ruskin, who opposed capitalist industrialism because it spoiled both the natural and the social environment. With his insistence that ‘There is no wealth but life,’ he advocated an art and a culture that honoured nature and allowed for what he saw as humanity’s natural need for beauty. It could also be argued that Wordsworth’s vision was the inspiration behind North American environmentalism. We might trace a line of influence running from the Lakeland poet through Henry David Thoreau to John Muir and beyond.


The ‘Green’ Movement and the Academy

That said, it does seem strange that the connection between English Romanticism and both English and American environmentalism took so long to be acknowledged and explored by literary critics. Bate’s book on Wordsworth appeared in 1993, effectively launching what he called ‘ecopoetics’ in the United Kingdom. Across the Atlantic, ‘ecocriticism’ had emerged slightly earlier, in the form of various scholarly articles, but may be said to have come of age in the mid-1990s, with the publication of Karl Kroeber’s Ecological Literary Criticism (1994), Lawrence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination (1995), and Cheryl Glotfelty and Harold Fromm’s anthology, The Ecocriticism Reader (1996). Both UK ecopoetics and US ecocriticism were finally brought together in Laurence Coupe’s Green Studies Reader (2000), which also included developments in cultural studies and philosophy. Thereafter, the phrase ‘green studies’ seemed to take precedence over ‘ecopoetics’. However, the definition of ‘ecocriticism’ offered by Buell conveys the spirit of the enterprise, whichever nomenclature is preferred: ‘a study of the relation between literature and environment conducted in a spirit of commitment to environmental praxis’ (Buell 1995: 430).

Given how late the ‘green’ movement in literary theory was in making an appearance, one can understand the sense of urgency which its practitioners brought to bear in making their case. Cheryl Glotfelty’s pronouncement in her introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader is worth quoting: “If your knowledge of the outside world were limited to what you could infer from the major publications of the literary profession, 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. Indeed, you might never know that there was an earth at all” (Glotelty & Fromm 1996: xvi).

She then goes on to contrast the insulated nature of academic discourse, whether it be postcolonial studies, Marxism, or feminism which is being professed, with the alarming number of ecological disasters reported in the media—all of which never seem to impinge on the academic mind. To paraphrase her general argument, and to return to where we started, we may say that the ‘culture’ side of our definition of ‘environment’ had outweighed and obscured the ‘nature’ side. It is, then, an encouraging sign of the times that the subject of the natural environment should now be central not only to the sciences but also to the humanities; and not only to critics but also to theologians, philosophers, and others.

Those engaged in this new advance in environmental thinking might do well to register the importance of the following pronouncement by the ecological campaigner Aldo Leopold, made in the middle of the last century: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (Leopold 1949: 224-5). Environment is both culture and nature, for environment is ‘biotic community’; the problems arise only when we forget this, and assert the values of culture at the expense of nature.





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Bate, J., Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition, London, 1991.
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Green Theory

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






There can be no theory of any account unless it corroborate the theory of the earth …

(Walt Whitman, ‘Song of the Rolling Earth’)


Green theory is a development within literary and cultural studies which is informed by the insights of ecology. We may define ‘ecology’ as a branch of science which deals with the relation between organisms and their environments, and with the total pattern of such relationships. The root of the term lies in two ancient Greek words: oikos (household) and logos (word): ecology is the study of the  earth as our home. As a science, it began in the mid-nineteenth century; but its impact on critical theory as an academic discipline was not felt until the later twentieth century, when the relationship between human beings and their total environment had become manifestly unstable, and the damage being done to nature had become an unavoidable challenge.

The name given to green theory when it was becoming established was ‘ecocriticism’, this term being used as an abbreviation of ‘ecological literary criticism’. Ecocriticism, essentially, is the study of 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.  ‘Green studies’ takes its cue from ecocriticism but, rather than confine attention to literature, it expands the area of interest to include all manner of works, whether literary, artistic, cinematic, musical, political or philosophical. The two terms, ‘ecocriticism’ and ‘green studies’, are often used interchangeably, though the former seems to be more favoured in the USA and the latter in the UK. In this introductory essay, we are using the phrase ‘green theory’ to cover both ecocriticism and green studies, so nearly all of what is said about the former may be taken to apply to the latter.



Nature, then, is the focus, whichever name we give to the way we talk about it, and whether we are relating it to literature or to other forms of cultural production. But what is nature? The Concise Oxford Dictionary offers seven meanings, some of which divide into further sub-meanings. The first of the seven is ‘a thing or person’s innate or essential quality’: a usage that inevitably occurs in any kind of theory. But for green theory, these are the two semantic areas which are of special interest:

2 a (often Nature) the physical power causing all the phenomena of the material world (Nature is the best physician).  b these phenomena, including plants, animals, landscape, etc.

6 a an uncultivated or wild area, condition, community, etc; b the countryside, esp. when picturesque.

Having provided these distinctions, it is necessary to gloss them if we are to be clear about the way green theory refers to ‘nature’. Thus, though it goes without saying that green theorists are interested in phenomena such as plants, animals and landscape (2b), it would be misleading to say that they are exclusively interested in the countryside, as they may be equally concerned with the ecology of the city (6b). Again, though they are interested in wilderness, they would usually try to avoid speaking of any community which lives in harmony with wilderness as itself either ‘wild’ or ‘uncultivated’ — or even worse, ‘savage’. For that would suggest a dubious model of human evolution, and it would reinforce the language of colonialism (6a). Moreover, in considering the countryside, they would not want to endorse the commodification of landscape associated with the late-eighteenth-century cult of the ‘picturesque’, which selected and approved certain ‘views’ of rural landscapes (6b). But whatever their area of interest, green theorists will inevitably engage at some point with the idea of a fundamental force, capitalised as ‘Nature’: they will not necessarily resist the capitalisation, but they will by no means take for granted what the word represents (2a). Thus green theory ‘debates “Nature” in order to defend nature’ (Coupe 2000: 5).

Paradoxically, the picture becomes clearer when we bring in the complementary term ‘culture’, even though it is usually regarded as forbiddingly complex. For the point to emphasise about its etymology is that all three of its original meanings  – ‘inhabitation’, ‘cultivation’ and ‘worship’ – suggest activity in relation to nature. People may inhabit, and so understand, a region of earth; they may cultivate the soil; they may worship an underlying ‘power’. Note too that ‘cultivation’ was early on used both for the soil and the soul, and we may say that a link between earthly matter and human spirit is implicit in the word ‘culture’. The further inference we might make is that human culture is only ever meaningful as a dimension of nature, which may perhaps be regarded as that larger culture which contains ours – whether we want to refer to it as ‘Nature’ or not.



We can begin to get some sense of the development of green theory by considering one particular literary convention: ‘pastoral’.  This celebrates the idyllic rural life and loves of shepherds – the term ‘pastoral’ coming from Latin pastor, shepherd – with an emphasis on simple pleasure in a natural setting.  In The Country and the City (1973), possibly the first example of ecocritical writing in the UK, the socialist theorist Raymond Williams demonstrates how writers have always looked backwards for their vision of rural contentment, and how such a vision has been used to mystify the actual relations of production in the countryside. While conceding this point, Jonathan Bate argues in Romantic Ecology (1991) that the poet William Wordsworth managed to forge a radical version of pastoral that entailed environmental and social responsibility.

Enquiring further into the dimensions of the genre, Terry Gifford in Pastoral (1999) differentiates between three modes of writing: (1) ‘pastoral’, the received literary form; (2) ‘anti-pastoral’, the critique of that form, particularly insofar as it distorts rural reality or justifies rural hierarchy; (3) ‘post-pastoral’, a newly inclusive mode which, while treating pastoral itself with suspicion, yet affirms the human need for a deep relationship with nature. This is a usefully flexible model which allows us to situate any depiction of the natural environment without pigeon-holing a particular writer. Gifford sees Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Ted Hughes, for instance, as encompassing all three modes.

In the United States, the question of how to avoid formulaic and idealised depictions of nature, in order to do justice to a new-found land that has not lost its wonder, is especially  important. North American green theory is particularly interested in non-fictional nature writing, which seeks to convey a direct, authentic encounter with the landscape. Lawrence Buell in his The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing and the Formation of American Culture (1995) takes as his point of departure Henry David Thoreau’s famous work Walden (1854). In doing so, he explores the possibilities of an ‘aesthetics of relinquishment’, which involves a move from the ‘egological self’ to the ‘ecological self’ [my emphasis]. Buell is clearly aware of the deposing of the human subject that is characteristic of post-structuralism; but that is done in the name of language and culture, with the ‘I’ discovering itself to be an effect of its own discourse. What he is talking about is the voluntary giving up of individual autonomy: that is, forgoing ‘the illusion of mental and even bodily apartness from one’s environment’ (Buell 1995: 143-5). Thus, Thoreau may seem at first to be brooding on his own experiences, but he in effect suspends his identity in the act of writing, presenting us with an image of what it might be like to feel at one with nature: he produces an ‘ecocentric’ text.

In concentrating on nature writing while demonstrating its impact on other genres, such as fiction and poetry, Buell shows us how one of the effects of green theory is to extend the scope of the literary canon. Complementing this effect are such works as Louise H. Westling’s The Green Breast of the New World: Landscape, Gender, and American Fiction (1996), which argues that the received, dominant tradition has enshrined a reductive view of both women’s experience and the natural world. With an ambitious sweep of exposition, Westling demonstrates how male heroism has been habitually defined by opposition to female nature. The settlement of North America, inspired by Biblical myth, saw a nomadic, pioneer spirit assuming total command over the ‘virgin’ territory it encountered, even while it retained a sentimental view of the female. Westling articulates this tension between force and feeling very clearly in her account of American fiction: she offers, for instance, a persuasive account of the defensively masculine stance that lies behind the modernist cult of primivitism represented by Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. By way of counterpoint, she considers female authors such a Eudora Welty, whose fiction offers a revaluation of what precisely it means to identify the female character with a given landscape.

It will be seen that Westling’s argument is a confirmation rather than a contradiction of Buell’s. We might add, by way of postscript to this section, that he himself has gone on revising his initial thesis. In The Future of Environmental Criticism (2005), he proposes that green theory needs to extend, not only its idea of what an environmental work is but also what ‘nature’ itself means; he also stresses the need to encompass perspectives such as social ecology and environmental justice. He even wants to query his own previous concern with locality and piety: that is, to open up environmental criticism to global issues and to face more explicitly the challenge of postmodern scepticism. Green theory, it seems, never stands still for long.



The term ‘ecocriticism’ was invented by the American critic William Rueckert, whose article ‘Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism’ first appeared in 1978. In it Rueckert sets about trying to define the nature of literature, and does so by depicting literature as nature:

Poems are green plants among us … [which] arrest energy on its path to entropy and in so doing, not only raise matter from lower to higher order, but help to create a self-perpetuating and evolving system. That is, they help to create creativity and community, and when their energy is released and flows out into others, to again raise matter from lower to higher order (to use one of the most common descriptions of what culture is).

(Glotfelty & Fromm 1996: 111).

Rueckert’s use of an organic metaphor to describe literary creation may seem fanciful, but this image of poem as ‘plant’, or ‘stored energy’, allows him to make a forceful case for the centrality of ecological thinking to literary studies. His aim is to open up the question of the interrelationship between literature and the biosphere (the whole complex of life on our planet).

Rueckert’s inspiration in writing his article is the work of his mentor and friend, the poet-critic, Kenneth Burke (1897-1993). Firstly, the very fusion of ‘ecology’ and ‘criticism’ is indebted to Burke’s idea of ‘perspective by incongruity’, that is, the creation of new meanings by ‘extending the use of a term by taking it from the context in which it is habitually used and applying it to another’ (Burke 1984a: 89). ‘Perhaps’, Rueckert muses, ‘that old pair of antagonists, science and poetry, can be persuaded to lie down together and be generative after all’ (Glotfelty & Fromm 1996: 107). Secondly: ‘Kenneth Burke was right – as usual – to argue that drama should be our model or paradigm for literature.’ It is not that he wanted to ‘treat novels and poems as plays’; rather, he wanted us to ‘become aware of what they were doing as creative verbal actions in the human community’ (Glotfelty & Fromm 1996: 107). Thirdly, Rueckert is very much aware at the time of writing that Burke was insisting decades before that no academic discipline can afford to ignore the state of the natural environment:

We tend to over-refine our conceptual frameworks so that they can only be used by a corps of elitist experts and gradually lose their practical relevance as they increase their theoretical elegance. I am reminded here of the stridently practical questions Burke asked all through the thirties and early forties and of the scorn with which they were so often greeted by literary critics and historians of his time. But none of these questions is antithetical to literature and there is a certain splendid resonance which comes from thinking of poets and green plants being engaged in the same creative, life-sustaining activities, and of teachers and literary critics as creative mediators between literature and the biosphere whose tasks include the encouragement of, the discovery, training and development of creative biospheric apperceptions, attitudes, and actions.

(Glotfelty & Fromm 1996: 120-1)

 Rueckert no doubt has in mind such statements as this, from Attitudes Toward History (1937):

Among the sciences, there is one little fellow named Ecology, and in time we shall pay him more attention. He teaches us that the total economy of the planet cannot be guided by an efficient rationale of exploitation alone, but that the exploiting part must eventually suffer if it too greatly disturbs the balance of the whole.

(Burke 1984b: 150)

If Rueckert is right (and I believe that he is), we may regard Kenneth Burke as the father of green theory.

Though Burke never produced a final summation of his ideas, he did leave us a statement, simply entitled ‘Poem’, which he wrote for inclusion in a volume of essays celebrating his work towards the end of his life. It is based on an article he had written over thirty years before, but it is clearly intended to stand alone. Here are some lines from the first stanza, using uppercase as given:









                                                                                    (Simons & Melia 1989: 263)

Given Rueckert’s endorsement, we might do worse than think through some of these phrases within the green perspective that Burke himself helped to make possible. The aim is not to summarise Burke’s philosophy (though we will need to refer to his other writings), but to draw inferences from his ‘Poem’ which connect up with green thinking generally.



Burke’s general mode of enquiry is what he calls ‘metabiology’. Where metaphysics is a philosophy of mind, insofar as it reflects on abstract concepts of being, metabiology is a philosophy of body-mind, of the mind as rooted in bodily processes, which in turn are rooted in nature. Biology assumes nature to be purposive; metabiology studies what happens when human language is added to biological purpose. So how should we view this particular system that one particular species manages to acquire, as indicated in ‘Poem’?

Human language is a specialised form of discourse, involving spoken and written words. Other species have their own forms of discourse, but ours is distinctive in its complexity and in the range of its influence. Nevertheless, we should not forget our bodily existence, and not start attributing to language an independent status beyond its actual function in helping us make sense of the world and of our place within it. Hence Burke translates ‘human being’ as ‘wordling’: a neat way of reminding us of our modest status. This view of language as arising from the body is most fully articulated by the famous exponent of phenomenology, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who tells us that it is only by seeing ideas and utterances in the context of ‘the flesh of the world’ that they can make full sense. The individual’s bodily life is inseparable from the ‘body’ of the earth from which it emerges and to which it inevitably returns (Merleau-Ponty 1968: 144).

Burke’s term for the human capacity for language is ‘symbolicity’; he prefers the word ‘symbol’ to ‘sign’, because he wants to convey the tribal and ritual function of language in all its richness, which humanity has increasingly forgotten. As the ecologist David Abram has since argued, it was with the invention of phonetic writing – by which words were first removed from bodily and natural life, becoming counters in an abstract code – that humanity began attempting to break its bond with the ‘more-than-human world’. Abram reminds us, though, that what we call the self is still a bodily organism, not a transcendental ego; our only way of understanding the world is through situated participation not through abstract, objective knowledge – which is itself a false ideal.  We are deeply implicated in the physical world: while it is true that we can shift our attention within the act of understanding, we can ‘never suspend the flux of participation’ (Abram 1996: 45-7). The code of language is only part of the larger web of being; words articulate an ‘interanimated world’ (Abram 1996: 85). With Merleau-Ponty in mind, he observes: ‘The complex interchange that we call “language” is rooted in the non-verbal exchange always already going on between our own flesh and the flesh of the world’ (Abram 1996: 90).

To return to Burke’s statement, it is important to recognize that there are not only huge advantages in symbol-using for human beings (for example, organizing the cultivation of crops, producing great poetry) but also huge dangers (for example, organizing large-scale deforestation, producing soulless shopping malls). Either way, the very possession of the capacity for language implies activity: human beings are always doing something with words in order to have some effect on the particular situation in which they find themselves. That is why Burke speaks of ‘symbolic action’ as central to human endeavour; and that is why he defines the human being as the ‘symbolic actor’. Words, as symbols, are names for situations; situations are always dramatic, involving conflict and engagement; and the drama extends to the farther reaches of the natural environment.



Burke’s phrase suggests that, due to their capacity for symbolic action, human beings are both a part of nature and apart from nature: the question is whether they can maintain an equilibrium. The problem of modernity is that the latter feeling predominates, leading to human alienation and natural degradation. For just as human discourse detaches itself from its biological environment, so technology – made possible by language and rationalized by language – assumes proportions and powers hostile to that environment. There is nothing wrong with symbol-making, nothing wrong with tool-making; but divorce these activities from the sense of ultimately being part of nature and you have the makings of ecological disaster.

To counter the escalating misuse of symbolicity and destruction of nature, Burke advocates a new kind of ‘humanism’: not one that glories in humanity’s advantages over nature, but an ‘anti-Technological humanism’: that is, opposed to the current faith in ‘Big Technology’ as the answer to all our problems. This would be ‘animalistic’ in the sense that ‘far from boasting of some privileged human status, it would never disregard our humble, and maybe even humiliating, place in the totality of the natural order’ (Burke 1972a: 53-4). While later green theorists have tended to reject humanism outright because of its suggestion of an inflated view of human achievement, Burke uses ‘perspective by incongruity’ to conflate humanity and animality, humanism and humility.

Always, though, we need to come back to the issue of language itself, which is so often taken to indicate human superiority over other species. Forgetting that human culture is an extension of the culture that we call nature, we forget also that once language was a means of having a dialogue with the earth (which was also assumed to be articulate), not of talking about it from a privileged distance – a distance which encourages exploitation. Burke observes that, if community depends on ‘identification’, then we need to recognise that we belong to the world, and not vice-versa:

It would be much better for us, in the long run, if we ‘identified’ ourselves rather with the natural things that we are progressively destroying – our trees, our rivers, our land, even our air, all of which we are a lowly ecological part of.  … But too often, in such matters, our attitudes are wholly segregational, as we rip up things that we are not – and thus can congratulate ourselves upon having evolved a way of life able to exhaust in decades a treasure of natural wealth that had been here for thousands of years.

(Burke 1970: 413-14)

 The irony, of course, is that we treat nature as alien to ourselves, because of our supposed distinction as symbol-users, while remaining wholly dependent upon it.

Again, the problem comes down to the assumptions that we make because of our possession of symbolic discourse. This anthropocentric (human-centred) way of thinking is evident when we pronounce that the more-than-human world which we call ‘nature’ is nothing more than a cultural or linguistic ‘construction’. The philosopher Kate Soper begins her challenge to the increasing prevalence of ‘constructionism’ within the academy as follows:

 …I recognize … that there is no reference to that which is independent of discourse except in discourse, but dissent from any position which appeals to this truth as a basis for denying the extra-discursive reality of nature.  I seek to expose the incoherence of an argument that appears so ready to grant this reality to ‘culture’ and its effects while denying it to ‘nature’, and argue that, unless we acknowledge the nature which is not a cultural formation, we can offer no convincing grounds for challenging the pronouncements of culture on what is or is not ‘natural’.

(Soper 1995: 8)

Refuting those who would declare that ‘nature’ is just one more unit in a signifying system, she reminds us: ‘it is not language which has a hole in its ozone layer; and the real thing continues to be polluted and degraded even as we refine our deconstructive insights at the level of the signifier’ (Soper 1995:151).

Someone who warned about the consequences of an anthropocentric view of nature was the scientist and anthropologist Gregory Bateson, whose Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) stands as a sustained challenge to what he called the ‘epistemological error’ of the Western worldview. This error is twofold. Firstly, there is the failure to see that ‘mind’ (the focus of the branch of philosophy known as epistemology) is not the exclusive possession of humanity. We need to learn from the wisdom of the ancient East: ‘mind’ is present in all of nature, as a wonderfully complex pattern of mutual arising, or co-dependent origination, with the human variant being only one minor aspect. Secondly, and following from that, is the wrong-headed belief that the individual organism may be understood in isolation from its environment, and that the human species may be understood in isolation from the total environment of all species. In short, the error in essence is ‘Man against nature.’ Bateson asks rhetorically what we end up with thereby. Referring to an environment he himself knows, he answers his own question:

When you narrow down your epistemology and act on the premise ‘What interests me is me, or my organization, or my species,’ you chop off consideration of other loops of the loop struc­ture. You decide that you want to get rid of the by-products of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the eco-mental system called Lake Erie is a part of your wider eco-mental system – and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience.

(Bateson 1972: 491-2)

 Normally, one might take the picture painted by Bateson to exemplify ‘anthropomorphism’ (the attribution of human characteristics to nature); but in the context of his general argument, it would be more accurate to say that he is treating humanity and nature as two aspects of the total biological order. For the same rule applies throughout: ‘The creature that wins against its environment destroys itself’ (Bateson 1972: 501). It is a thought that occurs independently to Burke: having devoted a good deal of time to theorising about ‘victimage’ – the human urge to create and punish a ‘scapegoat’, an ‘other’ to whom is attributed all the faults and failures of the community – he comes in his later years to see the same process at work on a larger scale, with disastrous consequences: ‘Men victimize nature, and in so doing they victimize themselves. This, I fear, is the ultimate impasse’ (Burke 1972b: 26).



‘Hierarchy’ derives from two Greek words, meaning ‘sacred’ and ‘rule’, so it is worth reminding ourselves that the original idea behind the word is that of a divinely ordained pattern of existence. Anyone studying Shakespeare will sooner or later come across the idea of a ‘chain of being’, running from God at the top down through angels, human beings, animals, plants and so to stones. In studying one of the tragedies, for example Macbeth, we may read a commentary which explains that anyone who murders the king is breaking this ‘chain’: in other words, offending against a natural order which has its origin in the sacred Word of creation. As we read in the first verse of the first book of the Judaeo-Christian Bible: ‘In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1).

In the context of our discussion, there are two possible viewpoints on such a model of society, both of which are allowed for by Burke. On the negative side, we might point out that human beings all too easily find in nature confirmation of their own system of government and economic organisation; in doing so they claim they are sanctioned by an appropriately capitalised ‘Nature’. The chain of being was, whatever truth it contained, a rationale for feudalism. Moreover, the consensus that it was a God-given structure only encouraged the rich and powerful to enforce rigid class divisions and wield power at the expense of the poor and vulnerable, who themselves were compelled to labour for paltry recompense. In this sense, we may speak of hierarchy as a ‘goad’: hence one of Burke’s many coined phrases, ‘hierarchical psychosis’, which refers to the state in which a legitimate concern for order becomes both obsessive and oppressive.

On the positive side, we might admit that some rudimentary acknowledgement of a chain of being had the advantage of reminding everybody that their ultimate allegiance was to something greater than themselves, and that the abuse of the system by the greedy was contrary to the whole idea of a divine harmony manifest in nature – as was frequently spelt out by holy men such as Francis of Assisi, patron saint of ecology. In that sense, we might relate it to the scientist James Lovelock’s ‘Gaia hypothesis’: named after the earth mother of ancient Greek mythology, it tells us that the biosphere is an organic harmony to which we must conform, or else suffer the consequences. The Gaian model is a ‘post-secular’ equivalent of the traditional model, emerging as it did at a time when it seemed that science had done away with the dimension of the sacred.

The question is, then, whether it is hierarchy itself that is the problem, or whether it is hierarchical psychosis. Burke would opt for the latter; proponents of ‘ecofeminism’ would opt for the former. For ecofeminists, the main point about hierarchy is that it goes hand in hand with patriarchy: get rid of the latter and you get rid of the former. Perhaps the classic case against both is given by the philosopher Val Plumwood in her influential work Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993). For her, the clue to the triumph and hitherto scarcely questioned survival of the patriarchal order is the view of the world that we call ‘dualism’, which works according to the law of divide-and-rule.

According to Plumwood, nature has, since at least the time of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, been systematically subordinated to ‘the master subject’, the hero of ‘the master story’. This story identifies rationality with masculinity, and justifies the absolute rights of both. We will not be able to repudiate ‘the master subject’ until we have gone beyond dualism, which sets up a series of contrasts on the basis of higher and lower, according to its own remorseless logic.  Thus, in the following list, the former are always believed to be opposed and superior to the latter:

culture           nature

reason            nature

male                female

mind               body

rationality    animality

spirit               matter

self                   other.

(see Plumwood 1993: 41-4)

Plumwood traces the history of Western thought in terms of this dualism, demonstrating how a ‘female’ nature has been systematically degraded, dominated and exploited. The logical culmination, which now seems imminent, will be the destruction of the planet by ‘the master subject’ in the name of ‘rational economy’ and global profit, unless ‘reason’ can be remade.  This cannot simply involve privileging ‘female’ nature instead of subordinating it, for that is simply to invert the logic of patriarchy. The answer is to develop ‘the rationality of the mutual self’, which would ensure ‘the incomparable riches of diversity in the world’s cultural and biological life’ and encourage participation in the whole ‘community of life’ (Plumwood 1993: 195-6). Despite any doubts he may have about the equation of hierarchy with patriarchy, Burke would certainly concur with that last sentiment, and indeed with Plumwood’s model of how dualism and hierarchy can work to reinforce each other.



Burke sees the principle of perfection as implicit in human language: ‘The mere desire to name something by its “proper” name, or to speak a language in its distinctive ways is intrinsically “perfectionist”’. Here it helps to be aware of Aristotle’s concept of ‘entelechy’, which Burke defines as ‘the notion that each being aims at the perfection natural to its kind’. Thus the acorn will inevitably become an oak, the child an adult … all in due course. This process sounds innocent enough: after all, biology implies purpose. But Burke sees language as adding a potentially dangerous complication: ‘terminology’ involves ‘termination’: the words we use imply the ends we pursue. ‘At the very start, one’s terms jump to conclusions.’ (Burke 1966: 16-17)

Perfectionism, then, is a peculiarly human – peculiarly linguistic – urge which eats away at us, driving us on and on: hence the phrase ‘rotten with perfection’. True, the desire to fulfil the promises of our terminology is responsible for such undoubted achievements as Paradise Lost or War and Peace; but it is also responsible for the nuclear bomb. We don’t have to take such an extreme example as the latter, though, to see how dangerous terminology is when it is complemented by technology. As our ability to transform our natural environment grows, so does our determination to do so. We complete projects simply because we have names for them, regardless of the consequences. In our own day, it is all too obvious how terms such as ‘management’, ‘development’, ‘enterprise’ ‘improvement’ and ‘progress’ are frequently deployed as though the pursuit of such ideals were unanswerable guarantors of benefit for the whole planet, and are relentlessly pursued despite the manifest falsity of that conviction.

Perhaps the most influential text to dramatise the human urge for completion is the last book of the Christian Bible, namely Revelation. Written towards the end of the first century AD, this is the book of the apocalypse – the word ‘apocalypse’ coming from the Greek for ‘revelation’. It reveals what will happen at the end of history: the Messiah will return to overthrow Satan and his followers, and to establish his heavenly kingdom on earth. One of the most vivid passages in Revelation depicts the destruction of the natural environment: ‘there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast up on the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up’ (Revelation 8:7). What replaces it, however, may not strike us as very much better. Jerusalem, the Messianic city, is described as having a street of ‘pure gold, as it were transparent glass’; moreover, ‘the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it; for the glory of God did lighten it’ (Revelation 21:21-23). This celebration of divine artifice, with its implicit denial of nature, hardly makes for environmental responsibility.  But it is precisely because it depicts both natural catastrophe and unnatural salvation that the Christian apocalypse has proved a powerful presence in green thinking.

Among Burke’s writings is a blueprint for a satire, to be entitled ‘Helhaven’, in which he rewrites Revelation so that the rich, or ‘saved’, live in a luxurious, synthetic ‘heaven’, well away from the very real ‘hell’ they have created through industrial pollution, which is populated by the poor, or ‘damned’. The natural environment having been degraded beyond recognition, he presents the rich as enjoying the display of artificial scenes of ‘natural’ beauty, in a demonic parody of the ‘picturesque’. In doing so, he wants to demonstrate that the comic mode of satire is the most appropriate literary response to ecological crisis, since by taking things imaginatively to their logical conclusion, it exposes and mocks the folly of those who would blunder on towards a very literal catastrophe in pursuit of technological  perfection.  His idea is that the satirical tendency to take things imaginatively to ‘the end of the line’ might help prevent the ultimate termination (see Coupe 2000: 96-103).

For a more obviously serious, sustained work of environmentalist thinking along apocalyptic lines, we might turn to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). This is her challenge to the damaging impact of agribusiness in the United States, with its widespread and destructive use of pesticides. It strikes its apocalyptic note immediately with a ‘Fable for Tomorrow’ concerning a town in which all non-human life is dead and human beings are dying (see Carson 2000: 21-2). Another is Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1990), which declares that, whereas once human interference in the natural order made only a local impact, which was not lasting, now ‘global warming’ has altered everything:

We have changed the atmosphere, and thus we are changing the weather. By changing the weather, we make every spot on earth man-made and artificial. We have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning. Nature’s independence is its meaning: without it there is nothing but us.

(McKibben 1990: 54)

Thus the urge to perfection has been fulfilled: nature has been subsumed within human culture, and   is therefore at an end. McKibben leaves unstated here the obvious inference: that human culture cannot survive its futile triumph.

Both Carson’s and McKibben’s books are serious, significant works: important touchstones for anyone interested in the future of the planet; and their sombre warnings have only gained in credibility over the years. However, the task of green theory must be to continue engaging with the representation of nature and promoting its defence. In doing so, it must distrust finality. That is why it cannot afford to ignore the importance of what Burke in Attitudes Toward History (1937) calls the ‘comic frame’: a perspective which is dedicated to maintaining ‘ecological balance’, and which considers human life as ‘a project in “composition”’, never to be completed (Burke 1984b: 173). Thirty years later, he is more and more convinced that ‘mankind’s only hope is a cult of comedy’: ‘The cult of tragedy is too eager to help out with the holocaust. And in the last analysis, it is too pretentious to allow for the proper recognition of our animality’ (Burke 1966: 20). In our context, we might translate ‘help out with the holocaust’ (Burke’s allusion to the fascist ideology of tragic destiny) as ‘assume the worst about the state of the planet’. It is not at all that we should choose to laugh away the perils which now beset the earth; but a ‘cult of comedy’, founded on bodily participation in Merleau-Ponty’s ‘flesh of the world’, is far more likely to encourage generous activity in defence of nature than is a preoccupation with doom and futility. In Burke’s very first book, Counter-Statement (1931), he suggests that an important value of both literature and critical theory lies in ‘preventing a society from becoming too assertively, too hopelessly itself’ (Burke 1968: 105). Now that we have a flourishing green theory, let us hope it will play its part in the daunting task of preventing a whole species from ‘becoming too assertively, too hopelessly itself’. The stakes could not be higher.




Please note:

1.In the section entitled ‘THE SYMBOL-USING ANIMAL’, the second sentence (‘Where metaphysics is…’) has had a clause restored which was omitted from the published version.

2.In the section entitled ‘SEPARATED FROM OUR NATURAL CONDITION’, the paragraph which begins with the words ‘Again, the problem…’ and ends with the words ‘insights at the level of the signifier’ was omitted from the published version of the chapter.



Bate, Jonathan (1991), Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition, London: Routledge.

A pioneering work, which affirms Wordsworth’s importance and influence as a celebrant of nature.

Bateson, Gregory (1972), Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

An ambitious overview of psychology, genetics and communication theory from a green perspective – with frequent allusions to the poetry of William Blake for good measure.

Buell, Lawrence (1995), The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Another pioneering work, which takes Thoreau’s Walden as a model for the ‘ecocentric text’.

Buell, Lawrence (2005), The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

A succinct guide to the changes taking place in green theory, with particular emphasis on social concerns; it has an extensive and detailed glossary of terms.

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

A wide-ranging collection, indicating the general development of green theory and showing what green reading involves.

Garrard, Greg (2004), Ecocriticism, Abingdon: Routledge.

A brisk and lively overview of critical debates about nature; controversial at times.

Gifford, Terry (1999), Pastoral, London: Routledge.

About much more than a literary convention, this is an indispensable guide to how  poets write about nature.

Glotfelty, Cheryll and Harold Fromm (eds) (1996), The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, Athens, GA and London: University of Georgia Press.

The first ever collection of green theory: American in emphasis; includes several classic essays.

Westling, Louise H. (1996), The Green Breast of the New World: Landscape, Gender, and American Fiction, Athens and London: Georgia University Press.

An accessible and interesting exploration of the ecological meaning of fiction from a feminist perspective.

Williams, Raymond (1973), The Country and the City, London: Hogarth Press.

This fusion of socialist ecology and cultural history is the starting-point for many green theorists in the UK.



 Abram, David (1996), The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World, New York: Random House.

Bate, Jonathan (1991), Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition, London & New York: Routledge.

Bate, Jonathan (2000), The Song of the Earth, London: Picador.

Buell, Lawrence (1995), The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Burke, Kenneth (1968), Counter-Statement, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burke, Kenneth (1966), Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature and Method, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burke, Kenneth (1970), ‘Poetics and Communication’, in Howard E. Kiefer & Milton K. Munitz  (eds), Perspectives in Education, Religion and the Arts, Albany: State University of New York Press.

Burke, Kenneth (1972a), Dramatism and Development, Worcester, MA: Clark University Press.

Burke, Kenneth (1972b), ‘As I Was Saying’, Michigan Quarterly Review 11: 9-27.

Burke, Kenneth (1984a), Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Burke, Kenneth (1984b), Attitudes Toward History, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Carson, Rachel (2000), Silent Spring, London: Penguin.

Coupe, Laurence (2013), Kenneth Burke: From Myth to Ecology, West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor Press.

McKibben, Bill (1990), The End of Nature, London: Penguin.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1968), The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Plumwood, Val (1993), Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, London & New York: Routledge.

Simons, Herbert W. & Trevor Melia (eds), The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Soper, Kate (1995), What is Nature? Culture, Politics and the non-Human, Oxford: Blackwell.

Westling, Louise H. (1996), The Green Breast of the New World: Landscape, Gender, and American Fiction, Athens & London: Georgia University Press.


The Land of the Green Man

Carolyne Larrington, The Land of the Green Man: A Journey through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles (I.B. Tauris, 2015)

Times Higher Education

3 September 2015


With the natural world under increasing threat from government policies and market forces, there would seem to be three related paths open to those of us who do not accept the imperative of industrial progress at whatever cost.

Firstly, there is resistance: direct action, petitions, lobbying, and general disruption. Secondly, there is the process which will necessarily inform the first: the recovery of roots, both natural and cultural, which remind us of our connection to the land and the manner in which our forebears have maintained that connection. Thirdly, there is the way of seeing that complements the first two paths: re-enchantment, or the imaginative reaffirmation of the wonder and mystery of the natural world.

If I say that Carolyne Larrington’s The Land of the Green Man seems to have little to say about resistance, that is not by way of complaint: her book is not meant to be an eco-activist’s manual. What she has provided is a source book for those who have realised the related need for recovery and re-enchantment. Her sphere is the British Isles, but I would hazard a guess that those who revere the green world, wherever they live, will find a model of how to read a landscape in terms of myth, legend and folk tale.

That term “folk” is not without controversy, of course. Larrington argues that the founding of the Folklore Society in 1878, which seemed to have the benefit of keeping alive the wealth of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish stories derived from the oral tradition, actually had the effect of ossifying a body of narrative, rendering the characters and events merely quaint; worse still, they became accessible only in academically approved versions. A living tradition became a mere research programme. The Land of the Green Man, by contrast, is an entertaining and yet authoritative compendium of tales retold with both charm and vigour. As such, it reminds us how remarkable and how precious is the land from which these stories emerged.

As to the contents of this compendium, suffice it to say that we meet, amongst others: giants, ogres, dragons, wandering knights, elfin queens, enchanted lovers and (to me most intriguing of all), ancient sleepers under sacred hills. Weaving in and out of this wealth of narratives are the recurrent themes which Larrington reflects upon, and which tend to fall into pairs: life and death, beast and human, continuity and change.

Change is a key concept here. What I take from these reflections is that the endless reworking of narratives complements the metamorphosis that is gloriously evident in the natural world. So miraculous does that capacity for change seem that we find these tales continually blur the boundary between the “natural” and the “supernatural”, between the earthly and the eternal. Enchantment is at work. We might say that this capacity for amazement has been reaffirmed by the modern writers discussed by the author: J.R.R. Tolkien, Alan Garner, Ted Hughes, Susan Cooper, J. K. Rowling.

Larrington is rightly anxious to demonstrate that, however we come at the subject, we are not concerned with a sterile repetition of plot: stable characters in identical situations. As she says: “These are tales rooted in a particular earth, which have blossomed forth, over the years, in different forms.”

Consider the presiding genius of her book, the Green Man, whom she reflects upon in her final chapter. It is, of course, valid to point out that this fascinating figure reminds us of various others – Robin Hood, Jack-in-the Green and King of the May, for example – but Larrington refutes the thesis of certain folklorists that there is one basic pattern with one fixed meaning. She is surely right. Stories change: they stay alive through acquiring new significance.

Thus, the Green Man has come in recent years to be regarded as an emblem of the green movement, which obviously could not have been the case a century ago. Far from discrediting the ecological adaptation of the symbol, this realisation should remind us that the fate of nature may increasingly rely on human beings drawing on the power of the folk imagination. In this endeavour, Larrington’s book is going to prove indispensably inspiring.

Laurence Coupe

Myth, Ideology and Identity

First published as ‘Foreword’, Amina Alyal & Paul Hardwick (eds), Classical and Contemporary Mythic Identities (Lampeter: Mellen Press, 2010), pp xi-xiii. Minor changes have been made to the wording.


Myth, Ideology and Identity: A Note

Laurence Coupe

About twenty years ago I launched an undergraduate course, ‘Myths Ancient and Modern’, only to be told by a colleague that he objected to the name. At first I thought that what bothered him was the rather weak pun on the title of the Church of England hymn book. But no, it was rather that I had chosen to use the word ‘myth’ instead of ‘ideology’. I suppose that he envisaged students sitting around and swapping their favourite fables, instead of engaging with the rigours of class struggle. Rather than enter into an etymological debate, I merely suggested that ‘Ideologies Ancient and Modern’ did not have quite the same rhetorical flourish as my chosen wording. We politely agreed to differ.

The point of this anecdote is that ‘myth’ has been, and remains, a contentious term. As Amina Alyal and Paul Hardwick’s volume of essays shows us, it is best deployed when our awareness of its more negative connotations does not blind us to its own special demands, as an elemental expression of the narrative imagination. Thus, the notion of ideology may figure here, either explicitly or implicitly, but it is never applied in a crude, reductive manner. The myths examined are given, as it were, room to breathe. Indeed, each contributor seems to have spent a good deal of time, not only pondering the nature of myth but also asking themselves just where they stand in relation to the myths that interest them. In keeping with the phrase ‘contemporary myth’ (rather more demanding than my own ‘modern’), we could not ask for a more vital or wide-ranging demonstration of the continuing relevance of mythic themes, patterns and symbols.

From the Book of Genesis to present-day conspiracy theories, from Pandora’s box to Pan’s Labyrinth, from the adventures of the Irish warrior Cuchulain to the wanderings of Dylan’s hobo, from satyrs to cyborgs, we discover what is possible if one is prepared to read myth with creative ambivalence: not only as a misleading explanation of the world where necessary, but also as a mind-expanding exploration where possible. Or, to put this another way: we see that recognising the ideology that shadows mythology should not prevent one from taking the latter seriously in its own right. Whether myths assume a local colour, as with the ‘wild spirit’ Tregeagle of Cornish folklore, whether they are filtered through the celebrity which attends the production of popular fiction, as with Ian Fleming’s novels, or whether they are reworked in keeping with changing ideals of femininity, as in Hollywood films and cult TV series, there can be no doubt that they are indispensable for understanding where we are – and, more importantly, who we are.

In this connection, Alyal and Hardwick refer to ‘the construction of identity’, a phrase that we might pause to situate briefly. We all know that there has been a longstanding trend in critical theory to see both non-human and human nature as linguistic constructs, to an extent – the various theorists differing as to just how extensive they want to be. With regard to non-human nature, it is surely time to draw the line. I know that I am not the only one to protest that to say that our understanding of reality is always partial and perspectival is not necessarily to imply that there is ‘no such thing as nature’ (see Coupe 2009: 95-101). However, if it is humanity which is the focus, and if the crucial construction at issue here is that of identity, then it is surely undeniable that our very selves, apparently so substantial, are constantly being shaped and reshaped by the power of myth. By the same token, our collective identity – that is, culture itself – may pretend to be based on logos, or rational truth, but is really formed through mythos, or narrative imagination.

Allowing for the constructed aspect of the human character, we yet need to recognise, in this age of imminent ecocatastrophe, that the most important identity which myth makes possible is that between humanity and nature. James Lovelock realised this when he decided to use the name of the Greek mother goddess, Gaia, for his vision of the planet as a living organism. He knew that people are much less likely to care for an abstract ‘earth system’ than for a sacred personage who appeals to our imagination and love of story-telling  (Lovelock 1989: 209). But how may this insight into the human response to nature be reconciled with the notion of human nature as constructed? I would suggest that waking up to the provisional and contingent nature of our collective identity is precisely what is required if we are to rid ourselves of the assumption that we have, as the ‘superior’ species, an absolute right to exploit, pollute and destroy the natural world.

Kenneth Burke once remarked that human beings ‘build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss’  (Burke 1984: 72).  Thus our most recurrent narratives may function to bolster a fragile sense of collective identity. But he also believed that one of the main values of imagination was that of ‘preventing a society from becoming too assertively, too hopelessly itself’ (Burke 1968: 105). The contributors to this volume exhibit a flair for demonstrating how our most recurrent narratives, while frequently being used to vindicate a given sense of collective identity, cannot help but provide a glimpse of another way of inhabiting the earth.

With my initial anecdote in mind, I would suggest that it is entirely appropriate that the key word of Alyal and Hardwick’s title is ‘mythic’ and not ‘ideological’. I am sure that their collection of essays will inspire other scholars to explore the rich field of mythology with the same spirit of informed enquiry.


Burke, Kenneth, Counter-Statement, 2nd edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968)

—– Permanence and Change, 3rd edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)

Coupe, Laurence, Myth, 2nd edition (London: Routledge, 2009)

Lovelock, James, The Ages of Gaia: The Biography of Our Living Earth (Oxford: OUP, 1989)

Sayings of Kenneth Burke




# ‘Flowerishes’

Here are some of the many aphorisms — what Burke calls ‘Flowerishes’ —  which are scattered throughout his Collected Poems (a volume which unfortunately has been out of print for many years). I have here chosen the ones that I find myself quoting most often. Please note that Burke’s  ‘Flowerishes’ are not offered as solemn philosophical statements: rather they show him thinking aloud, trying out ideas, in the spirit of what he calls ‘the comic frame of acceptance’. (For more on this perspective, see longer quotations below.)
Even humility can go to one’s head.
At the very start, one’s terms jump to conclusions.
When he didn’t fight other people, he fought himself — and boy, could he fight dirty!
We always avoid being stupid like other people by being stupid in ways of our own.
Must it always be wishful thinking? Can’t it sometimes be thoughtful wishing?
If you can learn to benefit from adverse criticism, your enemies will work for you without pay.
When people started agreeing with him he lost all his convictions.
This job is so top secret I don’t know what I’m doing.
Though he despised mankind, he dearly loved an audience.
He resolved always to wait two weeks before committing suicide.
He felt it was alright to do like the others, if only he did it with a bad conscience.
To cover their delay they tell you to hurry.
As outmoded as last year’s model of the universe – a dreary old place, full of old newthings.
Poets with little to say learn to write as though guarding a secret.
Afraid of losing his faith in scepticism….
Of all sad words of tongue and pen / The saddest are these: ‘I knew him when…’
The cure for digging in the dirt is an idea; the cure for any idea is more ideas; and the cure for all ideas is digging in the dirt.
The less life, the more biography.
Art turns liabilities to assets, guilt into solace, weakness into strength; it transforms the onus of owing into the honour of ownership.
They canonize their saints and sanctify their cannon.
Rusty with irony…


From Counter-Statement, 1931

1.An art may be of value purely through preventing a society from becoming too assertively, too hopelessly itself.
2. When in Rome, do as the Greeks.


#Longer quotations from the main body of Burke’s work

Please note:
I have provided a short descriptive heading (in square brackets and in uppercase) for each of these longer quotations.
In his earlier work, Burke used the generic term ‘man’ in place of ‘human being’, as was the standard practice when he was writing. In his later work, he sought to rectify this habit.
Many of these statements are discussed elsewhere on the ‘Kenneth Burke’ page, and in my book Kenneth Burke: From Myth to Ecology, Parlor Press, 2013. See also ‘Green Theory’, on the ‘Green Studies’ page, for a particular focus on Burke’s ‘Definition of Man’, included below.

From Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose,  1935

Might the great plethora of symbolizations lead, through the science of symbolism itself, back to a concern with ‘the Way’, the conviction that there is one fundamental source of human satisfaction, forever being glimpsed and lost again, and forever being restated in the changing terms of reference that correspond with the changes of historic texture?  All that earlier thinkers said of the universe might at least be taken as applying to the nature of man.  One may doubt that such places as heaven, hell, and purgatory await us after death – but one may well suspect that the psychological patterns which they symbolize lie at the roots of our conduct here and now.
In subscribing to a philosophy of  being, as here conceived, one may hold that certain historically conditioned institutions interfere with the establishment of decent social or communicative relationships, and thereby affront the permanent biologic [sic] norms.
We in cities rightly grow shrewd at appraising man-made institutions – but beyond these tiny concentration points of rhetoric and traffic, there lies the eternally unresolvable Enigma, the preposterous fact that both existence and nothingness are quite unthinkable.  Our speculations may run the whole qualitative gamut, from play, through reverence, even to an occasional shiver of cold metaphysical dread – for always the Eternal Enigma is there, right on the edge of our metropolitan bickerings, stretching outward to interstellar infinity and inward to the depth of the mind.  And in this staggering disproportion between man and no-man, there is no place for purely human boasts of grandeur, or for forgetting that men build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss.


From Attitudes Towards History, 1937

Among the sciences, there is one little fellow named ‘Ecology’, and in time we shall pay him more attention. He teaches us that the total economy of the planet cannot be guided by an efficient rationale of exploitation alone, but that the exploiting part must eventually suffer if it too greatly disturbs the balance of the whole…  So far, the laws of ecology have begun avenging themselves against restricted human concepts of profit by countering deforestation and deep plowing with floods, droughts, dust storms, and aggravated soil erosion. And in a capitalist economy, these trends will be arrested only insofar as collectivist ingredients of control are introduced.
The Marxian perspective presents a point of view outside the accepted circle of contingencies.  Or, more accurately stated: the Marxian perspective is partially outside this circle.  It is outside as regards the basic tenets of capitalistic enterprise.  It is inside as regards the belief in the ultimate values of industrialism.
… And saturating the lot is the attitude of attitudes which we call ‘the comic frame’, the methodic view of human antics as a comedy, albeit as a comedy ever on the verge of the most disastrous tragedy.
          If ‘comedy’ is our attitude of attitudes, then the process of processes which this comedy meditates upon is the ‘bureaucratization of the imaginative’. This formula is designed to name the vexing things that happen when men try to translate some pure aim or vision into terms of its corresponding material embodiment, thus necessarily involving elements alien to the original , ‘spiritual’ (‘imaginative’) motive.
The comic frame .. does not waste the world’s rich store of error, as those parochial-minded persons waste it who dismiss all thought before a certain date as ‘ignorance’ and ‘superstition’.  Instead, it cherishes the lore of so-called ‘error’ as a genuine aspect of the truth, with emphases valuable for the correcting of present emphases. …
Like tragedy, comedy warns against the dangers of pride, but its emphasis shifts from crime to stupidity.  … The progress of humane enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious but as mistaken.  When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy.
In sum, the comic frame should enable people to be observers of themselves, while acting.  Its ultimate would not be passiveness, but maximum consciousness.  One would ‘transcend’ himself by noting his own foibles. …
The comic frame of acceptance but carries to completion the translative act. It considers human life as a project in ‘composition’, where the poet works with the materials of  social relationships.   Composition, translation, also ‘revision’, hence offering maximum opportunity for the resources of criticism.


From ‘Definition of Man’, Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method, 1966

Man is
the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal
inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative)
separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making
goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order)
and rotten with perfection.
… Aristotle mentions the definition of man as the ‘laughing animal’, but he does not consider it adequate. Though I would hasten to agree, I obviously have a big investment in it, owing to my conviction that mankind’s only hope is a cult of comedy. The cult of tragedy is too eager to help out with the holocaust. And in the last analysis, it is too pretentious to allow for the proper recognition of our animality.


From ‘Poetics and Communication’ (essay published in 1970)

Dramatistic admonitions suggest: It would be much better for us, in the long run, if we ‘identified ourselves’ rather with the natural things that we are progressively destroying – our trees, our rivers, our land, even our air, all of which we are a lowly ecological part of.  For here, in the long run, a pious ‘loyalty to the sources of our being’ (Santayana) would pay off best, even in the grossly materialistic sense.  For it would better help preserve the kinds of natural balance on which, in the last analysis, mankind’s prosperity, and even our mere existence, depend. But too often, in such matters, our attitudes are wholly segregational, as we rip up things that we are not – and thus can congratulate ourselves upon having evolved a way of life able to exhaust in decades a treasure of natural wealth that had been here for thousands of years.




From Dramatism and Development, 1972

Humanism, as so conceived, would look especially askance at the typical promoter’s ideal of a constant rapid increase in the consumption of ‘energy’(though perhaps it is a trend that the whole ‘logic’ of investment comes close to making imperative).  And an anti-Technological Humanism would be ‘animalistic’ in the sense that, far from boasting of some privileged human status, it would never disregard our humble, and maybe even humiliating, place in the totality of the natural order.



Freud’s THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS and Modern Hermeneutics

Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams
and Modern Hermeneutics

Laurence Coupe

Originally published in Sigmund Freud: Critical Approaches, ed. Laurie Spurling (London & New York: Routledge, 1989), Vol III, pp. 340-353.



The word ‘hermeneutics’ may be defined as ‘theory of interpretation’; it is usually complemented by the word ‘exegesis’, which denotes the application of that theory. Hermeneutics is at least as old as scriptural scholar¬ship: the post-exilic rabbis and the early church fathers sought to systematize their reading of the Torah and the Judaeo-Christian Bible respectively. But it was not until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that ‘hermeneutic’ signified a problematic. At that stage the other etymological elements in the term came to the fore: for the ancient Greek word from which it derived (the texts of Homer themselves had merited a systematic reading) had not one but three orientations of meaning. Apart from ‘interpretation’, hermenuein carried the suggestions of ‘expression’ and ‘translation’; and it was the questions raised by these — on the one hand authorial intentionality and on the other the later reader’s cultural distance from that moment — which came to embarrass the interpretative procedure.

The hermeneutical tension has been summarized by E.D. Hirsch as that between ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’. He formulates his distinction as follows:

Meaning is that which is represented by a text; it is what the author meant by his use of a particular sign sequence; it is what the signs repre¬sent. Significance, on the other hand, names a relationship between that meaning and a person, or a conception, or a situation, or indeed anything else imaginable.(1)

For Hirsch a proper hermeneutics is that which does not confuse the one with the other. True interpretation always returns to the possible intention of the author, within which resides the meaning; mere evaluation tends to subsume the intended sign sequence under the critic’s own preoccupations, responses and conjectures.
In what follows I shall have occasion to draw on Hirsch’s distinction as a useful framework for outlining the development of modern hermeneutics. However, his own interest — in prioritizing ‘meaning’ over ‘significance’ — will itself be thrown into question as we come to consider the contribution of Freud to that history.

Hermeneutics before Freud

Before coming to Freud, we need a short overview of the theory of interpretation, as understood before his intervention.(2)

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), as a professional apologist for Christianity, was prompted to make, in response to the Enlightenment’s spirit of critique, a crucial distinction. He acknowledged that science was indeed a legitimate attempt to describe the external world; but he argued that it was a mistake for science to encroach upon the area of human feeling, that inner realm from which religious faith proceeded. In other words, objectivity could only take one so far; it could not account for the subjective state of, first, self-consciousness and second, following from that, dependence on God.

However, Schleiermacher’s was no simple rearguard action. He was quite prepared to open up the Bible to analysis of a scientific disposition: indeed, he was himself a major exponent of historical and critical scholarship within theology. Only, he wished to guide analysis by synthetic intuition, or what he called ‘divination’. ‘Grammatical’ interpretation — philology, textual study, comparative method — was a necessary rehearsal for faith; but faith itself was ultimately a matter of ‘psychological’ interpretation.

It is necessary to understand that Schleiermacher’s distinction is essentially continuous with that made by the early church fathers. They had assumed that the ‘literal’ meaning of the Judaeo-Christian Bible was trans¬parent in the same way as the ‘law’ had appeared to the scribes of Jesus’ day: the word of God had found perfect expression in the words of men. Where difficulties arose, and a particular text seemed inaccessible, it was to be recuperated by way of a ‘figurative’ reading. For example, the curious episode in the Book of Genesis, in which Jacob wrestles until daybreak with an unidentified opponent, was interpreted allegorically by Origen and St Jerome as an image of the need for the Christian to persevere in prayer.(3)

Within medieval Catholicism this distinction held good, now elaborated (in the light of the fathers’ hints) into a systematic exegesis authorized by ecclesiastical doctrine. Thus, though the scriptures were proclaimed to be thoroughly accessible, all interpretation was subject to the supervision of an increasingly authoritarian church. It was precisely such dogmatism that the reformers Luther and Calvin sought to resist, by returning abruptly to the ‘literal’ meaning of the sacred texts: far from needing definition by the episcopal hierarchy, the Bible interpreted itself freely to all those who had the faith.

However, once that step had been taken, and the divine word made entirely manifest once more, the scriptures became extremely vulnerable. As the historical and critical methods of the later seventeenth century were consolidated by the rational scepticism of the Enlightenment, theologians such as Schleiermacher had to defend Christianity itself from the apparently reductive drive of objective scholarship. In doing so, he could not fall back upon the kind of figurative recuperation sanctioned by the church fathers; but he effectively produced an enlightened variant upon it.

Thus we may see his ‘grammatical’ as a logical extension of the earlier ‘literal’ interpretation: indeed, both usages were known to Origen; Schleiermacher simply extended the definition of ‘grammar’. More importantly, ‘psychological’, with its Kantian acknowledgement of the role of the perceiver in constructing the world, revised ‘figurative’ interpretation. Nor should we ignore how this latter move simultaneously complied with Romantic interest in the mysteries of genius and in organic form. Thus the end of interpretation was the ‘divination’ of the author’s world, thought to inform the text at every point. Such an emphasis was certainly new in theology: previously the evangelists had been considered important chiefly in so far as their texts bore witness to the truth of the Messiah. It was not that biographical conjecture was being commended: rather, the specific gospel yielded hint after hint as to the authorial ‘psychology’, or spirit. The interpreter’s task was to perform a full ‘grammatical’ analysis and, as he proceeded, to infer from the parts examined — the words, the sentences, the chapters — the totality of the evangelist’s inspiration. Schleiermacher recognized the dialectical nature of this process, but went little further than to name it: ‘the hermeneutic circle’.(4)

It was left to Wilhelm Dilthey (1883-1911) to explore this whole problematic in philosophical — more specifically, epistemological — terms. For him hermeneutics was a ‘philosophy of life’ and the interpretation of texts a model of human understanding as such. Thus in the Diltheyan perspective Schleiermacher’s ‘circle’ applied not only to the scriptures but to all cultural expressions of the past: indeed these might not be texts at all (though literature, including the Bible was expression par excellence), but might take the form of rituals, institutions, laws.

To clarify Dilthey’s advance, we need to remind ourselves of the spirit of critique which we associate with the Enlightenment and which culminated in the figure of Kant. Schleiermacher felt it necessary to placate that spirit and acknowledge that figure by addressing the claims of science and by using a Kantian strategy to defend piety (religious feeling, like perception, being creative and autonomous). But Dilthey no longer felt that critical metaphysics offered any serious challenge to the interests he had inherited from Schleiermacher. On the contrary, he set out to restore Kant’s transcendental self to the ‘lived experience’ of history. For his enemy was not the metaphysical but the merely physical, as privileged by positivism; and he felt free to draw on Kant where necessary in his own critique, quite other than Kantian, of the new orthodoxy.

Hence in response to claims that the ‘natural sciences’ were sufficient basis for describing the world, he posited the need for ‘human sciences’ which might do justice to the subtleties of mental experience. Inert ‘explanation’ was not enough: active ‘understanding’ was called for. His ‘hermeneutic circle’ was a matter of tracing connections, subtly and progressively. This, he felt, was possible because the ‘psychological’ was not merely (as with his mentor) an individual category, but collective, cultural and historical.

Dilthey deemed humanity to be characterized by its capacity to express, and so to understand, experience. Human beings inevitably sought connections, within the world and with other human beings, in the present and with the past. In this last instance, involvement in the hermeneutic circle arose as the process of empathy, or understanding, began. For in pondering any cultural object of the past – notably, a literary text — one was seeking to bridge a huge gap of cultural difference. The author may have had an individual experience which he wished to express in the objective form of the text; but informing the author’s experience was a whole culture, which also sanctioned the textual form. Thus the interpreter was seeking to infer, not only an individual author’s ‘world’, but a whole ‘life unity’. The hermeneutic circle was not a textual dialectic, or even a text¬-author dialectic, but an emergent recognition of the ‘commonality’ of life unities within and beyond the cultural and temporal discrepancies. For what linked all cultural objects was the very fact of expressivity: that human need which, having found form, demanded the human response of interpretation.

We may judge Dilthey’s importance in extending Schleiermacher’s insights by juxtaposing their respective summations of the hermeneutic enterprise. For the earlier thinker, ‘Strict interpretation begins with misunderstanding and searches out a precise meaning.’ It was left to Dilthey to demonstrate systematically the impossibility of final understanding, and to make of cultural relativism a complete epistemology:

Our understanding of life is only a constant approximation; that life reveals quite different sides to us according to the point of view from which we consider its course in time is due to the nature of both understanding and life.(5)

Thus, where Schleiermacher worked on the premise that the individual author’s intention might ultimately be inferred and ‘meaning’ (in Hirsch’s usage) known, hermeneutics was now an account of historical humanity as constantly engaged in the creative tension between ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’.

It may still be possible, however, to deny Dilthey the role of guiding spirit within twentieth-century interpretation. Two reservations are worth mentioning here.

One concerns his assumption of identity. Though Dilthey emphasized the temporal point of view, he did not go so far as to advocate an affective critical position: relativism did not permit a hermeneutics of pure response. The interpreter was, he argued, constrained by the original historical moment of the author’s experience as objectified in cultural expression. ‘Significance’ was not possible without ‘meaning’, and ‘meaning’ was inseparable from expressivity; the author’s cultural identity was at one with his textual identity.

The second reservation, which follows from the first, is that Dilthey’s extension of Schleiermacher’s ‘psychological’ interest, though it evaded the problematic of direct encounter (one to one, between writer and reader), was yet informed by an assumption of integrity. In the act of textual expression, the person of the author was conceived of as a psychic unity. Just as author coincided with his text, so he coincided, as it were, with himself. No contradictions were involved.

In both these related areas — identity and integrity — Freud’s unwitting contribution to modem hermeneutics was to prove decisive.


Freud’s hermeneutics

In traditional hermeneutics, as we have seen, the fundamental distinction was between the ‘literal’ and the ‘figurative’. Schleiermacher, extending the former concern by use of historical and critical scholarship, revised the latter as ‘divination’. Though this intuitive interest was parallel to the Romantic emphasis on imaginative individuality, he himself did not go so far as to explore the mysterious activities of genius. Nor indeed did his successor Dilthey, whose distinction between ‘explanation’ and ‘understanding’, though derived from that of Schleiermacher between the ‘grammatical’ and the ‘psychological’ dimensions, was meant to justify an emphasis on cultural experience and expression rather than on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s individual ‘shaping spirit of imagination’. His ‘human sciences’ privileged communication above psychic exploration; for him artefacts were signs rather than symbols, indicative rather than polysemous.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) published Die Traumdeutung, subsequently translated as The Interpretation of Dreams, in 1899 (though it was actually dated 1900). By then he had already begun to demonstrate the inadequacy of a communication model of epistemology. With his colleague Breuer he had outlined four years earlier a sketch of the human ‘unconscious’, difficult of access due to the necessary mechanism of ‘repression’. The symptoms of hysterical patients, it seemed, resulted from the over-zealous repression of a ‘traumatic’ memory. Such a symptom would involve the patient in a long, tortuous process of therapy before the moment of ‘abreaction’, when the repressed memory would be released and a cure would be possible. This was because it was in the nature of hysterical symptoms to be ‘over-determined’, to arise from more than one event (the memory being in fact many memories).(6)

Granted that the hysteric was an extreme representative of dissociation, the very psychic model Freud had employed — memory, repression, unconscious — was enough to throw into question the expressive, integrated subject which Dilthey’s hermeneutics had assumed. Freud was discovering a humanity at odds with itself, a victim of the contradictory structure of its own psyche.

In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud turned from symptoms to symbols, from hysterical deviation to the universal activity of sleep narrative, thus compounding the earlier challenge to assumptions of identity and integrity. Early on in the work, he explicitly rejects any kind of analysis which takes symbols to be signs, which expects a unitary meaning to be deciphered by reference to a handbook of unvarying symbolic properties. Freud seeks, as a psychoanalyst, to go beyond mere transcoding to a delicate articulation of the psychic production of images discernible in the patient’s ‘free association’ in therapy. Thus Dilthey’s cultural relativism becomes oneiric pluralism, that is, the acknowledgement of varying dream motives: ‘I … am prepared to find that the same piece of content may conceal a different meaning when it occurs in various people or in various contexts’.(7) Though in any culture there will be a body of fixed symbols — in his own Freud discovers parents frequently represented by kings and queens, the penis by a tower or umbrella, the womb by a box or ship — what is important is the use to which these are put, the way they are structured in dream form by the particular patient. Interpretation, he claims, is not an empty repetition of the universal insight that the dream represents a ‘wish-fulfilment’. Rather, it has to negotiate the implications of the complete formula — ‘a (disguised) fulfilment of a (suppressed or repressed) wish’ — in case after case which resists the analytical aspiration to typicality.(8) Moreover, even when the dream has been revealed as embodying a repressed wish, one is still left with the distance between the fulfilling dream and the unfulfilled dreamer.

In the context of hermeneutics The Interpretation of Dreams might be regarded as the systematic acknowledgement of a split within interpretation. On the one hand, there persists the socially-oriented aim of mediating understanding, of clarifying that which has been obscure, and giving it discursive form. Indeed, Freud himself has to assume a unity of some kind in order to articulate the mystery: thus he refers to the process of ‘secondary revision’ by which most dreams attain their narrative shape, making them in effect dreams which have been ‘already interpreted once, before being submitted to waking interpretation’. On the other hand, the ‘dream-thoughts’ which he is seeking to elucidate do themselves bear witness to an anti-social, non-discursive realm of desire, conflict and angry frustration. The epigraph for the book from Virgil is thus well-chosen: ‘If I cannot move heaven, I will stir up the underworld.’ The repressed dream-wish ‘stirs up’ the ‘underworld’ of the unconscious and casts a shadow over the rational order of ‘heaven’.(9)

Here it may be objected that Freud was hardly the first western thinker to recognize the barbaric impulses within the apparently civilized mind. Schopenhauer had already depicted the world as ruled by a blind, insurgent ‘will’, and had advocated (with a new desperation) the traditional ideal of salvation through contemplation and art.(10) Nietzsche, resisting the hope of transcendence, had insisted that the ‘Dionysian’ remains a constant in our thinking even, or especially, when we presume to attain ‘Apollonian’ clarity and order.(11) However, Freud in the Interpretation goes further than either of these in setting out to demonstrate the workings of psychic contradiction or non-coincidence within a series of specific textual studies, and to use a specialised vocabulary to describe the textual organization.

The texts (which include not only patients’ dreams but also Freud’s own, together with works of literature), I shall consider briefly in the next section. Here it will be appropriate to explain some of the vocabulary. Most important to grasp is the distinction between the ‘manifest’ and ‘latent’ contents of the dream. The wish-fulfilment, emerging or ascending into dream consciousness when the activity of sleep has weakened the forces of repression, is in the process given the surface interest of imagery, or plastic representation. The two main imaginative devices are ‘condensation’ and ‘displacement’.

In the first instance, elements normally kept apart in waking life are fused in the dream: Freud cites the example of the ‘botanical monograph’ which in one of his own dreams represented many ideas, experiences and obsessions in one ‘manifest’ image. Like the symptom of the hysteric, condensation is made possible by the psychic arrangement of ‘over-determination’: the dream thereby fulfils several wishes, not just one. ‘If a dream is written out it may perhaps fill half a page. The analysis setting out the dream-thoughts underlying it may occupy six, eight or a dozen times as much space.’(12)

‘Displacement’ too is illustrative of over-determination: one dream phenomenon may appear central to the narrative, to the manifest content, but on closer inspection turns out to represent a transference from the complex of dream-thoughts onto an incidental detail. Freud cites his own dream of his uncle’s ‘fair beard’, which distracts attention from the underlying passion for promotion and status.(13) (See below.)

The account of such devices as condensation and displacement, with recurrent reference to specific dream narratives, fulfils and systematizes the interpretative promise of a Schopenhauer and a Nietzsche; it is the first attempt to spell out the consequences of the discovery of what we might call the contrary self. With Freud, notions such as identity and integrity appear to lose their force; and with them the Diltheyan sequence of expression, objective form and empathy. If the self is permanently divided between the claims of the manifest and latent contents, then hermeneutics cannot rest content with a model of communication and comprehension, but has to engage with the inaccessibly regressive drive of humanity to blind will, to the relentless energy of primitive desire. Freud’s demonstration through dream analysis that narratives do not simply say what the narrator means, but emerge from a conflict of forces, signifies a major shift in exegetical procedure.

Paul Ricouer has summarized the transition as that from ‘interpretation as recollection of meaning’ to ‘interpretation as exercise of suspicion’.(14) In terms of the tradition, it is as if the ‘literal’ or ‘grammatical’ level of meaning has been reduced to the matter of biological drives; and the ‘figurative’ has been released from the restraints of orthodox recuperation. In the terms of post-Enlightenment hermeneutics, it is as if individual ‘divination’ or the inference of ‘life unities’ is exposed as an empty rationalization of the nostalgia for integrity and identity. In Hirsch’s terms, ‘meaning’ can no longer be explained as intention; nor need ‘significance’ be constrained by the ideal of ‘what the author meant’.


Freud’s exegesis

Freud tells us in the Interpretation that his patients often resisted the idea that dreams could ultimately be seen as wish-fulfilments, but that he usually managed to persuade them that there were no simple dreams. He gives the example of the young aunt of two small boys, the elder of whom had died at the time when she was being courted by a young academic whom she very much desired to marry. Subsequently the man had broken off relations with her, however. In her dream she saw the younger boy too now lying in a coffin, his hands folded: the atmosphere and images of the dream narrative were reminiscent of the actual death of the elder brother. Freud was able to interpret the apparently straightforward anxiety dream as a disguised wish-fulfilment, in which the death of the younger boy was associated with the return of the suitor. He had been there at the time of the previous death (actually coming to pay his condolences) and so might well be there should another occur. The desire for the lover had been repressed, but the dream gave vent to the underlying wish in disguised form.(15)

Freud also recounts many of his own dreams, and interprets them similarly as resulting from the mechanism of repression. Prior to one such, he had been pleased to learn that he had been nominated for the position of assistant professor at his university. However, one evening soon after a friend had called to say that, though he too had aspirations to that rank, he had been unofficially advised that anti-semitism would ensure he, being a Jew, would not gain promotion. Freud, also a Jew, had therefore resigned himself to the failure of his own ambition. However, that night he had the following dream, in the form of a thought followed by an image:

1. My friend R. was my uncle – I had a great feeling of affection for him.

2. I saw before me his face, somewhat changed. It was as though it had been drawn out lengthways. A yellow beard that surrounded it, stood out especially clearly.(16)

Freud’s only uncle had in fact been a petty criminal at one time. If the friend was associated with the figure of the uncle by way of displacement (‘R.’ had a greying black beard, not a yellow one) then Freud is able to interpret the dream as a vindication of his own wish to be the legitimate candidate for assistant professorship: crime, not race, is now the issue. Moreover, the ‘affection’ he felt in the dream is seen to contribute to the psychic distortion: belonging to the surface narrative but not to the underlying dream-thoughts, it is designed to conceal the reality which interpretation will have to seek in retrospect. It is, in short, a means of disguise: the dream substitutes affection for contempt and so deceives the dreamer. Again, the mechanism of repression has to be uncovered, and the discrepancy between manifest and latent demonstrated.(17)

There are perhaps two ways of describing Freud’s exegesis in the above instances. On the one hand, we might say that it illustrates perfectly the hermeneutical transition which I have sketched in the last section: whatever the dream appears to be saying, analysis reveals distortion and censorship — the consequence of repression — to be at work. Division of the self is assumed, and the text of the dream is read accordingly. Freud thereby releases hermeneutics from the traditional constraints of transparency and recuperation, and in so doing renders exegesis dizzyingly open to infinite textual possibility. He himself spells out the implications for literature:

Just as all neurotic symptoms, and, for that matter, dreams, are capable of being over-interpreted and indeed need to be, if they are to be fully understood, so all genuinely creative writings are the product of more than a single impulse in the poet’s mind, and are open to more than a single interpretation.(18)

On the other hand, in his very expectation of full understanding, he is perfectly capable of making claims for his analysis which simply reproduce the excessive arrogance of positivism: ‘The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind’.(19) Thus the Interpretation might itself be seen as a divided text: on the one hand, immanent exegesis; on the other, despite the protestations in the earlier part of the book, the transcendent perspective of a master-code.

In order to test this tension further, we must examine — in the light of the above pronouncement on ‘creative writings’ — Freud’s account of a specific literary text: namely, Hamlet. Having found in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex evidence that the majority of male children feel desire for the mother and antagonism towards the father, he argues that Shakespeare’s treatment of the Oedipal theme is less direct:

In the Oedipus the child’s wishful phantasy that underlies it is brought into the open and realized as it would be in a dream. In Hamlet it remains repressed; and – just as in the case of a neurosis – we only learn of its existence from its inhibiting consequences.(20)

The reason for this indirectness is given as ‘the secular advance of repression in the emotional life of mankind’.(21) Thus Hamlet, unlike Sophocles’ tragedy, is a play about hesitation, about the arrest of vital impulses through extreme repression of terrifying truths:

Hamlet is able to do anything — except take vengeance on the man who did away with his father and took that father’s place with his mother, the man who shows him the repressed wishes of his own childhood realized. Thus the loathing which should drive him on to revenge is replaced in him by self-reproaches, by scruples of conscience, which remind him that he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish.(22)

The inner workings of the narrative are now revealed: the play is structured on the premise of an unrecognized Oedipal impulse or wish. The manifest content of the text may concern the morality of the revenge imperative, but the latent is quite other.

However, Freud does not rest content with the function of the protagonist within the plot, but moves further back to the authorial presence behind the textual form:

… it can of course only be the poet’s mind which confronts us in Hamlet. I observe in a book on Shakespeare by Georg Brandes (1896) a statement that Hamlet was written immediately after the death of Shakespeare’s father (in 1601), that is, under the immediate impact of his bereavement and, as we may well assume, while his childhood feelings about his father had been freshly revived.(23)

It may be that we are once again confronting a division within Freud’s hermeneutical practice. It is one thing to open up a text to new possibilities of significance; it is another to fit the text, in Procrustean manner, into the confines of theory.

The new possibilities discovered by Freud have been challenged by E.D. Hirsch Jr. According to him, the meaning of Hamlet remains what it always was, that is, what the author intended by the sign sequence produced. What is demanded is not biographical conjecture: Hirsch would not, for example, accept the use of dubious information from ‘a book on Shakespeare by Georg Brandes’. Rather, we are to engage with the ‘intrinsic genre’ which defined and facilitated the authorial intention. Thus if Hamlet belongs to the category of Renaissance revenge tragedy, then its meaning is inextricably bound up with generic expectations arising from Shakespeare’s decision to produce that kind of text. It is not valid, Hirsch asserts, to read the plot as if it were about an Oedipus complex, since Oedipal implications do not belong to ‘the type of meaning Shakespeare willed’. ‘He may have willed very broad implications,’ Hirsch concedes — a revenge tragedy will be about more things than revenge – ‘but he did not necessarily will all possible ones’; and we cannot interpret the text indefinitely. To do so is to subordinate ‘meaning’ to ‘significance’.(24)

The confines of Freudian theory have also been challenged, more recently, by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. According to them, the very systematic nature of the ‘complex’ reading (consolidated five years after the Interpretation in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality), inevitably reduces the rich variety of not only the literary text but also the psychic life of the putative patient. Freud’s reading of Hamlet would then be as tyrranous as his analysis of dreams: in both cases, the infinite potential of narrative is translated into an entirely repressive master-code.(25) In Hirsch’s terms, if not in his strict usage, the ‘meaning’ of the Oedipus complex, deemed by Freud to be universal, gathers whatever varieties of ‘significance’ the text possesses into its omnivorous maw.

The above opposed views of Freudian exegesis do not, of course, exhaust the issue. We have still to engage with, for example, Freud’s curious use of biography. I have already indicated that this kind of procedure is proscribed in the hermeneutics of a Schleiermacher, a Dilthey or a Hirsch: the authorial presence is to be located within the text or not at all. But in his interpretation of Hamlet Freud feels no qualms about referring the play back directly to the individual subject and circumstance: it is Shakespeare, after all, to whom is attributed the Oedipal burden. Far less subtle in his handling of the generic work in Shakespeare’s art than in handling the dream-work in the patient’s psyche, he here simply repeats the language of Romantic expressivity, as articulated defiantly by Thomas Carlyle:

How could a man travel forward from rustic deer-poaching to such tragedy-writing, and not fall-in with sorrows by the way? Or, still better, how could a man delineate a Hamlet, a Coriolanus, a Macbeth, so many suffering heroic hearts, if his own heroic heart had never suffered?(26)

In the instance of the Oedipal reading, then, Freudian hermeneutics would take us little further than nineteenth-century biographical criticism. ‘It is known, too, that Shakespeare’s own son who died at an early age bore the name of “Hamnet”, which is identical with “Hamlet”,’ Freud asserts. ‘Just as Hamlet deals with the relation of a son to his parents, so Macbeth [written at approximately the same period] is concerned with the subject of childlessness.'(27)

However, it is in the very next sentence that we are advised of the necessity to ‘over-interpret’ literary texts, since they are ‘the product of more than a single motive and more than a single impulse in the poet’s mind’. Having reduced Hamlet to autobiography, and ratified such a reduction by his own master-code, Freud once more insists on the infinite potential of ‘meaning’, to be complemented on the interpreter’s part by an infinite potential for ‘significance’. Moreover, here in one sentence the author of the Interpretation acknowledges the divided interest of his own text. On the one hand we have the ideal of full understanding, the attempt to discover ‘the poet’s mind’ — what Ricoeur calls the hermeneutics of ‘recollection’; on the other we have the capacity of texts to be ‘over-interpreted’, to attract ‘more than a single interpretation’ — what Ricoeur calls the hermeneutics of ‘suspicion’.

We will look in vain through Freud’s book for a thorough dialectic of ‘recollection’ and  ‘suspicion’, or of ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’. This is because Freud cannot at this stage articulate the full hermeneutical implications of his discoveries, being himself locked into the ‘problematic of the individual subject’.(28) But his symptomatic reading of Hamlet remains crucial for literary criticism in the twentieth century, not because of what it surmises about Shakespeare but because of its readiness to disrupt the text’s reception. ‘Here I have translated into conscious terms what was bound to remain unconscious in Hamlet’s mind; and if anyone is inclined to call him a hysteric, I can only accept the fact as one that is implied by my interpretation.’(29) Crudely mimetic in itself, this revision of critical opinion yet opens up infinite possibilities, not necessarily to be confined by the individual problematic. Six years after the Interpretation, it is Freud himself who gestures towards a truly radical exegesis: in Psychopathic Characters on the Stage he includes Hamlet in that group of plays which rely for their effect on the neurotic in the spectator.(30) The play can then be seen as inducing in the audience the neurosis watched on stage and so, according to a recent account of Freud’s reading, ‘crossing over the boundaries between onstage and offstage and breaking down the habitual barriers of the mind. A particular type of drama, this form is none the less effective only through its capacity to implicate us all …'(31) In his essay Freud quotes Lessing: ‘A person who does not lose his reason under certain conditions can have no reason to lose’.(32) The literary text thus ceases to be an individual case-study and becomes a trans-individual, a cultural, challenge; it does not simply reveal its author but interrogates its readership.

It may be, paradoxically, that a thoroughly Freudian hermeneutics would be one that regained the Diltheyan sense of collective experience, expression and empathy: conscious, of course, that a ‘life unity’ is never stable; nor is it ever what it seems.



1. E.D. Hirsch Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1967) p. 8.

2. The following account partly derives from these secondary sources: Roy J. Howard, Three Faces of Hermeneutics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982); Rene Marle, Introduction to Hermeneutics (London: Burnes Bates, 1967); Richard E. Palmer, Hermeneutics (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969).

3. See The Jerusalem Bible (London: Dayton, Longman and Todd, 1966) p. 53, note d.

4. Fr. D.E. Schleiermacher, ‘The Hermeneutics: Outline of the 1819 Lectures’, trans. Jan Wojcik and Roland Haas, New Literary History X, 1 (Autumn 1978) p. 8.

5. Meaning in History: W. Dilthey’s Thoughts on History and Society, ed. H.P. Rickman (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1961) p. 109.

6. See Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, Studies on Hysteria (1893-95): as in The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. II (London: Hogarth Press, 1955). Subsequent references will be abbreviated as SE.

7. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900): as in SE, Vol. IV, p. 105.

8. SE IV, p. 160.

9. SE V, p. 490. (The Interpretation of Dreams takes up one and a half volumes in the Standard Edition.)

10. See Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E.J. Payne (New York: Dover Press, 1967).

11. See Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1967).

12. SE, IV, p. 279.

13. SE, IV, p. 305.

14. Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy, trans. Denis Savage (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1970) pp. 28, 36.

15. SE IV, pp. 152-4.

16. SE IV, p. 137.

17. SE IV, pp. 191-3.

18. SE IV, p. 266. 19. SE V, p. 608. 20. SE IV, p. 264. 21. SE IV, p. 264. 22. SE IV, p. 265. 23. SE IV, p. 265.

24. E.D. Hirsch Jr, op. cit., pp. 78-126.

25. See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, The Anti-Oedipus, trans. Robert
Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (New York: Viking, 1977).

26. Thomas Carlyle, ‘The Hero as Poet’, Heroes and Hero-Worship, 1841: as in Christopher Butler and Alistair Fowler (ed.), Topics in Criticism (London: Longman, 1971), quotation 521.

27. SE IV, pp. 265-6.

28. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (London: Methuen, 1981)
p. 66.

29. SE IV, p. 265.

30. SE VI, pp. 303-10.

31. Jacqueline Rose, ‘Hamlet — the Mona Lisa of Literature’, Critical Quarterly Vol. 28, Nos. 1-2 (Spring-Summer 1986) p. 43.

32. SE VII, p. 309.

The Comic Vision of T. F. Powys

Source of picture:


The Comic Vision of T. F. Powys

Laurence Coupe

The Powys Review, 4, 2 (summer 1984), pp. 72-6


Please note that I have made occasional alterations to the phrasing in this article, in the interests of clarity.



T. F. Powys has suffered not only from neglect but, where attention has been given, from a twofold misapprehension. He was taken up briefly by the critical journal Scrutiny in the thirties; thereafter a consensus somehow emerged that his art was ‘folk’ and ‘tragic’. There having been little challenge to the application of these terms, he is still taken by those who feel no real obligation to read him as a gloomy modern equivalent of Bunyan.

I wish to argue that in terms of both structure and vision Powys is a profoundly comic writer. I do not mean simply that his work contains humorous observations and incidents but that he consciously uses the traditional pattern of comedy, based ultimately on fertility myth and ritual, for his own serious purpose.

Q. D. Leavis did some unwitting damage early on: linking Powys with the rural memoir writer George Sturt, she spoke simply of the rich idiom of ‘the old culture of the English countryside’ as opposed to the ‘inflexible and brutal’ jargon of modern suburban life: spoke of that and of little else.(1) But only a decade ago Raymond Williams felt able to dismiss even such a rich work as Mr. Weston’s Good Wine under the category of ‘regional novel’.(2)

An early booklet-length study of the fiction tells us that we ‘must take account of Powys’s preoccupation with Death.’(3) Thirty years later, with little evidence of any general interest in between, the first full-¬length account of his fiction appears, but only to conclude that ‘he was ultimately a tragic writer’.(4)

The one critical comment on T. F. Powys which, for me at any rate, comes close to apprehending his true spirit is brief and parenthetical, made by William Empson in his account of the development of the pastoral form: ‘his object in writing about country people is to get a simple enough material for his purpose, which one might sum up as a play with Christian imagery backed only by a Buddhist union of God and death.’(5) Here we are at least beyond folk wisdom; and it would be a strange Buddhist who saw anything as tragic other than man’s attempt to resist the fact of mortality.



We probably all know where the title Mr. Weston’s Good Wine comes from: Emma by Jane Austen. Let us remind ourselves, though, of the specific context. It is chapter 15, where Emma is forced to sit in a two-seater carriage with the odious Mr. Elton as they bid farewell to their evening’s host, Mr. Weston. Emma’s interest in the clergyman has hitherto amounted only to plotting his marriage to her young protegee Harriet Weaver. Otherwise she finds him simply tiresome, and now she is rightly apprehensive: ‘She believed he had been drinking too much of Mr. Weston’s good wine, and felt sure that he would want to be talking nonsense.’ Far worse than this occurs though: Mr. Elton seizes Emma by the hand and begins making violent protestations of love to her.

Emma, of course, belongs to the narrative genre which we call comedy: not merely because of its author’s sense of humour but also, and more importantly, because of its structure. From the Roman dramatists Plautus and Terence and from Shakespeare we know that structure to be based on a move from ignorance to knowledge, frustration to fulfilment, isolation to identity. Emma, once she has understood the error of her presumption, may marry Mr. Knightley. The episode to which we have referred offers one illustration of that crucial period of sexual confusion which precedes the triumph of harmony.(6)

T. F. Powys, who knew the cultural anthropology of Frazer well, would have understood that comedy ultimately — Jane Austen’s included — derives from fertility myth and ritual. It is essentially about the tension between winter and spring, death and life. Just as in tragedy the fertility god disappears and in a sense dies, so in comedy he revives and reappears to be restored to the fertility goddess. Whether we know that god as Dionysus, Adonis or Tammuz, we say the original power is that of Eros. On the psychoanalytical level also the structure of comedy is clearly erotic: the drive towards the release of tension. Hence nothing — even the author, unless he wishes to make a display of being ironic — is allowed to prevent the sexual realization at the end, no matter how deep and intractable the period of confusion at the centre of the play or novel. Unlike normal life, art may present us with the triumph of the pleasure over the reality principle.

Here we are obviously invoking the work of Sigmund Freud. But if we take death itself to be the ultimate reality with which we must come to terms, we may see Freud in his later work as coming to see sexuality and mortality as complementary rather than antagonistic. That is, he  suggested that all behaviour is an attempt to release tension: a release which may seem be temporarily attained by means of sexual activity but which is only final in death. In that sense Thanatos comprehends Eros.

All this may seem a long way from fiction which has seemed to most critics a folksy by-product of English literature. Let us be clear about what exactly happens in Mr. Weston’s Good Wine.

I think that it is fair to say that Mr. Weston, the benevolent old wine merchant, is God; his assistant Michael is the archangel of the same name. They come in their Ford car to the village of Folly Down with a list of potential customers. In order to sell their product they stop all the clocks at seven in the evening: time gives way to eternity. There are two wines; or rather the wine is of two strengths; the lighter one is that of love, the darker that of death. As Mr. Weston himself says, his wine is ‘as strong as death and as sweet as love’. Love and death, Eros and Thanatos, are described by Powys elsewhere as ‘the two great realities’.

So the central symbol of the book is wine. But an attendant one is that of the spreading oak tree and its mossy bed beneath. Here various virgins, procured by the evil Mrs. Vosper, are seduced by Martin and John, the sons of Squire Mumby. One such was Ada Kiddle, who subsequently drowned herself: she drank the dark wine of Thanatos. The blame for all such sin is attributed by the village to the sexton, Mr. Grunter: he is Adam, still attempting to act as if he were in Eden, seeing no shame in his reputation (which he rather enjoys).

Customers for the light wine include Luke Bird and Jenny Bunce, who are given to each other in marriage and so testify to the power of Eros. ‘To be happy with another, in all the excitement and the glamour of the spring, is the proper thing to do. Luke longed in his heart to commit, to rejoice in the commital of, the most wanton excesses of love.’ But there are others who yearn to succumb to Thanatos, notably the vicar Mr. Grobe, who lost his faith after the death of his wife. His daughter Tamar, who is obsessed by the possibility of an angelic lover, is finally carried off into the skies by Michael himself: in her fulfilment Eros and Thanatos are shown to be one.

An important part of Mr. Weston’s task is to bring the Mumby sons to repentance. Having revealed his true identity to Grunter, he leads John and Martin to the graveyard, where they expect to find his good wine but where the sexton has unearthed Ada Kiddle:

‘My good wine, gentlemen,’ said Mr. Weston.

Though the worms had destroyed Ada’s beauty, her shape was still there, and Mr. Grunter regarded her compassionately. He saw Ada as if she were a picture, which is the way that all wise countrymen regard the world or anything in it that seems a little curious or out of the common …

‘You are a liar and a cheat,’ Martin shouted at the wine merchant.
‘You promised us wine, and you show us the rotted corpse of a whore. Is this your wine?’

Mr. Weston said nothing.(7)

Powys may perhaps be dismissed as having a morbid, even a sadistic streak (consider his story ‘The Baked Mole’). But to do so is to miss his real thematic interest: not a passing attention to sexual life as a sort of spice by which to relish all the more the fear of death but a realization of the final identity of the two great realities of Eros and Thanatos.

At the close of the novel, Mr. Weston himself is ready to drink the strong wine of death: he orders Michael to set fire to the car:

Michael did as he was told. In a moment a fierce tongue of flame leaped up from the car; a pillar of smoke rose above the flame and ascended into the heavens. The fire died down, smouldered, and went out.

Mr. Weston was gone.(8)

The Biblical associations are hard to ignore. Yet throughout the novel their persistence has not overridden the profane, rural idiom which pleased Mrs. Leavis; and of course its strength has to be acknowledged, without making the mistake of justifying the novel solely on such terms.

What is more pertinent is to demonstrate the way in which the ‘folk’ idiom is informed by the spiritual dimension; or conversely the way in which that dimension is substantiated by that idiom. Consider the moment at which Grunter (Adam) recognizes Mr. Weston (God):

‘I have work for you to do, John Grunter,’ he said.

‘And who be thee to command folk?’ asked the clerk.

Mr. Weston uncovered his head and looked at him. Until that moment he had kept on his hat.

‘Who be thee?’ asked Mr. Grunter in a lower tone …

‘I know thee now,’ said Mr. Grunter.

‘Then tell no man,’ said Mr. Weston.

Mr. Grunter looked happy; he even grinned.

‘I did fancy at first,’ he said, in a familiar tone, ‘that thee was the devil, and so I did walk down church aisle behind ‘ee to see if thee’s tail did show.’(9)

Mr. Weston’s disappearance at the end of the novel is clearly not a touch of homely whimsy: God enters into the death which he has created; or, following Empson, God and death are shown to be identical. We may be reminded of an earlier tale by Powys, ‘The Only Penitent’, in which Tinker Jar (God) asks Mr. Hayhoe (Adam) for forgiveness for creating all the evils of the world and in particular for allowing his own only son to be crucified. Mr. Hayhoe is only able to grant it because his effort to counter Jar’s confession with a reminder of the good things in the world — love included — fails in the face of Jar’s reminder of the fact of individual annihilation. That is why Mr. Hayhoe has finally to forgive Jar: he invented death. It is God we must thank for death.

Mr. Weston’s Good Wine is not, then, a tragedy in any acceptable sense. True, it concentrates to a large extent on the aftermath of the death of Ada Kiddle — though that death has taken place before the story begins. True, Mr. Grobe and his daughter accept the darker wine; but there is no sense of protest or loss. Where death is presented not as the terrible contradiction of life and love but as their realization, ‘tragedy’ is not an appropriate term. This book is in fact a comedy in the sense that it follows the structure of pagan fertility myth, involving the ever-recurrent springtime victory of life over death; Powys simply accepts that the corresponding autumnal victory of death over life is not a fate to be feared but a comic resolution more desirable even than that of love.

Given this emphasis it is not surprising that he makes constant allusion to another book, profoundly comic in structure, which long before that of T. F. Powys resolves in its own way the dichotomy between love and death: I mean the Christian Bible.

In traditional Christian theology there is an inextricable link between sexual love and the fact of death. Put simply, angels do not breed; they are immortal and immaterial. Only fallen man, with the animals, must reproduce his kind and so attempt an immortality of generation. According to St. Augustine, Adam and Eve enjoyed a sexless joy in Eden, but after the fall they entered into a world of individual death and birth, death and birth . . . and so a world of sex. Thus T. F. Powys presents us with the image of the mossy oak tree bed on which both wines are drunk. The possibility of such identity — sex and death as one — gives his language its paradoxical force. This brings him close not so much to Bunyan as to Shakespeare (Lear’s ‘I will die like a smug bridegroom’) and Donne (‘A bracelet of bright hair about the bone’).

Again, in Unclay John Death is sent by God to gather up Joseph Bridle and Susie Dawe, but loses his parchment of names and so spends the whole summer resting from his usual labour of ‘scything’ and finds delight in love. As he explains to the parson’s wife:

‘When a deathly numbness overcomes a body, when the flesh corrupts, and the colour of the face is changed in the grave, then I have done for a man more than love can do, for I have changed a foolish and unnatural craving into everlasting content. In all the love feats, I take my proper part. When a new life begins to form in the womb, my seeds are there, as well as Love’s. We are bound together in the same knot. I could be happy lying with you now, and one day you will be glad to lie with me.’(10)

It is to miss the point, as does H. Coombes, to protest that there is too little distinction drawn in this novel between the erotic and the morbid intrigues of the protagonist.

As we have suggested earlier, in the later Freud also we find identity where others –the earlier Freud included — have seen conflict. Eros and Thanatos have a common end; or rather the final fulfilment of Eros is in Thanatos. Hence Powys’s fiction, which owes as much to Freud as to Augustine, amounts to an interrogation of the comic structure and in doing so offers us a new comic vision. In the major novels — Mr. Weston and Unclay — as in Fables and the more realistic stories such as ‘Lie Thee Down, Oddity! – the final victory is not over death but over fear of death. Death is truly a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Hence T. F. Powys is no disciple of Nietzsche: he sees the eternal recurrence of individual birth, experience and death as acceptable only because the recurrence is not eternal for the individual. He is closer to Swift: nothing strikes him as worse than the fate of the immortal Struldbruggs. Life is only possible given death; death is the very form of life. The difference from Swift is that for Powys a positive emerges: we begin to live only when we know we will die.

But to return to the Christian perspective: Coombes’s book contains page after page of conjecture as to whether T. F. Powys was an orthodox believer. Perhaps such efforts miss the mark: what matters more is to see how he adapts the language of orthodox belief to his own ends.
The good wine that Mr. Weston brings to Folly Down must surely remind us of that drunk at the last supper by Jesus. The early Christians, conscious of that event, understood that their communion, their affirmation of community in the person of the risen Christ, must involve the sharing of wine. The term for such an occasion was ‘Agape’ or ‘love feast’, from the Greek word for spiritual love. Scriptural commentators often suggest that Agape is something opposed to Eros, but strictly speaking it comprehends it. It also comprehends Thanatos, since what makes the love feast possible is the conviction that death, the last enemy, is no longer a threat given the resurrection of Christ.

What T. F. Powys does is to work within the language of orthodox Christian belief but without subscribing to its premises. It is not so much that he agrees with Nietzsche that God is dead but that he agrees with Schopenhauer (and so with the Buddhism of Empson’s aside) that God is death.

When Luke Bird and Jenny Bunce drink the lighter wine, and find fulfilment in Eros, they enjoy a foretaste of the darker wine of Thanatos, of the final mature acknowledgement of the fact that we are born to die. The comedy of T. F. Powys is Christian in structure; but what matters is the way he draws on Christian mythology in order to explore the depths of the human psyche and to reveal the spiritual succour it can draw from aligning itself with the natural order.

With most writers it is difficult, or impossible, to deduce a vision from a structure. The author of King Lear is not necessarily a cosmic pessimist; after all he is also author of All’s Well That Ends Well. But Powys is the exception who proves the rule. We may wince when we come across gift books containing the ‘wit and wisdom’ of Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson and others. Powys, though, is one of the few writers who does seem to insist that we consider the beauty of his art to be its truth. Thus we can we imagine a gift book, admittedly not one that everybody would find congenial, in which we find the following from Unclay:

When the sun of Love rises, and a man walks in glory, he may be sure that a shadow approaches him — Death.

Love creates and separates; Death destroys and heals.(11)

With the publication last year of R. P. Graves’s The Brothers Powys we may hope that a revival of interest in the brother Theodore is due. This article is written in the hope that that revival will necessitate a serious revaluation, not another invitation to savour the rustic gloom of a literary eccentric. For T. F. Powys’s art, like Mr. Weston’s wine, is truly ‘as strong as death and as sweet as love’.



1 Q. D. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (London: Chatto and Windus, 1932; repr. Harmonsworth: Penguin, 1975), p. 170.

2 Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London: Chatto and Windus, 1973; repr. St. Albans: Paladin, 1975), p. 302.

3 William Hunter, The Novels and Stories of T. F. Powys (London: Gordon Frazer, , 1930; repr. Beckenham: Trigon Press, 1977), p. 14.

4 H. Coombes, T. F. Powys (London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1960), p. 157.

5 William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral (London: Chatto and Windus, 1935; repr. 1979), p. 7.

6 See Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).

7 T. F. Powys, Mr. Weston’s Good Wine (London: Chatto and Windus, London, 1927; repr. 1975), p. 292.

8 Ibid., p. 316.

9 Ibid., p. 262.

10 T. F. Powys, Unclay (London: Chatto and Windus,1931), p. 325.

11 Ibid., p. 57.



Edgell Rickword: Modernist or Marxist?

Edgell Rickword: Modernist or Marxist?

Laurence Coupe

Stand, 22, 3 (Summer 1981), pp.38-43

Note: This is a slightly revised version of the original review-article.


Essays and Opinions 1921-31, Carcanet

Literature in Society: Essays and Opinions 1931-78, Carcanet

Behind the Eyes: Collected Poems and Translations, Carcanet


There are two Edgell Rickwords. There is what we might call the ‘Pelican Guide’ Edgell Rickword, the man who edited the magazine that inspired Scrutiny and ‘Eng. Lit.’ as we know it — The Calendar of Modern Letters — but who came to nothing after making the mistake of taking Marx seriously. Now, at last, thanks to Carcanet, we can see the other Edgell Rickword: a leading poet and critic of the twenties whose political development was in keeping with the character and talent of the man; the Marxism complements the Modernism.

Rickword’s preoccupation has always been the need to assert and explore the rich potential of the individual mind, as something threatened by the sterile anxieties of our age — or, as Alan Young puts it in his introduction to the first volume of essays, ‘the struggle in art and in society between the free intellect and the dead convention’. It is because the individual matters that society must be changed.

Born in Colchester in 1898, Rickword received a conventional grammar-school education, was con¬verted early to socialism, and fought in the First World War (receiving the Military Cross). He briefly read French at Oxford (leaving after four terms because the course stopped before Baudelaire), began reviewing for the Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman, wrote the first critical study in English of the poet Rimbaud (1924), and edited The Calendar of Modern Letters (1925-27). Having produced three important volumes of verse (1925, 1928, 1931) he joined the Communist Party and worked for Left Review in the thirties, completing the decade with a seminal Marxist study of Milton. He helped edit the journal Our Time throughout the Second World War, and has since been undertaking a complete revaluation of the English radical tradition.

Rickword’s early writings emerge from the aftermath of war. Having lain ‘in sodden trenches’ alongside his fellow soldiers

and loved them for the stubbornness that clings
longest to laughter when Death’s pulleys creak

he is appalled to see them now ride

… silent on the train
to old-man stools; or sell gay-coloured socks
and listen fearfully for Death …

And in his prose too he resists the post-war vacuity, calling for a new sense of the individual that, as it gained mythological breadth and depth, would facilitate a new social cohesion: called for a Hero, in other words:

A Hero would seem to be due, an exhaustively disillusioned Hero (we could not put up with another new creed) who has yet so much vitality that his thoughts seize all sorts of analogies between apparently unrelated objects and so create an unbiased but self-consistent, humorous universe for himself …

and so for us. The poems, dedicated to this figure, are a protest against, not our ‘dissociation of sensibility’ as understood by Rickword’s contemporary, T. S. Eliot, but our alienation as understood by Karl Marx:

and the I retreating down familiar paths
rears its defence against the terrible sun and in its figurative way rebuilds the altar and brothel of legitimate state
adjacent, with mean fanes darkening our streets.

Rickword, says Jack Lindsay, depicts the capitalist city as ‘hell itself objectified on earth in loneliness amidst crowds, frustration amidst expansion’.(1) So we read:

Deprived of freedom in time, space and love
they seek enfranchisement in the air beyond
the city’s silent rows of gnawing roofs,
expecting joy within the mouth of doom …


In 1925, Rickword outlines his plans for a complete ‘Re-creation of Poetry’. Tired of the ‘social queasiness’ that inhibits him from expressing what he calls the ‘negative’ emotions — a significant part of himself, that is — he asks what has become of the ‘fact of personality’ and the transformation of this material into art. The briskness of tone here, the scientific deliberateness – ‘fact’ – is as clearly tactical as Eliot’s comparison of poetic composition to a chemical reaction (see his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’), but with a different end in view. Rickword is adopting the language of 19th century positivism in order to facilitate a Modernist, anti-positivist, poetic. But the immediate enemy is the inheritance of 19th century poetry itself:

An effect of the triumph of the romantic movement in the last century has been to separate the poet from the subjects which abound in ordinary social life and particularly from those emotions engendered by the clash of personality and the hostility of circumstances.

Thus, Rickword’s theory is clearly at odds with that of Eliot, who speaks of the extinction of personality, continual self-sacrifice. That said, they have more in common than their choice of vocabulary suggests: the refusal to reduce literature to mere self-expression. Having conceded that affinity, however, we must note Rickword’s resistance against the full severity of Eliot’s formulation of ‘impersonality’. Hence we find him making a plea for a process analogous to the dramatic catharsis:

A poem must, at some point or another, release, enable to flow back to the level of active life, the emotions caught up from life and pent in the aesthetic reservoir. Otherwise the poem is an artifice, a wax effigy in a glass case, a curiosity.

It is a critical commonplace that Eliot’s poetry, despite his own early protestations, was always highly personal and idiosyncratic, sustained by a characteristically neurotic energy – which is not to say that he did not find what he elsewhere called an ‘objective correlative’ appropriate to the particular emotion he wished to

Rickword gets it right in his own review of Eliot’s Collected Poems, again in 1925. We are impressed, he says, on the one hand by ‘the urgency of the personality’ which comes close to breaking through ‘the aesthetic fabric’, and on the other by ‘the technique which spins that fabric’:

for it is by his struggle with technique that Mr. Eliot has been able to get closer than any other poet to the physiology of our sensations (a poet does not speak merely for himself) to explore and make palpable the more intimate distresses of a generation for whom all the romantic escapes had been blocked.

That parenthetical aphorism is Rickword’s own guiding principle: ‘a poet does not speak merely for himself’. And when he came to reject Eliot, it was because of the latter’s increasing disregard for that responsibility to his generation which was at least implicit in the very ideal of ‘impersonality’. In the pages of Eliot’s own journal The Criterion, which offered hospitality to a variety of right-wing Christian thinkers, Rickword saw ‘impersonality’ become ‘orthodoxy’, individual talent weighed down by scholastic tradition, while the criticism itself became rhetoric – the rhetoric of reaction, elitism, contempt.

Contempt is a ‘negative emotion’ associated with the name of Jonathan Swift, to whom Rickword points as a master of the sort of poetry required today. But he is quite clear, in a separate and later essay on Swift, that this contempt is at the service of a larger, more generous emotion and endeavour:

… it is not some inherent, ineradicable beastliness in individual men and women, as the bourgeois critics prefer to see it, which is the object of his magnificent fury, but the irresponsibility of man towards man which results when every item of personal worth has been translated into ‘exchange value’.

Rickword ‘re-creates’ Swift’s invective in his own poetry, for example, his ‘Hints for Making a Gentleman’:

Let library shelves sustain from reach
the facts experience may teach;
and Swift and Schopenhauer be banned
past grasp of most inquiring hand;
such pessimists are all suspect
for they may teach him to correct
the blind insurgent ego-lust
that goads this paladin of dust
and gives him in his rage for pelf
rule of all creatures but himself.

In his prose ‘Apology for Yahoos’ (written for The Calendar) Rickword offers an ironically anthropological account – Gulliver having written ‘before the observation of primitive races had been developed into a science’ – of modern society’s faith in ‘Love’’ and ‘Law’. These principles he sees as derived from its obsession with ‘Luxury’, the process of ‘eliminating the physical reminders of their animal origin’.

Rickword’s regard for Swift may seem excessively high. Would he not have done better to look to Pope for guidance, as possessing the greater balance, the finer humanity? This is a wide debate, not to be settled here. What we can say is that Swift demonstrated for Rickword the possibilities of a political, anti-capitalist poetry. In this emphasis, he anticipates the revaluation of tradition suggested, much later, by the scholar-critic F. W. Bateson:

It is time Swift’s status as a poet was reconsidered. Although his verse is uneven and often slipshod, at his best he seems to me to be one of the great English poets. I prefer him to Pope. Pope is a supreme talker in verse, endlessly vivacious and amusing, but it is difficult to take him or his opinions very seriously … Swift, on the other hand, though he restricted himself to light verse, is fundamentally one of the world’s most serious poets.(2)


Before he came to Swift, or re-asserted the ‘negative emotions’, Rickword discovered, independently of Eliot, the Metaphysicals. In his own verse, he is particularly close to Donne – and a long way from Eliot. Here is his witty celebration of the interplay between mind and matter, imagination and reality, drawing on an ingenious religious conceit, as articulated in the opening lines of ‘To the Sun and Another Dancer’:

The sun that lightened the first Easter Day
traced in the arc of his familiar way
the choreography of Resurrection,
which works on our world now, the true reflection
whereby the sun-foot dancer draws the dead
out of the sepulchre of formless dread;
and as the sun still seems to our slow wit
to attend on us when we derive from it
all vital qualities, these verses show
no revelation you did not bestow.

Rickword, at his best, effects a Modernist transformation of Donne’s Metaphysical grammar. Roy Fuller was right to remind us that ‘one would miss the full flavour of a couplet like the following if one hadn’t in mind the then current discussions about the essentially random nature of the motion of particles’.(3) Here it is:

Dawn is a miracle each night debates,
which faith may prophesy but luck dictates

We need only add that the reference does not, of course, explain the freshness of the language.

Seventeenth century Metaphysicals (English), eighteenth century satirists (English) … and now we come to nineteenth century Symbolists (French). Rickword’s desire to keep the past alive in the present, for the future, was as keen as Eliot’s. But where Eliot began identifying himself with Charles Baudelaire, and in particular with his sense of sin (‘Baudelaire was man enough for damnation’), Rickword was increasingly convinced of the genius of a later poet, an extreme ‘Symbolist’, Arthur Rimbaud. Few people in 1924 were concern¬ing themselves with that adolescent genius when Rickword produced his critical study, Rimbaud: The Boy and the Poet (extracts are included in the first volume of essays, the translations are in Behind the Eyes); now, of course, his reputation is secure, though as challenging as ever.

What is remarkable about the book in retrospect is that though, as one might expect from an exploratory volume, it dwells on Rimbaud’s precocious ‘Messianism’ (since taken up to his disadvantage), there is strong emphasis on the poet’s social awareness and on his political concerns (the cause of the Paris Commune in particular). Enid Starkie’s apparently exhaustive account of the poet’s career, written fourteen years later, insufficiently documents Rimbaud’s absorption in the utopian socialism of his day.

It is not possible to illustrate neatly the part played by his adopted genius in the formation of Rickword’s style: you can spot more easily his influence on Hart Crane, whom Rickword evidently converted to Rimbaud. What is important is to recognise a general determination to rescue language and thought from the mercilessly platitudinous logic that we are taught to call ‘common sense’, and which ultimately denies life:

… and women grown
too docile under habits not their own;
bright incarnations damned to trivial calls
like shirted angels nailed to bedroom walls;
and all tense lives subdued to what they seem,
shed their coarse husks and, naked in Time’s stream,
stand up unsullied out of the sun’s beam.

It was Rimbaud’s radical contempt for ‘dead convention’, artistic or social, which Rickword found congenial, and which Eliot may have found ‘heretical’.

For, though Rickword was the first critic to praise or even understand Eliot, he was also a fierce opponent of that tendency to reaction which revealed itself in the pages of the latter’s journal The Criterion: Eliot’s praise for Mosley, Pound’s advocacy of Mussolini, general Bloomsbury snobbery and, as already mentioned, right-wing theological debates. Too all of this Rickword meant The Calendar to be an antidote. Throughout his journal’s duration he was a socialist – giving his wholehearted support to the general strike of 1926 – and by the following decade he was a committed communist.

It is possible to see Rickword’s Marxism as some¬thing extraneous, perverse even: an abandonment of artistic integrity, something to be apologised for. This would be unfair. The Calendar had been a literary magazine with a political emphasis; Left Review was a political magazine that encouraged progressive literature. In his essay ‘Culture, Progress, and the English Tradition’, Rickword reminds us that the politically active writers of the thirties are only following the example set by Milton, Swift, Words¬worth … and he might have added Cobbett and Hazlitt (there are studies of all five included in Literature and Society). Not that Rickword’s Marxism is a vulgar, sterile application of economic theory to artistic practice. He castigates Philip Henderson for just that:

Society was feudal, it became bourgeois, it is going to be socialist – so much he knows; but of the interplay of the classes, the dialectical relationship between them, which is the law of humanity in motion, he realises nothing, or at any rate, does not apply it to the subject matter in front of him.

Nor is he indulgent of those ‘public- school’ Marxists who put his critical successor F. R. Leavis off Marxism, pointing out ill¬-considered language in Auden’s ‘Spain’ — ‘the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting’; and his own poem on the Spanish civil war, ‘To the Wife of a Non-interventionist Statesman’, urgent and serious, contrasts favourably with Auden’s aloof weariness:

From small beginnings mighty ends,
from calling rebel general friends,
from being taught in public schools
to think the common people fools,
Spain bleeds, and England wildly gambles
to bribe the butcher in the shambles …
Five hundred dead at ten a second
is the world record so far reckoned;
a hundred children in one street,
their little hands and guts and feet,
like offal round a butcher’s stall
scattered where they were playing ball …

Yet on the whole it is the early Auden — socially responsible Modernism — that comes closest to Rickword’s ideal. Thus he complains, as the younger writer goes into retreat:

Auden is too good a poet to fall back into the simple exploration of individuality, after having originated a poetry of the social type along the lines of which there are so many fertile experiments to be made.


Rickword’s criticism in the thirties is as immediately concerned with contemporary creation as that in the twenties. Yet he himself, apart from the poem on Spain, produced no more verse for thirty-odd years. It would be misleading, I think, to see his renunciation of poetic speech as evidence of a disillusionment with either art or life. ‘A poet’, Rickword had said, ‘does not speak merely for himself’: it is not helpful to say, with the finality of jargon, that the Modernist poet became the Marxist functionary, any more than to say of Rimbaud that the Faustian genius became the mere gun¬runner’. As Michael Schmidt remarks of Rickword’s development:

Some of his critics believe that Marxism was responsible for his giving up poetry. And yet, without the development of his social conscience, his poetry would hardly have attained the commitment, range, and power that it did, before he moved beyond it.(4)

To assume the primacy of poetic praxis over political is to surrender to the empty idealism that Rickword has consistently opposed: an idealism that would ultimately prefer art to life, spirit to matter, idea to action, word to deed. However much we may regret the loss to English poetry involved in his decision, we must surely admire the struggle of a committed individual for integrity, totality, and against alienation, to which an ostensibly divided career — poet, critic, polemicist — bears ironic witness.



1 Jack Lindsay, After the Thirties, London, 1956, p.23

2 F. W. Bateson, English Poetry: A Critical Introduction, London, 1950, p.123

3 Roy Fuller, Professors and Gods, London, 1973, p.36

4 Michael Schmidt, Fifty Modern British Poets, London, 1979, p.187

Three books on American poetry

Critical Quarterly 27, 4 (December 1985), pp 88-90


A. Robert Lee (ed.), Nineteenth-Century American Poetry (Barnes & Noble)

R. W. Butterfield, Modern American Poetry (Barnes & Noble)

Alan Williamson, Introspection and Contemporary Poetry (Harvard University Press)



The first two of these volumes belong to the ‘Critical Studies’ series of symposia on American literature. The general aim seems to be an admixture of summa¬tion and stimulus; here the contributors, many of whom teach at the Univer¬sities of Essex and Kent, have opted chiefly for the latter. Their critical judgements have the air of intervening in a discourse of received opinion.

The hard-pressed undergraduate need not be too anxious, however. Each editor offers a brief opening perspective on the period and the poetry about to be reinterpreted. Of the two introductions it is Butterfield’s which says more in less space. In essence, he tells us, the history of modern American poetry may be explained as a triadic tension: that between ‘America’, ‘the poem’ and ‘the self’. If he is tentative about referring each of these to a particular formative figure, it is because he wants to encourage the student to discover how subtly the elements have ‘conjoined’ over the years. He strongly hints, though, at Whitman, Poe and Dickinson respectively.

Lee, while less comprehensive, is more encouraging about tracing origins and lines. Excluding Butterfield’s middle term, poetry per se, he takes as his matrix a binary opposition between ‘public’ and ‘private’, ‘American identity’ and ‘singular identity’ — thus enabling him to speak of a continuity between Whitman and Olson and between Dickinson and Plath. But again, the reader is warned: American literary inheritance is, we must never forget, a ‘complex fate’.

Lee’s volume thus offers two varying readings of Whitman: one (by Eric Mottram) as ‘public’ prophet and another (by Mark Kinkead-Weekes) as ‘private’ lyricist. Within one essay on Dickinson, Jim Philip attends both to the New England and Puritan context and to the personal courage implicit in the power of the verse. Of the remaining contributions, Robert von Hallberg’s account of Poe invites attention, precisely because it might be expected to evade the editor’s paradigm; yet here again, if ‘American identity’ and ‘singular identity’ are briefly overshadowed by a theory of pure poetry, this in itself is soon explained as Poe’s own challenge to English cultural hegemony.

The main link between the two ‘Critical Studies’ volumes is provided by Graham Clarke. Concluding Nineteenth-Century American Poetry, he demonstrates how Whitman and others, parallel to East Coast landscape painting and in keeping with Emerson’s philosophy of Transcendentalism, worked towards an ‘ideal realism’: that is, a formal achievement whereby the self was able to ‘read’ America as God’s ‘text’, as ‘a literal prospect which signified an implicit mythical dimension’. To regain ‘this “true” meaning, this original image’, it was necessary to ‘establish an aesthetic freed from entrapping conventions and traditions which stood between the eye and its divine object’. Then, in the middle of Modern American Poetry, Clarke tells us that Olson’s ‘insistence on origins’, his search for ‘the original moment of naming’ (the spoken act, taken to precede the word as written form) is a way of reasserting and revivifying the initial Emersonian impulse. This, it seems, is how to make sense also of Williams, and even Crane (as demonstrated by Jim Philip and Jeremy Reed). But it proves an uncongenial context for Wallace Stevens: we find Richard Gray referring him back almost apologetically to English Romanticism rather than American Transcendentalism.

English Romanticism is just where Alan Williamson unreservedly begins. Indeed, in the introduction to Introspection and Contemporary Poetry, a study of the American scene of the past twenty-five years, he quotes an English Romantic — ‘we receive but what we give, / And in our life alone does Nature live’ — to such effect that it makes one wonder why Lee and Butterfield did not go to more pains to explain where exactly the Emersonian self and nature depart from the Coleridgean. There is a danger that even the diligent student might come away from their volumes thinking that the main difference is America itself, where self and nature evidently come in bigger sizes.

Leaving the peculiar advantages of his country aside, then, Williamson, Professor of English at the University of California, attends rather to the way certain of its recent poets have related to the Romantic faith. He devotes much of his time to work which, though attributed to a tradition by Lee, is virtually neglected by Butterfield: the ‘confessional’ poetry of Lowell and Plath. True, Gabriel Pearson does discuss the former in Modern American Poetry but, con¬fining himself to For Lizzie and Harriet, deems Lowell guilty of exhibitionism; Plath is not mentioned once throughout the whole volume. Williamson himself, however, is by no means interested in straightforward self-expression. ‘Confessionalism’, he assures us, is only valid where it involves a ‘reflexive mode’, a constant turning round upon the self, an insistence on its responsibility to common humanity and the world. Lowell’s The Dolphin and Plath’s Ariel would seem to fulfil this requirement.

But the poet central to Williamson’s argument — that the best poetry of the last twenty-five years is about ‘the sense of being or having a self, a knowable personal identity’– is not ‘confessional’ at all. Ashbery is one of those who have reacted against the rhetorical excesses of his introspective predecessors, but he is not finally to be identified with the impersonal surrealism of his peers, Merwin and Strand. Admitting that our experience of the world is arbitrary and largely superficial, and that the self cannot be disengaged from that experience for purposes of diagnosis, he yet indicates (to Williamson at least) that meaning may exist in the very capacity of the self to embrace its chaos.

Thus we are brought back to Romanticism: if not Coleridge’s then Keats’s certainly. ‘Negative capability’ is not, one suspects, what Butterfield would have wanted any contributor of his to find in Ashbery. But Williamson makes a good case, and his book (difficult going as it sometimes is) may be recommended as an extension of, and a partial corrective to, both these usefully provocative ‘Critical Studies’ volumes.


Laurence Coupe