Bate & Leavis: An Ecocritical Connection?

Bate & Leavis: An Ecocritical Connection?

Green Letters
2 (
Autumn 2000), pp 13-19


Ecocriticism in the UK has perhaps reached the stage where it needs to ask itself where it is going: that is, what kind of future does it envisage for both planet and poetry. But it also needs to decide where, in a double sense, it is ‘coming from’: in the vernacular, this phrase refers to the set of assumptions made in any declaration or action; in academic discourse, it would (if used at all) refer to the theoretical tradition invoked. Much has been claimed for the return to Heidegger, despite the delicate political issues which have to be negotiated when his name is mentioned. But surprisingly little has been said about the legacy and example of F. R. Leavis. Perhaps this is partly due to a laudable scepticism regarding his assumptions (‘liberal humanist’, ‘elitist’, etc); but also, of course, there is a danger in endorsing this most canonically-minded of critics, lest the ‘green’ legacy itself begins to be subordinated to a dubiously exclusive ‘great tradition’. Jonathan Bate has been shrewd enough not to dismiss Leavis: he has, indeed, recognised his ecocritical potential. I propose that other members of ASLE UK take their cue from him, if only to the extent of replying, in the manner of Leavis’s ideal critical exchange, ‘Yes, but…’ to his own ‘This is so, isn’t it?’


Bate’s Romantic Ecology (1991) challenges the Marxist and New Historicist approaches to literary studies (taking as representative of an insensitive historicism). It famously announces a move from ‘red’ to ‘green’. It argues that there is a genuine ‘environmental tradition’ running from Wordsworth through Ruskin and Morris, which is far more congenial to English culture and the common reader’s assumptions than the abstract model of the mode of production and the habitual invocation of class. Poems are not merely evasions of ‘the real foundations’ of the economy. Writing that reveres nature is not necessarily a bourgeois ‘illusion’, an evasion of proletarian ‘reality’. In short, it is not accurate or appropriate to speak of ‘romantic ideology’; what we needed to recover, and to learn from, is ‘romantic ecology’. It was above all Wordsworth who demonstrated that literature celebrating nature – traditionally known as ‘pastoral’ – was not a ‘con trick’ foisted on an unsuspecting populace in order to divert them from class struggle. In his Prelude he affirmed the link between ‘love of nature’ and ‘love of mankind’. Far from being a reactionary who retreated from politics into mysticism, he was consistent in identifying pastoralism with republicanism, as manifest in the workings of a rural culture such as the community of Grasmere in Cumberland. While much of this may have met with the approval of that celebrated ‘revaluer’ of the poetic tradition, F. R. Leavis, the book is remarkable for managing to take on contemporary critical orthodoxy without invoking the elder critic.

When we proceed to the millennium, and the publication this year of Bate’s The Song of the Earth, we see what nearly ten years of ‘green’ reflection have produced. The shift of thought is dramatic. Here politics itself, whether Marxist or ecologicical, is itself placed in parenthesis. What is proposed is an ‘ecopoetics’, which works at a deeper level than ‘environmentalist’ thinking. Interestingly, as Bate sets the demands of a political agenda aside, Leavis becomes an important touchstone. The latter was himself a supporter of the Liberal party in his early years, was not unsympathetic to the case for economic communism, and remained to the end an opponent of Tory thinking and social privilege. Yet his consistent premiss is contained in Blake’s dictum, that politics is something other than human life. I want to return to Leavis’s idea of ‘life’ shortly, but for now I must stress that The Song of the Earth is the most audacious repudiation of the subordination of literary criticism to a political agenda since Leavis himself castigated the ‘public school Marxists’ in the pages of his journal Scrutiny in the 1930s.

I have reviewed The Song of the Earth elsewhere (see References), and do not want to simply repeat what I say there. As it is an extremely rich and suggestive book, I will simply indicate under two headings what I take to be its significance, keeping Leavis in mind as I proceed.


From Ovid onwards, Bate tells us, literature has been informed by the idea of a lost Golden Age. Indeed, Williams, in the first chapter of The Country and the City (1972), points out that our idea of a rural paradise, once manifest on earth, but now lost for ever, goes back to the first chapter of the Bible: ‘the organic community’ only ever existed in Eden. For Williams, the mythic element in such thinking is grounds for suspicion. He concurs, that is, with the consensus gathered about the figure of Roland Barthes that effectively identifies mythology with ideology. But interestingly Bate affirms the indispensability of such powerful narratives. He declares in his second chapter: ‘Myths are necessary imaginings, exemplary stories which help our species make sense of its place in the world. Myths endure so long as they perform helpful work. The myth of the natural life which exposes the ills of our own condition is as old as Eden and Arcadia, as new as Larkin’s “Going, Going” and the latest Hollywood adaptation of Austen or Hardy. Its endurance is a sign of its importance. Perhaps we need to remember what is “going, going” as a survival mechanism, as a check upon our instinct for self-advancement’ (Bate 2000: 25-6).

If Hardy’s Wessex is one of those ‘exemplary stories’, the same might be said for the ‘organic community’ which Williams in The Country and the City tries to put to rest once and for all. When he says that if you seek it you will end up going all the way back to Eden, he means that it cannot be found and so is a deception. For Bate, that seems profoundly unhelpful. Hence he aligns himself with Leavis rather than Williams. In his first chapter, he discusses the notion of the ‘organic community’, as proposed by Leavis and his friend Thompson in the early thirties, in an influential book significantly entitled Culture and Environment. While acknowledging a certain synchronicity between their work and the ‘organicism’ which was being put to dangerous political ends in Europe at the time, he yet insists that that the story that book tells works well as a ‘necessary imagining’ (to use his later phrase). That is, the capacity of Leavis and Thompson ‘to develop critical awareness, to resist the blandishments of the mass media shouting their breathless praise of “progress” and everything shiny and new’ is inseparable from the imaginative construct of a way of life in which humankind worked with not against its natural environment. Only by evoking such a world can they counter the conspicuous consumerism, the irresponsible use of resources, the exploitation of human instincts, in short, the waste of people and planet alike. Only by refusing the logic of industrial capitalism in the name of some other, deeper concept of life can they provide a model of ‘critical awareness’, can they demonstrate what it might be like to ‘live deliberately’, in Thoreau’s words. Leavis’s myth is validated, despite the doubts Bate has about its validity as historical documentation, on pragmatic grounds.


If I am right, Romantic Ecology is amongst other things a defence of reference, of representation, of the notion that rocks and stones and trees exist prior to incorporation in a poem by Wordsworth. It challenges the fashionable view that nature is nothing more than a linguistic creation. However, in its analysis of poems by Wordsworth, Clare, Edward Thomas and Heaney, it also demonstrates the power of poetry to offer shape and significance to reality – to such an extent that we might speak of a re-creation of reality. In this respect Bate is reaffirming Romantic poetics, in its Wordsworthian rather than Coleridgean aspect. With The Song of the Earth, however, mimesis is radically renegotiated. True, when the author queries what he calls ‘the New Didacticism’ – those movements such as Marxism, feminism, and post-colonial studies, which focus respectively on class, on gender and on race – he does not deny the potential value of such a procedure. Rather, he argues that the project fails largely in falling short: it needs extending if it is to speak validly in our era. It needs to speak for nature. So far so good, as far as recent critical conventions go. But the rest of the book, in demonstrating what it means to let the song of the earth be heard, leaves those conventions behind. For it becomes clear that mimesis here means not representation but revelation, not depiction but intimation, not reference but reverence, not observation but opening out. ‘The role of ecopoeis [sic] is to engage imaginatively with the non-human’ (Bate 2000: 199).

The book is, essentially, an experiment in reading poetry according to the ‘thinking’ of Martin Heidegger. Bate’s summary of the importance of poetry in the light of an ecology which is understood in Heideggerian terms, starting with a brief quotation from the man himself, is as follows:

‘Revealing lays claim to the arts most primally’: poetry is our way of stepping outside the frame of the technological, of reawakening the momentary wonder of unconcealment. For Heidegger poetry can, quite literally, save the earth. Why poetry more than all the other arts? Because another distinctive feature of the human mode of being is that we are language-animals. For Heidegger, language is the house of being [sic]; it is through language that unconcealment takes place for human beings. By disclosing the being of entities in language, the poet lets them be. That is the special, the sacred role of the poet. What is distinctive about the way in which humankind inhabits the earth? It is that we dwell poetically. (Bate 2000: 258)

Just as such pronouncements make us rethink the dimension of mimesis, so they raise questions about the nature of meaning and the meaning of nature. What is it to understand a poem? Is the poet trying to tell us something that he could have said in prose, but which s/he thinks will be more effective in verse? Have we understood it when we can paraphrase it in prose? Bate believes not. Following on from his Heideggerian assumption that poetry is a means of dwelling on the earth, of listening to the non-human – of letting it be heard and, indeed, of letting it be – he insists that poet and reader are engaged in a contract of imagination not a mere exchange of information. Whatever concessions he makes to the ‘New Didacticism’, with its priorities of class, gender and race, he will not allow nature to become yet another ‘issue’, an item on a political agenda. Once the poet becomes didactic, the song becomes a flat statement and the earth loses its resonance.

Thus, Bate comments as follows on Gary Snyder’s ‘Mother Earth: Her Whales’: ‘Worthy as the sentiments may be, they do not in any sense grow from the poetry. The poem has been written as an expression of a set of opinions, not as an attempt to transform into language an experience of dwelling upon the earth. In this respect, it is not what I call an ‘ecopoem’; it is not a thinking of the question of the making of the oikos [ie, earthly dwelling place]’ (Bate 2000: 199-200). By contrast, Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Moose’ celebrates the non-human without making a paraphrasable pronouncement. Bate quotes Mariane Moore on Bishop: ‘At last we have someone who knows, who is not didactic. He takes ‘The Moose’, in which Bishop captures a moment when the bus on which she is travelling is confronted by the creature of the title to be ‘a poem which knows why we need wild animals’ (Bate 2000: 201). He elaborates: ‘Bishop knows that we can only know nature by way of culture. The wood [described there] is “impenetrable”. The moose is encountered on the road, a road being a piece of land that has been transformed by the demands of culture, from city to city. The moose comes to the bus, rather than vice-versa. This is a poem not about getting back to nature, but about how nature comes back to us. It is a poem of wonder in the face of the sheer physicality of the moose: its smell, its size’ (Bate 2000: 202). Though he elsewhere speaks favourably of Snyder’s celebration of bioregionalism, the contrast here is clear: there is a kind of poetry that states its meaning, and there is a kind of poetry that enacts the emergence of meaning. In commending the latter, he establishes a central principle of ‘ecopoetics’.

In preferring enactment to statement, gesture to assertion, exploration to didacticism, Bate is following the example of the later Heidegger, who distinguished between the physicality of poetry, its gestural, expressive power, and the inert, reductive quality of modern jargon and ‘instrumental’ prose. A poem, he suggested, does not simply depict an entity ‘out there’: it imaginatively honours the very existence of the earth. The most impressive demonstration of what this view of poetry might involve – and for me the centre of the whole book – is Bate’s account of the poetry of John Clare. I quote his reflections on ‘The Pettichap’s Nest’:

A human being can do everything except build a bird’s nest. [Bate is quoting an old French proverb.] What we can do is build an analogue of a bird’s nest in a poem. We can make a verbal nest by gathering and cherishing odd scraps of language, the words which stand in for the bits and pieces of hay, rotten leaf and feather that are the pettichap’s material. We spend our time as well in gathering words as in working over things. Even if you have never found a bird’s nest and wondered at it, you may bye means of Clare’s poem begin to find a sense of why bird’s nests matter… For Clare, to be drawn to a nest, to stoop towards it but still to let it live, is to be gathered into the fabric of the earth and in being so gathered to secure the identity of the self. (Bate 2000: 160-1)

This insistence on the creative potential of language for me has another echo, besides Heidegger. I am reminded, dimly but deliberately, of the poetics of Leavis. He more than anyone is associated with the notion of ‘enactment’ or ’embodiment’ and the repudiation of the utilitarian or ‘Benthamite’ account of language. This position is stated and demonstrated as early as Revaluation (Chatto & Windus, 1936) – particularly in the chapters on the Romantic poets — but his classic summation is given in his late work, The Living Principle.

Indeed, as Michael Bell has demonstrated, the affinities between the German thinker and the English critic are much closer than discussion of either has led one to expect. Here let me indicate the main parallels between the two figures, drawing for convenience on Bell’s exposition (Bell 35-46). Heidegger’s ultimate appeal is to ‘Being’ with a capital B, never finally known but always implicit in every moment of human time; Leavis’s is to ‘Life’ with a capital L, only there for consideration ‘locally’ and ‘concretely’, in individual lives. Heidegger speaks of the ‘world’; Leavis speaks of the ‘human world’. Heidegger characterises poetry as a means of authentic ‘dwelling’ and ‘revealing’; for Leavis it is a primordial, creative language, a radical, pre-reflective thinking (as opposed to abstract thought). Heidegger declares that ‘Language speaks us’ and sees the main task of Dasein (the human being) to be ‘learning to live in the speaking of language’; Leavis speaks of ‘creative impersonality’. Heidegger asserts that ‘All language is historical’, in the sense that it carries a ‘destiny’ (not in the Marxist sense) – rooted in a historical community which precedes and informs the individual utterance ; Leavis affirms language to be ‘the upshot or precipitate of immemorial human living’ which ’embodies values, distinctions, identifications … promptings … and tested potentialites’. We should note that this sense of potentiality is present in Heidegger, who speaks of the ‘projective saying’ which ‘brings the unsayable as such into the world’; Leavis, interestingly, favours the German word Ahnung, which he translates as ‘inkling’ or, more exactly, ‘anticipatory apprehension’. For both, the density of the word enacts the materiality of the world, realising its infinite potential – a potential which is not accessible for human beings other than in poetic thinking.


I am not proposing that Leavis can be unproblematically enlisted for the cause of ecocriticism. There is, after all, his glaring limitation to be negotiated: his ‘liberal humanism’. But as Terry Eagleton has reminded us, this was by no means synonomous with bourgeois individualism, or with some dubious freedom from commitment. Rather, Leavis stood for ‘a root-and-branch reform of [the] university; an end to belle-lettristric waffle and the examination system, an insistence on the cultural context of literary works, on the significance of criticism for wider social ends, a demand for intellectual seriousness and a scorn for amateur gentility’ (Eagleton 50). Perhaps we could do with a few more Leavises, in that case! But what Eagleton fails to pick up – for obvious reasons, since he subscribes to the same position – is the anthropocentrism. The question is, for those of us engaged in greening the humanities, whether it is ‘strong’ (bad) or ‘weak’ (good).

True, when Leavis used to declare that ‘Life is only there in individual lives’, he usually meant ‘human life’ — the ‘human world’, in fact. But he was never confined to that. And if we can read Heidegger for his ecological emphasis, we can perhaps (with a little more effort) find a green aspect to Leavis. It’s there in his ‘organic community’, certainly. Even Eagleton concedes that ‘If he ridiculously romanticised an organicist England of chubby-cheeked Morris dancers and sinewy artisans, this at least put him askew to a contemporary England of high finance, ecologically devastating industrialism and the Pall Mall clubs’ (Eagleton 50). Again, the main inspiration for his critique of the ‘tecnologico-Benthamite’ logic of modernity was Lawrence, a writer who will surely have to be re-evaluated from a green perspective. Leavis, insisting on the need for humanity to be referred to something outside of itself, frequently cited Lawrence’s Women in Love: ‘he knew he did not belong to himself.’

More importantly, I am not claiming that Bate is a Leavisite. The importance of The Song of the Earth extends far beyond the bounds of Leavis’s career. Many of the issues he campaigned for may now appear redundant in an academy that has long since surrendered to the world he resisted. But that in itself is no negligible point, and we do need to establish some critical bearings in our resistance to ‘grey’ theory. Modestly, then, I am proposing that Leavis’s own Ahnung (inkling, sense of possibility) is now ready to be revisited, realized, and refined, thanks to The Song of the Earth. And if we are serious about greening the humanities, we need to trace the line that runs through Leavis, through Williams and so to Bate. The Song of the Earth represents a revitalisation of criticism after decades of vacuous sophistication, sterile cleverness, smug jargon and name-dropping pedantry. If I say that his account of Keats and Clare is the finest reading of Romantic poetry that I have read, but that its fineness is yet reminiscent of certain unforgettable pages of Revaluation, then I hope I will be understood.



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

——-(2000) The Song of the Earth London: Picador.
Bell, Michael (1988) F. R. Leavis London: Routledge.

Coupe, Laurence (2000) ‘The Voice of Ariel’ (Review of The Song of the Earth by Jonathan Bate), Poetry Nation Review 27, 1: 53-4.

Eagleton, Terry (1998) ‘Revaluations: F. R. Leavis’, The European English Messenger, VII / 2, pp. 49-51.

Leavis, F. R. (1936) Revaluation London: Chatto & Windus.

——- (1975) The Living Principle, London: Chatto & Windus.

Laurence Coupe

Further reading:

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

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