Poetry Nation Review
Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth (London: Picador, 2000)
You can tell a lot about a critic by the way he or she reads The Tempest. It is a play which seems to encourage formulaic pronouncements. At one extreme, there is the serene, archetypal approach: identifying the motif of death by water and the pattern of esoteric initiation. On the other hand, there is the outraged, political perspective: asserting the rights of Caliban, as the dispossessed inhabitant of the island. Perhaps what unites the extremes is the heavy-handedness with which they treat a text of such delicacy and diversity.
Above all, neither has much to say about Ariel. In effect, they leave him confined to the limits of Prospero’s plan, whether we situate it in mystical or in post-colonial terms. Ariel, that is, becomes a mere dramatic device. Jonathan Bate’s remarkable reading of the play, in the third chapter of an epoch-defining book, demonstrates his extraordinary flair as an interpreter of Shakespeare by in effect liberating Ariel from the condescension of conventional criticism. Now we can see that the play, and indeed a good deal of other literature, is about him. For the voice of Ariel is ‘the song of the earth’.
Bate has already written at length on Shakespeare, in two previous books; but his reputation is mainly that of an advocate of ecological literary criticism. He prefers the term ‘ecopoetics’ to the more generally accepted ‘ecocriticism’. If ‘ecology’ may be translated as ‘language about our earthly dwelling place’, and if our understanding is that we have absented ourselves from this primary home, then poetry is that language which returns us to it. Thus a ‘poetics’ is more appropriate than a ‘criticism’, since what we have to do is stop evaluating words and world from the standpoint of the opportunistic subject, and to begin to learn to dwell humbly within poem and ecosystem alike. Hearing Ariel’s voice, we rediscover the enchantment of the island, of any island, and by extension of the earth itself.
Bate’s previous exploration of the ‘green’ dimension of literature was Romantic Ecology (Routledge, 1991). If we wanted to gauge the distance he has travelled since then, we might note the subtitle of that earlier work: ‘Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition’. In The Song of the Earth, the word ‘environment’ is queried, in so far as it implies that the natural world is a surrounding, standing reserve which is worth protecting mainly because of its benefits to human beings. Bate is anxious to make clear that nature must not become the object of a political programme, the item on an agenda, the occasion for a strategy, no matter how ‘green’ the cause. In spirit, he now seems closer to ‘deep ecology’, which demands not so much external reform as a complete transformation of our way of regarding ourselves in the context of the biosphere. There again, he is careful to explain that, while putting the earth first may involve radical action, the concern of ‘ecopoetics’ is with phenomenology rather than politics. This in itself could be seen as marking a shift of emphasis from Romantic Ecology, where he celebrated the republican Wordsworth, whose ‘love of nature’ was matched by his ‘love of mankind’, and demonstrated how influential was his radicalism (on Ruskin and so on Morris, for example).
If The Song of the Earth has a hero, it is not Wordsworth but Clare: ideologically and aesthetically naïve he may have seemed to academic ‘experts’ on romanticism, but for Bate no poet conveys more acutely the experience of the natural world, as memory, as need and as loss. Indeed, the phrase which Bate translates from the philosopher of science, Michel Serres, ‘to think fragility’, which he applies initially to the Keats of the ode ‘To Autumn’, turns out to apply equally, if not more so, to Clare. If ‘men can do everything except make a bird’s nest’, as the old proverb has it, Bate shows us that each of his best poems is an analogue of that achievement. ‘Clare is above all a poet of the experience of miniature inhabited environments,’ we are told. Knowing and loving all that is small, vulnerable and unassuming, he reveals what it might be like ‘to live fully without profligacy upon our crowded earth’.
Meanwhile, Wordsworth has not totally been abandoned: the present volume has an impressive rereading of The River Duddon, which demonstrates the critic’s considerable gift for recovering unjustly neglected texts – just as in Romantic Ecology, we were invited to look again without defensive irony at The Excursion. But Wordsworth’s function here seems to be to dispose the argument towards a bioregional vision which favours diversity and subtle interrelatedness, thus leading on to considerations of Basil Bunting and Les Murray. Not that one should complain of this: admirers of Romantic Ecology will not want to see Bate confined to its parameters for evermore.
Indeed, The Song of the Earth takes us into a whole new world, philosophically speaking. Taking his bearings from Kate Soper’s invaluable work, What is Nature?, he engages with the ‘dilemma of environmentalism’, the paradox that, once you invent the category of the human, you have to make nature its ‘other’. Having done so, you need a sense of nature as an ‘aesthetic’ phenomenon, which is worthy of reverence, in order to remind us of what has been lost in the process of estrangement. Hence the principle of ‘ecopoetics’ – that the very capacity which ensured our triumph over the non-human world, namely language, is our only hope of finding atonement. Language both excludes and restores.
The guiding light here is Martin Heidegger, who sought to replace conventional, dualistic philosophy with ecocentric thinking. Unfortunately – or, rather, disastrously – he had in his early years made the mistake of subscribing to a disastrous political faith, one of the attractions of which was that it offered to save both the soil and the soul of the German nation. In his later years, having put politics behind him, his special form of thought arose from his reflections on poetry; and it is those essays on poetic dwelling that have inspired Bate. Indeed, the closing forty pages of his book constitute a tactful and frequently moving attempt to redeem Heidegger from the stain of fascism and to allow him to illumine our darkening world. A particularly effective touchstone is a poem by Paul Celan, whose parents died in a Nazi internment camp, yet who acknowledged his debt to Heidegger’s ability to reveal the miracle of earthly existence.
In the light of that final chapter, it seems inappropriate to complain about the deliberate absence of a political agenda from this book. Bate’s insistence that we only learn to love the earth once we have started listening for Ariel’s voice, and that our first duty is to follow the poets in their attempt ‘to think fragility’, may not please those who assumed ‘green’ theory would take its place alongside Marxism, new historicism and all the other ‘isms’. But Bate is so fine a reader of poetry, so alert to the ecological potential of language, that the responsive reader of this book will surely begin to hear the song which is its subject.