Romanticism and the Sense of Place

Romanticism and the Sense of Place

Toni Wein, California State University, Fresno

  1. Romantics and romanticism still suffer bad press. Too often, these terms derogatorily conjure up fuzzy, if green, thinking. A similar contempt often greets environmental proclamations or ecological analyses, as debates about the Kyoto accord and the validity of global warming currently testify. To join these two fields seems almost to invite derision, which has already been amply supplied. From James Pinkerton's "Enviromanticism" to the L. A. Times blurb that Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America represents "a return to the art of nurture, not as a romantic dream, but as an alternative to possible nightmare," eco-romanticism reduces to "golden hosts of daffodils."[1]

  2. Why, then, risk bringing additional critical scrutiny to bear on our practices as academics? After all, critics of a liberal arts education complain of the hothouse classroom, where useless antiquarian studies yield future citizens of dreamy fragility. Yet the very premises of Romanticism and eco-criticism insist on a vibrant relevance. Far more valuable than their admittedly lush descriptions of the natural world, the percipience of Romantic writers plumbed the roots connecting "each to each."  If we design courses that take advantage of the environments in which we work and live, we best heed their call. Draping the ivory tower in green may not persuade critics that the moniker is a misnomer, but it will enhance the repertoire by which we make this literature come alive.   

  3. I teach in the San Joaquin valley, where rural agriculture has collided with agribusiness to produce some of the most polluted air in the United States.[2] In designing an eco-Romantics course, my eco-critical lens sighted goals both destructive and constructive. I aimed to tear down the division between the abstract and the concrete, between the textual and the material, between the environment of the classroom and that of the fields, and between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries. Eschewing a presentist indifference to historical specificity or a reductive one-to-one correspondence between then and now, there and here, I yearned to teach my students to "see with" Romantic eyes, in the hopes that such vision would ultimately help cleanse our own burgeoning senses of place.[3] I could have contented myself with interrogating the Romantic writers' investment in and constructions of their land. Instead, I wanted to actualize the students' experience. For that reason, I chose the concept of 'stewardship' as a key motif that would govern our readings, assignments, and discussions.

  4. In this essay, I trace the course I followed to accomplish these goals. Of necessity, that course was doubly recursive: in order for the dual historical perspective I hoped to inculcate to take root, it could not be imposed but had to emerge organically from the juxtaposition of readings and assignments; this double-tracking corresponded with pedagogical research which suggests that learning best occurs recursively.[4] In the first section, I describe how readings and assignments worked in tandem. In the second section, I give examples from student essays that illustrate the way these ideas ultimately intertwined in their imaginations and understandings.

    The evolving syllabus

  5. I mobilized my goals from the first day, when I asked the students to study their classroom environment carefully, then to describe what they saw. In discussing their reactions and in sharing their in-class writing, what emerged was the sense that they had never before considered their classrooms as environments. Once the question had been posed to them, they began to see the kinds of messages being conveyed by the broken asbestos tiles on the ceilings, by the dirty windows fixed in place so that no fresh air could enter in, by the sheer cavernousness of the room which made the creation of a sense of community difficult. Each of these physical facts spoke volumes about their status within the university.

  6. If students suddenly realized that the physical classroom did not support their intellectual and physical well-being, they were slower to realize the way in which they were invested in fixed ideas about what constituted a classroom. In keeping with the belief that our dual perspective required a dual theatre of operations, the students received a homework assignment on the first day: a descriptive essay on their "sacred place." The directions asked them to "visit a place you love or that is meaningful to you, and describe that place in whatever way you see fit to best convey its charm, beauty, or meaningfulness to the reader." I gave them two class periods before the assignment was due, trying to allow ample time for them to make forays of some distance. I wanted the students to feel doubly immersed or invested, both in the perspective we would bring to bear and in the generous enthusiasm Romantic writers expressed for their home lands. I also suspected that the assignment would flush out each student's particular bias about the uses of land which might otherwise remain opaque to them and to me, and thus form an impediment to a new understanding of the land as sustaining a fluid interchange.

  7. As expected, some members of the class availed themselves of our proximity to the Sierra Nevadas. But they approached these places with a touristic mentality, in some cases not even leaving their cars. Thus they viewed Yosemite without tasting it on any of their other senses. A few students celebrated home gardens. One student, newly married and harried by the need to juggle relationship, work, and school, chose her living room sofa as her "sacred place," in an eerie reminiscence of Cowper's The Task, said by Morton Paley to be the inaugural work of Romanticism, even though it was neither a poem nor an attribution with which she was familiar.[5]

  8. Strikingly, though, the exercise produced anxiety in almost every student. Here is one student's account of her reaction:

    My eyes wandered around the room as Dr. Wein told the students of English 151 that we would need to choose a sacred place and then write about it. Suddenly I became anxious about this so-called sacred place. So many questions soared through my mind but I couldn't formulate one coherent question to ask in class. I began to study the faces of my fellow classmates. Perhaps even the slightest facial movement would expose what that individual deems as sacred. Then my own questions began to surface. What do I deem as sacred? Do I even have a sacred place? Would I be able to go to my sacred place or is it too far away? I realized my mind was racing. I then decided to save my craziness for after class.

    Her initial fears express a belief that there is one right answer about what constitutes the sacred. Hence, she searches other students' faces, not in a gesture of fraternity but in a reach for an extrinsic solution. Failing to find an answer there, she begins to look internally; but the slight sense of panic about finding and/or reaching a sacred place still indicates that she places more emphasis on the place as object than on place as a site of interchange. Moreover, notions about proper behavior and proper processes in the classroom prevent her from using that space as a productive place to think: "I decided to save my craziness for after class."

  9. Fortunately, the longer she thinks, the more she restores a sense of balance:

    Hours later I still felt overwhelmed by these questions. I decided to embrace a new set of questions. How would I feel in a sacred place? Would anyone be with me in my sacred place? The second set of questions seemed less intimidating. These questions allowed me to actually imagine myself in a sacred place instead of dwelling on the fear associated with finding one. I began to remember places where I felt very content and at ease with myself.

    The student realizes that she has trapped herself in a set of "mind-forg'd manacles." Shedding that perspective, she begins to consider her own relationship to the exercise posed. As soon as she establishes that link, the process of association makes her ponder whether the sacred must also be the solitary, an excellent question given that we had spent time reading and discussing Wordsworth's "Lines written in early spring" and "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud."

  10. Serendipity provided further means of association between the course, the campus, and events occurring around the valley on which we could capitalize.[6] I asked students to attend Fresno State's annual Volunteer Fair, an all-day event held out on the lawns between academic buildings where representatives of various community organizations came to solicit involvement. Their mission was to interview staffers and report back on the purposes of local environmental organizations. Their interchanges cleared up some misconceptions, as, for instance, the idea that Tree Fresno members militantly roamed the streets, demanding that people plant trees.[7] One student, asked by the volunteer with the San Joaquin River Parkway and Trust project whether she had ever been to our local river, suddenly realized that she didn't even know where it was, even though she had lived here her whole life. He stressed to her the necessity of maintaining an ecological balance and of respecting our dependence on our environments to provide our daily necessities without savaging nature, as had happened with the disappearance of two-foot long salmon that used to run in the San Joaquin. Most important, he shared his idea that volunteering acts as a means of educating others.[8] Her private response: "While I was talking to him, I thought that perhaps if he lived in Wordsworth's time and had writing talent, he, too, could have been a nineteenth-century poet!" Another learned that planting trees not only improves the air quality directly but indirectly, because the shade provided can help reduce the need for power to generate air-conditioning.

  11. Beyond the environmental lessons learned, this exercise provided a first opportunity for students to draw comparisons between their experiences and the texts they had been reading. With "Simon Lee" most freshly in their minds, students saw analogies, although they defined the ecology celebrated in the poem differently. One student saw "Simon Lee" as resembling the kind of "local effort to help others" represented by an organization for troubled teens called Valley Teen Ranch. A second compared the activity of environmental preservation to the motif of 'passing the torch' that occurs in the poem. In contrast, a returning student complained that "Simon Lee" advocated the notion that "our civic duty lies not with nature and the environment but with each other." Her more exalted sense of civic responsibility entailed a belief in the sense of continuity: "By volunteering my time or means to permanently improve my community, I not only improve everyone's quality of life, I acquire a sense of responsibility toward my community and the environment to continually improve it."

  12. Not all students were as idealistic. A visiting foreign student uncovered the corporate link to some of our larger volunteer organizations: the original land donated to the SJ River Trust came from a cement and mining corporation as part of a "plea-bargain." He noted, "the eco-friendly approach is taken only after huge fines are threatened and severe government action is on the horizon," a lesson he had learned while teaching "Environmental Coordination" for American Airlines. "I hate to take such a pessimistic tone, but from what I observed today, private corporations seem to benefit more from what we were offered than ourselves. Yet maybe I should not be such a pessimist. I do see the benefit of some privatization. With a dollar sign attached, things always seem to happen a lot faster. I wonder if the Romantics ever thought it would come to this?" His question allowed for an ongoing discussion about the class or status positions of the various writers we studied.[9]

  13. The visit to the Volunteer Fair aimed to foreground the question of stewardship and to make it immediate. For those who work the land for a living, stewardship is a constant concern, even if those of us in the academy perceive the concern as taking attenuated forms.  Because I knew that many of my students would have come from agricultural families, I included Wordsworth's "Michael" next. The poem spoke to them with more voices than one might hear in an urban classroom: while they bemoaned the loss of the farm, some of them also identified with Luke's desire to remain in the city. At the same time, having read Gilpin in tandem, they could see how Wordsworth tells the story from both inside and outside, that he, too, makes of the ruin a picturesque reminder of agricultural failure in the face of new economic reality.

  14. We continued to approach Romanticism as alternating between poles of aesthetics and utility with Radcliffe's The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne. This novel allowed for discussions about shallow and deep ecology (see esp. chapter one and the conclusion), because it defines the new gothic hero as steward to land and people.[10] Long before we witness his machinations against women, we recognize Baron Malcolm of Dunbayne as evil because he has misappropriated the rights of feudal tenure and impoverished his tenants and the land. His failed policies of tillage mirror General Tilney's hothouse cultivation of pineapples, and reveals that more than parodic dismissal links Austen's Northanger Abbey, which we read later in the semester, with Radcliffe. At the same time, Radcliffe's descriptions of this Gothic landscape, set not in foreign lands but in the exoticism of twelfth-century Scotland, give us a bifold view of nature as ecosystem: at once a model of unity, of "order and equilibrium" and/or a celebration of the "lowly patch."[11]

  15. I paired the novel with a Sierra Club survey to "Measure Your Ecological Footprint" (Jan./Feb. 2003) and accompanied it with a flyer from PG&E to "Learn Where Your Energy Is Going." This flyer permitted us to apply not only an environmental conscience but also a semiotic reading. It pictures an A-frame house, divided into strata and cells. At the apex, we see the back of a woman in a bathrobe, standing before a mirror drying her hair. To her right is the bedroom. Below the bedroom sits the kitchen, which is occupied by a man dressed in overalls, leaning against the refrigerator, drinking a cup of coffee. His posture reveals him to be at ease, legs crossed and one hand in his pocket; although surrounded by the trappings of labor (range, microwave, dishwasher, etc), these appliances clearly do not belong to his domain.  To the further right, a young woman sits on the sofa, reading, a large dog beside her. The real demons of energy reside in the basement: furnace, water heater, washer and dryer, freezer. This representation is less than naturalistic. Admittedly, in the east, where people have basements, it would be natural to find the large units there. But the basement sits empty. Several possible readings make themselves available. Does the artist mean to imply that the only costs of labor are cultural costs, instead of the natural costs of human effort? Who supplies that human effort? What relationship exists between the organization of this fictive home and the organization of the fictional castles and abbeys in Radcliffe and Austen?

  16. Nor are interpersonal and international relations exempt from the romantic sense of place as ecosystem.  For that reason, the lens accommodates issues as diverse as the abolition of slavery, women's rights, education and the franchise, technology and progress, religion and science, the supernatural, superheroes, the culture of mourning, and the ravages of war, as well as more traditional Romantic topics like the sublime and the picturesque. The Romantic literature of abolition resonated with contemporary issues about migrant farmers' status, not merely an intellectual but also a physical experience for some of my students. Questions of labor cut close to the bone when we read John Bowe's New Yorker essay, "Nobodies" (April 21 and 28, 2003) about the migrant agricultural population in South Florida.[12] This essay sparked students to share their own experiences as migrant farm workers. Their revelations formed a somber backdrop against which we read Ann Yearsley, Hannah More and Eaglesfield Smith, and William Cowper.

    Harvesting the Results

  17. Not all students enjoyed the experience. Some muted complaints emerged in course evaluations that protested the blurring of traditional literary studies with what students perceived as social science.[13] However, it produced progressively complex critical thinking, even if that critical eye trained itself on our classroom procedures. Resistance to the specific idea of stewardship translated into a more nuanced sense of ownership of the literary material we read.[14]

  18. I turn now to some brief examples of critical interpretation that strike out in directions different from ways in which the literature is commonly discussed by undergraduates at this university.[15] For instance, Gilpin's emphasis on composition enhanced student interpretations for their second essay. One student, writing of Blake's "The Tyger," stressed the way the poem's form made it picturesque:

    The poem's stanzas are riddled with lines in the form of questions. This technique has the reader stopping and starting abruptly and constantly. Because the reader has to stop at the question mark, he is forced to ponder the line(s) just read. In other words, instead of examining the piece of work stanza by stanza or even the poem as a whole, Blake has broken down the poem to one or two lines each for the reader to reflect [upon]. In doing this, Blake has made the questions themselves the epitome of the picturesque.

    Another student, more captivated by Kant's sublime, applied Kant's definition of the sublime's setting the mind in motion to the interchange that occurs in Coleridge's "The Eolian Harp": "More specifically, it is the descriptions of nature . . . that project this movement of the mind. . . . Coleridge could've easily just said that the smell from the bean-field was exquisite. But instead he chooses to say that the scent was 'snatched' from 'yon bean-field.' Putting it this way, we get an image, or a sense, of the scent having to move from one place to another."[16] In both these examples, we see students reassessing conventional Romantic categories in the light of eco-critical notions of interchange. Their revaluations result in a deeper appreciation of the way in which the poetry enacts an exchange between reader and text, as well as between characters and landscape.[17]

  19. In keeping with my eco-Romantic emphasis, I will end where I began, with the second stage of their assignment to locate a sacred place. At the end of the semester, they returned to that same place and described it anew, reflecting as well on their earlier writing as a means of surveying the inner and outer distances they had traversed during the semester.

  20. From the student who had expressed such anguish over her ability to find a sacred place came the following reflection:

    Over the past few months it has become evident to me as to why this paper was assigned . . . This class is about passionate people and passionate writers; many people believe the writers of the Romantic era write about love and romance. Although the Romantics do sometimes write about these aspects, more importantly the people of this era write passionately about a variety of topics, finding a sacred place or even discovering a familiar place to be sacred enlightens one's soul. During this assignment I was forced to recognize the place that I am passionate about and where I am truly in my element. I had to ask myself: What matters to me? I became Romantic.

    Oddly enough, I feel many of the same emotions reading "Kubla Khan" as I do when I am in my sacred place. "Kubla Khan" reflects such beauty. The positioning of the words on the page is phenomenal. Although there is talk of war in "Kubla Khan," the language used by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in this poem makes me want to go and be in the midst of the nature he is describing. I am drawn to this nature much like I am drawn to my sacred place. I feel that I have a personal connection with "Kubla Khan" in relation to my sacred place. I find this line very profound: "Enfolding sunny spots of greenery." These sunny spots are being taken in. Not unlike me taking in the present moment while in my sacred place. The line suggests the sun is sacred and must be savored. Coleridge claims the caverns in his poem are 'measureless to man.' My sacred place is measureless to man as well. How could I measure how much I love being with my friends and family in my favorite place? I couldn't possibly do so. There are no means to measure the emotions I feel when I am with the people I love in a place I love. . . . The nature in this poem represents an escape from the pressures of everyday life. Even reading the poem serves  as some form of escape for me. There is a certain peacefulness associated with flowing water, colorful flowers and green hills. Sometimes the human soul needs to get away from bosses, heavy traffic, and six o'clock news reports.

    Just like the multiple layers of meaning, philosophical and historical, that the student reports having learned to detect in the poetry, so her account contains a layered reaction. The emotional bond she establishes with the imagery of the poem and with the emotion behind the poem that she perceives or projects helps her overcome the intimidation she feels because the language and experiences are alien and difficult.

  21. Finally, the student who had initially visited Yosemite from within the safe confines of her car chose to write a poem about her second visit. Moreover, she used that poem and the essay that followed it as a means to ruminate on her own sense of expanded borders. Conscious imitation of the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads and "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey" enabled her to compose "my own lines of reflection in a much loved and familiar landscape from my past":

    To Wordsworth, composing a poem about his time spent revisiting a favorite place while on a tour would have been a natural thing. Describing his thoughts while going through the experience allows us to connect with him as an ordinary man while at the same time we are given a vivid description of his surroundings so as to almost imagine ourselves there with him. . . . In mirroring Wordsworth's thought process, I selected a common event from my life of moving cross-country. This involved moving away from my family, friends, and familiar surroundings in Tennessee to a new, unknown territory in California. . . .

    Specifically Wordsworth addresses this goal as he declares his purpose for writing poetry "principally to be: namely to illustrate the manner in which our feelings and ideas are associated in a state of excitement." Even more precisely, he compares his poetry to other popular poetry of the day and expresses that the distinguishing characteristic would be "the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation and not the action and situation to the feeling." In my Romantic Attempt, feelings and emotions are emphasized throughout in such words as turmoil, resolve, rejected, healing, restoration, and secure. These are what drive the poem, not merely the situation of my having to move or even the details connected with being transplanted from one culture to another.

    Although she does not yet connect ideas of healing and restoration beyond her personal frame, who knows what seeds have been planted, to germinate at a future time?

  22. I began the course with the questions: "What does it mean to see with Romantic eyes? What is gained or lost?" Certainly, the desire to emulate the Romantics as a writer is an encouraging gain. In the loss column, perhaps the high Romantic stress on feeling carries an appeal so seductive to youth that it can overwhelm or counteract the accompanying cry for action. It remains to be determined whether constructing the course as a full-blown service-learning course would help restore that balance. I would hope to add some participation in an ecological or environmental outreach program as a component of the course. In addition, I might like to have guest speakers, especially from the city and county public service offices, inform and motivate the class about conditions that exist here and which need amelioration to improve the quality of life for all in the Valley. But legislating interest and involvement carries equal risks that the strategy will rebound.

  23. Nevertheless, I believed that the environment of the academy cried out for renovation as loudly as did our tarnished lands. I wanted a course that would critically examine ideas of stewardship and responsibility that simultaneously foregrounded the classroom itself as yet another romantic locale (in its role as consolatory fiction). I wanted to do more than explicate, interrogate, interpret,  analyze, or understand.[18] Like the Romantic authors whom I admire, I wanted to celebrate the imagination and the abstract, to sing the virtues of the concrete and physical.

    [Go to SYLLABUS]


[1] See James Pinkerton, "Enviromanticism: the poetry of nature as a political force," Foreign Affairs, May-June 1997 v76 n3 p2(6). Expanded Academic ASAP. <
> [BACK]

[2] Many sources that record pollution scores exist on the Internet. For my region, I checked;;; and According to the American Lung Association State of the Air 2004, Fresno-Madera counties ranked second in the nation for "Metropolitan Areas Most Polluted by Short-term Particle Pollution (24-Hour PM2.5)," after the Los Angeles Basin; they ranked second in "Metropolitan Areas with the Worst Ozone Air Pollution." This last statistic should be measured against our ranking as fourth-worst in 2000 and 2001. [BACK]

[3] Cf. Phillip Barrish, "Critical Presentism." Romanticism and Contemporary Culture. Praxis Series. Romantic Circles. 4 April 2006. <
>. [BACK]

[4] "REPETITION AIDS LEARNING IN CHILDREN EXPOSED TO ALCOHOL PRE-BIRTH." Health Behavior News Service. Ed. Ira R. Allen Center. June 17, 2002. Center for the Advancement of Health Affairs. 13 October, 2004.; Poldrack, Russell A. and John D. E. Gabrieli. "Characterizing the Neural Mechanisms of skill learning and repetition priming." Brain 124 (2001): 67-82. I have given a fuller explanation of this mechanism in "Mapping the Novel," in Academic Exchange Quarterly, Spring 2005, Volume 9, Issue 1 (ISSN 1096-1453 [BACK]

[5] Dr. Paley made this point repeatedly as he guided my preparation for my qualifying oral exams at the University of California, Berkeley in 1992. [BACK]

[6] Gilpin's writings on the picturesque furnished a lesson on situational ethics that dovetailed with the first Sierra Conference, a full day public seminar focusing on air, water and land issues affecting our Sierra Nevadas, held on campus. [BACK]

[7] Visit <>. [BACK]

[8] Visit <>. [BACK]

[9] By introducing reviews, letters, and journals, especially when we came to Keats, the class could see that class issues informed estimations of Romantic work in their own day. [BACK]

[10] See <
>. [BACK]

[11] For a discussion of Radcliffe from this perspective, see Wein, British Identities, Heroic Nationalisms, and the Gothic Novel, 1764-1824 (Palgrave, 2002), esp. 100-09. I take the definition of eco-systems from William L. Howarth, "Imagined Territory: The Writing of Wetlands." New Literary History, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Summer, 1999), pp. 509-539. [BACK]

[12]  Expanded Academic ASAP. The NewYorker. April 21 and 28, 2003. Article no. 298. [BACK]

[13] Of course, such a limited conception of what constitutes the classroom, complete with margins beyond which topics may stray, reinforces the value of an eco-critical approach, because it helps students to re-examine their own assumptions. I do think I was remiss, though, in not building some reflective exercise into the course mid-semester that would have permitted us to air those concerns and to use them as yet another teaching opportunity. I would rectify that oversight in future courses. [BACK]

[14] I tried to encourage that sense of ownership in the construction of essay and homework assignments, and by the way I framed the essay portion of their final exam, an open-book question. See attached exam. [BACK]

[15] See the specific directions students received when crafting their first essay. [BACK]

[16] See a sample student proposal and annotated bibliography for the second research essay. [BACK]

[17] See a sample essay. [BACK]

[18] As eco-criticism takes on an increasingly institutional shape, much self-reflexive discussion about its  nature and methods has arisen. Most comments so far have restricted themselves to the traditional academic verbs I enumerate. See, for example ASLE Digest, Vol. 2 No. 41, February 10, 2005. [BACK]