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Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth

Monday, January 7, 2002 - 04:58
Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth.  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. xiv + 335pp. Illus.: 15 halftones. $31.50/£21.50 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-674-00168-0).

Reviewed by
James C. McKusick
University of Maryland, Baltimore County

In The Song of the Earth, Jonathan Bate ponders some fundamental questions about the purpose of literary criticism, and of imaginative literature itself, in a time of ever-increasing environmental crisis. He asks: "What are poets for?" (243). Is poetry the authentic representation of reality, or merely the decoration of life? Does it help us to remember our origins, or does it enable us to remain oblivious of the bleak future? Does poetry distract the reader with the soothing sound of Nero's fiddle while Rome burns?

These questions are squarely within the domain of poetics, as that discipline was conceived by Aristotle. In The Song of the Earth, Bate's extended meditation on these questions leads him to a new kind of poetics with an ecological inflection--an ecopoetics, as Bate terms it (thereby coining a useful term for contemporary literary production and critical analysis). In an era of impending ecological doom, the emerging discipline of ecopoetics is engaged in a vital re-vision of the fundamental task of poetry. At the present historical moment, ecocriticism has become more than just a marginal mode of literary analysis, because nature is more than just a passive backdrop or setting for the human drama of literature. Bate provocatively argues that the pastoral theme, because it raises the perennial question of the relationship between humankind and the natural world, "is, in fact, the only poetic theme, that it is poetry itself" (74).

As Bate points out, "the litany of present and impending catastrophes is all too familiar" (24). Any literate person is (or should be) aware of the impending doom of our planetary ecosystem, due to an array of human-caused environmental hazards that have no precedent in the entire history of the Earth. Bate presents these grim environmental threats in summary fashion: "Carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels is trapping the heat of the sun, causing the planet to become warmer. Glaciers and permafrost are melting, sea levels rising, rainfall patterns changing, winds growing stronger. Meanwhile, the oceans are overfished, deserts are spreading, forests shrinking, fresh water becoming scarcer. The diversity of species upon the planet is diminishing" (24). We all know (or should know) these things, but for some reason our urgent awareness of these horrendous environmental problems has not resulted in effective remedial action. Why not? Perhaps there is something amiss in the deep matrix of Western culture. Maybe what's needed is not a quick technological fix, but a fundamental change in human consciousness. According to Bate, "The business of literature is to work upon consciousness" (23). His book sets out to explore how literature represents, and may potentially transform, the persistently pragmatic and instrumental awareness of the terrestrial environment that has pervaded Western culture for the last several centuries.

Bate inquires: "Where did we begin to go wrong?" (24). Many different human societies have a myth of a lost paradise, such as the Garden of Eden or an ideal Golden Age, and Bate argues that such myths are none the less valuable for being essentially fictive: "Myths are necessary imaginings, exemplary stories which help our species to make sense of the world. Myths endure so long as they perform helpful work" (24-25). In particular, the myth of the Golden Age serves to remind us of a time when human culture was in harmony with nature, not ranged in destructive opposition to it. Jean-Jacques Rousseau redacted the myth of the Golden Age in his well-known Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754), which describes the "state of nature" as an ideal mode of existence, from which mankind has disastrously fallen.

What is the state of nature? Hobbes and Rousseau famously squared off on this question, with Hobbes's Leviathan (1651) arguing that life in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (37). Rousseau, a century later, retorted that the original state of nature was a time of innocence and equality; it is only the influence of society that has turned humans into greedy, depraved wretches. Without the temptations occasioned by the accumulation of property, humans managed to coexist as hunter-gatherers in peaceful harmony with their surroundings, wandering freely in the forest, and cheerfully sharing the fruits of their labor.

Rousseau offers his description of the state of nature as a hypothetical account of human origins. Bate points out that "Rousseau hedges his bets as to whether the 'state of nature' is a heuristic model or a real lost condition: it 'no longer exists and perhaps never did and probably never will'" (31). It is therefore pointless to attack Rousseau as a naive primitivist, out of touch with the harsh realities of human nature. In Bate's view, Rousseau's Discourse "is a thought experiment, a piece of hypothetical reasoning which asks us to imagine a state of nature as a way of critiquing the [present] state of society. In this sense, it is in the tradition of Sir Thomas More's Utopia, with the difference that instead of an imaginary better place it envisions an imaginary better time" (31).

Bate argues that Rousseau's hypothetical state of nature is essentially the same as the "return to nature" advocated by the Deep Ecologists of the twentieth century, although the latter theorists are generally reluctant to acknowledge that their green utopia is an entirely imaginary construct: "The dream of deep ecology will never be realized upon the earth, but our survival as a species may be dependent on our capacity to dream it in the work of our imagination. This book will be a testing of these supposes. Rousseau's second Discourse is a foundational paradigm for my hypothesis" (37-38). Bate posits an intrinsic human capacity to imagine utopian alternatives to the present (toxic) state of society. Following in the footsteps of Rousseau, the English Romantic poets dedicated themselves to the task of re-imagining the relationship between human communities and the natural world that surrounds and nourishes them.

Bate goes on to develop this controversial hypothesis in an extensive survey of the English Romantic writers, including Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Percy and Mary Shelley, John Clare, and Jane Austen. Ranging further afield, Bate re-envisions the entire modern canon of environmental literature; he scrutinizes the works of William Henry Hudson (an early advocate for preserving the tropical rainforest), Basil Bunting (whose poem Briggflatts is bioregionally grounded in Northumbria), Edward Kamau Brathwaite (who transposes Shakespeare's Tempest to the Caribbean), Elizabeth Bishop (who encounters a moose in northern New England), and Les Murray (an ecological exponent of the Australian outback). All of these writers, in their own distinctive voices, seek to rediscover (or re-invent) the human relationship with particular climates, topographies, and watersheds, along with their indigenous flora and fauna. Entering into colloquy with the earth itself, in various moods and weathers, these writers offer new understandings of human community within the web of life, reaching out to include bright-colored tropical birds, tree frogs, and even earthworms as cohabitants of the global ecosystem.

The case of William Henry Hudson (1841-1922) is particularly instructive. Born in Buenos Aires of American parents, he wrote numerous novels and travelogues that evoke the vast scale and splendor of the South American landscapes that he witnessed in his youth and early manhood, from the grasslands of Patagonia to the jungles of the Amazon. A prolific writer who was famous in his own time, but largely forgotten today, Hudson is perhaps best known for Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest (1904), a novel set in British Guiana. Green Mansions portrays the lush, teeming beauty of that habitat, but its plot culminates in the tragic destruction of the rainforest and many of its indigenous inhabitants. Bate offers an incisive close reading of this novel, arguing that it exemplifies the "myth of the return to nature" (58). Its protagonist, an expatriate Venezuelan revolutionary who is ominously named Abel, seeks "to return to Eden by means of a willed primitivism" (58). In the wilderness he encounters the shy, reclusive Rima, a mysterious "bird-girl" who embodies the untamed spirit of the rainforest. Abel promptly falls in love with Rima, who is "bird and butterfly and leaf and monkey all in one; her voice is the voice not only of bird, but also of insect, of wind and of water" (60). Rima speaks a strange, twittering language that enables her to communicate with birds, and at first she flees from Abel, seeking refuge in the hidden depths of the forest. By falling in love with Rima, Abel precipitates her fall from innocence, and in the end she is burned to death in the branches of a great tree where she has taken refuge. As Bate points out, "The allegorical possibilities are striking. Abel's desire to return to nature has destroyed the very nature he desired. Penetration of the virgin place perforce deprives it of its virginity; in this, Abel's story may be read as a prophetic admonition to ecotourists" (62).

The tragic figure of Rima is represented in a bas-relief sculpture by Jacob Epstein, created in 1925 and presently displayed in London's Hyde Park (figure 1). Bate offers an insightful discussion of this sculpture, calling it a "great but deeply alienated work" (62). Surrounded by tropical birds, with her arms lifted skyward in a gesture that yearns for escape, Rima is nonetheless framed by a hard slab of Portland stone, an "inorganic material" that "transforms nature into art" (62). Merely by the process of artistic representation, the shy spirit of the rainforest has been severed from her native dwelling place: "the green world has become Other" (63). Bate regards the plight of Rima as emblematic of the global process of environmental devastation; her figure bears silent witness to the worldwide destruction of the tropical rainforest. Bate concludes that by penetrating ever deeper into the earth's wild places, "we force Rima to retreat, always to retreat further and further into an ever-diminishing unknown. When there is no more unknown, when the last of the tropical rainforest has been cleared, it may then be only in art--in poetry--that we will be able to hear the cry of Rima" (67). At the dawn of the twenty-first century, ecopoetry is written mainly in the elegiac mode.

The Song of the Earth is a seminal, paradigm-shifting book. It offers a sustained methodological reflection on the emerging discipline of ecopoetics, and it provides insightful critical readings of a wide range of literary works, many of them recovered from undeserved obscurity. One of the most valuable and engaging features of this book is its vigorous endeavor to re-envision the established literary canon from an environmental point of view. Bate approaches his chosen topic with a refreshingly open-minded mode of inquiry, and his book takes the reader on a fascinating journey down less-traveled literary byways toward unexpected conclusions.