- Poetry and Ecology in the Age of Milton and Marvell
In a work of wide learning and creative energy, Diane McColley sets out to overturn assumptions about pre-Romantic and pre-Darwinian attitudes toward nature. Her project develops from the scholarship of recent decades that has discovered what orthodox readers long could not see or, as in the case of Richard Bentley's expurgating editorial decisions, actively suppressed —Milton's heretical [End Page 1053] understanding of creation, especially his vitalism and monism. McColley is careful never to label such views as "heretical," however, for her argument includes a rebuke to the simplistic assumption of many environmentalists and eco-critics that monotheism in general and Christianity in particular are by definition dualist and "intrinsically unecological" (1). The seventeenth century represents for her a moment before the Cartesian dualism wins out, separating soul from matter and thus the human from the rest of physical creation, and before modern science and capitalism have established nature as a thing to be dissected, mastered, and exploited without empathy. She sees writers like Milton, Andrew Marvell, Henry Vaughan, Margaret Cavendish, Thomas Traherne, George Herbert, and Anne Finch responding to revolutions in science and religion in ways that create a new language of nature. Like scientists who look through microscopes to view the smallest structures of living creatures and then record them in fine detail, these poets move away from emblematic, allegorical representations of nature to represent the natural world as they observe it, "subordinat[ing] figurative meaning to observation, question[ing] or discard[ing] oppressive hierarchal assumptions, and express[ing] specific and affinitive perception of actual animals, plants, elements, and processes" (5). Informed by vitalist materialism, these writers view all matter as alive, animated with the divine; informed by monism, these writers erase the divide between matter and spirit. These attitudes toward nature and the soul in many ways represent paths not taken, warnings ignored about the Satanic consequences of careless human dominion over nature. Milton, Marvell, and many of these others thus qualify as ecological writers, those showing "a pervasive consciousness of the value of keeping nature whole" (208). They voice an awareness of environmental problems centuries before environmentalism becomes a recognized political term.
McColley's great strength comes from demonstrating these arguments about the poetic language through her own beautiful and intricate close readings. She defines ecological language as "Language that represents connected beings in responsive and connected words" (9), and she shows the connections through her own ecological close reading of the passages, implicitly taking microscopic observation as her model. Highlights of the book include the illuminating discussions of Upon Appleton House and Paradise Lost that open and close the book. In between come explorations of the various implications of a vitalist, monist perspective on nature, with chapters on the earth, on the resources of air, water, and forests, on plants, on empathy towards animals, and on the political implications of debates over human cruelty towards animals.
McColley draws repeated parallels between early-modern vitalist poets and more modern and contemporary poets and nature writers like John Muir, Wendell Berry, Leslie Marmon Silko, June Sturrock, and others. The connections are suggestive, though a fuller history of this tradition needs to be written. Were vitalist perspectives on creation, as John Rogers suggests in The Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton (1998), a fascinating but fleeting moment in the history of poetry, religion, and science, one that turns out [End Page 1054] to be a dead-end, overwhelmed and silenced by Cartesian dualism? When later poets employ vitalist, monist language, are they learning it from Milton, Marvell, Vaughan, and Cavendish, or are they finding entirely different sources for their visions? In other words, are the modern and early modern nature writers working in the same intellectual and poetic tradition, or do the similarities of vocabulary and perspective reflect an accidental convergence...