- “Where Fuming Trees Refresh the Thirsty Air”: The World of Eco-Georgic
. . . all Is off the Poise within: the Passions all Have burst their Bounds; and Reason half extinct, Or impotent, or else approving, sees The foul Disorder. Senseless, and deform’d, Convulsive Anger storms at large; or pale, And silent, settles into fell Revenge. Base Envy withers at another’s Joy, And hates that Excellence it cannot reach . . . These, and a thousand mix’d Emotions more, From ever-changing Views of Good and Ill, Form’d infinitely various, vex the Mind With endless Storm. Whence, deeply rankling, grows The partial Thought, a listless Unconcern, Cold, and averting from our Neighbour’s Good; Then dark Disgust, and Hatred, winding Wiles, Coward Deceit, and ruffian Violence. At last, extinct each social Feeling, fell And joyless Inhumanity pervades, And petrifies the Heart. Nature disturb’d Is deem’d, vindictive, to have chang’d her Course.1
Near the beginning of his poem Spring, James Thomson is confronting a crisis of Nature, an earth that is dis-tempered, “off the Poise,” where humanity has lost control and self-control. Individuals are unable to find common ground, and a thrombosis of the social instincts reaches the heart. There seems to be no future in which to invest, no shared commitment or concern, or recognition of a wider good—and the blame falls on “Nature”. It is a worryingly recognisable scenario, where a crisis of nature is really only a symptom of a more fundamental crisis of humanity. The picture is not so much one of chaos and anarchy as of a system working against [End Page 201] itself: ungenerous responses and perverted energies form a part, but so do apathy and listlessness. Thomson’s vision, or rather his analysis (a more uncomfortable idea), of what he calls “these iron Times” (274), have resonances now but can be traced back to Hesiod’s Works and Days, the founding text (Eighth Century BC) of georgic poetry, and to the traumatised earth that is the context for Virgil’s great poem of husbandry and cultivation. At the close of the first Georgic, Virgil contemplates “a world in ruins”:
. . . right and wrong change places; everywhere So many wars, so many shapes of crime Confront us; no due honour attends the plough, The fields, bereft of tillers, are all unkempt, And in the forge the curving pruning-hook Is made a straight hard sword.2
Given this rooting of georgic in a crisis of culture (cultus), in which a mutual respect between man and nature needs to be recovered, it is surprising that the ecocriticism of the past two decades has tended to view the georgic as peripheral, even antagonistic, to “green” principles.
Ecological criticism has been finding it difficult to gain a purchase on the eighteenth century that is anything other than negative.3 Having established itself in the early 1990s as a fresh approach to Romantic studies through Jonathan Bate’s Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition, “ecocriticism” has found its historical roots and its ideological heartland in the 1790s, particularly in the new “attitude to nature” supposedly expressed in the poetry of the English Romantics.4 Three further substantial discussions of the subject have directed their attention there: Karl Kroeber’s Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and the Biology of Mind (1994), James C. McKusick’s Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology (2000), and Onno Oerlemans’s Romanticism and the Materiality of Nature (2004).5 Special issues of journals have confirmed the close ties between Romanticism and environmentalist criticism,6 and both priority and centrality are plausibly claimed: McKusick is not alone in his view that “the English Romantics were the first full fledged ecological writers in the Western literary tradition,” and Bate has confidently maintained that “Green Romanticism will be at the center of any historically-informed ecocriticism.”7 This consigns other historical approaches to the periphery, and indeed anybody interested in pursuing eighteenth-century aspects of the subject will find it hard to gain any foothold at all, given that the widely used Green Studies Reader (subtitled From Romanticism to Ecocriticism) opens with Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge.8 [End Page 202...