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  • Romantic Conservatism in Burke, Wordsworth, and Wendell Berry
  • Katey Castellano (bio)

Romantic literature manifests a nascent ecological consciousness, according to Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, "through its questioning of economic and technological progress and through its utopian aspiration to restore the lost harmony between humans and nature" (229). Foreseeing that the rise and progress of industrial modernity might irreversibly erode both the landscape and local communities, Romantic literature questions humanistic, technological progressivism while emphasizing the interdependence between humans and the non-human world. The Romantics' proto-ecological awareness is often considered a natural outgrowth of the liberal revolutionary fervor of the period. Jonathan Bate argues, for example, that the Romantic view explores "the relationship between the Love of Nature and the Love of Mankind and, conversely, between the Rights of Man and the Rights of Nature" (Romantic Ecology 33). While Bate claims that this position "transcends the politics of both Paine and Burke," by adopting the liberal, individualistic "Rights of Man" as his basis for understanding the Romantic view of nature, he affirms a connection between liberal progressivism and environmental conservation. 1 In this essay, I return to the famous political debate that Bate evokes—the debate between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine over the legitimacy of liberal, individual rights—in order to explore the nascent environmental ethics implicit in the debate. After analyzing the ecological and social implications of Burke's call for an organic society guided by a sense of intergenerational responsibility, I evaluate the intergenerational imagination of Wordsworth's poetry in the Lyrical Ballads (1798). Finally, [End Page 73] I examine the essays of contemporary American writer Wendell Berry, who carries on the legacy of Romantic conservation.

The argument that Romantic conservatism and environmental conservation emerge together may seem counter-intuitive, since in our contemporary political landscape, environmentalism is usually affiliated with liberalism. Although this reading goes against the grain of political assumptions underlying the burgeoning field of Romanticism and ecocriticism, I take my cue from Fredric Jameson's observation that "the initial critiques of the nascent world of capitalism emerge on the Right: in this sense, Edmund Burke's seminal assault on Jacobinism can be read, less as a denunciation of social revolution, than as an anticipatory critique of emergent bourgeois social life" (18). Romantic conservatism's anticipatory critique of modernity exposes the way liberalism's discourse of individualist rights enables the exploitation of both human and non-human life, yet there has been little serious scholarly evaluation of conservatism. For example, in David Pepper's Modern Environmentalism, an explanatory table outlining the spectrum of political philosophies claims "traditional conservatives" occupy a radical environmental position since they recommend that "human societies should model themselves on natural ecosystems" (42); however, less than two pages are given to analyzing this position, while other positions such as a green socialism and anarchism are given extensive analysis. 2 To address this gap, in what follows I will examine a specifically Romantic conservatism, which as part of its more general effort to conserve tradition, was imbued with a nascent environmentalist ethos that sought to conserve wilderness, wastelands, and commons from capitalist-intensive agriculture and industrial exploitation.

Although Romanticism most often links conservatism with the repression of Jacobin activities in England or as a forerunner to today's free-market neo-conservatism, I will examine instead the conservative warning that "improving" land tied to indigenous and local cultures might have irreversible social and ecological consequences. Burke was the first to voice the fear that the people involved in the modern commercial economy were "destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them, a ruin instead of an habitation" (95). Burke's advocacy for the inheritance of land, while embedded in a hierarchical structure, at least ensured that the land and cultural traditions would be a carefully conserved habitation for the next generation. The traditionalist-conservationist position may then be far more radical (in that it opposes the hegemony of the capitalist economy and ethos) than the liberal position of the 1790s, whose interests in "equality" and "leveling the playing field" paved the way for free-market competition. 3 Romantic, Burkean...


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