- Anthropocentrism and the Soul of Hopkins’s Ecopoetics
Today, anthropocentrism—that “[c]oncern for ourselves at the expense of concern for the non-human world”—is considered by many ecologists to be one of the fundamental causes of environmental degradation that, left unaddressed, threatens potential disaster.1 As Andrew Dobson puts it, to “de-throne human interests as the centerpiece of political life and extend ethical concern deep into the natural world,” we need a “radically changed state of consciousness,” one that refuses exploitative practices characteristic of “human-instrumental” thinking and cultivates a sense of self dependent on and enriched by “the widest possible identification with the non-human world” (pp. 31, 38).
The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, vibrant with celebrations of flora and fauna, kingfishers and skylarks, the “low lull-off” of the ocean and “cordial air” of the woods, seems calculated to inspire precisely such a change of consciousness, such a sense of selves dependent on and enriched by nonhuman being for which ecocritics such as Dobson call.2 What is more, the value that his poetry attributes to nonhuman nature is not to be understood as merely aesthetic; on the contrary, while he certainly encourages a greater appreciation of natural beauty and marshals a finely wrought poetic practice to make his case, the crucial importance of his ecopoetics lies in the substantive ethical value it attributes to nonhuman being. Paradoxically, this is also because the health of the human soul is one of his leading concerns.
Christianity, like the Platonism that preceded it and the Cartesianism that followed, is often perceived as authorizing anthropocentrism on the basis of humanity’s claim to a soul (psuchē) or mind (psyche).3 Yet as I will show in this essay, the human soul in Hopkins’s conception of it, far from endorsing human dominance over the natural world, is immersed in natural rhythms and energy systems, responsive to their alterity and inscrutability, and depends on natural phenomena for its well-being. For Hopkins’s poetry reflects a virtue ethics in which an Aristotelian Catholic’s view of soul as the shaping energy or instress of the body merges with a belief in God’s immanence in all being, the sanctity of which is therefore unquestionable. Unlike the Hegelian “beautiful soul” derided by Timothy Morton for its ethical quiescence, hypocrisy, and [End Page 129] lack of critical self-awareness,4 Hopkins’s soul bears moral obligations not simply to respect but to celebrate, revere, care for, and defend the natural world—obligations that, if not fulfilled, indict the ethical worth of human being in itself.
Although Hopkins, like many of his poetic predecessors, was deeply concerned about the spiritual well-being of Victorian Britain, the conditions he faced were somewhat different from those addressed by earlier soul-poets. In Victorian Soul-Talk, I have argued that in the decades between the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1884, British poets such as the Brownings, Arthur Hugh Clough, and Algernon Charles Swinburne, along with their American interlocutor, Walt Whitman, used a vibrant poetic soul-talk to assert their particular sense of moral responsibility for the spiritual well-being of the body politic.5 Each with a particular understanding of soul, its provenance and constitution, these poets exploited the rich aesthetic potential of language to create poetry with striking sensory appeal, encouraging readers to experience the complex effects of political decisions on public spirit.6 This, however, was before the changing political landscape and the new science of psychology transformed “soul” and a relatively homogeneous “soul politic” into the private, individualized “psyche” and a vastly increased and diversified voting public.
In relation to these poets, Hopkins is an outlier. His conception of soul—aside from its immersion in Ignatian, Scotist, and Augustinian scholasticism—owed much to his study of the classics at 1860s Oxford, where curricular reforms were contributing to an intellectual climate challenging to metaphysics. Under the leadership of Benjamin Jowett, theories of soul found in, for example, Plato and Aristotle were stimulating newly liberating civic and aesthetic debates advanced by writers such as Walter Pater, John Addington Symonds, and Oscar Wilde.7 Furthermore, in an intellectual climate...