- Romantic Ecocriticism: Origins and Legacies ed. by Dewey W. Hall
New York: Lexington Books, 2016. Pp. 310. $105.
Any scholar engaged in the practice of ecocriticism, or in Romantic poetry and its engagement with the material world, will find much of interest in the deeply considered essays of Romantic Ecocriticism: Origins and Legacies, part of the Lexington series “Ecocritical Theory and Practice.” In practice, “Romanticism” is here mostly represented by its more canonical poets, and especially Wordsworth, around whom the anxieties of ecologists and ecocritics converge. Most of the volume’s essays set out to reclaim Romanticism for ecological or at least proto-ecological thinking, cementing the movement in a place it has held, despite intermittent challenges, since the early nineteenth century. If this leads the contributing authors to the occasional moment of defensiveness, and the inflation of various interlocutors’ limited and poorly contextualized arguments only to demolish them, they can be forgiven in light of the urgency of our predicament. As we face a cataclysmic sixth mass extinction and all the terrifying consequences of anthropogenic climate change, the necessity for bringing all our resources to bear against this unprecedented threat is obvious.
The collection is framed as encompassing British Romanticism and its transatlantic influence, although this is more properly understood as English [End Page 93] Romanticism, when only two Scottish writers—both geologists—are mentioned, and no Welsh or Irish writer is considered (even Burke is largely absent). Goethe, Linnaeus, and a number of French writers hold a more prominent place. Likewise “transatlantic” must be read “of the United States.” This might seem mere semantic quibbling, but it points to a more problematic lack of attention by the authors to the impact of colonialism more generally.
That there is much to be gained from broader geographic perspectives is clear from Judyta Frodyma’s essay on the concept of the “West” in Romantic thinking, where “stepping westward” presents slippages between wildness, wilderness, and a “west” that is both external and geographic and at the same time internal, a frontier of the mind. This is a partial exception to the volume’s avoidance of discussions of colonialism: the Highland clearances are briefly touched on, but not the complex globalisation of the nascent British Empire and its promotion of worldwide trading routes, which did so much for the movement of crops, animals, diseases and ideas. As imperial aims were brought about through genocidal action in various parts of the world, silence on this topic is necessarily problematic. In a volume that otherwise seeks to draw attention to non-human life, it is a shame that the threats to biodiversity of such globalising imperialism are also overlooked (for example, a friend has a poster of the “Wildflowers of Great Britain,” accurately retitled “Noxious Weeds of Australia”). Given that many of the chapters engage so fruitfully with Timothy Morton’s metaphor of the ecological “mesh,” this seems a series of missed opportunities.
(Largely) ignoring Scotland, in particular, means ignoring the transformative effect on British intellectual culture of the major reviews. A brief consultation of these organs for disseminating all kinds of information, and in particular that which we now call “scientific,” would usefully contextualize the knowledge of Romantic writers, living in a period prior to the development of institutionalised research and disciplinary silos. There seems in several essays to be an anachronistic assumption that a greater division between what we now think of as the humanities and sciences existed in the Romantic period than is historically plausible, and too high a bar set for identifying the work of writers with that of empirical researchers. For example, Dewey W. Hall at first describes Dorothy Wordsworth as only a “quasi-naturalist” (45) before ultimately acknowledging, justly, that “she merits the appellation of Romantic naturalist” (56). There was, of course, no relevant formal qualification or professional accreditation available: in Kaitlin Modello’s essay, Emerson’s self-identification—“I say continually ‘I will be a naturalist’” (qtd. 113)—is, quite reasonably, taken as sufficient, and Ryan David Leack finds Thoreau to have become a naturalist as he matured (chapter 8). These shortcomings aside, the...