- Byron’s Nature: A Romantic Vision of Cultural Ecology by J. Andrew Hubbell, and: British Romanticism, Climate Change, and the Anthropocene: Writing Tambora by David Higgins
David Higgins and Andrew Hubbell present two timely and compelling ecocritical readings of Romantic literature. These studies are significant not simply for their useful re-evaluations of aspects of Romanticism; they are also indicative of a profound shift in ecocritical thinking, without which such re-evaluations would not have been possible. Both make full use of new developments in ecocriticism, particularly recent insights into the imbricated nature of nonhuman and human ecology. These insights have come to us under a variety of now fashionable labels: new materialism (on the agency of the material and the extent of its interaction with the human); speculative realism (which rejects correlationism, that is, the conventional philosophical emphasis on the correlation between human perception and the thing perceived); object-oriented ontology (which, similarly, argues for a de-centring of human subjectivity and a recognition of human and nonhuman entities alike as objects with their own kinds of agency). All these approaches—identifiable with thinkers such as Donna Haraway, Jane Bennett, Quentin Meillassoux, and Timothy Morton—radically critique anthropocentrism and show how what we used to think of as a ‘purely’ human subjectivity is really always a product of human and nonhuman relations. As ecocritical investigations, both these books are primarily concerned with the cultural ecology of the material (whether organic or inorganic) and the discursive (all kinds of communication). In other words, we’ve come a long way from earlier ecocritical valorisations of local place and dwelling, and mimetic renderings thereof, which often failed to acknowledge both the role of human perception in idealising a pristine nature and the unavoidable participation of humans in these seemingly pure, nonhuman ecosystems.
As Hubbell shows, such valorisations also underpin Romantic scholarship, which has tended to position Wordsworthian nature as one of Romanticism’s core values. On these grounds (via M.H. Abrams’s natural supernaturalism), Byron has been excluded, only to be later rehabilitated (via Jerome McGann’s New Historicism) as the representative of an alternative, cosmopolitan, and socio-historically oriented brand of Romanticism. Certainly, Hubbell’s careful historiography of this (which is, of course, more nuanced than my brief synopsis here might [End Page 79] suggest) is one of the strengths of his book. Hubbell shows too how both the Romantic and ecocritical privileging of Wordsworth’s nature have coalesced, particularly in Jonathan Bate’s influential work, effectively screening Byron out of any serious consideration as an ecological poet. (Higgins, too, makes the point that the Batesian emphasis on Wordsworthian place has distracted from the ecological interest, found in the Shelleys and Byron, in environments hostile to humans.)
The central argument of Hubbell’s book is that Byron’s poetry is only superficially about the urban, the social, and the resolutely human; rather, argues Hubbell, Byron’s poetry shows him developing a sense of ‘cultural ecology’, a term Hubbell draws from Murray Bookchin’s work on social ecology. Byron, argues Hubbell, possessed an ‘ecological understanding of the metabolic energy flows connecting human society and the nonhuman environment’, flows that encompassed geopolitics, economics, poetics, as well as the physical (human and nonhuman) environment. Hubbell delineates the development of this vision from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage to the dramas, Manfred, Cain, and Heaven and Earth, on to Don Juan, alongside an analysis of Byron’s early travels through Spain, Greece, Malta, and Asia Minor, to his later self-imposed exile through Switzerland to Italy and, finally, Greece.
Hubbell begins with Childe Harold, dividing his readings between its two halves. He contends that, despite the seeming disparity between the first and second cantos on the one hand and the third and fourth on the other, the poem as a whole demonstrates Byron...