Nothing Romantic about environmentalists

The great nineteenth-century English poets waxed lyrical about nature, but they still believed in humanity - unlike today’s eco-pessimists.

James Woudhuysen

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Among Britain’s cultivated middle classes, nothing inspires yearning and sentiment as nineteenth-century Romantic poets like John Clare, Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Well, nothing except the protection of Britain’s land from those who would build new houses there.

So put together poetry about the countryside with the rural environment itself and you’re likely to raise tempers. Thus, in England’s Lake District at Dove Cottage, Grasmere – William Wordsworth’s home between 1799 and 1808 – the Wordsworth Trust museum and gallery is showing photographs taken at night that highlight how innocent streetlamps and house lights today impose what one environmentalist believes is ‘needless damage’ to the environment (1).

But would Wordsworth, John Ruskin, William Morris or William Blake really be turning in their graves at the alleged despoliation of the countryside today? In his book The Song of the Earth, Jonathan Bate, professor of English literature at Warwick University, establishes the Romantic poets as Britain’s first environmentalists (2). There is much to suggest that Bate is right – as long as we realise that these writers were rather fonder of man and his works than contemporary environmentalists are.

As Meredith Veldman has written in a brilliant study, the Romantics were neither irrationalists nor escapists. While not hostile to science, they rightly refused to deify it; but their chief target was Jeremy Bentham and utilitarianism, ‘with its smug assurances that human reason could weight the pleasures and pains of human society and thus calculate the greatest good for the greatest number’ (3).

Their protest was not the sweepingly misanthropic hatred for man’s works that we encounter in today’s greens, but rather a response to the alienation brought about by grinding Victorian capitalism. Their effort was not to diminish ambition, but rather to uplift people’s imagination. As Juliet Barker, author of William Wordsworth: A Life (4), told me in a radio interview, Wordsworth was ‘not totally blindly opposed’ to everything industrial: he did actually celebrate a railway bridge that had been built in the northern end of the Lake District – because it fitted in to the landscape and was a beautiful structure.

At Brantwood, John Ruskin’s home above Coniston, Howard Hull, director of the house-cum-museum, gave me a similar view. Hull argues that, for Ruskin, the importance of nature’s bounty was that, when mediated by work, it released the potential in the person who works. ‘Through that’, he told me, ‘it also releases the potential of the world… so man working in nature isn’t just a Romantic idea of pleasantness and prettiness: it is deeply, profoundly about the possibility that you can make a better world’.

Ruskin was on the right, but he was interested in what mankind might reach, not just in what it should no longer do. Unlike today’s environmentalists, he and his Romantic allies had a sense of the sublime and a desire to transcend the status quo. Indeed, Hull suggests that the idea of transcendence has, if applied to Ruskin, ‘too spiritual a dimension’: Ruskin’s hope was to ‘make things better at the point of delivery to people’s ordinary lives’.

Fiona MacCarthy is an acclaimed biographer of William Morris (5). For her, Morris, father of the Arts and Crafts movement, was not all about worshipping the past or the land. The ‘wonderful socialist speeches’ Morris made in the 1890s were, she confirmed to me, about the idea that Britain’s land must be freed up for the people: ‘It shouldn’t be within the grasp of landowners, it should be free for everyone to roam around.’

What would Morris make, were he alive today, of the ‘correct’ conversations now held at dinner parties – about how one took public transport to get to the meal, rather than drove? MacCarthy was forthright about his likely view: ‘I think he would like the way that people had come back to thinking how the simple life was the best life but I think he would loathe the complacency which seems to have come about in this green movement of today. I think Morris would have poured scorn on this and would probably have made some very funny jokes about it. Morris had a streak of anarchy and I think that this sort of straight up-and-down greenness wouldn’t have appealed to his hugely imaginative and generous vision.’

Altogether, we can forgive much in the nineteenth-century greens. At least they were confronting industrialisation in its infancy and adolescence: though their reactions were often impulsive, they retained a basic faith in humanity. By contrast, today’s environmentalists are so weary and ignorant about industrialisation, they seem only able to condemn it, and all the human beings they deem perpetrators of the process.

Sir Philip Sidney, perhaps England’s greatest poet, could have been writing about the Romantics in his Defence of Poetry (1595). There, in what almost reads as the definitive put-down of environmentalists today, he contrasted the brute force of the natural world with the subtlety of mankind and its literary giants:

‘Nature never set forth the Earth in so much tapestry as diverse poets have done; neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much-loved Earth more lovely. Her world is brazen; the poets only deliver a golden.’ (6)

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University. Visit his website here. His documentary for BBC Radio 4, The 19th Century Greens? was broadcast today.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black argued that to call environmentalists Luddites does the 19th century frame-breakers a grave disservice. Elsewhere, Shirley Dent said polemics are killing poetry. Jay Bernard asked if poets have a responsibility to engage with the world. Josie Appleton attacked the prophets of literary pessimism. Or read more at spiked issue Arts and Entertainment.

(1) Dr Phil Leigh of the Crichton Carbon Centre, quoted in Photos by night illuminate Lake District light pollution, Guardian, 14 July 2008

(2) Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth, Harvard University Press, 2002

(3) Meredith Veldman, Fantasy, the Bomb, and the Greening of Britain: Romantic Protests, 1945-1980, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p13

(4) Juliet Barker, William Wordsworth: A Life, Harper Perennial, 2006

(5) Fiona MacCarthy, William Morris: A Life for Our Time, Alfred A Knopf, 1995

(6) Sir Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesie, Ponsonby, 1595

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