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An Ecocritical Look at the Long Eighteenth Century’s Presentation of Wild Spaces

About the Author: Lauren Evans

Lauren Evans is currently a final year undergraduate student at the University of Exeter. She has a strong belief in literature’s power to influence and change the present and often combines new critical discourse with literary works to gain new insights and perspectives. In September 2021 she will begin her MA in publishing, however she hopes to continue to write critical essays in her spare time.

By Lauren Evans | General Essays

I have come to recognize that the challenges that climate change poses for the contemporary writer, although specific in some respects, are also products of something broader and older; that they derive ultimately from the grid of literary forms and conventions that came to shape the narrative imagination in precisely that period when the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was rewriting the destiny of the earth.
– Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement

It is near impossible to imagine the scale and interconnectivity of the natural environment. Take the sublime oceans and cliffs in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and then attempt to connect them to the cosy “green woodland” (1) of John Clare’s poem “The Nightingale’s Nest.” Despite both these texts describing natural landscapes and occurrences, they feel like different worlds. Within literature, we are connected to these natural scenes through the speaker or narrator's perspective. Their limited view, is our limited view. In this context, natural spaces become easily isolated and detached from one another. This is unlike the actual characteristics of nature that the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt identified: “everything is interconnected and interdependent” (qtd. in Doherr 49). Modern discourse and art surrounding nature – now we are under the threat of a climate crisis – attempts to take this holistic view and approach in describing natural spaces. For instance, Ed Hawkins’ data-     generated art Warming Stripes, presents an all-encompassing representation of global warming. However, as Ghosh points out, our descriptions of these natural and wild spaces within a literary realm are still governed by traditional modes of viewing; we at once imagine wild spaces far and unconnected to our lives and habitats, as well as idealise them in sublime and metaphorical imagery. We have yet to break from these traditional forms and conventions that guide our imaginative view of the natural environment. I will thus argue that literature and art of the long eighteenth century contributed to the inherited modes of viewing that make discussing nature so “challenging” (Ghosh 7).

I will be looking at nature's presentation within both Clare’s and Wollstonecraft’s texts stated above; I feel this will serve as an interesting comparison between the tropes employed from both a sublime viewing, Wollstonecraft, to a romantic one, Clare. What is shared among both these texts is their idealising and elevating of wild spaces. To look at Clare first, his description of the nightingale and “her” nest is indeed a typical romantic imagining. He describes the bird “as though she lived on song” (7) where, within “her home of love” (4), “her joys are evergreen” (41). Immediately, through the use of abstract nouns, the bird is anthropomorphised into a maternal and sentient creature. In Clare’s imagining of the bird, we see “her” elevated beyond the ties of creaturely functions, like hunting or eating, instead she survives on song alone. Immortalising the nightingale is symptomatic of the dangerous way nature is treated within eighteenth century texts. More problematically however, if we look closer at the speaker’s impact on the landscape, we can see destructive abuse of power: “There! Put that bramble by – /Nay, trample on its branches and get near” (56); “where that child its blue-bell flowers hath got” (10); “in man’s haunts she seemeth nought to win” (82). These three subtle instances hint at the damaging presence humans have in wild spaces. However, when paired with the excitement and idealisation of the nightingale, these instances of micro-destructions seem relatively harmless. They are subverted as child’s play, and or, presented as necessary to observe the creature in the first place.     

It is within the speaker's deliberation to destroy the bramble that the true danger of man is revealed; rather than putting it “by” or to the side, the speaker changes his mind, deciding to trample on it instead. Clare, in this shift in temperament, exposes the ease and capacity man has to destroy and kill the natural environment. Further, advocating for the destruction of the brambles strongly opposes the initial treatment of the nightingale and demonstrates the speaker's lack of concern for nature as a whole. This contradictory prizing of one form of nature over another creates a hierarchical mode of viewing the natural environment that completely disregards the ideas of interconnectivity and dependency. For the speaker, it is the nightingale that matters above all other life; even the thrush, with its “inferior songs” (35), is levelled to the same position as a “hazel bush” (30) as, within the rhyme scheme alone, both are ostracised to the end of the lines. The positionality here furthers the idea that these are non-important features of nature that merely block and enclose the nightingale. Ironically, the speaker advocates at the end of the poem to leave the eggs to continue the “woodland’s legacy of song” (94). Despite this attempt at preservation, the poem is still problematic in its protection and validation of one form of nature over another.

If we take Ghosh’s idea, this idealising and hierarchical view of nature and wild animals is indeed worrying. Here we can see a lack of understanding around the idea that “everything” within nature “hangs together” and that, “if one thread is pulled, the whole tapestry may unravel” (Humboldt qtd. in Popova); the brambles serve to protect the bird’s nest but for the speaker, they are merely in the way. If this is the case, then we can see that Humboldt’s teachings during the eighteenth century about nature’s “interconnection and interdependence” is a sentiment disregarded or lost within literary descriptions of nature. Perhaps Clare, in planting these micro instances of cruelty, is hinting at something larger about humanity’s own ignorance at the damage we cause to the nature around us.

Wollstonecraft demonstrates similarly subtle moments where industry and human presence begin to intrude negatively upon nature. Within letter XXIV she displays her abhorrence to the intrusion of industry upon the wild landscapes in Altona: “the smell of glue, hanging to dry, an extensive manufactory of which is carried close to the beach, I found extremely disagreeable. But to commerce everything must give way” (128).  Here, we see the colliding of the two burgeoning, but separate, worlds during the Anthropocene – the appreciation for wild nature versus the increase in commercial spaces. The tension created by these two powers is evident throughout Wollstonecraft's travel writing. She sensitively recognises the need for industry, while also showing the threat it poses to natural spaces and the individuals that occupy them.

After her failed attempt to be within nature, Wollstonecraft turns her discourse inwards by describing an imagined mountainous scene where sorrow is shut out:
In fancy I return to a favourite spot, where I seemed to have retired from man and wretchedness; but the din of trade drags me back to all the care I left behind, when lost in sublime emotions. Rocks aspiring towards the heavens, and, as it were, shutting out sorrow, surrounded me. (129)

In this moment, Wollstonecraft takes herself beyond the space full of the troubles of “man” and “trade” and escapes to a sublime imagining all her own. Her descriptions are tangled with her tumultuous emotions as she becomes lost in this rocky landscape that towers towards heaven. Though we have previously witnessed her account of the mountainous cliffs in her visit to Norway, we can see how they have transformed into an intangible space within Wollstonecraft’s thoughts. As Kant points out, “those in whom both feelings are united will find that they are more powerfully moved by the sublime” but it “is tiring and cannot be enjoyed as long” (18). Wollstonecraft is moved by her sublime encounters, so much so, they have become a “favourite spot” for her mind to escape to.

This tumultuous and wild depiction of nature is evident in the art of the long eighteenth century, as we can see from Martin’s painting The Great Day of His Wrath. Nature’s sublime qualities are elevated to this imaginative space that Wollstonecraft also demonstrates. Although elements of the natural are recognisable, such as the rocks and storm clouds, the landscape is exaggerated and imbued with this idea of biblical destruction. This "process of framing and composing constitutes an exercise of power,” that according to Bohls, is “a non-reciprocal mode of vision whose effect is to display and reinforce mastery" (87). Martin and Wollstonecraft indeed exercise a power over nature by transforming sublime landscapes into emotionally charged spaces. Nature within both these representations becomes an extension of the subject viewing them, with its descriptions grounded in emotional connections instead of realism.

There is a similar elevation of nature from ordinary to symbolic and metaphysical within Clare’s romantic “woodland.” Even from the opening line, “Hush! let the wood-gate softly clap,” we enter a space detached from the ordinary (3). This space is described as sacred to the speaker who confesses to having spent “many hours” (15) there:

here have I hunted like a very boy,
Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorns
To find her nest (12-14).

Clare’s woodland is coloured with nostalgia and childlike wonder as the speaker is both physically and emotionally transformed. The speaker indeed regresses to a childlike state of wonder; however he undergoes a zoomorphic change by being hunched over on hands and knees. This comes back to this idea of escapism from the ordinary that Wollstonecraft, in her envisioning of the sublime, is also guilty of. Both landscapes here become emotional spaces; however, if we look further at the positioning of these natural spaces, there is a sentiment that wild or uncultivated spaces are rooted in the past. As Barrell notes, when it comes to viewing nature, the common assumption is that “what is uncultivated is uncivilized – that is its attraction – and thus also mysteriousness” (qtd. in Hitt 130). For Clare, the mysteries of the nightingale drive his curiosity and narrative of the forest. By entering this natural space to observe this wild animal, Clare’s speaker metaphorically travels back to his youth.

For Wollstonecraft, however, in letter IX, we can see how being within nature also detaches us from the modern and civilised:

My thoughts fly from this wilderness to the polished circles of the world, till recollecting its vices and follies, I bury myself in the woods, but find it necessary to emerge again, that I may not lose sight of the wisdom and virtue which exalts my nature. (61)

Wild nature is represented as a space that belongs to the uncivilised past and not the future. Wollstonecraft’s text, even in its epistolary form, is a piece of literature that looks to the future. Wollstonecraft secretly hoped travelling around northern Europe would help her find Gilbert Imlay’s lost ship, and in turn, he would reciprocate her love. Her epistolary form extends this forward-looking and motivated perspective even further, as a letter in itself is a form of writing addressed to a future reader. Continually, Wollstonecraft makes allusions to the importance of progression and innovation. He sees “deeply of the advantages obtained by human industry [having been in Norway]” (60) and describes the world as requiring the “hand of man to perfect it” (60). Her drive towards the new and modern is both a personal position as well as a politically motivated one. While she admires her sublime encounters with the wilderness, “gazing on the tremendous cliffs, sublime emotions absorb my soul” (39), she none-the-less describes these spaces as belonging to the past.
Nature within both these texts is a space that belongs to a distant past, and while this may help induce feelings of nostalgia or even escapism, it is a problematic trope to associate with the wild. We are detached further from the natural environment through this convention to historicise nature. The natural spaces of both Clare’s “woodland” and Wollstonecraft’s imagined sublime landscape come to offer emotional release that cannot be found in normal life. Interestingly, Foucault’s idea of utopian spaces can be seen here, as both descriptions of nature are presented as “fundamentally unreal spaces” (24).

Given this literary tradition – in which the wild aspects of nature are confined to the past – as well as the complex idealisation of nature as utopic, we can see how modern writers have struggled, as Ghosh claims, to encapsulate the climate crisis within literature. Modern discourse’s holistic approach, as we can see from Hawkins’ Warming Stripes, is in opposition to these literary conventions of idealisation and grounding in the past that surround the depiction of nature. Modern writers are now creating spaces where nature is a part of the future and connected to the world around it. The division of nature from the growing industrial presences at the beginning of the Anthropocene is evident in how both writers treat the natural environment. For both writers, nature is valued as a transformative space that allows them to access emotional states and inspiration that simply cannot be accessed in ordinary commercial environments. However, if we continue to isolate nature from the presence of industry, it will be impossible to see the negative impact we are having on the environment. Crucially, now that we are threatened by a climate crisis, literature needs to explicitly address the effect industry is having on natural spaces, rather than idealising and separating nature and industry further.

The separation between industrial and wild spaces is emphasised by the narratives of both texts, as each contain a return journey away from nature, back to the "polished circles of the world” (Wollstonecraft 61). Even in the title of Wollstonecraft’s letters, “a short residence,” there is a time constraint and anticipated return home at the end of the text. Clare demonstrates a similar temporality to his walk through the woodland, as he sets up this idea of enclosure by opening his poem with a “wood-gate” (3). Immediately, we are constrained to a path and made to feel unwelcome. In creating their travel narratives, Clare and Wollstonecraft demonstrate the distance forming between humanity and nature at the beginning of the Anthropocene. This need to travel to be within nature reveals that neither individual experiences the natural world within daily life, instead both must detach themselves from the ordinary to be among it.

For both writers, whether it is Wollstonecraft’s sublime cliff face or Clare’s woodland, nature is a detached and isolated space, presented as something to be conquered as well as admired during the long eighteenth century. Writings on the sublime and the romantic set up the complex relationship that we have with nature to this day; we need to control it for commercial purposes, as Wollstonecraft describes, but also desire to be within it for spiritual and emotional reasons. As these contradicting forces grow stronger due to the influx of commerce and the increased interest in natural sublimity, our disconnect from nature also grows and we have to travel further to see it. It is this distance that, according to Ghosh, has become seemingly unbridgeable today. We are no longer trying to control nature and contain its sublime qualities to art or enclose spaces, instead, we are trying to prevent ourselves from encroaching upon it further.

If we return to Humboldt’s idea of interconnectivity, we can see the problematic ways nature is depicted within literature during the long eighteenth century. Crucially, at the beginning of the Anthropocene, we see a great divide between humanity and the natural world. Wild and natural spaces are symbolised and presented as unconnected to each other, as well as to us and our daily lives. Furthermore, we can see hierarchies within the way nature is valued and symbolised beginning to form, as seen in the bramble and the “nightingale” in Clare’s poem. This negates the modern notion of equality and fair treatment of all creatures. According to Ghosh, the way we have portrayed nature in the past, be it from a sublime or romantic perspective, has shaped our narrative imagination even today. He expresses the difficulty within modern literature to escape these conventions and to discuss nature as an interconnected and equal space. Advancements in scientific discourse, as we see in Hawkins’ model on climate change, have instilled a holistic approach to natural spaces that Humboldt advocated for in the eighteenth century. Literature, however, does have something to add to environmental discourse that science does not. As Buell points out: “acts of environmental imagination … may affect one’s caring for the physical world: make it feel more or less precious or endangered or disposable” (2). From both Wollstonecraft’s and Clare’s account of nature, we can see the emotional and intimate power nature it has upon both viewer and reader. However, in order to harness this connective power literature has, we need to address the problematic ways we have traditionally depicted nature as an idealised and unconnected space.



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