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Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0674001680. Price: US$31.50.

  • Ron Broglio

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  • Ron Broglio
    Georgia Tech

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The rich possibilities of ecopoetics and the ground for thinking ecological literature are well laid out in Bate's latest book. As he explains in the preface: "This is a book about why poetry continues to matter as we enter a new millennium that will be ruled by technology. It is a book about modern Western man's alienation from nature. It is about the capacity of the writer to restore us to the earth which is our home." From these expansive beginnings, Song of the Earth is divided into three sections. The first three chapters give a context for ecopoetics by exploring the divide between nature and culture and our longing to return to nature. The middle chapters supply fruitful examples in landscape aesthetics and animal nature from the Romantic period to contemporary poetry. The final chapter grounds ecopoetics in Heidegger's work.

In Chapter One, "Going, Going, Gone," Bate introduces the reader to the divide between nature and culture. During the 16th century the word "cultivation" undergoes a split between tending fields and a figurative cultivation in which the mind and morals are made fit for society. Austen and Hardy serve as opening examples of how the divide functions in the 19th century. Bate illustrates how in Sense and Sensibility, John Dashwood's lack of respect for his the family land finds its parallel in his uncivil treatment of his stepmother and half-sister whom he turns out of the family home. Likewise, Hardy's tragic vision is grounded in the irreconcilable conflict between rooted, traditional communities and the mobility of contemporary economy, technology, and industry.

In Chapter Two, "State of Nature," we find that from Oliver Goldsmith to Cobbett to Austen and Hardy and up to Philip Larkin, the better life is always just behind us. Yet, rural nostalgia as a myth is no less important than history since by myth we imagine and make sense of our place in the world. For Bate, literature provides the means of thinking a union between humans and nature precisely because fiction can think outside the current state of affairs. Yet, even in literature, we remain within a fundamental epistemological problem: "the act of identifying the presumption of human apartness from nature as the problem is itself a symptom of that very apartness. The identification is the product of an instrumental way of thinking and of using language" or as Bate explains in the next chapter, "A Voice for Ariel," "The writer's image of nature is always refracted through language: Areil only speaks when brought into the service of Prospero" (75). The ecocritic occupies the awkward position of speaking for the Other. To resolve this dilemma, "It may therefore be that a necessary step in overcoming the apartness is to think and to use language in a different way" (37). Bate examines how particular Romantic writers and their successors do not simply walk in nature nor simply write about nature; rather, these writers create for the reader a phenomenological experience of dwelling with nature. The result is an "ecopoetics" that allows us to think nature by making nature present to humans. Bate wants poetry to make an impact on the phenomenological nature of living in the world. He explains, "Ecopoetics asks in what respect a poem may be a making (Greek poiesis) of the dwelling-place—the prefix eco- is derived from the Greek oikos, 'the home or place of dwelling'" (75). He claims that poiesis provides the path to dwelling since its metre resonates with "nature's own rhythms" producing "an echoing of the song of the earth itself." These opening chapters that lay out the problem by using Rousseau's Discourse on Method and Schiller's "On Naive and Sentimental Poetry" to figure the divide between humans and nature while ample literary examples from the Romantic period to the present illustrate Bate's point. Yet, just beyond the surface of Bate's quite readable text lurks a complex Heideggerian language ment to grounding Song of the Earth.

Bate explicates the derivation of his ecopoiesis from Heidegger's poiesis in the final chapter, "What are Poets For?" The chapter opens with Ricoeur's observation that "Thanks to writing, man and only man has a world and not a situation" (249). By fashioning in writing a world of relations (past and future, real and imagined, chaotic and ordered) we are able to transcend the here-and-now of our bodies. Yet, as Heidegger explains, because we create our world through and in language, we remain estranged from the earth. However, through the special language of poetry, we are able to articulate the relationship between internal and external worlds. Poetry allows humans to dwell harmoniously with the earth. Humans heed what Heidegger refers to as the "call" of being by which we are to shepherd nature. For Bate, Heidegger's call is the song of the earth. Poetry is our response to the song, a responding that is a presencing of nature. In poetry, nature is not simply represented; rather, nature is revealed, made present. As Bate explains, literary criticism is not meant "to spell out a practical programme for better environmental management." Instead, "Ecopeotics must concern itself with consciousness. When it comes to practice, we have to speak in other discourses" (266).

The five middle chapters of the book serve as specific examples of poetic response to nature's song. "Major Weather" begins with Bate's re-reading of Byron's "Darkness" and Keats's "To Autumn" in which weather patterns from 1816-1819 serve as agents of change effecting the literary texts. Using Latour's structure of a two tier ontology with one zone for humans and another for the nonhuman, Bate takes to task socio-historical criticism that omits the agency of the nonhuman in effecting both history and poetry. The Tambora volcano in Indonesia in 1815 changed global weather patterns for the next few years, causing darkness and crop failures in Europe beginning in 1816. The dismal end of the world in Byron's poem is due to the weather and its effect on human livelihood. Then, following poor crops the previous years, the successful crops of 1819 become the impetus for Keats's ode. The contiguity between elements in "To Autumn" point to the interrelatedness in nature and our bond to this network. Bate goes on to read "Frost at Midnight" with the same movement between exterior weather and interior temporal memory. The trafficking of forms between outside and inside, signal a disolve of Cartesian subject/object distinctions. Ecopoesis allows us to think the fragility of our environment as well as our dependence on it for our own fragile subjectivity.

In "The Picturesque Environment," Bate explores how landscape literature represents nature through the mediation of painting and other landscape texts. From Gilpin's tour guides to Marianne and Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility to Thomas Rowlandson's Dr. Syntax, Bate explains our failure to relate to nature except by predetermined cognitive categories. He asks the difficult Romantic question: Is it possible to stand in nature and relate to it with an unmediated experience? While in "Picturesque Environment" Bate fails to give a convincing example of what unmediated experience with nature would mean, his reading of Clare in the next chapter, "Nest, Shells, Landmarks" brings the reader closer to understanding how we could dwell with the earth. By reading Clare through Bachelard's The Poetics of Space, Bate finds "the poetic image has its distinctive being in this quality of reverberation, which is an overcoming of time. But we can only understand the being of the image by ourselves experiencing the reverberation" (154). As with the contiguity between elements in "To Autumn" and the network on interior and exterior relations in "Frost and Midnight," the "reverberations" felt by the reader in the play between images in Clare's "The Hollow Tree" and "The Pettichap's Nest" give us a starting place for a sense of belonging, a sense of home. Then in his final landscape chapter, in "The Place of Poetry," Bate's extends his meditation on landscape aesthetics in a discussion of "critical regionalism" as a means of defying nationalist appropriation of landscapes. Bate's chapter "Poets, Apes, and Other Animals" moves outside of landscape aesthetics to consider humans' relation to animals by way of looking at Byron's pets, the animal instincts of Byron's passions and those of his Don Juan, and examining the human qualities of the orangutan in Peacock's Melincourt.

Song of the Earth focuses on a harmony between the "song of the earth" and the poet's response which imagines a human dwelling with nature. His beautifully written book provides the reader with an intellectually as well as bodily challenging project that has the power not only to change the way we think about Romantic poetry but also how we conduct our lives. Yet, Bate's harmony with nature does not go far enough in dispelling a humanist anthropocentricism. Much of Bate's reservations come from his use of phenomenology which in Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty is unability to leave behind humanist (even romantic) sentiments. Perhaps also, in part, Bate's conservative approach to an ecological theory of literature is necessary in light of scholarship resistant to Bate's work and not willing to contemplate the fragmentation of subjectivity that a drift from anthropocentrism would necessitate.

As an exercise in rethinking Green Romanticism, consider a different reaction to the the Earth's Song as posed by Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy. Following Nietzsche, language is the Apollonian mask by which we are able to perceive, as through a veil, the abysmal truth of Dionysian music, a music that makes manifest a terrible "Primal Unity." Through Dionysian awe, ecstasy, and drunkenness the Apollonian limit and principle of individuation is rent. With Dionysus, the Cartesian divide between subject and object as well as the necessary divide Bate sees between man and nature as a result of language collapses and Nature celebrates her reconciliation with her prodigal humans. The figure for such reunion is Dionysus's friend, the satyr, who as half-human, half-animal is able to conceive of the disjunctive union between culture and nature. Beside such a figure, modern attempts at reconciliation are mere sentimentalism: "The idyllic shepherd of the modern man [including Bate's poet] is but a copy of the sum of the culture—illusions which he calls nature; the Dionysian Greek desires truth and nature in their most potent form—and so he sees himself metamorphosed into the satyr" (BT chapter 8). If we are to hear the Earth's Song, it is by way of a perverse coupling, as figured in the satyr. Time and again, Bate gestures toward this figure but has yet to pursue such thought. In his reading of Hardy's Woodlanders, Bate illustrates that the cultured woman Grace finds a final illicit kiss with the earth bound Giles. Bate explains that at this moment, "We could almost say that he has become cider and that Grace is drawn to drink him in" (19). Why can we "almost" say this? The "Becoming-animal" of Deleuze and Guittari's Thousand Plateaus suggests the apple-man assemblage that Giles has become meets with Grace as culture assemblage in a fortuitous new possibility illicit only in relation to a capitalist, Oedipal social authority. There is a similar loss of human subjectivity in Bate's discussion of Hudson's Edwardian novel Green Mansions. The male protagonist, Able (whose name recalls a Biblical transgression), discovers a bird-girl Rima who is "bird and butterfly and leaf and flower and monkey all in one; her voice is the voice not only of bird, but also of insect, of wind and of water" 60. The Able-Rima coupling would suggest yet another disjunctive union by which literature thinks outside anthropocentric limits. The humorous satire that Byron's animal passions played against the cool and abstract Love of Wordsworth for all of Nature as discussed in the "Poets, Apes, and Other Animals" chapter suggest vertiginous possibilities of Dionysian revelry as well as the terrible truth of Dionysus being rent and scattered into nature—a truth that Byronic heros such as Manfred seem to have peered into.

Ecopoetics is not meant as a representation of nature but as a presentation, a presencing. Bate's hopes that poetry can create an experiential, re-creational space for the mind similar to the space that national parks create for the body. How poetry is able to create a direct relatedness, something Merleu-Ponty struggled with repeatedly, is a goal worth exploring. Yet from my own way of seeing, such presencing requires not only a Heideggerian humanism that makes us the shepherds of beings toward being but also a satyr's revelry and loss of limits.