Environmentalism and British Romanticism
Coalbrookdale by Night, 1801, a painting by Philipp Jakob Loutherbourg the Younger. Although considerably to the north of Blake's London, the night-time lighting of the iron-making town of Coalbrookdale by blast furnaces can give us an idea of the some images Blake might have sought to conjure with his famous phrase “dark satanic mills.”
One area in which we do see concrete political activity is on the front of animal rights and welfare. The Romantic period saw the passing of anti-cruelty legislation and the formation of the Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty to Animals, and Romantic writers reflected this concern with our fellow inhabitants of the planet. Percy Bysshe Shelley stood among the radicals of this movement, advocating for vegetarian diet in his A Vindication of Natural Diet (1813). Shelley also sought to mobilize poetic images of nature for political purposes, directly invoking The Voice of the Earth the voice of the earth in poems like Mask of Anarchy (1819) and Prometheus Unbound (1820). Shelley was hardly alone in his interest in thinking on a global scale and writers like Blake and Byron present us with images of environmental apocalypse. Although these authors cannot yet contemplate modern environmental concerns like global warming or nuclear winter, they do encourage us to think of life on earth as a fragile affair with images of an earth no longer accommodating to its organic inhabitants. More generally, Romantic writers often invoked a concept of nature’s economy to understand and express the interdependent web of relations that characterized earthly life and could serve as a model for poetic and political practice. While this concept might serve to stress the mutual obligations that should govern humankind and evoke a sense of universal fraternity, it could also be used to justify a given social order as an organic growth to be modified at society’s peril. Romantic environmental concerns often manifested on macro-levels, as in Blake and Shelley’s world-historical declamations, or in Coleridge’s contemplation of the whole of nature as a forming power connecting all living beings. But these concerns could also manifest on smaller scales, as in John Clare’s sympathetic portrayal of the death of a baited badger, or Wordsworth’s regret at his destruction of a hazel grove in his poem “Nutting.”
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