Introduction | Animal Rights and Welfare | Apocalypse  | Nature's Economy | "Nutting" | The Voice of the Earth

Environmentalism and British Romanticism

Coalbrookdale by Night
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.”
In his preface to his prophetic poem Milton (written 1804-10), William Blake juxtaposes two radically different images: one of “dark satanic mills” and another of “England’s green & pleasant land.” The former image is often read as a commentary on the early developments of the industrial revolution, a reading lent credence by Blake’s close familiarity with the giant steam powered Albion mill and his opposition to the dominance of mechanical or instrumentalizing reason. The binary established between these two images, between a destructive and dangerous urban industrialism and a peaceful, vital and regenerative natural landscape is often thought to define the Romantic mindset. This binary cannot, of course, be said to cover all of the works of the Romantic poets. Blake was highly excited by the possibilities of urban life and even a nature poet like Wordsworth was capable of admiring London upon occasion. Nonetheless, it can help us to understand a frequent tendency in British Romanticism to privilege the natural world, running from the heroines of Ann Radcliffe’s eighteenth-century gothic novels bursting into song at the sight of a picturesque landscape to calls of Romantic-influenced Victorians like William Morris and John Ruskin for a return to nature. In the Romantic era, human effects on the natural environment were becoming increasingly apparent in England, from greater air pollution (particularly from the burning of coal), to deforestation, to the growing appearance throughout the country of mills and factories. Although widespread conservation movements would not form until much later in the nineteenth century, this was an era in which environmental or ecological concerns appear in literary productions and take on political significance.

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.”

Andrew Lallier

Selected Bibliography

Bate, Jonathan. Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition. London: Routledge, 1991. Print.

Hutchings, Kevin. “Ecocriticism in British Romantic Studies.” Literature Compass 4.1 (2007): 172-202. Web. 9 Feb.

McKusick, James C. Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. Print.

McKusick, James C. “Ecology.” Romanticism: An Oxford Guide. ed. Nicholas Roe. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
      2005. 199-218. Print.

Morton, Timothy. “Environmentalism.” Romanticism: An Oxford Guide. ed. Nicholas Roe. Oxford: Oxford University
      Press, 2005. 696-707. Print.

Pite, Ralph. “How Green were the Romantics?” Studies in Romanticism 35.3 (Fall 1996): 357-73. Print.