Poetry & Environment - The Emergence of Eco-Criticism



Nature and earth have always been an outlet for emotions offered to artists and writers as a vast expanse of indulgence as well as submergence. This magnified emotion of attachment, loss and immortality towards nature, has often been reflected and explored by the poets and novelists, which gave them the title of a ‘Romantic’. However, when this feeling drew attention from a critical faculty of intellectuals, it came to be known as Green Studies or Eco-Criticism.


There are several studies in this field which tend to highlight that eco-criticism emerged as a drift in literary studies only after the 1980s in the USA and early 1990s in the UK. It is a broad way for literary and cultural scholars to investigate the global ecological crisis through a transcending intersection of literature, culture, and the physical environment.


The pioneer or the father of this theory in the USA, Cheryll Glotfelty, proposed that "eco-criticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment." He also noted in the introduction to ‘The Eco-criticism Reader’, “just as feminist criticism examines language and literature form a gender-conscious perspective, and Marxist criticism brings an awareness of modes of production and economic class to its reading of texts, environmental critics explore how nature and the natural world are imagined through literary texts.”


So what is the difference between Romanticism and Eco-criticism ?


Literary studies witnessed a paradigm shift towards the end of the twentieth century when nature writing got a new dimension. Before which, contemporary criticism was based on socio-centric, historical or psychological issues. With the publication of two seminal works- Environmental Imagination and Ecocriticism Reader, both in 1996, a new theory called eco-criticism came out as an academic discipline. Nature writing prevailed long before eco-criticism came into existence and it got its momentum during the Romantic Age when most of the poets wrote using the framework of “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. Being dissatisfied with the surrounding world, the Romantic poets looked back to the glorious ages of the past and search imputes for writings when their imagination got recollected in tranquility. So it is nature and its quintessence which became an important nexus for the romantics.


Gradually, nature writing began to wane during the Victorian conflict of doubt and faith but the latter half of the twentieth century witnessed again an inkling to nature writing with environmental issues rising in literature. There is a wide gap of almost two centuries between the movements. Yet there are some similarities that validate eco-criticism being a reappraisal of romanticism in a broader sense. The rudiments of eco-criticism are found in the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelly, Clare and many other poets of the romantic age.


Literary responses to environmental concerns are as old as the issues themselves. Deforestation, air pollution, species endangerment, wetland loss, animal rights, and rampant consumerism have all been appearing as controversial issues in western literature for hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years, creating anxiety amongst people around the globe.


The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;-

Little we see in Nature that is ours;


-William Wordsworth


These words by Wordsworth elucidate with a sense of lament that the world we are all headed towards or are already living in, is too full of us human beings. He mourns over the furious race of urbanisation in the name of growth and development, claiming that we can’t escape the hectic hustle and bustle of everyday life to be able to stop, reflect and appreciate nature.


While eco-criticism has recently emerged as an important theoretical discourse, it is often associated most readily with American literature in relation to concepts of frontier and wilderness, or with periods such as the Romantic era when a certain construction of nature was at the heart of many writers' aesthetic projects. The only difference is that the environmental disorder which is the prime concern of the eco-poets was absent during the Romantic Period.


Factually, eco-criticism is rethinking nature in view of the global environmental crisis.


Emergence of Eco-Poetry


The dimensions of eco-poetics is quite widespread in terms of varying understandings and execution.


For some, eco-poetics is the making and study of pastoral poetry, or poetry of wilderness and deep ecology. The core principle of eco-criticism is deep ecology which pays equal importance to all organisms irrespective of their instrumental value. While some argue that this is of the kind that explores the human capacity for becoming animal, as well as humanity’s ethically challenged relation to other animals. It also argues to be poetry that confronts disasters and environmental injustices, including the difficulties and opportunities of urban environments. For yet others, eco-poetics is not a matter of theme, but of how certain poetic methods model ecological processes like complexity, non-linearity, feedback loops, and recycling.


To fairly condense this dynamic kaleidoscope of viewpoints, it may be more helpful to think of eco-poetics as a form of site-specificity— to shift the focus from themes to concerns, anthropologies to institutional critique of “green” discourse itself, and to an array of practices converging on the oikos, the planet earth which is the only home our species currently knows.


Indian nature poets of the late twentieth century renegotiate the relationship of poetry to nature by seeking to avoid both nostalgia for a supposed poetic golden age when transparency and transcendence were available to the lyric poet, and the sense of irony which would call into question any articulation of a coherent self.