J. Andrew Hubbell, Byron’s Nature: A Romantic Vision of Cultural Ecology

J. Andrew Hubbell, Byron’s Nature: A Romantic Vision of Cultural Ecology (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2018) ix + 289 pp.  £76 EPUB, £80 Hb. ISBN: 978-3-319-542379

In Byron’s Nature, J. Andrew Hubbell seeks a ‘full accounting of Byron’s environmental thought’ (1).  In so doing, Hubbell sidesteps Heideggerian inflections of oikos – ‘narratives of dwelling’ which have, as he points out, favoured Wordsworthian ‘eco-localism’ (5, 9) – and instead draws on ecological theories that emphasise the interplay (or ‘panarchy’) of naturecultures (7).  As Hubbell points out in Chapter One, ‘Introduction: Byron’s Nature’ (1-14), panarchic theories correspond to Byron’s own, ‘eco-cosmopolitan body of thought’ (9), and in particular to the ‘dynamic, nonequilibrium model of cultural ecology’ (7) which informs Byron’s systems thinking.  Extending these arguments in Chapter Two, ‘Byron and Ecocriticism’ (15-64), Hubbell points to Byron’s interest in diversity, spontaneity, and creativity, and suggests an analogy between Byron’s experimental work, with its concern for ‘political, social and artistic freedom’ (20), and theories of the ecotone, which draw attention to contact zones between ecosystems as ‘places of intense conflict, competition, opportunism, synergy, reciprocity’ (19).  Over time, Hubbell argues, Byron’s ‘poetry grows more and more to resemble the ecotonal theory of nature that he represents’ (20).  As Hubbell explains (22-30) the significance of Byron’s ‘ecotone poetics’ (20) was largely overlooked in the ensuing ‘critical debates within British Romanticism, out of which the main trunk of Romantic ecocriticism emerged’ (21), particularly as early ecocriticism drew heavily on Deep Ecological readings of Heidegger (30-40), which in turn reinforced an emphasis on localist writers such as Wordsworth – at Byron’s expense.  Yet dwelling may also be regarded as ‘a continual act of attunement’ (39), and in the sense intended by Kate Rigby, ‘“ecstatic dwelling”’ (39) is a singularly appropriate way of understanding Byron’s own experiences, aspirations, and ecological critique.  In turn, Hubbell argues, Byron’s ‘ecstatic dwelling [led] eventually to his poetics of cultural ecology’ (42), which is most effectively read in light of the theory of panarchy developed by Gunderson and Holling (2002) (43); similarly, Byron’s claim to be a ‘Citizen of the World’ (44) dovetails with Ursula Heise’s insistence (2008) on the need for an eco-cosmopolitan approach to environmental crisis and environmental justice (45).

Having positioned Byron at the forefront of ecocritical thinking, Hubbell traces the development of these ideas ‘through Byron’s major poetry’ (48).  In Chapter Three, ‘In Quest of Cultural Ecology, A Romaunt’ (65-104), Hubbell shows how Byron, like Alexander von Humboldt, ‘came to understand nature differently from [his] peers’ (67); in turn, Byron’s ecological theories inform Cantos I and II of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.  Here, Byron shows that, just as the ‘great, heroic culture of classical Athens flowed out of [and ebbed back into] the land’ (83), the ‘spirit of freedom’ remained latent in ‘the specific environmental and cultural vectors that [defined] the region’ (84).  In Chapter Four, ‘Childe Harold’s Cultural Ecosystem’ (105-154), Hubbell explores Cantos III and IV of the Pilgrimage, which ‘significantly expand the imaginative possibilities of Byron’s cultural ecology’ (148).  Suffering from his own form of existential crisis (106), Byron turns first to a form of natural theology, seeking purpose and meaning and nature, and then to an ‘“aesthetic theology”’ (107), which posits ‘artistic vision and genius’ (107) as an alternative basis for belonging.  Yet neither is sufficient because, as Byron surveys continental Europe in the aftermath of war, he realises that ‘[e]ven in ruins, the places he visits are self-renewing, forcing him to recognize that creativity is an epigenetic process of uninhibited reciprocal volition’ (108).  As Hubbell underlines, ‘[t]he cornerstone of Byron’s system ecology is the persistence of interdependent, free, open, reciprocal relationships’ (136), and Childe Harold both describes these relationships as they play out across ecotones ‘such as land-ocean and nature-culture’ (142), and embodies them in its free-flowing form (‘Byron’s reputation for digression, verbal mobility, and unexpected apposition is well documented’) (142).

In Chapter Five, ‘Metaphysical Plays of Domination and Freedom’ (155-202), Hubbell turns to Byron’s dramas, Manfred, Cain, and Heaven and Earth.  Recognising that the potential of any system could only be realized through mutual reciprocity and freedom, Byron used these plays to dramatize the way in which modernity’s dualistic ‘logic of domination’ (as Val Plumwood has called it) (156) works against those freedoms – with ‘tragic consequences’ (157). ‘Manfred and Cain sow the seeds of their own destruction because they see the world through dualist lenses that narrow their understanding of what is possible’, Hubbell concludes; in Heaven and Earth, by contrast, ‘Japhet’s increasingly dominant presence […] provides a pluralist counter philosophy […] based on complementarity, spontaneity, diversity, and complexity’ (197).

As Hubbell shows, this counter philosophy enabled Byron to conceive of a new form of politics in which ‘nature and culture are united in a process of interconnected becoming’ (203).  In Chapter Six, ‘Don Juan’s Autre Mondialisation’ (203-252), Hubbell argues that Byron’s epic satire offers an ‘unapologetic critique’ of tyranny and an (unruly) vision of ‘a more egalitarian world’ (206) that ‘restores an understanding of the self-determining nature of the system’ (238).  Hubbell also suggests that Byron’s defamiliarizing language is itself part of a relational ontology that pays specific attention to matter as agential (206-207), in explicit opposition to ‘discourses of mechanistic materialism [that] reduce things and beings to their functions’ (230).  Form therefore instantiates the ‘system of transformative change’ that Byron describes (243); nevertheless, ‘[w]hat is striking about Byron’s work in Don Juan is the fact that he develops his modelling of ecological transformation at a global systems scale’ (244).

Hubbell closes this discussion of Byron’s ‘cosmopolitan scope’ (255) in Chapter Seven, ‘Conclusion: The Eco-Cosmopolitanism of Byron’s Nature’ (253-266).  In contradistinction to Wordsworth’s Lakes-based ‘localism’ (260), Hubbell argues that Byron pointedly sought to ‘trade […] lakes for oceans’ (260), thereby inviting his readers to ‘scale up [their] ecological awareness’ (262), recognise wider, shared risks, and forge translocal alliances within a ‘global ethico-justice framework’ (261).  In making this case for Byron’s breadth of ‘cartographic imagination’ (262), Hubbell makes good on his bold, opening claim that ‘Byron’s urban, cosmopolitan eco-poesis indicates both the source of and solution to modernity’s environmental problems’ (10); in doing so, he also offers a much needed corrective to the view that Byron was ‘the only major Romantic period write to say nothing about nature’ (263).

Adrian Tait, Independent Scholar