John Rignall et al (eds.), Ecology and the Literature of the British Left

John Rignall, H. Gustav Klaus and Valentine Cunningham (eds.), Ecology and the Literature of the British Left: The Red and the Green (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012). xi + 167 pp. £60 hb. ISBN 978 1 4094 1822 1.

BSLS members are entitled to a 20% discount on Ashgate titles. Click here for details.

This collection of sixteen essays seeks to find common ground between radical or Leftist and Ecological politics. It seems opportune because both have been, if not quite in crisis, then certainly struggling to attain the sort of prominence they achieved in literary criticism ten or fifteen years ago. The roots of both political movements are in the Romantic period, and they solidified into clear positions towards the end of the nineteenth century. A longish nineteenth century, beginning in the 1790s and ending with H. G. Wells and the Fabians, dominates the book, with further chapters considering writers as diverse as Sylvia Townsend Warner, James Kelman and Edmund Blunden. It is, as collections of essays can be, a little uneven, but it is also full of fresh thinking which anyone interested in writing’s capacity to envision afresh the social and environmental worlds should read.

The contributors encounter a problem: conserving the landscape sounds more Burkean than Paineite. Moreover the progress necessary to improve the lot of the working class has often been deemed by the Left to take precedence over the claims of the environment. Raymond Williams is the most important thinker to have attempted a solution. He is a presiding spirit here, most particularly on account of the flexibility of his thinking. As Richard Kerridge puts it in his chapter, Williams saw that the negotiation between the material needs of the working classes and the need to defend the materials of the earth ‘must be continuous and dialectical’ (21). The collection is driven by a strong sense of political purpose, but the attempts to find solutions are, in general, open and inquisitive rather than dogmatic. Timothy Morton, one of the most vital voices in recent eco-criticism, seeks in The Ecological Thought (2010) to find a mode of cognition which is itself ecological. The best chapters find inventive ways of fulfilling that aim.

Not every writer discussed here is truly (or in some cases even partially) ‘Left’, and in many cases their interest in the land, however fervent, frames it as a resource for humans. It seems surprising, for example, that pastoral is so frequently discussed, because pastoral tends to assert an aestheticizing distance from nature while also drawing on a classical heritage that was the traditional preserve of the public schools. Helena Kelly discovers an important new biographical reason for Wordsworth’s shift from a youthful, radical opposition to enclosed landscapes (expressed especially in ‘A Night on Salisbury Plain’) to the more quiescent view of ‘The Ruined Cottage’. But pastoral is itself, it seems, difficult to balance with radical politics or ecology. Stephen Harrison’s discussion of the genre in Arthur Hugh Clough and Thomas Hardy finds little of red or green in either. Valentine Cunningham’s account of 1930s pastoral faces similar difficulties. Here we have the spectacle of George Orwell bowling Edmund Blunden a bouncer by claiming village cricket for the Left. Yet neither side can be said to offer a genuinely ecological view, however concerned they are with the land. Pastoral remained an important mode in First World War writing, as H. Gustav Klaus shows, though again these writers are only a little green, and not very often red. John Rignall’s fine account of the relationship between labour and pastoral in the nineteenth century succeeds best by acknowledging the difficulties of his subject. Rignall shows how Hardy and Richard Jeffries (neither politically radical) reveal the way the ‘alert and questioning mind which is sensitive to the painful traces of the past’ (109) can find the ghosts of labour in the landscape. For Rignall, these writers encourage us to see, and to read, differently, and their most important contribution lies in the forms of attentiveness they make possible.

Many of the best chapters follow Rignall in finding political and ecological possibility in unlikely places. Seamus Perry rather gamely concedes that Coleridge was not especially green (the imagination’s shaping power imposes the human will on nature) nor, by the end of his life, in the least red. But Coleridge is a representative figure because nature’s independent power so tenaciously returns, ‘as though his writing repeatedly discovers some element importantly resistant to the triumphant sway of the human mind’ (41). Coleridge is a valuable guide partly because he is drawn to both sides of the question. Dinah Birch’s fine discussion of Ruskin is similarly open about his apparent unsuitably for the book. But, like Perry’s Coleridge, ‘the energy of Ruskin’s response to nature, and his exceptional capacity to find words for its beauty’ (124) make his very failure to be conventionally ecological compelling. Responses to ecological and political quandaries need not come from writers who toe the party line.

John Clare seems to do just that. But, as Simon Kövesi and Mina Gorji point out, he was no radical. Even his opposition to enclosure might seem problematic. Gorji’s thoughtful essay finds him challenging aesthetic assumptions. Yet if he sees value in weeds, he nonetheless imposes on the plant world a hierarchical perspective with humans on top. Enclosed land may be bad for the people, but unenclosed land is not necessarily good for the land. Kövesi’s brilliant chapter, however, finds in Clare a habit of mind similar to Coleridge’s ‘epistemological humility’ (43). With aid from Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of the rhizome, Kövesi shows how Clare’s use of the ampersand permits a vision of indeterminacy, a ‘scene muffled by the wonder and blurred boundaries of a levelling nature’. Clare’s vision is ‘coordinated, levelled, planar, anti-hierarchical’ (85). His restless vision rejects progress and ordering structure, and it permits new forms of poetic thought and new ways of seeing. This ‘way of looking at the world’ (208), a product in part of Clare’s labouring-class background, is echoed in Christian Schmitt-Kilb’s account of John Berger’s more clearly politicized novels.

Anna Vaninskaya, John Sloan and William Greenslade provide careful, largely historical, surveys of the culture which incorporated Fabian Socialists, Garden City developers and, as Orwell put it, ‘sandal-wearing, vegetarian, teetotallers and creeping Jesus[es]’. Wells’s interest in ‘scientific ecology’ suggests one absence of especial interest to members of BSLS. Science features significantly, if negatively, in James Radcliffe’s discussion of Theodore Roszak and the attempt in the 1960s and ’70s to draw on the work of Wordsworth, Goethe and Blake as an antidote to a ‘profoundly anti-democratic’ modern science which provided for the ‘domination of the natural world and humanity’ (195). Radcliffe is careful and dispassionate in his account (the spiritual mysticism Roszak discovers in the Romantics seems curiously conservative), but it may be that the links between science, the Left and ecology can offer fertile ground to scholars in the future.

The collection ends with an excellent discussion of contemporary Scottish writing by Graeme Macdonald. Writers such as George Mackay Brown and Alasdair Gray offer a usually unnoticed ‘left orientation of Scottish eco-culture’ (224) that permits ‘a politically productive dialectical tension’ (225). His most substantial example is John Burnside, a writer concerned especially with boundaries or ‘membranes’ between states of being. His writing contorts itself brilliantly to permit the meeting of incompatible elements. It is in the nature of collections of this kind that readers tend to skip straight to the chapters from one historical period. That would be a shame in this case. Not every chapter can be said truly to fulfil the collection’s aim. The best, though, prove their value in encouraging and celebrating openness to unlikely connections. In Burnside’s poem ‘Green’, ‘something draws you in:/ you find the centre of the mazy grain/ and start afresh’. In his combination of centring and maziness, the fresh start in an encounter with what is already there, Burnside, like Clare, Coleridge, Hardy, Ruskin and others, finds possibility in attentive uncertainty.

David Stewart, Northumbria University