Introduction: I spent the better part of this summer—and the final months of my time as graduate curatorial fellow at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art—conceiving, planning, and executing my first art exhibition, Ecological Looking: Sustainability & the End(s) of the Earth. In this post, to open my blogging for the 2014-15 academic year, I detail how in curating the show I sought to mobilize the skills and expertise with which I’ve been endowed as a romanticist, generally, and aspiring William Blake studies scholar, more specifically. In doing so, I hope less to merely chronicle my own experience than to open up other possibilities of engagement for graduate students training in the field. I mean this especially with an eye toward curatorial work, an aspect of the academic and museum profession I believe a number of graduate students in the caucus might have a great deal to contribute (and which, of course, the NGSC alumnus Kirstyn Leuner already has). Continue reading A Romanticist as Curator
One of Romanticism’s favorite ecocritics, Dr. James McKusick, explains how getting lost in the woods at the age of five helped inspire his brilliant book, Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology. He shares, “I was playing with some friends and they went home. I went the other way and I was lost on my own for a couple hours. I finally found my way to a house in the woods, where there was this little, old lady, who decided not to make me into soup. She actually called up my friends’ parents, who rescued me. It’s one of those formative childhood memories. The takeaway is that I’ve always wanted to wander in wild places. It’s part of my makeup.”
Scholars of Romanticism should be thankful for a couple of things: first, that the old woman in the woods did not make McKusick into soup and, second, that the curiosity and bravery that five-year-old McKusick demonstrated in his exploration of the woods has grown and can be seen within his scholarly work in our field.
How did you become interested in ecological approaches to Romanticism?
I’ve probably spent five years of my life out under the open sky. However, it never occurred to me that I could translate any of this into the practice of literary study or literary criticism until long after I was out of graduate school. My dissertation had nothing to do with wilderness—it had to do with the philosophy of language. It was only after I got tenure, on the basis of that work, that I put my head up and I said, “What do I want to study next?”
At that time, there was no such thing as ecocriticism. This was the late 80s, early 90s, and Jonathan Bate had just published his first book on Wordsworth and green Romanticism, but with that exception, there wasn’t that much out there in specifically the field of British Romantic or Transatlantic ecocriticism. Obviously, there’s a long and distinguished history of people who study environmental writing, especially in the American context. That’s really, I think, the center of gravity for the field of environmental writing. If you look at most anthologies of nature writing, they have to deal with mostly 19th-century essay writers, Thoreau, Emerson, and that whole tradition down to Rachel Carson and modern times. But what’s missing in that tradition is the deeper history that goes back to at least the Middle Ages, perhaps the Classical period. The deeper intellectual and spiritual history of nature writing is what I’m after.
There was just a morning when I woke up, and I had this Gestalt experience, where I said, “You know, I love wild, natural, places, I love literature, I want to bring those things together.” It made sense in terms of my own life journey, but it was also an edgier, more dangerous field to go into because there wasn’t such a field yet. I got to be in there at the creation, so to speak. Organizations such as ASLE were just starting to be formed […] There was an aha! moment as well, where I found the poetry of John Clare, a lesser studied British Romantic poet, who, especially at that time in the 80s and 90s, was virtually unknown to Americans. British scholars have always known about Clare, but they, perhaps, have not taken him as seriously as he should have been taken. They used to speak of poor Clare, the poor mad poet. They knew a few of his poems that he wrote in the madhouse, but they didn’t know the reams and reams of wonderful poetry that he wrote during the primary phase of his poetic career, when he was not in the madhouse, when he was just a peasant farmer living his life out under the open sky.
John Clare was an amazing discovery for me. I became well acquainted with the world’s leading scholar of Clare studies, Eric Robinson, who is also the main editor of Clare’s work. Eric became one of my great mentors […] Through the study of John Clare, I’ve come to a more comprehensive understanding of what environmental writing is or can be. What I love about John Clare is simply his authentic connection, his groundedness in a particular wild place. John Clare was there at a transitional moment in the history of British agriculture, when they were moving from the ancient common field system to the enclosed or private field system. He deeply mourned that transformation of the landscape. The enclosed fields were being intensively cultivated. It was kind of a green revolution in agriculture, which made the lands more productive, and, in a sense, industrialized the land. It also destroyed many of the wild creatures that lived there, their nesting places, their habitat. Clare was really the only person who seemed to care. It was a tragedy that affected the landscape, and this is all captured beautifully through Clare’s poetry, through the poetics of nostalgia. He writes about land the way it was, but he also uses the poetics of advocacy. He advocates for preserving the landscape and for the rights of the creatures that inhabit there. Clare’s poetry is either naïve or deeply, mystically, connected with the landscape. I prefer the second idea.
Discovering Clare was a huge milestone. My first article in ecocriticism was my article on John Clare and I had a terrible trouble finding anyone who would publish it because it was perhaps ahead of its time. There was something about it that didn’t sit well with the literary establishment. I finally published it with a literary journal out of Toronto […] That turned into a chapter in my Green Writing book, which probably took me ten years to write. I took my time with that book because I was discovering my methodology as I went along. There was no one I could sit at the feet of and learn how to do ecocriticism.
What does an ecological reading open up about texts that other readings do not?
One of the real landmark pieces of work in ecological criticism has been done by Lawrence Buell. He addresses the question, “What is an environmental text?” The answer to that question is all texts, because every text has an environmental context. That environmental situation can be overtly expressed in the text or not […] If you just think of ecological criticism as “the study of nature writing,” it tends to marginalize it before you even get out of the starting gate. You’re only going to look at texts that are often in a fairly boring way describing “pretty things in the natural world.” There’s not really a lot to say about that, other than “how pretty!” That’s not what an ecological reading is or should be. What Buell teaches us is that every text has an environmental dimension. If it’s by a sophisticated writer, this dimension will be overtly manifested in the text in some respect.
We also need a broader understanding of ecology to realize that it is the study of everything that happens in the world. It isn’t just simply the study of wilderness, which is the other category mistake that people make in looking at ecological writing, the study of wilderness theory or wilderness areas. That’s a big piece of ecological criticism, but it is not the only piece. To be a good ecological critic, you need to look at urban as well as rural landscapes, land as well as ocean, and the sky is important. There’s nothing that gets left out of an ecological reading of a text. An ecological reading of a text can also poke at what is not there, what is not manifested in the text, but should be, or is repressed […] One of the best things about ecological criticism, I think, is that it is linked to a larger environmental movement that is gaining more and more headway in our larger society as we speak. To me, it seems a lot more authentic for literary scholars to be engaged in the struggle to protect the environment than it does for us deeply bourgeois professors to be involved in something we call the class struggle and the liberation of the common man. Somehow, that doesn’t ring authentic.
The other beautiful thing about ecocriticism is that it’s a methodology that has legs and can travel into any literary course, no matter the period or the genre or the subject matter under consideration. It can be used as a skeleton key to open up texts and see dimensions that our students truly care about. Our students care about sustainability, they care about environmental preservation. So I try to embed ecocriticism into any course that I teach. It also allows an interdisciplinary conversation to take place. If you have students from the sciences, or engineering, or music and theater, they can call relate to this content in a way that makes literary studies more relevant to their own individual circumstances […] Certainly, ecocriticism is not intended to drive out every other method of literary analysis. It is meant to complement what we already have. It’s another set of tools to put in the toolbox.
Your book engages the idea of the pastoral, citing the 18th-century context of the construction of “English gardens’ that imitated the idyllic disorder of natural landscapes, rather than formal geometric patterns” and, from my understanding, trace how “a true ecological writer must be ‘rooted’ in the landscape, instinctively attuned to the changes of the Earth and its inhabitants” (20, 24). I’m struck by several things here. If true ecological writers must be attuned to the landscape, might we view them as a collector? And, if we can view them as a collector, how might we negotiate issues of authenticity?
The idea of the pastoral, of course, goes back to the ancient times. The ancient Greek writers invented the concept of the pastoral landscape, and it’s very related to their form of agriculture, which was pastoral—in other words, they kept sheep, or goats, or cattle on the landscape. The pastoral ideal was invented by urban poets who were nostalgic for this older lifestyle that still existed in remote places. In historically recent times for these poets, this lifestyle had been replaced with more intensive forms of agriculture, the cultivation of crops. Urban life, of course, is not possible unless you’re cultivating a crop like wheat. The pastoral is always inherently nostalgic. It is always looking back to an earlier time where things were better and more peaceful.
Let’s bring it up to the 18th century. William Gilpin invented the concept of the picturesque. He was also a landscape designer, so he, along with a fellow called Capability Brown, invented the idea of the English garden. The English garden was an exercise in nostalgia. It captured a lost pre-history of wild landscape that the lands didn’t currently possess—in other words, all of English land has been cultivated since the Middle Ages, and the only wild lands that now exist are those that have been created by fencing. […] That’s where you get forests in English landscapes.
In the 18th century, the English garden is a reaction against French landscape. The garden at Versailles is a good example of a French landscape, which is geometric in pattern, and intentionally uses very artificial plantings to create a mosaic of color patterns. The English garden is a reaction to that—it uses simple and natural ingredients to fashion a pseudo wild landscape onto the pre-existing agricultural land. A feature you know from Jane Austen is the ha-ha, which is a sunken fence. The sunken fence is meant to be invisible from the perspective of the great house, so you look out upon an unbroken greensward. It prevents sheep from coming all the way up to the door of your house. It creates lawns. I blame the American lawn on the picturesque movement in British landscape architecture. People like William Gilpin and Capability Brown felt that instead of these patterned flower gardens, you should have greensward up to your very door. That, for some reason, has been the most enduring legacy of the picturesque movement in landscape. Even to this day, every American homeowner believes they should have a patch of greensward, even if they’re living in the Arizona desert. They have to have their green patch of grass next to their house, otherwise it’s not a proper home, and they need a white picket fence.
To come to this idea of collecting, collecting is at the very heart of the picturesque ideal. The central concept of picturesque landscape is that it resembles a painting, and it only resembles a painting at certain points of perspective. As you walk through a picturesque landscape, it is intentionally designed to give you prospects—specific places where you can gather a picturesque view. As you progress through the landscape, it’s designed so you go from one picture to the next. It’s like a slideshow. The very act of looking is an act of collecting. You’re creating a picturesque memory for yourself.
There’s a technology called the Claude glass. Claude is a French landscape painter who used a convex mirror to create an image of the landscape, which he would then either directly project upon a piece of paper and trace, almost like a camera obscura, creating a photographically “real” image of the landscape onto a piece of paper; I use the word “real” in quotation marks because it’s not inherently real, it’s just one form of perspective that has been naturalized to us Westerners. Since the Renaissance, we’ve used perspective drawing to create an image of the natural world, so when we do that photographically, it looks real and natural to us, but to folks from non-Western cultures, who don’t have a tradition of landscape painting, a photograph looks weird […] When Native Americans saw profile pictures for the first time, they didn’t accept them. They said, “That’s only half a man.” They only accepted full-face pictures […] The Claude glass was a technology imported from France and used by landscape designers to test the validity of a certain landscape solution. They would stand in front of the landscape, back to it, look at the Claude glass, and because it is a convex mirror, it also emphasizes foreground elements and minimizes background elements. It’s also a darkening mirror; it shades out certain things in the landscape. It is an intentionally intensifying artificial production of landscape, which can then be put on paper and be made into a painting. Even people who were not painters, people whom we would call tourists, would bring their Claude glasses into picturesque places in the late 18th, early 19th century and collect landscapes. They would literally stand with their back to the landscape, looking into their Claude glasses, and say, “Ah! That is picturesque.” In a way, the created landscape, in the mirror or on paper if they could sketch it, was even more real than the thing itself. It mattered more. That was the act of collecting a landscape. We do that today, only we do it with cameras.
It’s like when people go to a concert and watch the entire performance through the screen of their iPhone as they try to record it.
Exactly. The whole phenomenon still exists today of snapping landscapes. Usually, there needs to be a figure in the landscape. Tourists are notorious for posing their wives in front of famous monuments and taking a picture. Somehow, that validates the experience. The act of collecting landscapes has certainly existed since the 18th century and already began to be parodied by the early 19th century. There was a whole wonderful set of satirical sketches, or cartoons really, of a character called Dr. Syntax, who would go out into the world and was a bumbling idiot, but still was attempting to collect picturesque landscapes.
The picturesque movement also had a very deep impact on the poetic tradition. There was a whole genre of 18th-century poems called prospect poems—a late example of that is “Tintern Abbey,” which is probably the single most famous prospect poem in literary history. Wordsworth is taking in a prospect a few miles up-river from Tintern Abbey and that’s what the poem is about. The prospect poem, then, lies at the heart of Lyrical Ballads, which is the book that kicked off Romantic poetry for England. The whole notion of the picturesque landscape and the prospect poem really inaugurates the Romantic movement, although the Romantics don’t simply take it over in a naïve way from the 18th century tradition. They sophisticate it, which is good. In its raw form, it’s pretty inauthentic. Wordsworth is already doing something very sophisticated in the prospect form, and Shelley will further internalize it. The “Ode to the West Wind” is a kind of prospect poem that, however, has become deeply psychological to the point where there’s hardly any landscape left to the poem; it’s all an internal landscape. “Mont Blanc” is another example of a prospect poem that presents an entirely internal landscape. Good for Shelley—he took something that was something inauthentic and boring and made it fascinating and complicated and inscrutable.
So, an ecological writer is less authentic if they collect the land.
Yes. I think, still, there’s huge amounts of Romantic poetry that derive generically from the prospect poem, but the Romantics have taken that to much deeper psychological depths, demonstrating a much more sophisticated understanding of landscape. My favorite poet in this line is John Clare, who doesn’t do prospect poetry because it is also marked as a bourgeois writing form. John Clare is inhabiting landscapes, so his perspective is not that of a prospect poem, but it is experiential poetry of a dweller in the land. John Clare is a wonderful litmus test to put up against any other poet because John Clare is the most authentic poet in the whole British tradition.
A prospect poem is often stationary, where it goes in a series of slides, whereas in John Clare, it’s a dynamic landscape. You’re walking through it, you’re experiencing it, it’s washing over you, and its inhabitants are talking to you or you’re seeing it through their eyes. You can put a John Clare poem up against any other Romantic poem as a test of authenticity, and some will test out fine and some will not. I’m sorry to say another favorite poet of mine, William Wordsworth, often comes across as seeming inauthentic when you put him up against John Clare because he certainly does have a bourgeois point of view. It’s not that of a dweller, it’s that of a tourist, strolling through the landscape, pausing to take in a prospect, and having a deep mental reaction to that. Wordsworth is profound, but still perhaps less authentic in terms of his relationship to the land, than someone like Clare who was working with the land. […] Wordsworth was reading Gilpin, who writes about the English Lake District. There’s a very direct pipeline of ideas from the picturesque into the Lake District poets; Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey were direct inheritors of the picturesque ideal, but they do new things with it.
Do you have any advice for graduate students in the field of Romanticism? What are some things that you wish you knew/were glad that you knew when you were in graduate school or approaching the job market?
I have tons of advice, but I want to address this, in part, from the view of ecological criticism. I guess my most fundamental advice to graduate students is to expose yourselves to all different types of literary criticism. No single method is correct or viable or valid on its own, and that certainly applies to ecological literary studies as well as any other “ism”. The last thing you want to do as a graduate student is to say, “Oh, I’m open to all ideas, and I have none of my own.” A grad student does need to stake out their turf and know what “ism” they’re going to be loyal to and really pursue that. But one still has to be capable of intellectual growth. The thing not to do is to be locked into a narrow or ideological reading of literature that blinds you to other dimensions of a text. Ideally, as a literary critic, we want to understand everything that’s there, including the things that are unspoken in a text. As one of my professors liked to put it, “the white space between stanzas are just as important as the stanzas themselves.” The subliminal thinking that is not overt still needs to be understood.
How do you become broadly learned? Hopefully, in a strong English department, there are going to be lots of ideological factions at work. Get to be friends with everyone and learn what everyone is up to and doing. Find which approach works best for you. Hitch your wagon to a star. No one really told me this when I was in grad school, but it really matters who your faculty mentors are because they’re networked into the profession. You want the most prestigious, the most connected, the most famous person, who is also going to be the most busy and the least likely to give you lots of personal time. Hopefully, you can find a golden mean of someone who is A. famous, but B. also a genuinely good person who will give you tons of time and attention and care and feeding and good criticism. It’s great to have arguments with your mentor! You’ll learn more by arguing with them than just agreeing with everything they say and saying, “Oh thank you, great famous professor.” Argue with them. Disagree with them. Test your mettle by going out on a limb and saying something a little dangerous or difficult. Graduate school is a wonderful time to try on new suits of clothes, especially as you’re doing your coursework or coming up toward a dissertation topic. Try to avoid something that is boring or conventional. Try something that is edgy, that puts you into terrain that you’ve never explored before. Often, through the beauty of interdisciplinary study, you can find terrain that no one has explored through that point of view before. Be a little offbeat. Be a little inventive. The world does not need another reading of “Tintern Abbey” or “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The world needs to find texts that are less travelled by.
One thing that has changed in literary study in the last twenty years is the world has become flat. It used to be that only students at the most prestigious universities would have access to the best rare book libraries, the unpublished manuscripts. Now, everything is available through the wonders of Google Books or interlibrary loan. You can get virtually anything that has ever been published. Yes, you still need to go to rare book archives to get at the original, unpublished stuff, but you can do amazing things through the miracles of electronic publication and the whole field of Digital Humanities. Digital Humanities allow you to do all kinds of digital textual analysis and discover things that have never been seen before. I’ve done some of that work myself through things like corpus linguistics, where you can do statistical analyses of style. Things that were never possible have suddenly become achievable […] Don’t assume that your professors know these tools. Grad students might have an edge on the new technologies of textual analysis that are only possible through “big data” approaches such as corpus linguistics and stylometrics. The beauty of it is that you can predict things and find out that, yep, that’s real. It’s a brave new world out there, so make a daring prediction and go and do your textual analysis and find out if it’s true. No previous generation of grad students could do that, so you guys are going to own the world!
Introduction: This piece comprises the first of a series of interdisciplinary dialogues that will appear quarterly on the NGSC Blog. The initial iteration finds NGSC contributing writers Arden Hegele, Jacob Leveton, and artist in residence Nicole Geary engaging with geology as a factor in the production both of Romantic poetry and contemporary sculpture. Towards this end, they collectively looked at a range of geologically oriented literary texts (Felicia Hemans’s “The Rock of Cader Idris,” Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head,” and Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”), works by the visual artists Robert Smithson and Blane de St. Croix, and literary, art-historical, and ecological criticism. Arden, Jacob, and Nicole then posed a series of questions for, and responded to, one another in a discussion that pivots upon a set of shared aesthetic problems and conceptual issues linking current critical and contemporary creative practices.
Arden: On the subject of the nonhuman voice in Nature, in “Mont Blanc,” Shelley writes that the mountain’s “voice” is “not understood / By all, but which the wise, and great, and good / Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel” (80-83). How do you see Shelley’s mountain’s form in relation to poetic form, or, how might you relate the challenge of geological interpretation to the interpretation of Romantic literature?
Jacob: This is a great question with which to lead off, and I think provides an effective frame to derive some important points regarding the relation between Shelley’s poetry and politics. Of course, the lines to which you’ve directed my attention drive toward some of the liberatory aspects of Shelley’s poetic project at the time. The poet addresses Mont Blanc and posits that,“Thou hast a voice, great mountain, to repeal / Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood by all, but which the wise, and great, and good / interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel” (80-83). The lines advance the point that Mont Blanc as a nonhuman geological form retains a voice to speak. That voice is comprehended by the “wise, and great, and good” who experience the mountain’s affective force at a high level of intensity (to “deeply feel”). Such a knowing-subject, indeed the Shelleyan poet, interprets the mountain’s geological form and communicates it in a way that effectively manifests itself as a field of social-critical potentiality. What I mean by this is that the poetic engagement with Mont Blanc, that itself generates the poem’s form, is geared to be mobilized in challenging and overturning social inequities. The poetic form that Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” makes available is one that takes geological interpretation as a point of departure for the purpose of social critique, and so relates to broader issues regarding interpretations of Romantic literature informed by historical-materialist theoretical investments, and the field of poetry and politics, more generally.
Nicole: Jacob, “Mont Blanc” seems to be written with a lonely and inhuman aura, one that puts nature out of the grasp of humankind. Do you agree that, as Heringman writes, it helped “mobilize the analogy between geological and political revolution” (13-14)?
Jacob: Your question is a wonderful one, as well–and, actually, while I’d agree that “Mont Blanc” is written with a profoundly inhuman aura I’m convinced it’s one that encodes a form of revelry in the nonhuman other. Ever since my first time working with that particular text, I’ve found it to offer a particularly energetic intellectual jouissance in its impellation that the reader recognize a significant interconnectivity with the natural environment. In this regard, the natural environment can be seen as deeply other and simultaneously co-constitutive of a self that is connected with all other sentient and non-sentient beings. This is why I found Heringman’s remarks so persuasive, with respect to how the “Romantic recognition of the earth’s unpredictability and difference from human interests” ultimately “permits progressive analogies to human agency” (13). One valuable concept the movement to posthumanism gives us (though one which the field of late eighteenth-century cultural production makes possible, by way of writers like Rousseau, Joseph Ritson, Erasmus Darwin, and others) is that the world in which we find ourselves is comprised of a rich myriad of human and nonhuman life and that to understand what it is to be human it is at once necessary to understand what it is to be human in relation to nonhuman life, the natural environment, and non-sentient matter. Geologically, it is the non-sentience of the mountainscape that Shelley’s poem engages with the utmost force, and its that difference between the human poet and nonhuman natural/geological phenomena that drives the poem. This is what I believe that poet is getting at when crafting the image of “The everlasting universe of things” which “Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves” (1-2). The poetic metaphor is taken from the Arve as the river that cuts through the ravine where the poet is positioned, with geological processes here comprising the primary factor of Shelley’s poetic production. Nonhuman geological and human subjectivities are differentiated, yet come together within the poem’s form as a zone of human/nonhuman environmental contact. They’re connected as Shelley’s poem draws out a vector of signification that links the Arve as an example of a formative geological agent that continually carves the mountainscape, the poet’s consciousness in writing, and the reader’s subjectivity in reading. These notions advance Heringman’s argument quite well. If geological formations like Mont Blanc make visible the way in which the earth is in a continual state of transformation–and it’s a given that species do best when they are adaptable to change and humans constitute one species position within a broader web of nonhuman life–then it follows that a commitment to progressive thought and engagement proves integral to the absorption of geology in Shelley’s poem.
Nicole: What I really fell for in “Beachy Head” was the long stretch of meandering we did through what felt like a mix of memory and storytelling. It’s as though we are briefly on the ground at this place, then suddenly no longer conforming to space and time. I find that it’s deceptive at first. Can you talk about how you find the form of this poem lends itself to the underlying story?
Arden: “Beachy Head” is such a rich poem, generically as well as geologically. Although it’s clearly working in the Romantic tradition in its description of sublime natural landscapes, it also looks back to an older genre — the loco-descriptive poem — which characterized eighteenth-century works like James Thomson’s The Seasons (1726-1730). In the loco-descriptive poem, the speaker’s point of view moves fluidly between spaces through the act of looking, and the poem describes the different landscapes in view; importantly (and in contrast with most Romantic poetry), the energy carrying the poem isn’t so much the developing emotional charge, but rather the speaker’s changing observational position within a landscape. This active eye prompting topographical transitions is much of what we get in Smith’s 1807 poem, especially in lines like these: “let us turn / To where a more attractive study courts / The wanderer of the hills” (447-49). Here, Smith signals how her speaker’s eye carries “us” between geographical sites and their relation to her memories.
But, as you suggest, Nicole, Smith’s work is compelling because the landscapes in question prompt temporary flights away from the locations that she describes — including Beachy Head itself — as the speaker contemplates their relation to her emotional state. These jumps away from the landscape into recollected emotion is what feels most Romantic about the poem. For example, Smith’s denunciation of happiness is one of the work’s most poignant moments: “Ah! who is happy? Happiness! a word / That like false fire, from marsh effluvia born” (258-59). To me, this is an intriguing moment for the poem’s physical environment, since the simile associates happiness with a paranormal feature (a will-o’-the-wisp), in contrast to the many concrete landscapes of the poem — Beachy Head itself, the stone quarry, the cottages, the cave in the rock, and so on. But the ignis fatuus also helps to reveal the poem’s ongoing mechanism for the speaker’s nostalgic leaps: here and elsewhere, the ground gives direct rise to the emotions that the speaker experiences. (As a side note, “false fire, from marsh effluvia born” also invokes the miasmatic theory of disease popular during the period, which maintained that toxic gases would arise from the ground and spread contagion – a rather chilling way of describing “happiness”).
The historical and biographical contexts of “Beachy Head” are also quite interesting with respect to the poem’s treatment of time and space, especially in a scientific context. While writing was a source of necessary income for Smith (she was the only earner for her ten children), she took pleasure and relief in scientific practices like botany, and it seems to me that her somewhat loco-descriptive survey of the landscape of Beachy Head alludes to her personal practices of dispassionate scientific observation. An early reviewer of the posthumous poem remarked that
“It appears also as if the wounded feelings of Charlotte Smith had found relief and consolation […] in the accurate observation not only of the beautiful effect produced by the endless diversity of natural objects[,] but also in a careful study of their scientific arrangement, and their more minute variations.” (Monthly Review, 1807)
In keeping with what this reviewer notices, one of the poem’s main projects seems to be to classify different types of rock — the “chalk […] sepulchre” of the cliffs (723), the “stupendous summit” of Beachy Head itself (1), the “castellated mansion” (514), the “stone quarries” (471), and even the sedimented sea-shells, fossils, and “enormous bones” beneath the sea (422). But the poem also moves beyond classification by relating natural forms to poetic lyricism: for example, Smith describes “one ancient tree, whose wreathed roots / Form’d a rude couch,” where “love-songs and scatter’d rhymes” were “sometimes found” (581-84). At the poem’s conclusion, the rock of Beachy Head itself inspires verse, as “these mournful lines, memorials of his sufferings” are “Chisel’d within” (738-39); indeed, Smith’s own lines appear to have emerged from the physical rock. Moreover, supporting its thematic transitions between spaces and even outside of time, “Beachy Head” isn’t confined to a single verse form — the two sets of inset songs (in variable quintains and sestets) break up the sedimented quality we get with the long passages of blank verse. So the meandering quality that you notice between the poem’s specific geographies and abstract memories also applies to the fluctuating relationship between the verse forms, between the various locations and historical moments the poem describes, and, perhaps most importantly, between the relationship of scientific and poetic practices, which Smith ultimately tries to reconcile.
Jacob: Arden, I was particularly struck by the wonderful resonance between your suggestion that we read Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head” and Nicole’s decision that we look at Blane de St. Croix’s Broken Landscape III (Fig. 1), since both works utilize geology as a means to think through the concept of national boundaries. In what ways might the ideas you find in Broken Landscape III intersect Smith’s poem? Just as well, how might de St. Croix’s strategies as a visual artist diverge from those of Smith as a poet?
Arden: I’m so glad that you drew my attention to the political similarities between Charlotte Smith and Blane de St. Croix’s works. Both artworks are connected in their different ways to the question of politically-charged national borders. Smith’s perspective can certainly cast new light on de St. Croix’s contemporary art, and I see at least two ways in which the pieces can work together in productive dialogue. First, their portrayals of their respective borders share certain formal similarities, in spite of the very different natures of the artworks. Second, the works diverge in the mechanisms by which they represent the borders as liminal spaces: while de St. Croix is invested in showing how the deep strata of the Mexico-US border’s geological formation acts as a barrier between the nations, Smith finds that the France-England border’s geology reveals similarity underlying the nations’ apparently radical differences.
Both artists engage with the idea of sedimentation as a formal tool for political commentary. In “Beachy Head,” Smith regularly draws the reader’s attention to Beachy Head’s distinctive white cliffs, the tallest in Britain, whose layers of chalk point to a long-standing geological history of increasing division from the opposite coast by means of marine erosion over millennia. For Smith, the continual geological breakdown between the two nations, through this process of erosion, is a provocative metaphor for their political relationship. In its allusions to the Norman Conquest, the battle of Beachy Head of 1690 (which the English lost), and the tensions between the nations during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the “scroll voluminous” of “Beachy Head” offers a versified representation of this erosion (122). Presented in chronological order, each incident of conflict with France gives way to the next until the reader reaches sea-level and England’s triumph: “But let not modern Gallia form from hence / Presumptuous hopes” against England, the “Imperial mistress of the obedient sea” (146-47, 154). In the political ramifications of its eroding structure, “Beachy Head” has much in common with Broken Landscape III, which is also interested in the sedimentation of a politically-charged international border. For de St. Croix, however, the formalism of sediment is not figured through erosion, but rather through accretion. Discourses about the border have, over time, accumulated in layers, just as layers of rock have accreted in the border’s geological history. De St. Croix’s representation of the border as a human-scale sedimented wall explores how its underlying discourses have built up to create an insurmountable barrier in the present (unlike the real border, de St. Croix’s installation actually prevents the viewer’s ability to walk across it).
At the same time, though, the two works differ considerably in the function of their sedimentation. As Lily Gurton-Wachter argues, Smith resists the idea that France and England were “natural enemies” (a term used pejoratively to describe their strained relationship at the turn of the nineteenth century), and instead finds a common ground for them in their shared geological past. The poet contemplates whether the bottom of the sea, cast up in cliff form at Beachy Head, serves as the area of continuity between the nations: “Does Nature then / Mimic, in wanton mood, fantastic shapes / Of bivalves, and inwreathed volutes, that cling / To the dark sea-rock of the wat’ry world?” (383-86). While at one point Smith calls Romantic geology “but conjecture” (398), the general implication of the poem is that geology can help to locate a literal, deep-seated common ground between the opposed nations. De St. Croix, on the other hand, finds only political difference in the geology underlying the border. The human imposition of international boundaries on the surface of the earth is so metaphysically weighty that it actually carries downwards physically into its subterranean strata, in spite of the fact that each nation’s side is effectively the same in material and appearance.
Arden: Nicole, I’m interested in your thoughts on the materiality of landscape as a source for art. In Robert Smithson’s film about “Spiral Jetty,” the artist says that “the earth’s history seems at times like a story recorded in a book, each page of which is torn into small pieces. Many of the pages and some of the pieces of each page are missing.” How do you see geologically-inspired works of art — especially an “entropic” project like Smithson’s, or Blane de St Croix’s meticulous topography — engaging with the materiality of literary texts? And, how does your study of Romanticism help you to understand this material relationship?
Nicole: It’s especially remarkable when you come upon stacked strata in the field and see rocks lined up like books on a shelf. This metaphor instantaneously becomes ingrained within you as you run your finger down the stack, looking for the book (rock) you want to pull out. In the history of the earth, pages, sometimes whole volumes go missing. We suffer those convulsions and catastrophes, and the earth rebuilds itself from the pieces. Spiral Jetty is made from rocks, water, mud, evaporites, and time (Fig. 2).
But not just that, it is a place. Spiral Jetty is difficult to reach, sometimes not able to be seen due to changes in the level of the Great Salt Lake. In reading romantic-period texts, I’m reminded of the overwhelming sense of the sublime that artists felt for certain places. Certain topographies, either remote or only able to be accessed by memory (as so wonderfully illustrated in “Beachy Head”) hold a history that engages and sometimes mystifies. So, too, does the Broken Landscape series by de St. Croix as it not only shows the surface, or present tense, but it digs into the depths of what came before our tense border anxieties. Broken Landscape III looks directly at ontological constructs upon the landscape that never existed before human-made activity, but doesn’t negate the rock record.
What I find fascinating is that this rock record is always around us, ever complex yet at our disposal to read. There is some comfort in the idea that we can make sense of the word, quite literally, by translating it like an ancient tome. I think that through Romanticism, I’m actually able to understand more about the emotional weight I give to rocks themselves. By reading through the Scottish Enlightenment and the geological revolution, I understood that what I was going through artistically was my own new science: a way of naming and identifying my emotions without feeling them – calling them the Other.
Jacob: This year, I’ve become increasingly influenced by Rebecca Beddell’s The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1865 in terms of the way in which, as Beddell explains, the division of labor between artists and scientists is essentially a discursive construction. Namely, here, I’m interested in how reading Bedell’s art-historical analysis might relate to, or gave you a space to imagine, your own work, perhaps in a different way than you had prior. In this regard, I’m drawn especially to the preface to her book, where Bedell suggests that in the nineteenth-century: “American landscape painters and geologists then stood on common ground. We now tend to consign art and science to different epistemologies, regarding them as distinctive pursuits, with completely different methodologies, directed towards completely different ends” while in the nineteenth-century art and science proved an interconnected spectrum of pursuits “in both popular perception and practice” (xi). What I’m wondering is how you consider about your own work within this trajectory. I’m thinking mainly of your 2011 Secondary Sediment series of prints that I think so powerfully evokes the relation between personal memory and geological space, and especially the play of text and image in “IX” (Fig. 3).
Nicole: Jacob, this is such a great question, because I specifically thought about this, too, when I was reading Beddell’s introduction. It seems a social construct based on educational or vocational pursuits has rendered art and science separate pursuits in our recent history, but the idea of a more common acquisition of knowledge and shared respect for these fields was in vogue during the age of Manifest Destiny. A different resurgence in this kind of thinking is afoot, with places like Science Gallery (https://dublin.sciencegallery.com/), the resurrection of LACMA Art + Technology Lab (http://lacma.org/Lab), and the CERN Artist’s Residency (http://arts.web.cern.ch/collide), to name only a few art and science collaborations.
To answer your question, my work does straddle both realms. It’s a mix of personal memoir related to the land it was experienced in. I find that the economic aspects of landscape cannot be separated from their role as passive backdrop to this “American dream” sedative. To deal with one part of the land or the space I live in requires me to seriously investigate all parts – it’s an element of knowing the land that I think a poem like “Beachy Head” deals with in a wonderful way.
The idea that we should mine the earth for its riches, or fight wars for those resources, the same principles that as a youth I could feel patriotic about, are now the ideas that I question in my work. What is worth exploiting (property, resources, and lives) and at what cost for the betterment of humankind? Who can really own land? In “A Place on the Glacial Till,” Thomas Fairchild Sherman writes a personal, historical, and geological history. A story of the animals and plants of his native Oberlin, Ohio, he writes of a place that is clearly familiar and dear to him when he says that: “Our homes are but tents on the landscape of time, and we but visitors to a world whose age exceeds our own 100 million times. We own only what the spirit creates.”
At what cost does the land stop becoming land? I think Solnit shares a fine example of this in her essay (see “Elements of a New Landscape,” 57). The work “El Cerrito Solo” by Lewis deSoto was initiated by a friend’s remark that it was “too bad the mountain wasn’t there anymore.” Essentially, a small hill had been sourced for it’s material until it was no longer there – a story that’s full of what I think of as the ripping out of a page from one of the volumes in the rock record of the earth. Almost painfully, the artist says, “you could be in the landscape while driving on the freeway.” This reminds me of living in South Dakota and driving on pink-hued roads, colored this way because of the quarrying of local Sioux quartzite, the words of this story echoing in my thoughts. How many “little mountains” disappeared from the landscape to make these roads? At the intersection of art and geology, I read of a similar story that took place in Belize of the unfortunate destruction of a 2,000+ year-old Mayan temple, locally named Noh Mul, or Big Hill. A local contractor was quarrying the site for its limestone to create roadfill, but now embedded archaeological artifacts are totally lost and broken cultural relics have become part of the landscape. Ultimately, the “otherness” of Nature is no longer a separate entity conceptually at bay but is a real, interactive part of our lives. I believe art can help us transform the way we think about landscape and its effect on us.
I think the time is right to invest in people. One of the biggest problems that I see with contemporary Western culture (as this is what I can speak to), is a lack of focus on local histories and real science, and an art world that seems fixated on the cult of celebrity, or too quickly moves on from one fad to another. I think the reason I became a printmaker was that somewhere at the core of my being, I enjoy the slow work and old-fashioned ethos of making something from an antiquated technology. It’s possible that I set myself up to be interested in history specifically because of that, but a lot of the work I drift toward or care about is art about the sciences and questioning the role of the author, or the authoritative voice. By this I mean searching for authentic stories of people so that they not be forgotten by history due to their gender, race, or sexuality. I look for things to have meaning and depth beyond their surface. Rocks and big outcrops, with their stony gazes, seem to have a lifetime of stories to tell, even if their faces are unyielding. I have to agree with Shelley on this point, where he ascribes a voice to Mont Blanc–in the lines to which Arden first drew our attention. What I read in this passage is the work of the artist and the geologist. To make the voice of the mountain known, through study and familiarity, through knowledge and wisdom, and to transmit that feeling through the power of metaphor, and of unity with the landscape. Who can say which job belongs to whom?
Felicia Hemans, “The Rock of Cader Idris” (1822)
Percy Shelley, “Mont Blanc” (1817)
Charlotte Smith, “Beachy Head” (1807)
Blane de St Croix, “Broken Landscape III” (2013)
Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty” (1970)
Bedell, Rebecca. The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Gurton-Wachter, Lily. “’An Enemy, I suppose, that Nature has made’: Charlotte Smith and the natural enemy.” European Romantic Review 20, 2 (2009): 197-205.
Heringman, Noah. Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.
Solnit, Rebecca. “Elements of a New Landscape.” As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.