Panel #6: Victorian Poetry, Ecology, and Religion

Moderator: Lesa Scholl (Kathleen Lumley College)
Christopher Adamson (Emory University), “Nature’s Eschatological Transcendence in Hardy’s ‘Aquae Sulis’”
Melinda Creech (Independent Scholar), “Hopkins and Ecotherapy”
Esther Hu (Boston University), “Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Ecotheological Poetry”
Justin Sider (University of Oklahoma), “Landscapes of Pre-Raphaelite Literalism”
Todd O. Williams (Kutztown University of Pennsylvania), “Strategic Trans-Species Empathy and Divine Mercy in Christina Rossetti’s ‘Brother Bruin’”

5 thoughts on “Panel #6: Victorian Poetry, Ecology, and Religion

  1. Is DGR deliberately and consciously rejecting his sister’s Tractarian, analogical reading of nature? I wonder how much this poem is a direct part of their poetic discourse. Does DGR’s work, “The Woodspurge” in particular, provide a more useful way to consider 21st C. ecological crisis than, say, Romantic or Tractarian aesthetics? If so, what then are the implications for the value of religion in the face of ecological crisis?

    Also, in the April 2 entry of Christina Rossetti’s Time Flies, she recalls an “impression” of finding a four-leafed trefoil during her childhood. At the time, she was unable to appreciate such a rarity, but in her adulthood she reflects on her dismissiveness with regret. However, she ends the passage by writing, “One thing then remains for us to do, to walk humbly and thankfully among this world’s whole fields of three-leafed trefoil.” Is she responding to her brother’s poem here?

    The knock on ecotherapy, or what has kept it largely out of academic discourse, at least, is that it is viewed as unscientific, so it was interesting to hear that people are starting to find empirical evidence for the positive effects of nature. Is there a trend of ecotherapists beginning to draw more from the findings of environmental psychology and/or neuroscience? This also got me thinking about the value of such empirical research for us in the humanities. How important to us is it if scientific research supports the intuitions of poets and critics?

  2. Hi Todd, sorry for the slow reply and thanks for continuing the conversation. That’s not a relationship I had considered, a kind of poetic dialogue between DGR and CR on this topic, but the quote from Time Flies convinces me that CR is thinking of her brother’s poem there. I don’t know to what degree it’s merely allusive, though, or whether she has a sharper point to make vis-a-vis “The Woodspurge”–perhaps you have thoughts? Likewise, he’s certainly rejecting that style analogical reading in “The Woodspurge,” but I don’t know that it has much to do with any conscious rejection of his *sister’s* views.

    As for DGR as a model for ecological thinking: I confess my interest was primarily in the problem of how ecology and religion make their way into poetry, rather than poetry’s utility for confronting ecological crisis. I think that DGR is always fascinatingly alert to problems of mediation, though I don’t know that he has much use as a model for climate activism or ecological awareness today. In the spirit of your question, though, I would say that what DGR offers is a mode of attention, but he attends not to “nature” per se–rather to its figuration itself. And certainly, in terms of literary studies’ role in sharpening our thinking on ecology, that’s not nothing. It prompts us to consider how the specifically literary dimensions of our critical practice or of the works we study might have purchase on the world around us (as well as the dangers of thinking that purchase is so easily or directly achieved).

  3. Dear Esther,
    I would love to continue our discussion about Hopkins. I was especially interested in the way you brought the sermons into conversation with the poems. I have been working mainly with his Ireland poems, and we don’t have very many sermons from that time (some spiritual writings, though). I do think many of Hopkins’s poem are exercises in theology (Hopkins exercising his theology). My study of the places he visited in Ireland has opened up several new insights into those poems. What do you think about the “hopeful” Hopkins?

    • Dear Melinda,

      Thanks for your question. Yes, in reading Hopkins’s poetry, I do think that seriously considering Hopkins’s letters, sermons, notebooks, drawings, etc. helps us better understand how they work. We can often also appreciate them better, particularly in matters of poetic form and content. I agree that Hopkins’s poems are often “exercises in theology,” or enactments of his very vibrant, active faith: to recognize the connections gives one that “peculiar intellectual thrill” (I.A. Richards) inspired by good poetry. Why does “Pied Beauty” (1877) begin with “Glory be to God for dappled things” and end with “Praise him”? Studying Hopkins’s sermons enables us to see where he might be coming from in terms of his religious emphases, though I should add that “Pied Beauty” was composed during his (comparatively happier) time at St. Beuno’s College in North Wales, during which he discovered the important St. Winefred’s well that you mention, whereas the sermon from 1879 that I mention in connection with the poem was delivered at Bedford Leigh, one of industrial Britain’s worst slums (White, 2002, p. 9). Which is why I particularly love Hopkins’s encouragement (from his Address based on the opening of “The Spiritual Exercises” of St. Ignatius Loyola) that “It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work. Smiting an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring, everything gives God glory if being in his grace you do it as your duty. …To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dungfork in his hand, a woman with a sloppail, give him glory too. He is so great that all things give him glory if you mean they should.”

      In terms of his Ireland poems: I do think that (for example) the sonnet “written in blood,” “(Carrion Comfort),” and “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire” are “hopeful”:

      Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee; 
      Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man 
      In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can; 
      Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be. 

      The first quatrain situates us in the speaker’s world of unremitting suffering. He cries with exhaustion, “I can no more” (l.3), but his deep resolve to choose Hope and choose to be (“I can” (l. 3)) is evident from his first word, “Not.” Despite the temptation to feast on “Despair,” to “untwist” what’s finally left of him, he knows that choosing Despair would only offer a “comfort” as delectable as dead flesh (“carrion”) so he will “Not” choose such a course. Immediately following his “I can no more” (l. 3), he asserts, “I can,” even as the caesura from the semi-colon offers him time to deliberate What “he can”: hence “Can something,” anything, before the choice of Carrion comfort, Despair. Hence the litany of “hope, wish day come, not choose not to be” (l. 4) are more wholesome and healthier alternatives. In this poem, the epiphany of the Divine’s goodness and salutary purpose (“That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear”) enable the speaker’s heart to gain strength, joy, laughter, and good cheer even if the experience is unpleasant, even painful (“Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod, / Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, cheer”). Elsewhere Hopkins describes the painful process as being beaten into shape, like metal “on an áge-old anvil wince and sing” (“No worst, there is none,” l. 6).

      “Hope is an anchor cast in heaven: as long as you do not let it go, hold it must and lost you cannot be” (Hopkins, The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. Christopher Devlin, S. J., Oxford University Press, 1959, p.250). I love how Helen Vendler has discussed the tautologies (both approximated and real) in “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and the Comfort of the Resurrection”; to me, Hopkins again ends on a note of “hope” by means of Christ’s Resurrection: ‘The statement “I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am” is the first of the “real” tautologies, a chiasmus that is not quite a chiasmus because of the nonidentity of tenses. “I am: Christ is :: he was: I am.” It almost passes muster, but the poet is not quite the post-Resurrection discarnate Christ. The last tautology, the most total one, is the most daring: the creeping chromatism of “This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood,” is “violated” by the last phrase of the series, “immortal diamond,” where we might expect a chromatic approximation—“patch, matchwood, mortal wretch.” The astonishing final total tautology “immortal diamond, / Is immortal diamond” reveals the reason-for-being of all the earlier approximate tautologies of the stylistic “body” of the poem. By means of Christ’s Resurrection, the image and likeness of God in which human beings were originally created, but which has been distorted and marred by sin, is restored to its original identity, to immortal beauty” (The Breaking of Style: Hopkins, Heaney, Graham, 1995, pp. 34-5).

      I would love to learn more about the insights you have gained regarding these Ireland poems.

      With thanks and best wishes,

      Esther T. Hu

  4. Thanks for responding, Justin.

    CR did write in response to her brother’s work openly at times (Artist Studio, Echo from Willowwood, maybe ‘Poor Ghost’ to ‘Blessed Damozel’), so maybe this is him responding to her and her replying in TF. I don’t know of any letter or hard proof stating as much, though.

    Yes, the mode-of-attention is useful. I was trying to think through DGR’s rejection of Romantic/Tractarian views of nature (especially in WS) in terms of how it might fit with Timothy Morton’s call to reject an immersion of self with nature (Ecology w/out Nature). Perhaps by contradicting this transcendental relationship with nature, DGR allows us to see nature more for what it is, which, in our time, is something separate from us that we are slowly destroying. I think this is along the lines of what you’re so eloquently saying about literary works and purchase.

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