Introduction: Ok… it’s been a couple weeks since I last posted a review. This review is a little different that most of my other reviews as I will be looking at some poems by William Blake through an ecocritical lense to determine whether or not Blake’s work fits within the scope of ecocrticism. It is a little longer than most of my reviews, so if you have a short attention span you may want to skip this one, though I have tried to break it up a little by adding pictures 😉
In his book, Fearful Symmetry, Northrop Frye suggests that it “is always dangerous to assume that any poet writes with one eye on his own time and the other confidently winking at our own” (Frye, 12). William Blake may or may not have been an environmentally conscious person (though the contemporary implications of that phrase may not have been easily translated into the Romantic Period in which Blake wrote), but rescuing texts, or as ecocritic Lawrence Buell calls it, to “retrospectively enlist” (Buell, 16) the works of authors such as Blake involves a certain degree of projection and perhaps even manipulation on the part of the ecocritic. The poet, in this instance Blake, may not have been winking at ecocritics of the 21st century when he wrote works such as The Songs Of Innocence, and The Songs Of Experience, but there exists in these works, as well as many of Blake’s poems, an element of nature that is appealing to the ecocritic. The question though is more complicated. It is not simply: Is there an element of the natural world in Blake’s work? but rather: Can the implications of Blake’s work be read as fitting inside the framework of ecocritical theory? or: Can Blake’s work be read as working toward the same goals of ecocriticism? The short answer is: Yes. While certain problematic situations arise in some potential readings of Blake’s work, overall it does appear to fit quite well in the framework of ecocriticism and seems to be working toward many of the same goals. To come to this conclusion though is complicated process. One must first outline the goals of ecocritical theory, which can be challenging since, as is the case with many forms of literary theory, not all critics who adopt a given critical approach agree with all other critics who write under the same name. After finding middle grown between the most accepted principles, one must do a responsible reading of an author’s work to contextualize in a given field of theory.
Lawrence Buell is perhaps one of the most recognizable names of the ecocritical movement and has published several monographs on ecocriticism. In his most recent work, The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination, he speaks on the concept of unity, both in terms of creating a “globally networked” community of ecocritics, as well as one that is “interdisciplinary” (vii) in its approach. This idea of unity is one that extends beyond nations and academic disciplines, and indulges humanity to repair its breach with nature. Buell sees “human beings as ecologically or environmentally embedded” and calls for a “remediation of humankind’s alienation from the natural world” (8) of which it is apart. This idea is shared both by ecocritic Dana Phillips, who suggests the “world of nature and the world of men are parts of the same world” (Rosendale, 150), and Louis H. Palmer who suggest other “species and cultures can no longer be seen as other” (172). Buell also attacks the “arrogance of scientism” (Buell, 19) and John Elder is an ecocritic who seems to share the same views as he has raised concerns with the “‘the arrogance of humanism’” (Buell, 22). In fact, it becomes quite clear that many ecocritics take issues with the likes of humanists such as; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Isaac Newton, John Locke, Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon. Buell also calls for human “accountability to the environment” (Buell, 7). This is a theme that is present in the work of ecocritic Luc Ferry as well, who suggests humanity needs “a new ‘natural contract’ to check this egoism and re-establish the harmony that has been lost” (Ferry, xx). We see here Ferry calls for a ‘natural contract’ in contrast with the Humanistic ‘social contract’ (endorsed by the likes of; Rousseau, Locke and Thomas Hobbes), and also calls for the reparation of the fracture that has occurred between nature and humanity. This natural contract would ensure that, according to Rene Cassin, “all animals are born equal and have the same rights to exists” (3), as humans, a concept similar to the one presented by Aldo Leopold who calls for an “ethic dealing with man’s relation to the land and the animals and plants” (Gilcrest, 17). Ecocritics like Glen A. Love challenge what is seen as a “narrowly anthropocentric view of what is consequential in life” (Rosendale, xvi). This anthropocentric approach adopted by most Humanists is a shared target of almost all ecocritics, though not all critics agree on how humanity should move forward. Some critics suggest that a strictly biocentric, or rather, ecocentric approach needs to be taken, one that acknowledges that other “species and cultures can no longer be seen as other” (Louis H. Palmer, 172). Indeed, as Ferry points out, humanity’s “relationship with nature, now one-directional and inegalitarian, must go from ‘parasitic’ to ‘symbiotic’” (Ferry, 71), but some suggest that humanity must remain the focus and adopt a ‘garden’ model. Catherine Kinzler notes that the “French garden, crafted, pruned, designed, calculated, overly subtle, artificial, and forced is ultimately, if we want to get at the bottom of things, more natural than a wild forest” (95), while Ferry suggests that nature “should be disciplined, polished, and cultivated, in short… humanized” (Ferry, 96). Michael Pollan agrees as he asserts that humanity is, “like it or not, lords of creation” (Louis H. Palmer, 169). It seems that the garden model, while perhaps not completely in tune with nature, is perhaps the best compromise ecocritics can currently come up with. There are clearly many views to be taken into consideration when outlining themes that might be included in a comprehensive, ecocritical manifesto, but here were see several key themes; attacks on humanistic views, a suggestion that nature has rights equal to those humanity declared on their own behalf, a call for unity, not only across academic and national borders, nor simply borders such gender, ethnicity and class, but also across the borders between humanity and nature, and lastly, that the flaws of humanity’s anthropocentric approach need to be replaced with a symbiotic ‘garden’ approach that takes into consideration the needs of the natural world.
When it comes to placing Blake in an ecocritical context, it is perhaps easiest to note their common enemies. Blake wrote during the Romantic Period where popular Humanistic beliefs were challenged by many. Blake makes no secret of his views on Humanists, and while Newton is perhaps his primary target, Locke and Bacon are often mentioned in context with Newton as part of what one might call Blake’s Unholy Trinity, or his Axis of Evil, and nowhere is his opposition to the ideas represented by these men more clear than in Blake’s poem Milton, where he speaks of casting “off the rotten rags of… Bacon, Locke & Newton” (Blake, 253). Milton though is not the only poem in which Blake singles out these three as he also takes time to attack Bacon, Locke and Newton in his poem Jerusalem as well, and extends his attack to Francois-Marie Aroute (who Blake refers to by his nom de plume: Voltaire) and Rousseau. In the poem the five are aligned with Vala, one of the antagonists of the poem. Vala turns the “Spindle of destruction” (276) with the aid of two cherubs “named Voltaire & Rousseau” (276) and the “Sons of the feminine Tabernacle” who are; Bacon, Newton and Locke (276). This is not Blake’s only reference to the five in the poem. We see that the fall of Albion was, at least in part, caused by Albion’s Spectre, who also works against Los (whose aim it is to restore Albion). Albion’s Spectre, like Vala, also is aligned with Humanists as the Spectre clearly states: “I am your Rational Power! Am I not Bacon & Newton & Locke who teach… doubt & Experience & my two Wings: Voltaire: Rousseau” (269). Each of these men are also woven into the fall of Albion as Blake aligns Bacon and Newton with “Reasoning… Serpents” (257), that bruised Albion who was also influenced by the universities which beheld “the Loom of Locke whose Woof rage[d] dire” and are washed “by the Water-wheels of Newton”. Albion’s fall is caused very much by the ascent into selfhood and a rejection not only of Jesus, but of the natural world as well. This separation from the natural world, and identifying oneself as self, and in turn as other to the natural world, is the cause of war, be it with other nations or with nature, and for Blake it is the likes of the Humanists who assert and maintain the notion of selfhood that separates humanity not only from itself, be it via barriers such as; gender, ethnicity, religion or nationality, but also separates humanity from nature. Blake would suggest, rather than adopting the Humanistic approach, one should reject such selfhood. In fact Blake suggests what is required to re-enter Jerusalem is “Self Annihilation” (267). This theme is echoed in Milton where Blake’s protagonist confesses that he has been “siez’d & given’n into the hands of [his] own Selfhood” (243). If one wants any further evidence of Blake’s belief of a disconnect existing between Humanists and nature, one need look no further than Blake’s infamous monotype of Newton:
We see in this painting, Newton, using a compass to draw a circle on a scroll that seems to be coming from Newton’s mouth. He is enveloped in the world of science, which is an extension of himself, and oblivious to the world around him. The compass was an image with many associations in Blake’s own writings, here is seems to encompass all of Newton’s attention, while the natural world around him is ignored. In opposition to this segregation from nature which he depicts in this image of Newton, Blake suggests in Jerusalem that the aim would be to live as a “Universal Family” and “behold a multitude… as one… in the garden” (265), the notion of a garden being a piece of the natural world where humanity and nature live in unison. Such is this unison in fact, that it is part of the reason the text can be confusing at times as characters are at once represented as both separate and intertwined with each other, and are even presented as both persons and places. In reading Blake’s notion of a universal family living peacefully in a garden, one cannot help but recall Buell’s suggestion that “human beings [are] ecologically or environmentally embedded” (Buell, 8) and that Buell in turn calls for a “remediation of humankind’s alienation from the natural world” (8). Likewise one cannot help but be reminded of Ferry who saw a “separation of man and nature” which was initiated by “modern humanism” (Ferry, xvi).
Unity is a theme that is as common in Blake’s writing as it is in ecocritical writing. In Vala: The Death and Judgment of the Eternal Man: A Dream of Nine Nights, Blake speaks to the idea of “A Perfect Unity” and the “Universal Brotherhood of Eden” (Blake, 159). There is also an idea of a unity that tears down the walls of religion present in a trilogy of aphorisms Blake produced, two of which shared the name There Is No Natural Religion and one which was titled All Religions Are One (Frye, 14). It is clear that Blake saw the walls dividing humanity and hoped to address that self-imposed segregation in his poetry, and indeed Blake thought it was inherent in poetry to do this as he said: “Every Poem must necessarily be a perfect Unity” (10). The Marriage of Heaven and Hell also sees an over-arching concept of unity as Blake set about to contest commonly accepted ideas of binaries that exist in favour of a world where everything is interrelated.
While the poems; Milton, Jerusalem and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell make clear Blake’s opposition to Humanists and are perhaps among Blake’s most ambitious and challenging works, they are not among his most widely read works, likely because they are ambitious and challenging and in turn not as accessible to casual readers. In turn, while these works do situate Blake as being aligned with certain aspects of ecocritical theory, they may not be as valuable as members of an ecocritical canon because of their ambitious and at times, inaccessible nature. The Songs Of Innocence (SOI), and The Songs Of Experience (SOE) do serve as both widely read and accessible works by Blake and could be very helpful in promoting the goals of ecocriticism if adopted into the ecocritical canon, but before such an adoption can take place, it is important to situate these works in an ecocritical context to see if these two collections of poems work to promote the core principles of ecocriticism.
Each of the two collections start off with poems titled ‘Introduction’. In the SOI, Blake illustrates the interdisciplinary nature of his work. On looking at the work as it was first presented, one can see that the work is as much a work of visual arts as it is a work of literature, as Blake both printed and illustrated, or rather, illuminated the poems:
We see also, as we follow the narrative of the poem, that it starts with what one might assume is a shepherd of sorts who is playing a pipe “down valleys wild” (Blake, 24). We see straight away that producing art (in this instance music) and being immersed in a natural environment work in unison and create a literal harmony (or at the very least a melody). The piper is then asked by a child in a cloud to pipe “a song about a Lamb” (24). There is a duality to the concept of the lamb, it is at once a part of the natural world, but we see as Blake capitalizes the word it is also a reference to Christ, a correlation that becomes more explicit when one reads ‘The Lamb’, another poem from the SOI. So the piper is asked to make nature the subject of a song, and accommodates the child in the cloud. The child then asks the poem’s narrator to drop the pipe and sing the “songs of happy cheer” (24), and eventually requests the narrator to write the words of the songs so that “all might read” (24). The piper then breaks off a hollow reed and instead of using this reed to make a pipe, as a shepherd may have done in typical pastoral poetry; he uses it to make a pen with which to write. The reed that is used to make the pipe is also used to write, and perhaps draw. In this action we see at once how visual arts, and music and literature are all interconnected through nature, and that art, both in subject and surroundings, is not only immersed in nature, but cannot be produced without it as the hollow reed is the instrument of music, and the written word, and illustrations all at once.
In SOE the poem ‘Introduction’ can also be seen as working in concert with ecocriticism. Where most poets would perhaps call upon a muse to ignite inspiration, Blake chooses instead to call upon the Earth, but first requests the reader to listen to the Bard whose “ears have heard/ The Holy Word/ That walked among the ancient trees” (116). Blake indulges in this idea of a fallen world much as he does in Jerusalem, and these ancient trees, and by extension the natural world, are very much aligned with the ‘Holy Word’. Blake then calls upon the Earth to return, but it is not until the next poem, ‘EARTH’S Answer’ that we see Blake’s intent unfold. Earth, in response to Blake’s evocation, states that it has been imprisoned by the “[c]ruel jealous selfish fear” (117) of the father of men and challenges the Bard of ‘Introduction’ to break the “heavy chain” (117) that prevents Earth from rising. It is humanity, in the form of the Bard, that calls for the return of the Earth, but the Earth notes that is humanity that has imprisoned Earth and maintained Earth’s incarceration and that it is in turn only humanity that can free Earth and allow the natural order to be returned. We see in this poem that it is the anthropocentric concepts of; cruelty, jealousy, selfishness and fear that has enslaved nature, and that it is in turn only a rejection of these anthropocentric traits that will allow Earth, and by extension nature, to return the natural order of the world.
‘EARTH’S Answer’ seems to work very much in concert with ‘The GARDEN of LOVE’, also from the SOE. In the poem Blake, or rather the narrator of the poem, returns to a flower garden that he visited in his youth and finds it now the home of a chapel, and the garden which once bore flowers, was now host to graves. When read together it is clear that Blake has linked the two poems via the rhetoric he uses in both. The narrator of ‘The GARDEN of LOVE’ states that the priests were “binding… [his] joys & desires” (123), so just as Earth was chained, so too are the joys and desires of this poem’s narrator, and just as ‘EARTH’S Answer’ requested the Bard unchain her and “free Love” (117) that was with bondage bound, so too does the narrator of Blake’s poem wish for love to be freed. The second poem though gives a clearer idea as to the source of this bondage. It is the chapel, representative of organized religion, which has writ “Thou shalt not” (123) over the door, and it is the priests who are binding the joys and desires which Earth suggest should, like “buds and blossoms grow” (117). These are themes which Blake explores in greater detail in his longer works, such as Jerusalem where he notes that human constructs, like reason create “Laws & Moralities” (278) which destroy the imagination and in turn the natural world. Blake in fact, far from attributing morality to Christ, attributes it to Satan in both Milton, where he writes that Satan “created Seven deadly sins” (241), and in Jerusalem, where he writes that Satan tore “Moral Law from the Gospel… [and] forged the Law into a Sword” (268). Still, such things remain a human construct as well as Blake notes in Milton that “each mortal brain is walld and moated round” (244), furthering this idea of a disconnect from the natural world being inherently caused by human constructs. The chapel in ‘The GARDEN of LOVE’, literally a human construct, projects other human constructs through a sign that reads ‘Thou shalt not’. With this, ‘thou shalt not’ mentality, we see the creation of chastity and abstinence which oppress natural inclinations, hence that Earth calling for ‘free Love’. We see also in the poem that the practice of burying corpses to return them to the earth has been manipulated, and rather that the body being returned to the earth, the earth is usurped by the corpse and then falls into disuse and the earth’s value is relegated to caretaker of a corpse. The earth then becomes a possession of the corpse and not the other way around.
‘The Little Vagabond’, the poem that follows ‘The GARDEN of LOVE’, juxtaposes an environment where humans indulge in their natural joys and desires, an ale house, with the church. In the ale house it is warm and the spirits are high, but though this should ideally be the environment in church, it is not. The vagabond though imagines a church where drinks are given out and people are kept warm by a fire and imagines such a setting as one that would make the hypothetical congregation “as happy as birds in spring” (123). We see here again that Blake refers to happiness being aligned with a return to the natural world and as being innate in the natural world. Blake though also touches on another theme that runs throughout his work, and that is his concept of tearing down false dichotomies. In ‘The Little Vagabond’, the child suggest that should God see his hypothetical congregation, he would rejoice to see “His children as… happy as he” and would no longer have “quarrel with the Devil” and would in turn “kiss him & give him… drink” (123). This idea of God and Lucifer being united challenges the accepted dichotomy that existed between the two at the time, a dichotomy that was then leant to a great number of things and encouraged concepts of otherness. It is a dichotomy that Blake would challenge in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where he would suggest a unity between the God and Lucifer. Blake sees God and Lucifer, just as he sees heaven and hell, as two parts of the same thing, much as ecocritics see humans as being embedded in the natural world and not as an ‘other’ that is diametrically opposed.
Just as Blake uses the notion of imprisonment to link ‘EARTH’S Answer’ with ‘The GARDEN of LOVE’, so too does he use this language to link the two poems to ‘London’, and again this incarceration is the result of human constructs. In the poem Blake describes urban life, and life made outside of the natural realm. The streets are chartered, but so to in the Thames, which was, at this time, polluted to such a degree that it no longer possessed the qualities naturally associated with a river. Blake’s language is interesting here. He notes that the streets are chartered, which seems reasonable in that the streets, like a charter, are manmade, but Blake also suggests that the Thames is chartered as well, implying that humanity has usurped part of the natural world. It is this human usurpation that has polluted the Thames and removed it so from the natural world. It is in the second stanza where Blake links this poem with the others as he notes that he hears “mind-forg’d manacles” (124) in the cry of every man and infant. Blake is clear, these are ‘mind-forged’ manacles, not placed on humanity by nature, but by itself. Though humanity is viewed as being self-imprisoned in this poem, Blake does highlight particular institutions which he no doubt opposes and hold responsible for the propagation of such ‘mind-forged manacles’. We again see the church being attacked, in this poem referred to as “blackning Church” (124), black being an obvious stark contrast to the figurative light, which is what the church should aim to bring (though we see Blake was eager to criticize stark dichotomies, he was not above employing them as literary devices), and the palace walls are described as having blood running down them (124). We see exploitation, a common theme in Blake’s work, throughout this poem, with reference to the chimney sweepers and soldiers, and ultimately in the “youthful Harlot” (124). We see in the soldier how human constructs such as nationalism lead to the exploitation of young men, and in the young sex-worker, who is likely a child, how the construct of chastity has ultimately placed her in a position of exploitation which causes her to rail against the “Marriage hearse” (124). The marriage hearse of course is a foreboding image open to a number of interpretations. Perhaps the husband has indulged in exploiting the likes of the young sex-worker and will in turn pass the ‘plagues’ onto his wife, or perhaps the patriarchal construct of marriage equals, to Blake, the death of love. Either way, it is clear that the ‘youthful harlot’ sees that she has been exploited so that another woman might save her chastity for marriage. The urban construction is clearly one that breeds misery and is removed from the natural world.
‘The Human Abstract’ furthers Blake concept of virtue and vice being human constructs. In it, Blake presents the idea of pity, generally considered to be a positive attribute exemplifying humanity’s ability to empathize, but as Blake points out such morality would not be required if humanity “did not make somebody Poor” (124), suggesting that virtue, in this case at least, it the product of sin and that the two, far from being opposite dichotomies, are interrelated. Cruelty, personified in this poem, then goes onto to help “selfish love increase” by watering “holy fears” to “bear the fruit of Deceit” (124). When “Gods of the earth and sea” (125) seek this tree though, they cannot find it for it is, as Blake notes, a product only of “the Human Brain” (125) and does not exist in the natural world. Likewise, in ‘A Poison Tree’, also from SOE, Blake speaks from the point of view of a narrator who, like the personified Cruelty of ‘The Human Abstract’, watered his wrath “with fears” (125). The end result is a poisoned apple which is eaten by the narrator’s enemy and ultimately kills this antagonist. In both these poems we see how the human world is presented through metaphor as part of the natural world and how humanity, far from imitating the nurturing qualities of nature, is not creating fruit that cannot sustain humanity, but rather poisons it, reinforcing the themes present in ‘London’ and ‘The GARDEN of LOVE’, where human constructs sour the natural world and lend themselves to an ecocritical reading that calls for a “remediation of humankind’s alienation from the natural world” (Buell, 8), as humanity’s imitation of nature fails to offer sustenance.
As we have seen in the poem ‘London’, Blake took issue with the exploitation of children, which was clear in his treatment of the young sex-worker and chimney sweeper, and he explores this exploitation of children further in his poem ‘The Littler Black Boy’. In the poem Blake slips into the voice of a Black child, no doubt born a slave, whose mother speaks to him of God. She tells her child to look on the sun and explains that the sun is where God lives, and from there gives his light to the “flowers and trees and beasts and men” (Blake, 27). We see that Blake, in this line, has placed vegetation and animals on the same level as man, suggesting, as an ecocritic might, that they are all part of the same ecosystem and therefore are deserving of equal rights in that respect. The Black boy’s mother goes onto suggest that we are put on the Earth to learn to bear God’s heat and that their “black bodies and… sun-burnt face[s]” (27) in turn, are closer to God than are those whose skin is ‘white’. This notion that Black people are closer to God, coupled with the idea of the vegetation, animals and humanity being equal recipients of God’s light, challenges the notion of the chain of being popular in the times leading up to the Romantic era and challenges the idea that Blacks are inferior to Europeans and that therefore their subjugation to Europeans is based on flawed precepts, an argument that not only offers a positive reading for Blacks who were being exploited at the time, but also one that can be used to defend nature against the same exploitation.
We see exploitation in another manner in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ from SOI. Blake again slips into the voice of a child, in this instance a European child whose mother has passed away and whose father has sold him. While in bed this child overhears the dreams of another chimney sweeper who dreams of thousands of young chimney sweepers “lock’d up in coffins of black” (28), this, no doubt in reference to the deaths that would take place in the course of their employment as chimney sweepers (though the term employment carries with it an implied consent that was certainly not present in most such instances). In the dream the young chimney sweeper was allowed to run down a “green plain” and “wash in a river and shine in the Sun” (28), a description that suggests an exodus from the urban setting where their exploitation took place and a sojourn in an environment where nature provides an escape from the miseries of urban life. We see again, as we saw in ‘London’, that the urban life is very much associated with misery and exploitation and that the natural world, for Blake at least, provides a reprieve from the evils practiced within the world constructed by humanity. Also important to note is the correlation ecocritics like Ferry make between socials issues like the exploitation of children and women, as well as the abolition of slavery when he suggests that the rights of nature have been aligned with the rights of “children, women, [and] blacks” (xviii). Again, Blake presents exploitation as morally corrupt and while in this instance the exploitation is of children, the exploitation of nature can be seen by extension as equally reprehensible.
Blake further aligns children with the natural world in the poem ‘Holy Thursday’, as it appears in SOI. In the poem Blake refers to the children as the “flowers of London town” and describes them as “multitudes of lambs” (32), in both instances being aligned with elements of the natural world, while the beadles, who are representatives of organized religion, are also aligned with something from the natural world when he suggests that “they like the Thames water flow” (31). In this instance though, the church, who should be helping to support the destitute children of the poem, are compared to a river whose natural qualities have been usurped by humanity and are quite literally stained by human excrement (London had just adopted indoor plumbing and all channels lead to the Thames), as well as the figurative excrement of industrial London. Whereas the children are aligned with flowers, and then an animal representative of innocence in the lamb, the beadles are aligned with a piece of nature that has been usurped corrupted by humanity. Blake again portrays the human constructs as flawed and that natural world as an innocence exploited by humanity.
An important aspect of ecocriticism is the idea that nature has its own narrative and its own voice. Ferry touches on this when he states that nature is a “dead letter for us” (Ferry, xvi), suggesting that humanity cannot, or at least has made no attempt to listen to nature’s voice. This idea of nature having its own voice and own narrative is very much a part of Blake’s poetry. ‘The Blossom’, for example, speaks to the idea of a narrative going on within nature that is independent of humanity. In the poem, Blake describes a sparrow as “Merry” and a blossom as “happy” and suggests that the blossom sees the sparrow (Blake, 27). Blake also capitalizes the words ‘sparrow’ and ‘blossom’, perhaps as a means to personify them and place them on equal footing with humanity. In the second stanza of the poem Blake humanizes a robin, suggesting that it is “sobbing” (28), inferring a narrative of sorts that is unknown to the human reader, but none the less is present as the robin is seen crying and is no doubt suffering some sort of sorrow, while the sparrow is merry. Both creatures are emotive and come from a context that while perhaps foreign to the human world, is nonetheless very real for these creatures. This is present in ‘The Laughing Song’ as well, where Blake notes that; green woods, streams, air, meadows, grasshoppers and birds all laugh (29-30). The humans in the poem likewise laugh, and not a single word is attributed to them outside of the natural response of laughter. In the poem the human world and the natural world are in unison and speak only a natural language in laughter. This is empowering for the natural world because it implies that happiness is to be found in a natural world where the human constructed language is not present. It also suggests that there is a narrative within nature, and interaction and a language not only between the animals, but between green woods and streams and the air as well, extending humanity to the non-living parts of the natural world. This comes through again in the poem ‘Night’ where Blake describes the moon as sitting with “silent delight” and writes that the moon “smiles on the night” (32). Blake again attributes human characteristics to inanimate objects, the moon sits, and smiles and is delighted, suggesting there is a world, removed from the human one, where these feelings and actions, attributed to humanity only, are in fact present in nature. The blossoms in the poem are seen a “sleeping” and there are angels in the poem which look after the needs of the natural world, implying that the natural world is seen by the spiritual world as being on a par with the human world and requiring the same attention. Blake describes the natural world as it exists on its own. He describes the wolves and tigers as being motivated by thirst when they “howl for prey” (33), implying that these animals of prey are motivated by, and live within a world that is not defined by humanity, but exists independent of it. The poem ends with a lion speaking to a lamb about the afterlife and how the lion, a predator in the earthly world, will lie down with the lamb and “guard o’er the fold” (33). We see here that Blake reserves a place for animals in the afterlife and projects onto them the same immortality that is promised to humanity by God and even attributes human characteristic to the lion in that he can speak, and speaks not to humans, but to other animals, further suggesting that there is a narrative within the natural world that is independent of the human world.
This aspect of Blake’s work was present even in his earliest works, which we see plainly in the poem ‘To Spring’, which is featured in Poetical Sketches. In the poem Blake writes of “hills [that] tell each other” (3) things, and goes onto say that the “Vallies hear”. The winds in this poem “kiss” and the land is described as being “love-sick” and Blake speaks of how it “mourns” (3). Again we see elements in the natural world sharing a dialogue with each other that is independent of the human world, and Blake himself uses apostrophe in this poem, as he does in the poems ‘To Summer’, ‘To Autumn’ and ‘To Winter’, which fits in well with the ecocritical perspective that humanity needs tear down the walls that allow us to see nature as ‘other’ and reconnect with it. Indeed, Blake is very much attempting a “remediation of humankind’s alienation from the natural world” (Buell, 8) some 200 hundred years before Buell would articulate the need for such a remediation.
We see that throughout his career Blake did not abandon this use of the apostrophe as applied to nature. In the SOE he makes heavy use of it, calling upon Earth in ‘Introduction’, and also in several other poems featured in the collection, notably in ‘The SICK ROSE’, where he writes of a rose that has grown sick due to a worm (Blake, 119). It seems clear that the Blake is using a metaphor and that the rose is perhaps a woman and the worm a phallic symbol, but Blake appropriates a natural narrative to create this metaphor. He recognizes that in nature there is a narrative and that those narratives, in this case a rose whose health is endangered by a worm, can be employed to draw parallels to human narratives and offer clarity to the human experience. Likewise, in the poem ‘AH! SUN FLOWER’, Blake again uses apostrophe and calls upon a sunflower and describes how it counts “the steps of the Sun” (122) and talks of the sunflowers movement as a “traveller’s journey” (122). We see again that Blake sees the natural world, in this case the sunflower, as existing on its own and again describes a narrative that takes place in nature independent of the human world. The second stanza sees Blake then speak to elements of the natural world that exist in humanity, such as desire, and how human constructs have curtailed natural desire and have instead “pined” and “shrouded” (122) desire. Blake, as he does in poems like ‘The GARDEN of LOVE’, suggests that humanity should go where the “Sun-flower wishes to go” (122), and adopt lessons from the natural world rather than the virtues constructed by the human world.
We see in Blake’s work that when he speaks of nature, he is usually speaking of the living world, be it in the form of animals, insects or in vegetation, but one of the aspects of the natural world which ecocritics may struggle to encourage the ‘great unwashed’ to empathise with is the non-living parts of the environment. Blake’s work though even makes room for this as in clear in his poem ‘The CLOD & the PEBBLE’. In the poem Blake again suggests the presence of a narrative in the natural world by outlining a short conversation shared between a pebble and a piece of clay. The piece of clay, yielding and suppliant as it is trodden “with the cattle’s feet” (118) suggests that love seeks not to please itself, but rather “for another gives its ease” (117), where as the pebble suggests that love joys “in another’s loss of ease” (118). We get two drastically different interpretations of love in this instance, and no doubt, as it is placed following ‘EARTH’S Answer’ in SOE, is meant to further the ideas presented in that poem and furthers concepts presented in the rest of the collection as Blake explores elements of exploitation throughout SOE. Indeed, the reader is forced to consider two very different views on love, but ultimately what makes this poem valuable in an ecocritical perspective is that is lends life to the non-living part of the natural world and Blake adopts the natural characteristics of the mineral world to define the human world. The clay, which is malleable and is naturally yielding, adopts a view on love that suggests people should be yielding also, while the pebble, which is hard and firm and stands in the way of the water in the creek, forcing the water to move around it, suggests that love is self-serving. We see in Blake’s portrait that even the non-living parts of the natural world carry with them human characteristics that offer insight into the living world and in turn suggest that even the non-living mineral world is deserving of consideration from humanity.
Ecocriticism seeks to change how the ‘great unwashed’ view nature, and though Blake challenges the reader to reconsider their views of the natural world throughout his poetry, there is no poem in his oeuvre that does this more succinctly that ‘THE FLY’. In the poem Blake notices a small fly and confesses that his “thoughtless hand” has brushed away the fly while it was about its “summer’s play” (120). The word ‘thoughtless’ is key hear in that it encapsulates humanity’s approach to nature. Humanity engages with nature and takes action against it without thought or consideration. Blake, again using apostrophe, then challenges the reader to consider that humanity is but a fly and that the fly is no different than a man when he asks the fly: “Am not I/ A fly like thee?/ Or art not thou/ A man like me” (120)? Ecocritics agree that humanity must recognize that “all animals are born equal and have the same rights to exists” (Ferry, 3) as do humans, and Blake encapsulates this sentiment succinctly in this poem. Blake does more than simply parallel humanity to a fly and ask the reader to consider the two as equals though, and goes onto illustrate the flaws in certain Humanist ideals, namely the maxim presented by Rene Descartes: Cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am). Blake states that if “thought is life” and “the want/ Of though death” (120), then he is a “happy fly” (120). We see earlier in the poem that Blake concedes he is thoughtless, at least in certain moments, and that he is therefore on the wrong end of Descartes’ maxim. The ability to think, Descartes, as well as many humanists, would argue, separates humanity from the natural world, but Blake seeks to undermine that logic and presents the natural world as one that possesses the same right to exists as the human world, despite Descartes’ assertion that thought defines life. As Ferry points out, the “fact that one may possess an IQ that is higher than the mean… confers no additional rights” (Ferry, 33), and so it would seem that Blake would question Descartes’ logic in the same manner. Jeremy Bentham suggests that we not ask “Can they reason?” but rather: “Can the suffer” (27)? Blake may not ask this directly in the poem, but he projects onto the fly the ability to be happy, in its own natural environment, independent of humanity, and then suggests that he is wrong in thoughtlessly brushing the fly away and depriving it of its happiness. The next logical link in that form of reasoning would be to ask if the deprivation of happiness causes the fly to suffer. In the context of the rest of the poems present in SOI and SOE, it is clear that Blake projects the ability to be happy and the ability to suffer onto the natural world, and suggests even that the ability to think is present as well, and adversely is not always present in humanity as he openly admits in the opening stanza of ‘THE FLY’, therefore debunking the implications of Descartes’ assertion that the ability to think separates humanity from the natural world.
Ultimately the goals of ecocriticism are to change the way people think about themselves in relation to nature, to promote humanity as being embedded in nature with the hopes that, as Buell puts it, there can then be a “remediation of humankind’s alienation from the natural world” (Buell, 8). Once this is done, the hope is that humanity will see the natural world as being endowed with the same rights attributed to the human world. To accomplish such a drastic paradigm change though, one needs to tear down the wall of “‘the arrogance of humanism’” (22) in order to dispel this sense of alienation that exists between the human world and the natural world. A natural contract, like the one Ferry speaks of needs to be established, and the “narrowly anthropocentric view of what is consequential in life” (Rosendale, xvi) needs to be abandoned and in its place a new symbiotic relationship needs to be established between humanity and nature. For the environmental sciences to be able to exact the kind of change that needs to be enacted, humanity on a whole needs to be able to see the parasitic nature of humanity’s relationship with nature, and in turn the value of a symbiotic relationship in its place. Ecocriticism began as a vein of literary theory in the 1980’s, but it is clear that the seeds of the ecocritical movement were sown centuries before by poets like Blake, poets who realized the inherent flaws in Humanist paradigms, who recognized the value of the natural world as it existed outside of the scope of the human world, and poets who in turn presented nature as an entity entitled to the same rights as those humanity presumed to belong solely to itself. There is an element of religious rhetoric present in Blake’s work that may not be translatable to what has become a largely secular audience, but what is present in Blake’s work is his attack on flawed Humanist ideologies and the symptoms of decay caused by those who embraced the teachings of Humanists as they appeared in his own time. These symptoms have not gone away in the intern, but rather have increased exponentially. By adopting Blake’s work into the ecocritical canon and using it as a tool in which to challenge the flawed Humanist paradigms, Blake’s poetry can serve to help change the way people view their relationship with nature and offers in place of those faulty Humanistic paradigms a suggested relationship with nature that is more symbiotic which will in turn encourage the ‘great unwashed’ to embrace the ideals central to ecocritical thought and ignite the change that is so desperately needed.
Blake, William. Selected Poems. Edited by Christopher Ricks. Penguin Classics, London England 2005
Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge: Belknap Press-Hardvard University Press, 1995.
Buell, Lawrence. The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.
Ferry, Luc. The New Ecological Order (translated by Carol Volk), The University of Chicago Press, Chicago Illinois 1992
Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study Of William Blake. Princeton University Press, Princeton New Jersey 1969
Gilcrest, David. Greening the Lyre: Environmental poetics and Ethics University of Nevada Press Reno & Las Vegas 2002
Rosendale, Steven. Editor. The Greening of Literary Scholarship. University of Iowa Press Iowa City 2002