Date of Degree

9-2015

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

English

Advisor

Alan Vardy

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature

Keywords

British Romanticism; Ecology; Economy; Landscape; Material History

Abstract

Reframing Romantic Nature: Towards a Social Ecocriticism is an attempt to offer a new way of thinking about ecological approaches to literature. Rather than separate ecology from the movement of history, or support an anthropocentric historicism, my approach aims to merge the interests of both environmental and historical criticism in order to provide a more interdisciplinary view of conceptions of the natural and the social. The process of history owes much more to the non-human than has been generally allowed, especially in the face of contemporary ecocrisis.

In the more than two hundred years since the advent of Romanticism in Britain, figures such as William Wordsworth have become icons, their work celebrated as defining intrinsic elements of cultural identity and history. Yet this same period has seen greater environmental destruction than any other in human existence. The poet who announces the renewal of nature does so at the dawn of the anthropocene, and it is no longer possible to treat these phenomena as entirely distinct. Looking back at the Romantics from our own era of ecocrisis evokes an ambivalence towards Romantic constructions of the natural world. This thesis is an attempt to address this complex ambivalence.

The thesis advances these concerns through the reading of texts in various genres by five Romantic authors. The first chapter explores a foundational work of Romanticism, Mary Wollstonecraft's Letters from Denmark, Norway and Sweden, in terms of how various landscape descriptions are interrupted by both outside forces and internal states, and how these interruptions are emblematic of the irruptive force of capital. This work, though celebrated on its publication for the beauty of its landscape descriptions, is full of a tumultuous and often vexed sense of place. The second chapter addresses the history of deforestation in terms of William Wordsworth's poem "The Ruined Cottage." The sense of dearth that poem evokes is, I argue, directly related to the drastic deforestation of England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The next chapter examines the acoustic ecology of John Clare as exemplified in his poem "The Fallen Elm." How the sounds of the natural world appear as both subjects in his poetry and as influential on the formation of his own patterning of sound is explored, as well as the ideological significance of different types of soundscapes. The focus of the fourth chapter is the urban and suburban landscapes of Thomas De Quincey. Here I examine the appearance of urban sprawl in a variety of works by De Quincey and the way in which the addicted body and the sprawling city become darkly symbolic of each other. The thesis concludes with a reading of Mary Shelley's The Last Man, a novel about the end of humanity written at the end of the Romantic era. Here I consider how changing thought about the relationship of humanity to deity, along with the panic of 1825, which marked an important recognition of the global reach of capitalism, inform a broader revision of earlier Romantic idealism and anticipate later existential thought.

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