Romanticism has long been identified with the poetry of ‘Nature’ and resistance to the emergence of Industrial Capitalism. At the centre of this idea for his contemporaries was the figure of William Wordsworth. Even while Wordsworth was still alive, his cottage at Grasmere, where he lived with his sister Dorothy, was a magnet for tourism to the Lake District. More recently, he has been routinely celebrated as a point of origin for the modern environmental movement, the poet who, with ‘the deep power of joy,’ could ‘see into the life of things.’ Karl Kroeber, for one, has celebrated Wordsworth’s deep sense of ‘ecological unity,’ but this idea of ‘Nature’ as a home for humans has also been read as a form of aesthetic abstraction depending on Wordsworth’s privileged position as an observer.
Other writers from the period, writing from very different perspectives, have been credited with a more complex sense of ecology, including a troubling idea of the natural world as resistant to human comprehension. For many writers, animal nature and the nature of stones, and rocks, and trees resisted human understanding in their otherness. The year of Wordsworth’s great collaboration with Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Lyrical Ballads, 1798, was also the year Thomas Malthus published his Essay on Population (1798), a book that prophesied a bleak end to economic growth as population would necessarily outstrip the ability to feed the world’s millions. Calamity and catastrophe were as much part of the writing of the romantic period as any sense of unity, nowhere more obviously than Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man.
This module explores a period when writers struggled to understand the place of ‘the human’ in the long geological history of the earth. Each week will put the new awareness of the natural world in literary writing of the romantic period in dialogue with key critical terms in current ecocritical debates: ‘Nature’, ‘Ecology,’ ‘Anthropocene,’ ‘Nonhuman’; ‘Materialism,’ ‘Capitalism,’ and ‘Catastrophe.’ The idea is that the literary writing can help us think about these debates and these debates can help us see the writing more fully for what it is and might be.
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The module aims to introduce you to the responsiveness to the natural world long identified with the literature of the romantic period and encourage you to consider it in the light of concerns about the environment then and now. It aims to use the 1+2 structure of the AOM module to match a broad one-hour discussion of key concepts with a 2-hour seminar that will use the concept as a searchlight on the literary texts set for that week. The concepts will be introduced as follows across the 8 teaching weeks: ‘Nature’, ‘Ecology,’ ‘Anthropocene,’ ‘Nonhuman: Rocks, Stones and Trees’; ‘Nonhuman: Animals’ ‘Materialism,’ ‘Capitalism,’ and ‘Catastrophe.’
On successful completion of the module, you should be able to:
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Essay (3000 words)
You will be given the opportunity to submit a 1000-word formative essay for the module, which can feed into the 3000-word summative essay submitted at the end of the module.
Your essay will be annotated and returned to you by your tutor within two weeks.
You will submit your summative essay via the VLE during the revision and assessment weeks at the end of the teaching semester (weeks 13-15). Feedback on your summative essay will be uploaded to e:Vision to meet the University’s marking deadlines.
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Essay (3000 words)
You will receive feedback on all assessed work within the University deadline, and will often receive it more quickly. The purpose of feedback is to inform your future work; it is designed to help you to improve your work, and the Department also offers you help in learning from your feedback. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further you can discuss it with your tutor or your supervisor, during their Open Office Hours.
For more information about the feedback you will receive for your work, see the department's Guide to Assessment.
Key texts may include:
Wordsworth, Major Works (OUP); letters and shorter lyrics by Anna Laetitia Barbauld; William Blake; Robert Burns; John Clare; S. T. Coleridge; Mary Robinson; Charlotte Smith; Percy Shelley and Phillis Wheatley; excerpts from longer poems: James Montgomery; Pelican Island (1827); Eleanor Porden, The Arctic Explorers (1818); Charlotte Smith, Beachy Head (1807); prose pamphlets T. R. Malthus, Essay on Population (1798); Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals; and Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man (1826).
Jonathan Bate. The Song of the Earth. (Picador, 2000); Jane Bennett, Jane. Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. (Duke University Press, 2010); Siobhan Carroll, An empire of air and water: Uncolonizable space in the British imagination, 1750–1850. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015); Margaret Ann Doody, 'Sensuousness in the Poetry of Eighteenth-Century Women Poets', Women's Poetry in the Enlightenment, ed. Isobel Armstrong and Virginia Blain, (Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1999); Bridget Keegan, British Labouring Class Poetry, 1730-1837 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); Karl Kroeber. Ecological literary criticism: Romantic imagining and the biology of mind. (Columbia University Press, 1994); James McKusick. Green writing: Romanticism and ecology (Palgrave, 2010); Timothy Morton. Ecology without nature: Rethinking environmental aesthetics. (Harvard University Press, 2007); Anahid Nersessian. The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life. (University of Chicago Press, 2020).