April 20, 2009
Source: Piedmont 2003

Reed, Walter
English Department and Graduate Institute for Liberal Arts


Project Summary

What I Did on My Piedmont Project; or, How I Learned to Read Romanticism in the Light of Ecology--and to Read Ecology in the Light of Romanticism

After being overstimulated by the Piedmont Project Workshop in May, I set about the business of reconstructing my syllabus for English 330, “Romanticism,” in the light of what I had I had learned from those who had ventured more deeply into the wilderness. I was pleased to discover that my exploration was in one sense a “place revisited,” according to the Romantic model, as I connected with early boyhood interests in nature, preservation, Thoreau, rock-collecting, bird watching, etc. I also revisited a theoretical model of cultural history proposed by one of my most inspiring undergraduate teachers, a model that he had called “The Ecology of Mind.” I found I was able to use this notion to rethink the way I had long presented the topic of Romanticism to my students, with a new emphasis on its sustainability as a world view or cognitive environment in the midst of the natural environment. In other words, I found myself taking ecology and sustainability both literally and figuratively as I revisited a course I had taught, off and on, for the last thirty years.

As it has turned out, I have probably spent more time and energy reconstructing this familiar course over the last six weeks than I have on any course I’ve taught. Finding new materials, looking at old materials in a new way, and trying to put new resources for the course on the electronic Web-platform of “Blackboard” have utterly consumed what I thought would be a leisurely beginning of a relatively unoccupied summer. I began by reading several books on the natural history of the English Lake District, the native soil of English Romantic poetry, along with other books on the history of nature writing in this region and elsewhere. The most valuable book was one by Jonathan Bate, a British Romanticist of some stature, entitled Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition. In a down-to-earth fashion, Bate argues that the most relevant aspect of the Romantic movement today, especially in England, is not its celebration of human consciousness, its embrace or rejection of socialist politics or its discovery of the ‘prison house of language’, but its concern with nature and how human beings might live in harmony with the larger eco-system. That is, he returns to what everyone, several generations earlier, thought Romantic poetry was all about. But his is not simply an antiquarian or nostalgic appreciation. Looking at major works by major figures like Wordsworth and Ruskin, he shows that Romanticism is immediately and vitally relevant to the ecological crisis and politics of our own times–that it is more “Green” than “Red” in its vision of the future of society and that–given the dismal track-record of 20th c. Communist and Socialist regimes in treating the natural environment--this is a cause for hope. From here, I went back and read some of the early classics of “natural history,” as it was called–by Gilbert White, William Bartram, Dorothy Wordsworth and William–and looked again at the history of landscape painting in the work of such painters as Constable and Turner. Last but not least, I found some recent, 20th c. treatments of the natural history of the Lake District, scientific and photographic, and decided to add these perspectives to the course.

Practically speaking, I have used the concept of ecology both to frame my presentation of the Romantic movement in general, describing the interplay of eight major concepts that are distinctive to Romantic culture as a “conceptual ecology,” and to focus on three of these concepts–Romantic Nature, the Romantic Sublime and Romantic Primitivism–to suggest the ecological vision intrinsic to Romantic literature, visual art, and music. (See assignments for Sept. 18-25, Oct. 7-16 and Nov. 11-18.) While preserving my usual concentration on six major English poets of the period, I have added three thematic sections that feature selected works of these “Big Six” along with writings, visual art, and songs by other, lesser figures. I have constructed these inter-sections (occupying nine class periods, all told) on three geographical regions of Romantic interest: the Lake District, the Alps, and the “Celtic hinterlands” of Scotland and Ireland. The main lesson I hope to present in each is that the artistic representations of the natural environment in the Romantic period owe a great deal to specific ecological features of a region or place.

What may be the most innovative (and hence unpopular) bit I have added to the course is a double-barreled Romantic nature writing assignment. (See #3 in the Requirements.) I am asking students to visit one of preservation sites on the Emory campus–the remnants of our collegiate wildness–,write a short prose description of and reflection on what they see, and then–later in the semester–turn this prose description into a paragraph of blank verse. In effect, I am asking to put themselves in the place of Dorothy Wordsworth, the Romantic natural historian, then in the place of William Wordsworth, the Romantic nature poet who often quarried her journals for his poetry, the “emotion recollected in tranquility,” as he called it, of his verse. I will be curious to see how they respond to this practical, creative project. To those who complain that it’s not fair, relevant, coherent or acceptable to their urban or suburban sensibilities, I will quote (selectively) from Wordsworth’s own poetic manifesto:

Books! ‘Tis a dull and endless strife,
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music; on my life
There’s more of wisdom in it.
. . . .
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man;
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
. . . .
Enough of science and of art;
Close up these barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

In the last class meeting of the course, on Dec. 9, we will address directly the question of whether all this really has any relevance for us today, here at Emory, in Druid Hills, in Atlanta, in Georgia, in the United States, on “this fragile earth, our island home,” as the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer calls our planet. I have no idea what we will say about “the endurance of Romanticism and the sustainability of the ecological imagination” by this point in the semester, to be honest. But I’m hopeful that something will be added to the conceptual environment that we–some two dozen members of that most invasive species, homo sapiens--take with us into whatever other eco-systems--physical, intellectual and spiritual--we may be fortunate enough to inhabit in what remains to us of mortal existence.

Course Syllabus attached.

Download: Reed_2003.pdf (136.1 KB)

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