Green and Peasant Land?

Donna Landry
University of Kent

It is a truism insufficiently disputed that rural laborers have neither time nor inclination for an aesthetic appreciation of the natural world. Bridget Keegan’s British Labouring-Class Nature Poetry, 1730–1837 (Palgrave, 2008) and Anne Milne’s “Lactilla Tends her Fav’rite Cow”: Ecocritical Readings of Animals and Women in Eighteenth-Century British Labouring-Class Women’s Poetry (Bucknell, 2008) both help disprove the assumption of an automatic disconnect. In these pages, agricultural laborers and artisans emerge as aestheticians: poets, landscape gardeners, philosophers, recorders of natural beauty in all its forms. Both these books also showcase the richness and variety of eighteenth-century laboring-class poetry. Poems by Mary Collier and Elizabeth Hands, James Woodhouse and Robert Bloomfield, Janet Little and Ann Yearsley, as well as William Falconer and John Clare, are revealed convincingly as worthy of sustained, complex, and alternative readings. In addition to these well-known names, a whole host of other poets of laboring-class and otherwise humble origins make appearances in Keegan’s wide-ranging study.

Taken together, these books signify that the fruitful confluence between social history “from below” and materialist feminist and new historicist literary history, pioneered in the 1980s, is far from exhausted. Yet the fields of vision and reference represented by these two books are far from synonymous. They point in quite different directions in so far as they seek to inspire future work.

Keegan’s monograph has been twenty years in the making, and is as far from a dissertation-based first book as one might hope. Known for groundbreaking journal articles, book chapters, and her editorial contributions to the Pickering and Chatto Eighteenth-Century Labouring-Class Poets project, headed up by John Goodridge, Keegan has already proved herself a major contributor to the field of laboring-class literary studies.[1] This is a confidently thoughtful, shapely book. It ranges widely in the archives and continually surprises, wearing its considerable scholarship lightly. What Keegan is at pains to show is that not only can eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century laboring-class writers be read ecocritically, but they can also be seen to be contributing to the emergence of ecological or “environmental” thinking in distinctive ways.

Keegan takes as a touchstone the suggestion made by Goodridge some time ago that laboring-class poets be acknowledged first and foremost to be poets, and not social historians or producers of documentary truths.[2] She endeavors to exhibit the range of aesthetic practices and innovations of which these writers were capable. But her project also has the wider aim of contributing to a more archivally responsible history of representations of nature, and especially of what Keegan, following Patrick Murphy, calls “environmental literature.” Environmental literature, for Murphy, has an ethical dimension. Like its non-fictional and non-poetic compadre, environmental writing, environmental literature seeks to persuade readers of the value of nature, and to bring about change in the form of a revaluation of human–nonhuman relationships.[3]

One might see this as an Enlightenment project, to which eighteenth-century writers might be expected to contribute. Viewed another way, however, the emphasis on “wild nature” and wilderness common to much environmental discourse, especially in the United States and Canada, locates environmentalism firmly within post-Romantic industrialized perceptions and desires. Keegan’s book makes a valuable contribution by insisting on the importance of earlier, pre-Romantic and pre-industrial, ideas about the human stewardship of nature, however unfashionable such ideas may now be.

For Keegan, Robert Bloomfield’s The Farmer’s Boy cries out to be read ecocritically not despite its agricultural focus, but “precisely because” it was “written on a farm” (11). Bloomfield’s suspicions of the drive for maximal extraction from land, labor, and animals, generated by agricultural capitalization and improvement, parallel our own. We inhabit a world, as Keegan puts it, of “corporate megafarming and Frankenfood genetic engineering” (11). More radically, Bloomfield’s georgic vision of stewardship and sustainability challenges the residual post-Romantic pastoralism of much current environmental thinking.

Keegan is right to argue both for Bloomfield’s relevance to environmental debates and for his aesthetic innovations and achievements. She effectively describes the littering of his text with the corpses of animals, from earthworms to post-horses, but also insists that these corpses signify beyond a merely “gritty antipastoral” realism (22). “[A]lthough,” she writes, “these corpses are part of the poem’s artistic ‘authenticity,’ a political and aesthetic argument is also being made in these passages” (22).

Not the silence but the slaughter of the lambs proves an epiphanic moment in Keegan’s analysis. Bloomfield’s depiction of killing lambs at the end of “Spring,” the first movement of The Farmer’s Boy, and his ending the poem with a forward-looking “Winter,” in which a new lambing season is about to begin, serves, according to Keegan, both as a critique of traditional poetic pastoralism and as an argument for careful husbandry as the key to an ethics of sustainability. “Spare the lambs, spoil the farm,” she concludes (23).

If this conclusion bucks the tide of mainstream ecocriticism, with its focus on vegetarianism and animal rights, so much the better in Keegan’s view. She has staked her claim with Michael Branch, among others, who argues that the past ought to be understood as a repository of counter-hegemonic thinking—as a source of ideas and values that contradict our own, thus exposing the fault lines that are the conditions of any historical moment. Only by means of “this sympathetic engagement of other perspectives,” in Keegan’s borrowing of Branch’s terms, “can we fully understand the roots of our own environmental assumptions and values, however different from those of our predecessors” (5).[4]

Keegan’s writing “against the current” of critical orthodoxy—a phrase troped upon in her chapter on Anne Wilson and riparian verse—is equally successful when she attends to the importance of religion in laboring-class writing and when she devotes a wonderful chapter to William Falconer and laboring-class poets at sea. An earlier generation of Marxist historians had no trouble regarding religion as an idiom of politics. Christopher Hill’s work on John Milton, and on Ranters, Diggers, and other seventeenth-century radical groups, and E. P. Thompson’s work on Methodism, and on William Blake and the Muggletonians, are exemplary in this regard.[5] As Keegan comments, recent critics of laboring-class poetry have been attracted to more, rather than less, overtly political writers, and have tended to shy away from engagement with these poets’ religious enthusiasm or evangelicalism. Here she analyzes James Woodhouse’s Methodism, for instance, in relation to his chronically dysfunctional relations with his patron Elizabeth Montagu. For Keegan the emphasis is rather different from what Hill or Thompson would have stressed: religion becomes an idiom of aesthetics as well as one of politics, but questions of poetic language continue to be examined in relation to languages of class.

Keegan’s treatment of Falconer’s enormously popular but now largely forgotten poem The Shipwreck (1762) attends to its language and the way the poem embeds poetically the specific vernacular of Falconer’s position within the division of labor. He was, after all, also the author of an equally popular reference work, The Universal Dictionary of the Marine (1769), and the first editions of the poem were replete with footnotes to maritime culture and the language of mariners. “The futility of human efforts to control the sea,” as Keegan puts it, inspires Falconer to attempt, by means of a nautical idiom, to exert a certain “linguistic control over the situation,” introducing the terms of his “art” in a moment of overwhelming natural tempestuousness and sublimity:

Beneath its driving force, the waves engage;
And foaming white, the whining surges rage:
Now, black with pregnant ruin, it impends,
And, cataracts with storm, tempestuous blends:
Impell’d by mighty pressure, down she lies:
‘Brail up the mizzen quick!’ the Master cries:
‘Man the clue-garnets, let the main-sheet fly!’
. . .
‘A-weather heave the helm!’ the Chief commands,
‘To trim the fore-sail, next prepare all hands!’[6]

“Even with its unfamiliar terminology, Falconer’s depiction of the sailors’ response to the storm is filled with drama and intensity,” Keegan observes (131). Those couplets—both end-stopped and yet opening, by means of colons, onto the next line—bring about a suspension of any easy division between the powers of sea and storm, on the one hand, and the plight of the mariners, on the other. Their nautical vocabulary registers heroically in the poem as the sign of their ship-knowledge: it is the techne of their wooden world, their only hope of survival, pitted against these tremendous forces of nature. Keegan has done us a great service by rehabilitating Falconer’s poetry. It should now be impossible to write a history of maritime representation or conceive of an interdisciplinary practice of “sea studies” without including Falconer’s laboring-class poetry as a touchstone.[7]

Keegan’s environmental allegiances produce an excellent chapter on wetlands, especially in Clare’s verse, and an interesting one on woodlands that takes us into the nineteenth century. I was particularly struck by her reading of Clare’s poem “To the Snipe,” a poem I have taught many times, and consider one of Clare’s best. Clare’s refusal of a purely visual relation to the natural world has never been more succinctly demonstrated.

* * *

Milne’s charmingly titled book also has moments of real insight and revelation, but, as a book obviously based on a Ph.D. dissertation, its contributions are more limited. Milne is at her best on Mary Collier’s bees and on Elizabeth Hands’s portrait of a runaway cow. Milne’s ecofeminist investments make her particularly sensitive to questions of female agency and of animal agency. She makes quite a convincing case for how laboring-class women poets of the period were likely to be especially quick to apprehend similarities between domestic women and domesticated animals. After a long, theoretically self-conscious introduction in which rather relentless positioning of her work goes on—unsurprising in a dissertation but perhaps not entirely necessary in a monograph?—Milne establishes the linkage between domestic animals and women in a chapter on Mary Leapor’s “Man the Monarch.”

The next chapter opens a new seam in Collier’s much worked-over The Woman’s Labour, not only connecting Collier’s use of bee imagery with philosophical and practical debates about apiculture in the eighteenth century, but more excitingly revealing how subtly Collier put the image of the beehive to work. You will have to read the book to find out exactly what she says. Hands’s poem “Written, originally extempore, on seeing a Mad Heifer run through the Village where the Author Lives” is equally well served by Milne in her re-reading of it.

However, the final two chapters are less successful and seem to be really straining to sustain an argument. Yearsley’s “Written on a Visit” remains as enigmatic as ever even after Milne’s reading, in a chapter wonderfully titled “The Silence of the Lamb.” Milne does not so much shed new light on the poem’s perplexities as beam them up for further examination, only to re-consign them to critical darkness once again. We are no closer to understanding the significance of the silent lamb, or who Emma is, or who Maro is, for that matter. I concede that Maro may not be Alexander Pope, since Pope himself is mentioned in line 2, but it just is not true to say that nobody would have associated Pope with Virgil in the eighteenth century (90). Pope established himself as a poet by means of the scala Virgiliana, explicitly so in the closing of Windsor-Forest, his first bid for literary fame on a national scale. The fifth chapter, on Janet Little’s “From Snipe, a Favourite Dog, To His Master,” fails to convince partly because it cannot decide exactly which is the preferred relation between servant-poet and obsequious canine petitioner. The poem may indeed be open to multiple readings of this relation, and the relation may indeed be ambivalent and shifting, but the chapter needs to present a coherent strategy for grasping these complexities, and it fails to do so.

Milne’s book is long on theoretical debate and self-positioning, and short on archival research. This is understandable in a dissertation-based book, perhaps, but the availability of the Pickering and Chatto Eighteenth-Century Labouring-Class Poets, to say nothing of Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO), should now make it possible to go beyond the familiar canon of eighteenth-century laboring class poets.

Given Milne’s focus on theorizing, I was surprised at the complete absence of discussion of Donna Haraway’s work, especially The Companion Species Manifesto and, more recently, When Species Meet.[8] Haraway’s term naturecultures would have helped Milne conceptualize her project more rigorously, to say nothing of obliging her to deal with domestication in a more nuanced way. For Haraway, domestication (and hence the training to work that accompanies this relation) represents a practice of working with that demands human ethical responsibility. Such a relation entails mutuality between species, and constitutes a form of relationship in which each is perpetually learning from the other. Best known for her work on dogs as working animals, Haraway has recently spoken about “food- and fibre-producing” species as also working animals.[9] This acknowledging of the possibility of ethical relations in farming and husbandry marks an important advance out of the quagmire regarding whether domestication constitutes animal slavery and exploitation or may be understood in less reprehensible ways. It also resonates usefully with Bloomfield’s, Clare’s, and other long eighteenth-century writers’ georgic materialist, rather than pastoral idealist, views.

Finally, I have to say that I would be very interested to see the copy of The Muses of Resistance in Milne’s possession, in which apparently the figure of a vulture appears as an image of laboring-class women poets, Yearsley in particular. The passage as it appears in Milne’s book (130) does not seem to me to have a vulture in it, nor do I remember putting one in, but yet this is an admittedly strained metaphor about these women poets as robbers (in homage to Claudine Herrmann’s “thieves of language”) plundering Pope’s texts for certain formal techniques they found aesthetically ravishing, and then leaving his body of work behind.

* * *

We should be grateful to Keegan and Milne for their revisiting of familiar terrain with fresh eyes, and for their hunting and gathering of some less familiar species. In the light shed by these books, but also by Cary Wolfe’s and Jonathan Elmer’s excellent chapter in Animal Rites, not cited by either Keegan or Milne, it appears that if there might be said to be an Ur-text of American ecocriticism and ecofeminism for this historical moment, it is Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film, The Silence of the Lambs.[10]


[1]   Eighteenth-Century Labouring-Class Poets, gen. ed. John Goodridge, 3 volumes (London, 2003).

[2]   Goodridge, Rural Life in Eighteenth-Century English Poetry (Cambridge and New York, 1995), 16–17.

[3]   Patrick Murphy, Farther Afield in the Study of Nature-Oriented Literature (Charlottesville, 2000).

[4]   Michael P. Branch, “Saving all the Pieces: The Place of Textual Editing in Ecocriticism,” The Greening of Literary Scholarship: Literature, Theory and the Environment, ed. Steven Rosendale (Iowa City, 2002), 7–8.

[5]   See Christopher Hill, Milton and the English Revolution (1977; London, 1979), and The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (1972; London and New York, 1975); and E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963; London, 1980), and Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge and New York, 1993).

[6]   William Falconer, A Critical Edition of the Poetical Works of William Falconer, ed. William Jones (Lampeter, 2003), 33–34, II:21–27.

[7]  On “sea studies” as a new interdisciplinary practice, see Donna Landry, “Rewriting the Sea from the Desert Shore: Equine and Equestrian Perspectives on a New Maritime History,” Trade and Cultural Exchange in the Early Modern Mediterranean: Braudel’s Maritime Legacy (International Library of Historical Studies), ed. Maria Fusaro, Colin Heywood, and Mohamed-Salah Omri (London, 2010), 253–78.

[8]   Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Chicago, 2003), and When Species Meet (Minneapolis and London, 2008).

[9]   Haraway, “When Species Meet: Ethical Attachment Sites for Out-of-Place Companions, or, Staying with the Trouble,” lecture delivered at the British Animal Studies Network’s tenth meeting, University of London, 21 February 2009.

[10]   Cary Wolfe, with Jonathan Elmer, “Subject to Sacrifice: Ideology, Psychoanalysis, and the Discourse of Species in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs,” Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species and Posthumanist Theory (Chicago and London, 2003), 97–121.