Review of Reclaiming Romanticism: Towards an Ecopoetics of Decolonization, by Kate Rigby

Abstract

Reclaiming Romanticism is the latest addition to Bloomsbury’s Environmental Cultures series, which is edited by Greg Garrard and Richard Kerridge. Featuring other notable titles on climate change poetics, ecospectrality, radical animism, cognitive ecopoetics and nerd ecologies, Environmental Cultures is quickly becoming one of the most exciting selections of cutting-edge research in ecocriticism.

Reclaiming Romanticism: Towards an Ecopoetics of Decolonization, by Kate Rigby. Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.

Reclaiming Romanticism is the latest addition to Bloomsbury’s Environmental Cultures series, which is edited by Greg Garrard and Richard Kerridge. Featuring other notable titles on climate change poetics, ecospectrality, radical animism, cognitive ecopoetics and nerd ecologies, Environmental Cultures is quickly becoming one of the most exciting selections of cutting-edge research in ecocriticism.

While there is much in Reclaiming Romanticism that will be of value to contemporary scholarship, the focus of Kate Rigby’s discussion is predominantly historical: her ambition, she writes, is to reclaim ‘the inheritance of European Romanticism’ as part of a ‘strategic recovery of European counter-traditions’. The value of such traditions in colonial contexts is that they might contribute to ‘creative conversation with Indigenous understandings and practices’ (189). Without such recovery, Rigby argues, the danger is that colonisers will have nothing to offer any shared, decolonial vision. While listening, learning, responsibility and solidarity remain ‘essential praxis’ for decolonisation (189), Rigby affirms that something else is required of settler participants – namely, what she identifies as the contemplative, affective, creaturely and prophetic strains of European Romanticism.

In some ways, then, this book returns to – indeed, it ‘reclaims’ – the concerns of her earlier monograph, Topographies of the Sacred (2004). As in Topographies, Reclaiming Romanticism is anchored largely by readings of key Romantic poets, which are beautifully elaborated by Rigby’s characteristic flair for cross-disciplinary synthesis. Ongoing, too, is her advocacy for what she calls a ‘negative ecopoetics’, or a need to move ‘beyond the page’ of the poem to consider broader, political actualisations of the ecopoetic imagination. But while their source material overlaps, Reclaiming Romanticism departs from Rigby’s earlier work in a number of important ways.

Firstly, while Topographies focused largely on a comparative analysis of British and German Romanticism, Reclaiming Romanticism distils much of the results of this work into a series of concise, focused readings of Wordsworth, Keats, Clare and Blake. Secondly, where Topographies elucidated the complex philosophical structure of European Romanticism more generally, Reclaiming Romanticism argues for the relevance of particular, canonical English Romantics to comprehending, and responding to, the current planetary ecological crisis. Thirdly, Reclaiming Romanticism uses Romantic poetics as a generative impetus for a map of contemporary ecopoethics that spans various parts of the Anglophone world (though concentrating largely on Australia). Along with generous readings of David Campbell and Judith Wright, the book considers a range of contemporary Australian and North American poets, including Jordie Albiston, Kevin Hart, Tim Lilburn and Audre Lorde.

Undoubtedly, the great strength of Reclaiming Romanticism is Rigby’s ability to combine multiple, distinct fields of knowledge – from climate science to theology to new materialism – into seamless, productive amalgamations, which inform poetic analysis before often opening onto broader, semi-ethnographic accounts of ecologically-informed community and political organisation. Such expansive, seamless synthesis is unparalleled in ecocriticism, and it makes Reclaiming Romanticism both a pleasure to read and genuinely impressive.

The book begins, as the title suggests, by recovering what Rigby argues are the redemptive qualities of the European Romantic tradition. In part this is achieved via a convincing revision of certain predominant stereotypes with which Romantic thought is commonly associated. Far from separating ‘nature’ from ‘culture’, or from celebrating solitary experiences in vast stretches of unpeopled wilderness, Rigby argues that European Romanticism ‘is tilted towards an ecoprophetic call for the (re-)creation of forms of collective flourishing’ in natural-cultural places (16).

The ‘primary whipping boy’ for ‘wilderness fetishism’ is Wordsworth (16), an accusation that Rigby challenges in the first part of her argument. Solitude for Wordsworth, she argues, is not egotistical indulgence, but central for a contemplative practice that he advocates and models, and which has ongoing relevance as an art of resistance to reductive, instrumental rationality. Furthermore, Wordsworthian contemplation is radically fraternal, in that it encourages ‘a non-appropriative mode of being-toward and becoming-with more-than-human others’ (51). While the tradition for Wordsworth’s practice was Christian, Rigby points out that similar contemplative practices are common in religions from all over the world.

From contemplative poetics, Rigby moves to affective poetics in the second chapter, where the effects of contemplative praxis can engender a richer appreciation for the fleshy dimension(s) of the body. Drawing on Stacy Alaimo’s concept of ‘trans-corporeality’, Rigby explores how physical qualities of daily experience – such as spaces, times and seasons – transgress the semi-permeable border of our skin and influence our states of mind. As much as practices of contemplation might encourage a broader, more democratic consideration of lifeways, Rigby shows how affective concerns can also have profound implications for social justice: generally, the more affluent are more capable of protecting themselves from environmental discomfort. With this in mind, the chapter concludes with an illuminating description of an ecopolitical counterpart to an affective poetics of place, the CERES Community Environment Park in Melbourne.

The third chapter concerns ‘creaturely poetics’, or poems that highlight human entanglements with other living beings. Focusing on human-bee relations – an important intervention given the paucity of insect-related research in critical animal studies – the chapter is a tour-de-force of ethological and critical analysis. Rigby contextualises an outline of bee biology, and a brief, cultural history of human-apian entanglements, in terms of Clare’s ‘Wild Bees’, the loss of the commons in England and the Americas, and the history of transatlantic slavery. Here Rigby reads poems by Audre Lorde and Natasha Trethewey, two African American poets who take the discussion to the intersection of racist, sexist and speciesist oppression and violence. As if this were not already impressive enough, the chapter concludes with an account of a United States-based multi-faith conservation organisation, Faith in Place, where members’ own experiences of dislocation, marginalisation and migration ‘provide impetus for new practices of multispecies hospitality and conviviality’ (110).

The final two chapters, on prophetic and decolonial poetics respectively, focus on Australia. Beginning with Blake and the Romantic conception of the poet as a prophet, Judith Wright looms large here (and in the following chapter) as Australia’s most important inheritor of the prophetic tradition. Unlike Campbell, whose decolonial project ultimately failed, Rigby argues, because no relationships with Indigenous people informed his poetics, Wright is for Rigby an almost prototypical example of what, drawing on Peter Minter’s work, she calls a transcultural decolonial ecopoetics. Rigby’s glowing assessment positions Wright ‘at the intersection of Western environmentalism, critical ecofeminism and the Aboriginal land rights movement’ (136). The poet’s close relationship with prominent Aboriginal poet and activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal then becomes a template with which she reads a dialogue between contemporary Indigenous and non-Indigenous poets Jeanine Leane and Anne Elvey.

Wright’s emergence as a central, even archetypal figure in the later sections of the book is certainly justifiable, but not without its problems. I am not sure, for example, how sympathetic Wright would have been to the overall ambition of Reclaiming Romanticism. In the later stages of her career, Wright came to believe that the task for the settler writer was not to transplant aesthetics from a different continent, but to try and develop a new set of symbols and mythologies for this one. Importantly, this did not mean appropriating Indigenous knowledges, but rather drawing on what settlers themselves were learning about the continent; specifically, through the ecological sciences, those settler-created archives of the land and how it lives. Indeed, it is with the developments in modern biology and physics in mind that many innovative ecopoets continue to work. To be fair, though, Reclaiming Romanticism reminds us that many Romantic writers, Wordsworth included, were also ‘enamoured’ of much of the science of their day, and had personal relationships with natural scientists themselves (39).

A more general concern I had was that, because of Rigby’s hermeneutical method, which tends to translate poems into prose statements with varying levels of ecocritical acceptability, there was little room to consider poetic affect or the ways in which the experience of a poem might exceed its semantic content. As such, because the poems tend to be selected for their capacity to articulate certain subject matter, much of the poetry considered in Reclaiming Romanticism is relatively homogenous in formal terms. Grammatically and syntactically coherent, and written from unitary subjects’ points of view, the poems are largely free of the pastiche, polyvocality and slippage that is central to proliferating varieties of contemporary ecopoetry. Here I think is one of the oversights of the book: while Rigby repeatedly acknowledges the experimentalism that was fundamental to the Romantic avant-garde, early on she dismisses the ‘ideology’ of much contemporary, experimental poetics as ‘ecopolitical correctness’ (5). Unfortunately, this means that Reclaiming Romanticism does not pursue the ways in which poetic experimentation has continued to flourish in a variety of neo-Romantic traditions throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Consequently, the book has little to say about arguably the most important developments in Anglophone ecopoetic form of recent years, epitomised by poets like Brenda Hillman, Evelyn Reilly and Juliana Spahr, or the radical political imaginations of which they are a part. A useful companion to Reclaiming Romanticism, then, might be Lynn Keller’s Recomposing Ecopoetics (2017).

Rigby does account for this, however, by asserting firstly that progressive perspectives are not beholden to progressive poetic forms, and secondly that her chosen poems have most chance of producing ‘impact’ (193) beyond the narrow confines of the literary world. More conventional forms of verse, she argues, resonate better with wider readerships, as they are more readily translated into ‘extra-literary practices of transformation’ (6). However, while these claims may be true, they all still relate to poetry, and poetry, regardless of form, is read by precious few. If ‘impact’ and related metrics are of such importance, why not analyse Netflix series, blockbuster films, or Tweets instead? Or, given the oft-repeated call throughout the book to move ‘beyond the page’, why were performance and spoken-word poetics not considered, given that the proponents of such forms repeatedly use this same phrase to describe their work, and given that such forms enjoy significant public appeal? Clearly, as Reclaiming Romanticism so powerfully demonstrates, there is tremendous value in spending time with the energetic structures of poems, and this cannot be readily translated into statistical measures of popularity and product distribution. Rigby’s decision not to apply her considerable analytical skills to a more diverse assortment of poetics is an unfortunate oversight.

But perhaps the biggest question I had went to the book’s very title: in order to decolonise a present that is in crisis, is a conservative gesture to reclaim European tradition (however ‘counter’) really what is required? Given the complicity of Romantic aesthetics with colonialism, is it worthwhile or even appropriate to bring them to discussions with First Nations stakeholders? Even more broadly, how might an ecocritical practice grounded in English Romanticism contribute to a decolonial project that is increasingly inseparable from myriad African, American, Asian and Indigenous traditions? In order to plan for a post-Treaty landscape, for carbon-neutral transnationality and sovereign Indigenous lands, do we not need a more radically open, even revolutionary, imagination? One which we might indeed call neo-Romantic, but only in its fervour, rather than its archetypes and poetics? But such questions are largely contrary to the ambition of Reclaiming Romanticism, which altogether argues for the redemptive qualities of counter-modern European traditions, and their value in any re-negotiation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations, by distinguishing them from those hegemonic, ecologically insensitive and violent ideologies that fuel European colonialism and the destruction of Indigenous peoples’ lands.

Published 30 April 2021 in Volume 36 No. 1. Subjects: Ecocriticism, New Materialism, neo-Romantic, Ecopoetics, Kate Rigby.

Cite as: Cooke, Stuart. ‘Review of Reclaiming Romanticism: Towards an Ecopoetics of Decolonization, by Kate Rigby.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 36, no. 1, 2021, doi: 10.20314/als.c8b06d143b.