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English as Eco-Discipline: a Case Study. Ben Knights Director, English Subject Centre Enhancing Environmental Awareness through Literatures, Languages and Area Studies 9 September 2005. Origins of the subject in European Romanticism . Generates philosophies and forms of art which question ….

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English as eco discipline a case study

English as Eco-Discipline: a Case Study

Ben Knights

Director, English Subject Centre

Enhancing Environmental Awareness through Literatures, Languages and Area Studies 9 September 2005



Generates philosophies and forms of art which question
Generates philosophies and forms of art which question ….

  • Enlightenment values of

  • Instrumentalism

  • Superior rationality

  • Utilitarian calculus


Gives rise to literature which values
Gives rise to literature which values

  • Landscape

  • Wildlife

  • Habitats

  • Human communities in traditional habitat

  • The integration of thought and feeling

  • Experience of natural life as formative


The human mind is seen as embodied
The human mind is seen as embodied ….

… and walking becomes a discovery of self and nature …several generations of poets and intellectuals as walkers ….


Poetry as engagement with nature
Poetry as engagement with nature

Wisdom and Spirit of the universe! Thou Soul, that art the Eternity of thought! And giv’st to forms and images a breath And everlasting motion! Not in vain, By day or star-light, thus from my first dawn Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me The passions that build up our human soul; Not with the mean and vulgar works of Man; But with high objects, with enduring things, With life and nature; purifying thus The elements of feeling and of thought ….

William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850)


Poetry as engagement with nature 2
Poetry as engagement with nature (2)

How curious is the nest no other bird Uses such loose materials or weaves Their dwellings in such spots – dead oaken leaves Are placed without and velvet moss within And little scraps of grass – and scant and spare Of what seems scarce materials down and hair … Yet nature is the builder and contrives Homes for her childerns comfort even here Where solitudes deciples spend their lives Unseen save when a wanderer passes near That loves such pleasant places ….

John Clare (1793 – 1864)


Gives rise to poetry as protest
Gives rise to poetry as protest …

… against the exploitation of the natural world and the destruction of ancient habitats ….

On Cowper Hill I stray, ‘tis a desert strange and chill; And spreading Lea Close Oak, ere decay had penned its will, To the axe of the spoiler and self-interest fallen prey; And Crossberry Way and old Round Oak’s narrow lane With its hollow trees like pulpits, I shall never see again: Enclosure like Bonaparte let not a thing remain, It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still, It runs a naked brook, cold and chill.

John Clare


Gives rise to poetry as protest1
Gives rise to poetry as protest …

… against the exploitation of the natural world and the destruction of ancient habitats ….

On Cowper Hill I stray, ‘tis a desert strange and chill; And spreading Lea Close Oak, ere decay had penned its will, To the axe of the spoiler and self-interest fallen prey; And Crossberry Way and old Round Oak’s narrow lane With its hollow trees like pulpits, I shall never see again: Enclosure like Bonaparte let not a thing remain, It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still, It runs a naked brook, cold and chill.

John Clare


Binsey Poplars

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled, Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun, All felled, felled, are all felled; Of a fresh and following folded rank Not spared, not one That dandled a sandalled Shadow that swam or sank On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

O if we but knew what we do When we delve or hew – Hack and rack the growing green!

Gerard Manley Hopkins

(1844 – 89)



Which looked both forward and backward …. the new industrial order ….


Giving rise to nostalgia for antiquity, traditional crafts and the rural, as well as a critique of industrial capitalism

Matthew Arnold (1822 – 1888): culture as substitute for religion

William Morris (1834 – 96): craft as solution to alienated labour


Meanwhile the novel addresses humans in their habitat
Meanwhile, the novel addresses humans in their habitat …. and the rural, as well as a critique of industrial capitalism

In these midland districts the traveller passed rapidly from one phase of English life to another: after looking down on a village dingy with coal-dust, noisy with the shaking of looms, he might skirt a parish all of fields, high hedges, and deep-rutted lanes …. (George Eliot, Felix Holt 1866)


Rural scene as touchstone of value
Rural scene as touchstone of value and the rural, as well as a critique of industrial capitalism

Tall nettles cover up, as they have done These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.

This corner of the farmyard I like most: As well as any bloom upon a flower I like the dust upon the nettles, never lost Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.

Edward Thomas (1878 – 1917)


In the post 1918 environment all these elements feed into the rise of a subject called english
In the post-1918 environment, all these elements, feed into the rise of a subject called ‘English’

… tied up with ideas of ‘Englishness’ and the preciousness of the English landscape

Does this make the subject impractical for the contemporary world?

Treat ‘nature’ as unchanging?

OR enable us to open up the dilemmas of ecology?


Culture as habitat
Culture as Habitat the rise of a subject called ‘English’

‘Poetry … is an especially efficient system for recycling the richest thoughts and feelings of a community.’ (Jonathan Bate)

Climax community: this ‘condition has considerable stability and holds much energy in its web – energy that in a simpler system … is lost back into the sky or down the drain ….’

‘as climax forest is to biome and fungus to the recycling of energy, so ‘enlightened mind’ is to daily ego mind, and art to the recycling of neglected inner potential …. Turning away from grazing on the immediate biomass of … sensation and thrill … liberates the energy of our sense detritus ….’ (Gary Snyder)


The rise of eco criticism
The rise of eco-criticism the rise of a subject called ‘English’

  • In USA and UK, studies literature and culture in the light of ecological concerns

  • Modules now taught in a number of HEIs

  • Emphasises interdependence

  • Demands revaluation of existing texts, but also fosters writing of new texts

  • Interested in environments at the boundary of nature and culture

  • Growing critical, textbook and journal literature


How might these considerations affect our teaching
How might these considerations affect our teaching? the rise of a subject called ‘English’

  • Practising holistic thinking

  • By fostering attention to the interconnection of systems?

  • By insisting on the relation between human life and total environment?

  • Through instilling respect for the non-human world?


Green teaching
… green teaching? the rise of a subject called ‘English’

  • Treats knowledge as a habitat

  • Models knowing as process, rather than ownership

  • Invites deceleration

  • Does not aim for mastery

  • Challenges consumer orientation: fosters awareness of the object of knowledge in its own right

  • What are the implications for actual process?


Thank you for your attention
Thank you for your attention! the rise of a subject called ‘English’

Ben Knights, English Subject Centre

[email protected]


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