I recently stumbled onto a short YouTube clip of the philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, in which he said that although we humans emerged from nature and are a part of the biological phenomenon of the natural world, this fact does not mean that how we conceive of nature is necessarily accurate or objective. The way we perceive nature has changed drastically over the centuries, from our medieval belief that the sun revolved around the earth (which we believed was flat—an idea currently experiencing a bizarre renaissance), to the paradigm-shifting discoveries of the solar system, Darwin’s theory of evolution and, more recently, the breakthroughs in quantum physics. Our ideas about nature and humanity’s place within it are contingent on a confluence of factors such as culture, history, religion and scientific knowledge. And our understanding of nature is continuing to shift.
One discipline that is interested in recalibrating our relationship to the natural world is ecocriticism. This relatively emergent academic field seeks to, among other aims, reread the ‘classic’ works of Western art from an ecological viewpoint, in order to help us redefine our relationship to the environment and better understand how the attitudes, assumptions and ideologies of bygone generations have led us to our current state of environmental crisis.
Ecocriticism is a field I am fascinated by, and area of research I am considering specializing in. With that in mind, I decided to attempt an ecocritical reading of a poem written by one the lesser known Romantic poets, John Clare. And, as usual, I have interspersed this essay with some of my own photographs.
Clare’s 1835 poem ‘The Nightingale’s Nest’ expresses a reverence for nature that subverts romantic symbolism, while simultaneously warning us of the dangers of human interference in non-human ecosystems. This subversion will be explained as Clare’s attempt to decentre humans from the natural order and to praise nature on its own terms.
The speaker of the poem is acutely aware of his sense of intrusion into the woods. He is conscious not to disturb the creatures upon whose ecosystem he and the addressee(s) of the poem are encroaching. “Hush! let the wood gate softly clap, for fear / The noise may drive her from her home of love”. The speaker’s use of the imperative “Hush!” conveys a sense of deep respect, comparable to the command a mother might use to address a child upon entering a church during prayers. Yet there is ambiguity in this “Hush!” We might read it as a plan to stalk the eponymous bird, to spy on it and catch it unaware, perhaps even cage it. We then begin to move through the poem wondering what impact the speaker’s presence will have on the nightingale.
And it is the wood gate, the man-made contraption, the signification of power, human rationalism and property ownership, which threatens to clap shut. The gate is a prime example of nature bent to man’s advantage: the trees cut down, planed smooth and straightened into planks, and then nailed into a fence to represent one particular man’s claim to ownership (of the soil, trees and animals) over another’s. The wood gate is important because it is one of the only man-made objects in the poem. It serves to remind the reader of humanity’s looming, restrictive presence closing in on nature.
Clare moves away from the symbolism present in other poets of the Romantic period, while still employing occasional personification: “Till envy spurred the emulating thrush / To start less wild and scarce inferior songs”. This personification is Clare’s endeavour to show the non-human animals as having sentience of their own, instead of being symbols for human abstractions such as Virtue, Love, Freedom and the Imagination, as might be said of Keats’ or Shelley’s uses of the nightingale.
Upon catching sight of the nightingale and hearing the bird sing, the speaker “marvel[s] that so famed a bird / Should have no better dress than russet brown”. Fame, being a socio-cultural construct, has led the speaker to expect a certain dazzling beauty. Clare seems to be critiquing Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, which contains very little physical description of the bird. We also note here Clare’s use of unadorned, natural colours (“russet brown”), subverting the reader’s experience of extravagant symbolic ornamentation. This use of colours is a technique that Fiona Stafford calls Clare’s “dynamic reciprocation between the imaginative impulse and objective reality”.1 In other words, his use of realistic natural colours allows him to balance his poetic expressiveness with his desire to exalt nature in an unsentimental way, avoiding what John Ruskin calls the “pathetic fallacy”2 of our yearning to see our emotions anthropomorphised in nature. Clare’s use of colour will be returned to shortly.
While the speaker uses a reverential tone, we cannot help but wonder at the impact of his desire to witness the bird. The nightingale only sings because the speaker remains hidden from the bird’s sight; as soon as the nightingale is aware of the intruders, their “presence doth retard / Her joys, and doubt turns all her rapture chill”. Wouldn’t the ultimate respect for the bird be to leave it entirely alone, as opposed to creeping furtively through the bushes to expose its nest? Once more, the intentions behind the command to “Hush!” are brought into question. The speaker wrestles with the quandary of admiring the nightingale but needing to risk disturbing it in order to gain this pleasure. He reassures himself: “We’ll leave it as we found it: safety’s guard / Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still”. But are we not beating a path through the undergrowth to find the bird? Judging by the confident, knowledgeable voice of the speaker, it is apparent he has been here before; and now he brings an audience with him to share the experience.
In describing the nest, Clare zooms in with almost microscopic detail that we feel could be narrated by David Attenborough: “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”; and then, crucially: “For from men’s haunts she seemeth nought to win”. There is a double meaning in “haunts”; upon first reading, we think of “haunts” as places occupied by humans: houses, streets, shops and bars; but is the nightingale not also “haunted” by the intruding speaker and addressee(s) (us, the readers)? Again the dilemma of intrusion is raised by Clare. And just as the speaker cannot help interfering with the nightingale, so he cannot help slipping into figurative language: “Deep adown, / The nest is made an hermit’s mossy cell”. But, as if catching himself slipping towards the “pathetic fallacy”, he quickly shifts back to realistic description: “Snug lie her curious eggs, in number five, / Of deadened green, or rather olive brown”. Once more, Clare is employing earthy colours, insisting on respecting the natural state of the nightingale’s nest, revering nature as a phenomenon separate from human affairs.
The poem ends with the reassuring lines “And here we’ll leave them, still unknown to wrong, / As the old woodland’s legacy of song”. Yet how close must the speaker get in order to describe the nest and the eggs in such magnified detail? Is the poem, which grows out of the implied real-life experience, worth the cost of frightening away the real-life bird, potentially abandoning its eggs as a result? Like the forest within the confines of the wood gate, the nightingale is trapped within the man-made device of the poem, and must be encroached upon by humans in order to be described. Clare’s command to “Hush!” is both an utterance of reverence for nature and a warning that our intrusion might cause more harm than good.
1. Stafford, Fiona. ‘John Clare’s Colours’. New Essays on John Clare: Poetry, Culture and Community, edited by Simon Kövesi and Scott McEathron, Cambridge University Press, 2015.
2. Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Analysis. 4th ed., Manchester University Press, 2017.
3. Clare, John.‘The Nightingale’s Nest’. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 10th ed.,vol. D, edited by Deidre Shauna Lynch, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.