Close-reading the ecology of Romantic poetry

In this piece I wanted to think carefully about how we might read Romantic-period poems from within our own moment of ecological precarity. Looking at John Clare’s ‘The Nightingale’s Nest’, John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, William Cowper’s The Task, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’ I sought to track these poems’ moments of uncertainty about the ‘natural’ world, and their moments of confusion and obscurity. Thinking about perspective specifically, I was interested in how these poems move above and below their objects of attention and their environment, how they forge and falter in their means of building relationship, and how they register the agency of the non-human. In editing, the piece was slightly trimmed and split up to fit the book’s teaching purpose, which was a bit of a shame, but I hope that the idea that close reading can be a means of feeling for ambiguity, and about working between the past and our own present, is still discernible.

Rhian Williams, ‘Close-reading the ecology of Romantic poems’, in: Chaplin, S. and Faflak, J. (eds.) The Romanticism Handbook. Series: Literature and culture handbooks. Continuum (2010), pp. 52-71.

William Cowper: British Writers

From Charlotte Mutsaer’s silkscreen illustrations for ‘William Cowper’s Epitaph on a Hare (1784)’, (1988)

Jay Parini asked me if I’d like to choose any figure to be included in the ‘British Writers’ series that he edited and I was really pleased to choose eighteenth-century poet, William Cowper (1731-1800). By all accounts, a very gentle but tormented man, Cowper wrote mainly in blank verse and in ballad forms and was exceptionally sensitive to the everyday, to his pets (especially the hares Tiney and Puss) and other animals, to the violence of colonial rule (he protested slavery and the damages incurred by capitalist expansion through exploitative trade), the aggression of hunting animals for sport, and to the ‘natural’ landscapes of Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire. Although he wrote the famous Olney Hymns with Evangelical minister, John Newton, Cowper had a tortured relationship with faith and was convinced of his unworthiness in the eyes of God. As an adult Cowper suffered much mental anguish and made several attempts to take his own life, some of which is evident in his wrought poetry. But others of his works generate peaceful calm through their therapeutic engagement with his small community of friends, domestic habits, the changing environment and his ethical impulses to feel sympathy and empathy with all living creatures.

Rhian Williams, ‘William Cowper’, In: Parini, J. (ed.) British Writers Retrospective Supplement. Series: British Writers, III. Charles Scribner’s Sons, an imprint of Gale Cengage Learning: Farmington Hills, MI, pp. 35-52