Wordsworth and eco-poetics

This was an invited contribution to a special issue of this journal edited by Emma Mason and including essays by really famous scholars (and then me…yikes) taking really innovative and surprising angles on Wordsworth. Asked to consider Wordsworth’s relationship with eco-poetics, I was compelled to think about the flooding in 2009 of the Cumbrian town of Cockermouth, and of Wordsworth’s house and garden there. The curator of the museum had spoken at the time of how the garden was engulfed when the River Derwent broke its banks and that the river water brought with it piles of detritus from the nearby town’s flooded shops. This prompted me to think about those material totems of commerce and of craft, and of how they invoked the histories of commerce and craft that Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads record through emotional response and ravaged communities. From here I found myself tracing the moments of fear, ambivalence and violence in Wordsworth’s engagement with the natural world, and the impact of class and occupation on one’s ability to be ‘in rhythm’ with the non-human. It works towards a reading of ‘Nutting’ where I tried to engage the feeling of stone and moss that he evokes so movingly in that poem, before the economics of land capital intervenes and distorts. Now I recognise that Jane Bennet’s notion of ‘vibrant matter’ and entanglements would have helped here, but I used Tim Morton and Emma gave me the wonderful recommendation of Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects, which has remained with me ever since: I feel again and again that Stewart’s book is the book of our times; so perceptive, and so beautifully written.

Rhian Williams, ‘ Wordsworth and eco-poetics’.Questione Romantica, 3(2) (2014), pp. 31-46

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