British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe

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Commissioned Poem by Helen Mort: ‘The Library of Ice’

As part of our collaboration with Helen Mort and the Poetry Society on the ‘I am the Universe’ competition, we commissioned a poem from Helen that she read in public for the first time at the Mediating Climate Change conference in July. Helen’s poem engages brilliantly with some of the project’s key themes, particularly the agency of nonhuman nature.

The Library of Ice
after David Buckland’s ‘The Cold Library of Ice’.
In the library of ice, the shelves
were bridal-white, crevassed, unreachable.
I watched the fjord, how gently
it could carry off a single page of cold,
then volumes, sections, half
the world. The sky was a bored librarian
in cloudless blue, the calving face
an index I could never read.
No list, no human names, no litany
of winters unreturned.
I looked for a language I could know
like music, and the library offered up
the sound of shifting boulders,
the glacier’s shoulders lifting them,
too slow to hear. I looked
for a language I could know like braille
and my fingers froze against
each sign I touched. I looked
for a language I could know like colour,
saw the near-transparency of air
around a flame. In the library of ice,
I knew that I was smaller than a book.
The years dripped into centuries.
I stood and waited to be classified
as if the glacier would pick me up
and stamp my bones with frost
then let the absent evening come,
the high sun borrow me.

This entry was posted in News.

Romantic Poetry and the Grammar of Weather

In our latest Romantic Climates blog post, Dr Thomas H. Ford (Melbourne) reflects on the statement ‘it is raining’.

In the second edition of the Works of Percy Shelley published in 1839, Mary Shelley included a number of previously unpublished poetic fragments that she had transcribed from a notebook of drafts, notes and drawings originally compiled by Shelley between the spring of 1819 and the spring of 1820. Amongst the fragments she included can be found the following enigmatic short verse:

The fitful alternations of the rain
Which the chill wind, languid as if with pain
Of its own heavy moisture, here & there
Drives through the grey & beamless atmosphere

Mary Shelley’s motives for publishing these fragments may be surmised from an editorial note to the first edition of the Works, in which she stated:

In addition to such poems as have an intelligible aim and shape, many a stray idea and transitory emotion found imperfect and abrupt expression, and then again lost themselves in silence… I find many such in his manuscript books, that scarcely bear record; while some of them, broken and vague as they are, will appear valuable to those who love Shelley’s mind, and desire to trace its workings.

Taking Mary Shelley’s comment as an interpretative guide, we might read this short poem as a representation of the workings of Shelley’s mind, perhaps even of the workings of the Romantic imagination more broadly conceived. This poetic fragment may well lack an intelligible aim and shape, as Mary Shelley suggested – indeed, it is not even a full sentence, lacking a main verb – and yet it is possible to see in these fitful alternations a description of the fleeting movements of thoughts that lie just on the far side of comprehension, too ambiguous and unstable to be resolved into the fixities of representability. This would then be a poem, at least in part, about the weather within, recording the shifting and unsettled state of a mind whose spasmodic and irregular switching or flipping between two modes, moods or modifications prevents it attaining any certain or communicable self-knowledge.

Such a reading could draw support from the fact that atmosphere for Shelley, as more widely for the Romantic poetry that followed Wordsworth, was a specifically poetic medium of historical experience. Romantic weather involved what Shelley elsewhere referred to as ‘the atmosphere of human thought’: it interfused the physical aeriform environment with the poetic spirit and the sense of history. As such, it was fraught with obscure intimations of loss and communicative failure. Read as an act of poetic self-description, this short fragment records a mind bearing the pain of a heavy moisture it is unable to discharge; a mind in which thought has grown nebulous and indistinct. Its emphasis rests on the fleeting transit of ungraspable emotions, and on vague elements of unilluminated feeling. Describing the failure of the poetic imagination to attain an achieved poetic form, it is a fragment that is in some sense about hazy fragmentation. If it allows us to trace the workings of Shelley’s mind, as Mary Shelley had hoped, it does so by presenting that mind as not really working at all, but as instead dispersing in a cloud of cognitive incapacity: restless, fretful, inclement, afflicted by a paradoxically languid drive.

In formal logic, ‘alternation’ is now a technical term for the inclusive sense of ‘or’, in which both sides of a disjunction may be taken to coexist (the type of inclusive disjunction that Jean-François Lyotard, following Alexandre Kojève, named ‘parathesis’). ‘Fitful alternations’ seem similarly to suspend the logic of the excluded middle, as if it were somehow raining and not raining at the same time in this poem. Except there is no time in this poem, which, lacking a verb, even suspends the logic of predication and the temporal ordering that predicates describe. These alternations never resolve into an event. They instead describe a condition unlocatable in time, a fraught atmosphere of permanent transience. They refuse any spatial localisation as well. Shelley marks a spatial distinction – here / there – only to include both sides of it. The off-rhyme of ‘atmosphere’ and ‘there’ even blurs the phonic dissimilarities between here and there, bending ‘here’, ‘there’, and ‘-sphere’ into an undifferentiated sound vaguely resonant with ‘air’. And identities, like locations and phonemes, also grow hazy and indistinct. The chill wind is said to drive the alternations of the rain through the atmosphere. But the wind and rain are surely themselves part of this atmosphere they traverse, so that agent, object and context effectively merge into one. Indeed, in the manuscript transcribed by Mary Shelley, the word ‘drives’ is actually struck through, placed under erasure. The drive to externality, to poetic self-expression, seems not just self-conflicted but even self-cancelling. The more one looks at this fragment, the harder it is to pick out any definite form or identifiable action, any certain agency, any specificity of time or place. It all fades away into the unbounded murk of a grey and beamless atmosphere, unclosed by any syntactic period or full-stop – an atmosphere of indeterminate extent in which nothing, strangely literally, seems to take place.

Following Mary Shelley, again, one might even read these lines as an act of poetic self-description in a yet more material sense: as an account of their own physical appearance on the manuscript page, and so, by metonymy, as an allegory of the material obscurity and dark passages of inscriptive textuality. In another editorial note, Mary Shelley stated:

Did any one see the papers from which I drew that volume, the wonder would be how eyes or patience were capable of extracting from so confused a mass, interlined and broken into fragments, so that the sense could only be deciphered and joined by guesses which might seem rather intuitive than founded on reasoning.

These handwritten texts constitute a confused and mobile aggregate of heterogeneous materials, in which words, for example, as well as being over-written, jumbled, and struck through, are also often interspersed and covered over with drawings and doodles – Shelley’s ‘kinetic rituals’, as Nancy Moore Goslee suggested, ‘to keep the ink and his thought flowing’. Considered as graphic material, Shelley’s manuscript texts certainly resemble the indefinable state of these fitful alternations of the rain. They are blurred, interlined, uncertain, fragmentary, obscure, suspended, indeterminate and transmedial: resistant to the categories of reason, and legible at best only speculatively. Whether read as an account of the atmosphere of poetic language, as a mood of the poet’s own mind, or as inscriptive material self-reflection, this poem remains stray, transitory, imperfect and abrupt, finally losing itself in silence, just as Mary Shelley had suggested.

What this poem most signally fails to do, and what it keeps most silent about, is its ostensible subject-matter, the weather itself. ‘The fitful alternations of the rain’ do not say ‘it is raining’. And yet, equally, this fragment does not say ‘it is not raining’. What it says instead involves not saying either of these two things. And so it cannot help us to perceive the weather, or to come to know something about the state of the atmosphere: to reconstruct, for example, what was happening outside as Shelley wrote this poem. It communicates nothing meteorological. Nor can it inform an ethics of care that might be extended to include the weather: it ventures no pathetic fallacy, no idea of an answerable nature that is somehow sympathetic or responsive to our communicative concerns. Any emotional state ascribed to the atmosphere in this poem is co-ordinated by the words ‘as if’, placing it in the subjunctive mood of the acknowledged counter-factual. The poem’s connection to the atmospheric environment that it would appear to represent is then one that has been negated or suspended throughout: the poem withholds or withdraws from such acts of environmental representation as that entailed in the statement ‘it is raining’.

That statement – it is raining – was surprisingly central to twentieth-century phenomenological accounts of the nature of experience. The problem concerned understanding what ‘it’ meant in this sentence. What was this ‘it’ that rained? The answer that tended to be given was the ‘it’ that rains is environmental. Analysing the grammar of weather was then seen as a way of illuminating the structure of an environment, and so of providing a phenomenology of environmental being. Husserl, for instance, cited this sentence in his Logical Investigations as an example of what he called fluctuating or unsteady expressions (schwankende Ausdrücke). He contrasts these with the ‘objective expressions’ of theory, geometry, science, mathematics and so on, which can be understood ‘without necessarily directing one’s attention to the person uttering it, or to the circumstances of the utterance’. The meaning of fluctuating expressions, however, is radically context-dependent. Words such as ‘here’, ‘now’ and ‘you’ point to the situation in which they are uttered. Husserl stated that the function of the word ‘here’, for example, is ‘to name the spatial environment of the speaker’. The sentence ‘it is raining’ exemplifies a further sub-category of these essentially contextual expressions, in which the reference to this subjective environment is left tacit and unspoken, despite the meaning of the sentence still hinging on that contextual reference. ‘It is raining’,’ Husserl wrote, ‘does not have the general meaning that rain is falling, but that it is doing so now, outside. What the expression lacks is not merely unspoken, it is not even expressly thought: it certainly belongs, however, to what our speech means’. ‘It is raining’ for Husserl was then a signal example of how our language can be environmental, in that its meaning is contingent on its empirical inscription or utterance in a certain contextual spatial and temporal location, even when reference to that environment is silent, implicit and even unconscious. ‘It is raining’, in other words, circumscribes a singular although unspoken environment centred around the speaker. In so doing, it pointed for Husserl to the projective nature of subjectivity, and to the way in which that subject has always pre-organised his or her field of potential experience into an ambient world, thereby marking the irreducibility from language of reference to the material embodiment of all cognition.

As Husserl noted, ‘it is raining’ is an anonymous formula, an example of what he called ‘the impersonalia of ordinary speech’. In his lecture course of 1929-30, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, Heidegger took up the impersonality of this sentence to describe the structure of environmental existence as a fundamentally non-subjective atmosphere or attunement (Stimmung). These are modes of being, Heidegger suggested, ‘that constantly, essentially, and thoroughly attune human beings, without human beings always recognizing them as such’. Such existential atmospheres cannot be properly understood as emotional states, or as properties of a subject or object, because they lie prior to the emergence of any subjective framing of experience, any objective specificity. They instead encompass both subject and object and govern the manner of their subsequent discrimination, thereby shaping how a subject will come to relate to him- or herself, and to his or her world: ‘it seems as though an attunement is in each case already there, so to speak, like an atmosphere in which we first immerse ourselves in each case and which attunes us through and through. It does not seem so, it is so’. And inasmuch as environmental moods set the tone of our being and precede any distinction of subject from object, they participate in the characteristically impersonal grammar of weather expressions:

It is boring for one. What is this ‘it’? The ‘it’ that we mean whenever we say that it is thundering and lightening, that it is raining. It – this is the title for whatever is indeterminate, unfamiliar. Yet we are familiar with this, after all…This is what is decisive: that here we become an undifferentiated no one.

‘It is raining’ says that something is happening, but that it is an agentless happening, something happening to no one in particular, brought about by nothing in particular: a listless mood that drifts through unorganised and non-subjective realms of undifferentiated experience belonging to no-one. Heidegger’s erasure here of the implied subject was the primary point of difference between his interpretation of this sentence and that given by Husserl, in which the ‘it’ of an environment could only be understood through reference to an embodied subject.

Later, in his ‘Letter on humanism’, Heidegger would rework this impersonal formulation – it is raining, it is, there is, Es gibt – much more positively as the impersonal, agentless gift of the given. We have existence as an environment that is beyond and behind all the things that might exist within it, just as we have rain: as an unbidden plenitude. Against these ‘connotations of abundance and generosity’, Lévinas stressed in his Time and the Other that horror was in fact the ground-note or basic Stimmung of environmental being.

Let us imagine all things, being and persons, returning to nothingness. What remains after this imaginary destruction of everything is not something, but the fact that there is [il y a]. The absence of everything returns as a presence, as the place where the bottom has dropped out of everything, an atmospheric density, a plenitude of the void, or the murmur of silence. There is, after this destruction of things and beings, the impersonal ‘field of forces’ of existing. There is something that is neither subject nor substantive. The fact of existing imposes itself when there is no longer anything. And it is anonymous: there is neither anyone nor anything that takes this existence upon itself. It is impersonal like ‘it is raining’.

In this ‘atmosphere of presence’, from which all existing things have been abstracted, environmental being is again seen to be anonymous and impersonal. ‘It’ here does not stand in for some unexpressed noun or series of noun-predicates, as it did with Husserl, but rather designates a properly impersonal dynamic, a ‘density of the void’, existence as such, in which there is no longer any inside or outside. The horror of environmental being, for Lévinas, was that the negation of any particular given form, the destruction of any existing entity, whether object or subject, never actually succeeded in removing this background atmosphere of presence, and so never quite fully succeeded in eliminating the presence of that entity either. That is where the horror of the environment lies: whatever you might want to dispose of, erase or negate just keeps on returning, returning as ‘it’, precipitated as rain. Lévinas illustrated this process, which he called ‘the return of presence in negation’, with the figure of the corpse, which presents the material persistence of the body after death. Considered in environmental terms, death is never the end: the corpse remains. There is no nothingness, and so no way out from an environment, neither for your trash, nor for you. With Lévinas, the inescapability of environmental being – which for Husserl indicated the ineradicable environmental co-ordinates of any linguistic act, and for Heidegger the ontological priority of the moods of existence – took on a traumatic, menacing dimension.

In a draft essay from the early 1980s, Louis Althusser gave these phenomenological interpretations of ‘it is raining’ an aleatory turn, taking this sentence as his starting-point for a theory of the legibility of history understood as radically non-teleological. Althusser’s philosophy of rain was a late attempt to address what had been a central problem for him throughout his writings: the problem of reconciling historical necessity (determination ‘in the final instance’) with the contingency of history – its capacity for unpredictable swerves, abrupt epistemological breaks and singular new beginnings. From the sentence ‘it is raining’ Althusser derived a theoretical model in which historical events and institutions could be understood as contingent conjunctures of otherwise independent elements, conjunctions that had taken on a quasi-durable form:

Nothing in the elements of the encounter prefigures, before the actual encounter, the contours and determinations of the being that will emerge from it… Quite the contrary: no determination of the elements can be assigned except by working backwards from the result to its becoming, in its retroaction.

For Althusser, the ‘it’ of ‘it is raining’ named this unsurpassable conjunctural condition of historical understanding, the facticity or ‘always already’ nature of what it must decipher. ‘It is’ then indicated ‘the priority of the occurrence…over all its forms’, and ‘the primacy of absence over presence’.

Further philosophical discussions of ‘it is raining’ could be added to this survey. But these brief outlines should already suffice to indicate how persistently twentieth-century phenomenology identified in the grammar of our weather language the parameters of environmental being. These interpretations of the sentence ‘it is raining’ all shared the sense that atmosphere is structured like a language. They were committed to the principle that we can come to understand aspects of environmental experience by thinking about how we use words like ‘it’. ‘It is raining’ is a neutral form that weakens distinctions between subject and object; grammatically, it is a middle voice neither active nor passive; its temporality is uncertain, occupying an indeterminate present. And drawing on those grammatical ambiguities, philosophers derived theories of environmental being that appeared to contradict each other. For Husserl, ‘it is raining’ pointed ultimately to the way the environment always environs a subject. For Heidegger and Lévinas, by contrast, it pointed to the impersonality that precedes the emergence of any subjectivity, and which determines whatever subjective forms may then emerge within it. Althusser discovered in the formal structure of the sentence ‘it is raining’ a conception of history as the contingent concatenation of heterogeneous forms, the determinations of which are legible only speculatively and retrospectively. ‘It is raining’ would then appear to be impersonal despite or while also describing a situation centred on a speaker. That situation is unique, singular and embodied, yet also vague and indefinable. It is available only retrospectively even as it defines the here-and-now. It is like a historical conjuncture in that it is unstable and contingent: if it is raining, it always might well not have.

We could take this bundle of unstable and even contradictory semantic properties as together outlining the grammar of weather, supplying the paradoxical shape and feeling of what an atmospheric environment is. But then there are also the paradoxes language enters into when it becomes poetic, involving the distinct ways that literature uses words, even words as apparently simple as ‘it’. As Paul Valéry observed in The Art of Poetry, ‘it’ works differently in poetry: ‘One is taught: “Say it is raining if you mean it is raining”. But a poet’s object is not and never can be to tell us that it is raining. We do not need a poet to persuade us to take our umbrella’. In poetic language it is ‘the nonusage – the not saying “it is raining” – that is [the poet’s] business’. The practice of ‘nonusage’ described here by Valéry was performatively undertaken in the closing lines of Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy: ‘Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining’. Literature is not a weather report, even – perhaps especially – when it looks most like one.

If the environment has the structure of a language, as twentieth-century philosophers implied, then certain literary uses of language (nonusages, in Valéry’s term) would seem to involve the cancellation or at least suspension of that environmental grammar. In her essay ‘Unspeakable Weather, or the Rain Romantic Constatives Know’, Anne-Lise François identified one mode of such a suspension in Wordsworth’s weather poetry. The ‘Romantic constative’ is in her words ‘a type of sentence that makes available what remains impersonal or unclaimed – of no concern – in subjective experience, a mode of statement that, finished at the instant of its posing, releases such experience from construction, whether this means the expectation of narrative development or the consolations of psychic identity’. The impersonal yet subjective moods and modes of experience that François described share critical semantic properties with the weather statements investigated by phenomenology. But Romantic poetry made this atmospheric experience available – it communicated it, made it expressive – by suspending the operative force of the semantic structures that would later prove so important for twentieth-century philosophical investigations of environmental experience. These suspended constructions include, in addition to the ones listed by François (the constructions of narrative sequence and of expressive individuality), those of the environmental grammar which is encoded in some of our most basic acts of speaking about what surrounds us, and of saying what it is where we are. Something like environmental experience (unclaimed, impersonal, yet still subjective) is released from the condition of its intelligibility in these environmental terms – terms influentially taken in the twentieth century to figure the phenomenological condition of all meaningfulness as such.

Neither saying it is raining nor not saying it is raining, the fitful alternations of Shelley’s rain withhold or abstract from the grammar of environment. In such lyric utterances in which the ‘pathos of heightened subjectivity’ becomes ‘indistinguishable from intensified impersonality’, François locates evidence of a ‘fraught ecological commitment to knowledge of the world not predicated on an assimilating or anthropomorphizing consciousness’. Romanticism’s atmospheres formed a critical chapter in the history of Western environmental consciousness because in these years the word ‘atmosphere’ acquired paradoxical semantic elements that would later be taken up in the word ‘environment’. But the true paradox of Romanticism’s literary atmospherics – suspended, undecidable, parathetic and vague as they are – is that they also bore witness to the possibility of experiencing the natural world as it might exist outside those structures of meaning, and so to a nature beyond, before, or without the grammar of environmental being, however we might choose to interpret ‘it’.

Thomas H. Ford is a Lecturer in English and Theatre Studies at the University of Melbourne. His book on Atmospheric Romanticism is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

This entry was posted in Romantic Climates.

Conference Proceedings: Mediating Climate Change

Lucy Rowland (Leeds) reports on the Mediating Climate Change conference that took place in Leeds, 4-6 July 2017. 

Taking place during the bicentenary of the global climate crisis prompted by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815, the inter-disciplinary Mediating Climate Change conference sought to examine our encounters with climate change through multiple mediums. With researchers offering their thoughts on climate change and mediation from the vantage points of art, literature, history, social sciences, philosophy, and behavioural psychology to name a few, discussion and debate throughout the three-day duration of the conference was lively and incisive.

The first event of the conference took place on Monday 3rd July, in the form of an Early-Career and Postgraduate Workshop entitled ‘The Anthropocene: Fact or Fake News?’, led by Professor Gillen D’Arcy Wood of the University of Illinois. Giving early-career and postgraduate researchers the opportunity to work through their personal engagement with the concept of the Anthropocene in the context of current critical debates and theorisations, the workshop prompted questions on postcolonial conceptions of the Anthropocene, of technofossils, of the naming of the epoch itself and of its possible origins and futures.

Prof Mike Hulme delivers the opening keynote (Photo: Lucy Rowland)

On Tuesday the 4th July, Professor Mike Hulme (King’s College London) opened the conference with a powerful keynote lecture entitled ‘Knowing Climate and its Changes: In Places, With Numbers and Through Myths’, chaired by Dr David Higgins (University of Leeds). Discussing the need for an examination of the failures of imagination in addressing climate change as well as its successes, and drawing on his expansive research on the subject of climate change and disagreement, Prof. Hulme raised concerns over the political nature of climate change and its consequent propensity to be a source of permanent conflict.

The conference continued with its first session of three concurrent panels, divided thematically into categories of ‘Journeys’, ‘Institutions’ and ‘Materialisms’. A wide array of topics were covered, from contemporary literature and creative production, to ideas of the institution as mediator and philosophical breaching of the archaic categories of ‘human’ and ‘nature’. The second panel session, on the themes of ‘Water’, ‘Science’ and ‘Scales’, was equally far-reaching in its scope. Topics such as climate engineering, the visualisation of scale, and scientific narrative strategy were matched by further engagement with contemporary cultural production and climate mediation through art and literature.

Tuesday’s fascinating plenary paper was given by Professor Wändi Bruine de Bruin (University of Leeds) and chaired by Kate Lock (University of Leeds), regarding research produced through the Priestley Centre for Climate Change on behavioural decision making, climate change and environmentalism. Professor Bruine de Bruin discussed methods for effective communication and decision making in the context of climate-change related issues, offering ‘mental models’ of decision making in the face of risk, and theorising the best ways of encouraging positive choices and behaviours.

Lucy Burnett performs ‘Through the Weather Glass’ (Photo: Lucy Rowland)

The evening’s events consisted of an art installation and performance by author, poet and lecturer Dr Lucy Burnett (Leeds Beckett University). Reading from her latest hybrid novel Through the Weather Glass (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2015), the audience followed the inspirational journey behind the novel’s origins through the narrative and through a visual Google Earth journey. The first day of the conference was drawn to a close by the ‘I Am the Universe’ Young Poets competition prize-giving and readings, compered by poet Helen Mort.

Wednesday, 5th July’s panel sessions were formed around the thematic concepts of ‘Ice’, ‘Perceptions’, and ‘Discourses’. Papers were concerned with climate before the formation of the concept of climate change, with the engagement of ice through literature and film, and with climate change journalism and environmental activism.

A roundtable discussion entitled ‘Climate Change Denial and the Media’, chaired by Dr Chris Paterson (University of Leeds), saw contributions from Piers Forster (University of Leeds, Priestley Centre), Professor Robert Hackett (Simon Fraser University), Kate Lock (University of Leeds, Priestley Centre), and Andrea Taylor (University of Leeds, Priestley Centre). Prof. Hackett addressed media focus on episodic climate-related disasters and the obscuring of long-term effects of climate change, and Piers Forster focused on ways to effectively communicate scientific research to the public. Concerning the politics of climate change, Kate Lock brought to the audience’s attention the partisan nature of climate change representation in the media.

The fourth panel session, concerned with ‘Communications’, ‘Weather Histories’, and ‘Subjectivities’, raised questions regarding media narratives of climate change, environmentalism in children’s film and television, climatic unrest through history, and the notion of the emotional and psychoanalytic subjective in climate change contexts. Continuing the day’s panels were discussions of ‘Anthropocenes’, ‘Apocalypse’, and ‘Modes of Representation’. Speakers presented on topics such as the epistemic friction of the Anthropocene epoch and apocalyptic representations of the end of the world.

Wednesday’s events were brought to a close by a plenary public lecture from Professor Alexandra Harris (University of Liverpool), entitled ‘A Change in the Air: Weathers, Words, and Landscapes’, chaired by Dr Tess Somervell (University of Leeds). Prof. Harris’s engaging talk navigated multiple literary and historical accounts of changes in weather across the ages, drawing from her recent non-fiction work Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English Skies (Thames and Hudson, 2015).

The final day of the conference—Thursday 6th July—was opened with a plenary panel, comprising of talks from both Dr Nigel Clark (University of Lancaster) and Dr Adeline Johns-Putra (University of Surrey), chaired by Dr Jeremy Davies (University of Leeds). Dr Clark spoke on the subject of ‘The City as Medium: Myth, Migration and Mid-Holocene Climate Change’, covering cities, agrarianism and climate mitigation from the mid-Holocene period, using examples from this time to illustrate the importance of democracy and social responsibility in our contemporary age. Dr Adeline Johns-Putra continued the panel with her analysis of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, engaging with contemporary criticism such as Timothy Clark’s Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept (2015) and emphasising the role of the reader’s emotional responses to novels that deal with themes of climate change.

The sixth panel session, consisting of ‘Localities’, ‘Futures’ and ‘Irish Media Representations of Climate Change’ covered issues ranging from Croatian climate fiction, to climate scepticism in the Irish media, to climate change in the case of two indigenous communities. The final panel session, made up of ‘Creatures, Monsters, and Myth’ and ‘Performance’ responded to varied topics such as the endangered tuatara lizard in New Zealand, to Icelandic sagas and performing news on climate change.

Prof Gillen D’Arcy Wood speaks on ‘Climate Delusions’ (Photo: Lucy Rowland)

The conference was brought to a close by Professor Gillen D’Arcy Wood’s plenary paper, entitled ‘Climate Delusions’. In a sobering and insightful discussion, Prof. D’Arcy Wood traced future predictions of ocean level rises, flooding epidemics, and other climate-related disasters, commenting on the importance of the abandonment of field mastery in academia in the context of climate research, and the delusions that inhibit comprehension of the catastrophic reality of climate change.

Final remarks given by Dr David Higgins and Dr Tess Somervell noted the variety and scope of the topics and disciplines, whilst consciously acknowledging the challenges of interdisciplinarity. Closing questions and comments were taken from the audience, which praised the success of the conference and the level of engagement and responsiveness across disciplines, whilst recognising a need for further work and collaboration in the future.

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Public Events in Leeds, 4-5 July

As part of our conference Mediating Climate Change (4-6 July), we have organised three public events around the themes of literature, art, and environment to take place in Leeds.

All welcome. These events are free, but places are limited so booking is essential.


‘Through the Weather Glass’ – Poetry Performance by Lucy Burnett

Tue 4 July 2017
17:00 – 18:00 BST
Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall
University of Leeds

What if we can’t solve climate change? What if, instead of staring at our reflections in the weather glass, we travelled through everything we know about climate change and participated in the world beyond? Lucy Burnett’s hybrid novel Through the Weather Glass tells a fantastic, playful account of the author’s struggles to understand environmental change through the persona of Icarus during a 2500 mile cycle from Salford to the Greek island where Icarus fell. On the back of an extended Arts Council funded tour in 2016, this performance and installation version of the novel combines live poetry, film, installation and music, inviting the audience to join Icarus on a genre-twisting and gender-bending road trip up mountains, across plains and along the coast of our wonderfully changing world.

Lucy Burnett is a writer, artist and performer, and works as Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Leeds Beckett University. Leaf Graffiti, her first poetry collection, was published by Carcanet / Northern House in 2013. Her second book, a hybrid novel called Through the Weather Glass, was published by Knives Forks & Spoons in 2013. In 2016, an interactive installation version of Through the Weather Glass toured the UK with the support of the Arts Council. Lucy is currently completing her manuscript for a second poetry collection with Carcanet Press, and developing a collaborative poetry / physical theatre sequence with OBRA, an international physical theatre company based in France. Lucy’s work frequently explores environmental questions and themes, including climate change: prior to returning to academia she worked as an environmental campaigner for organisations such as Friends of the Earth.

Book tickets here:


‘I am the Universe’: Poetry Reading and Prizegiving

Tue 4 July 2017
18:15 – 19:15 BST
Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall

‘I am the Universe’ is a competition for young people to write poetry engaging with climate change. Working with landscape representations by contemporary artists and British Romantic writers, the poet Helen Mort created a challenge for young writers up to the age of 25, asking them to consider their place in the world and explore ideas of strange and familiar places, shifting territories, and our collective and individual responsibilities towards our planet. The competition received over 200 brilliant, searching, beautiful poems from young people all over the world.

This event will feature readings of the ten prize-winning poems as well as a specially commissioned poem by Helen Mort.

‘I am the Universe’ is the result of a collaboration between the Poetry Society and the AHRC-funded British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe project at the University of Leeds.

Book tickets here: 


A Change in the Air: Weathers, Words, and Landscapes – Public Lecture by Alexandra Harris

Wed 5 July 2017
17:45 – 19:00 BST
Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall

Writers and artists across the centuries, looking up at the same skies and walking in the same brisk wind, have felt very different things.

The Anglo-Saxons before the Norman Conquest lived in a wintry world, writing about the coldness of exile or the shelters they must defend against enemies outdoors. The Middle Ages brought the warmth of spring; the new lyrics were sung in praise of blossom and cuckoos. It is hard to find a description of a rainy night before 1700, but by the end of the eighteenth century the Romantics will take a squall as fit subject for their most probing thoughts. There have been times when the numbers on a rain gauge count for more than a pantheon of aerial gods. There have been times for meteoric marvels and times for gentle breeze.

As we enter what may be the last decades of English weather as we know it, let us celebrate English air and the writers and artists who have lived in it.

Alexandra Harris is the author of Weatherland, an attempt to tell the story of English literature through changes in the weather. She is Professor of English at the University of Liverpool, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a judge of the 2017 Ondaatje Prize for work evoking the spirit of place. Previous books include Virginia Woolf, and Romantic Moderns, for which she won the Guardian First Book Award and a Somerset Maugham Award.

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Vile Atmospheres and Stagnant Wonders: Clare in the Fens

In our latest Romantic Climates blog post, Dr Erin Lafford (Oxford) writes on John Clare, fenlands, and ‘Romantic air’.

In his essay ‘The Correspondent Breeze’ (1984), M. H. Abrams laid a foundation for thinking about the role of ‘air-in-motion’ in Romantic period poetry.[1] Alongside tracing the significance of air (and its movements in winds, breaths, and breezes) as a key metaphor for emotional and political renovation, Abrams also acknowledged that ‘the moving air lent itself pre-eminently to the aim of tying man back into the environment’. He did not, however, specify what type of environment this is or should be. If the legacy of Abrams’ essay is that there has long been identified a prominent aerial imagination in Romantic poetry and poetics, then there is room now to think about how this aerial imagination might speak to, and be readdressed by, the concerns and approaches of the environmental humanities. Specifically, in this blog post I hope to offer some thoughts about how the trope of aerial inspiration so central to Abrams’ reading of Romanticism can be brought into relationship with ideas about the impact of the environment and its climatic effects on individuals that were circulating in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Air is a beguiling element, unseen and yet ubiquitous. It was, however, and continues to be, conceived as a key medium of transmission between the self and their environment, especially where health is concerned. Such a viewpoint necessitates thinking about air as it relates to specific environmental conditions; rather than a general ‘tying’ of ‘man’ into an unidentified habitat or climate, this blog post will explore how Romantic poetry and its surrounding medical and environmental discourses reveal an interest in air as a site of differentiation between places and their healthy or unhealthy effects. The idea of a ‘correspondent breeze’, when brought into contact with the material specificities of a poet’s surroundings, was not without its fears and anxieties, and the line between inspiration and contagion was not always distinct. To draw out some of these ideas, I am going to focus on the poetry of John Clare and its exploration of the Northborough fenland by which he was surrounded from 1832-37.

The landscape that features in much of Clare’s ‘middle-perid’ poetry is the vast expanse of fenland in East Anglia, ranging between Souh Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, which he encountered properly when he moved from Helpston to Nortborough in 1832.   The principle characteristic of fenland is its flatness, marked by expanses of shallow water (either fresh or salt), in which dead plant matter does not fully decay, and so forms a layer of saturated peat and bog. In his poem ‘Winter in the Fens’ Clare opens with a rather gloomy prospect of such a landscape:

So moping flat & low our valleys lie
So dull & muggy is our winter sky
Drizzling from day to day with threats of rain
And when that falls still threatening on again
From one wet week so great an ocean flows
That every village to an island grows
And every road for even weeks to come
Is stopt, and none but horsemen go from home

(ll. 1-8)

The sense of a waterlogged, ‘muggy’, and ‘threatening’ environment captured in these lines taps into anxieties prior and contemporary to Clare about the hostile and unhealthy nature of the fens. The presence of stagnant water, which in turn was thought to propagate a potentially noxious atmosphere of miasmas and vapours, combined to foster a fear of this environment as both physically and morally dangerous. Such wariness was expressed in literary, medical, and agricultural texts. James Armstrong’s four-book poem, The Art of Preserving Health (1744) warned readers against treading near the ‘slothful Naiad of the fens’, for fear that their ‘humid soil’, ‘watry reign’ and ‘Eternal vapours’ should result in ‘Tertian, corrosive scurvy, or moist cattarh’ (I, ll. 130-59). For Arthur Young, the apparent uhealthiness and moral degradation bred in the fens was justification enough to warrant their drainage, called for during the onward march of enclosure acts in the region. In his General View of the Agriculture of the County of Lincoln (1799), he stated that ‘So wild a country nurses up a race of people as wild as the fen; and thus the morals and the eternal welfare of numbers are hazarded or ruined for want of enclosure. Drainage supposedly liberated the fens from being a rancid site of infection to a fertile and prosperous landscape where ‘fens of water, mud, wild fowl, frogs, and agues have been converted to rich pasture […] Health improved, morals corrected, and the community enriched’.[2] The ‘agues’ mentioned here, otherwise known as a malarial illness referred to as ‘fen fever’, also appear in a medical treatise by Dr Fenwick Skrimshire, Clare’s Peterborough doctor who was one of the signatories on his committal papers to Northampton General Asylum. Skrimshire’s The Village Pastor’s Surgical and Medical Guide (1830) situates his readers in a decidedly hostile environment, depicting the fens as a hotbed of illness and disease. He writes of ‘the prevailing fevers of our fenny country’, and that ‘the swamp and the fen, in whatever climate they may be situated, are not fit places for human habitations’.[3]

Crucially, the purportedly infectious air and atmosphere of the fens played the most significant part in their literary, cultural, and medical reputation for being so inhospitable. In Rural Rides (1830), William Cobbett recalled an encounter with a mass of fog on the journey from London to Newbury, but was assured by its resemblance to more innocuous clouds formed from above rather than risen from below: ‘I do not think that they are by any means injurious to health. It is the fogs that rise out of swamps, and other places, full of putrid vegetable matter, that kill people’.[4] It is the emphasis that Cobbett places on these ‘fogs’ as rising from the ground that offers such a significant distinction between this form of air and the kind Abrams had in mind when he wrote ‘The Correspondent Breeze’. In his book The Matter of Air (2010), Steven Connor distinguishes between ‘Romantic’ air and its antithesis: the first is a kind of inspirational ‘radiance’ that falls from above, a ‘Romantic haze’ that both ‘diffuses and retains radiance’. The second is more pathological: a ‘vaporous sensibility’ where ‘mists and fogs are held to be the unhealthy halitosis of the ground […] full of infection, as opposed to the ethereal lucidity of the upper air’.[5] The air that reeks upwards from the fens, then, does not lend itself to participation in the ‘aim of tying man back into the environment’ that Abrams conceived. A poem that sought to harness such an atmosphere would be treading a fine line between inspiration and contagion. Clare was all too aware of this. He frequently wrote to his publishers, John Taylor and James Hessey, about bouts of fever that he attributed to the surrounding fenland: ‘I have just got over a very bad fever that is now raging from house to house in our fenny villages like a plague’; ‘I was taken soon after I received your letter with the books & was ill six weeks     it was a very bad Fever & I expect I brought it out of the Fens home with me’.[6] His friend and champion in London, Eliza Emmerson, frequently expressed fears about the effects of the fens on Clare’s health, and wrote to him in June 1825 asking about the well-being of one of his daughters (also named Eliza): ‘She, too, cannot escape the ague-like effects of the season, and your vile fenny atmosphere. I sincerely wish both for your children’s sake & your own you could quit the flats & bogs of Helpstone’.

Yet for all of his fears of exposure to the threatening atmosphere of the fens, and indeed his experiences of ill-health (both mental and physical) that were so often attributed to them, Clare did not deem this landscape unfit for poetic representation. Poems such as ‘Winter in the Fens’ offer a rather bleak view of what it means to inhabit this landscape, and some, such as ‘The Fens’, draw on the anxiety of contagion. The landscape is figured as provoking shudders, chills, and the ague, with fearsome creatures lurking beneath murky waters:

Wandering by the rivers edge
I love to rustle through the sedge
And through the woods of reed to tear
Almost as high as bushes are
Yet, turning quick with shudder chill
As danger ever does from ill
Fear’s moment-ague quakes the blood
While plop the snake coils in the flood

(ll. 1-8)

The ‘shudder chill’ and ‘moment-ague’ that ‘quakes the blood’ in these lines announce an uncomfortable version of being ‘tied’ into an environment, where innocuous ‘wandering’ invites potentially harmful encounters with the landscape; the verse enacts a fearful ‘turning’ way from the environment in this respect, even as Clare’s speaker tracks his movements through it. However, elsewhere in his poetry Clare counters the anxiety surrounding the fens by choosing instead to celebrate their biodiversity and beauty. In ‘Wanderings in June’ especially, the speaker’s enjoyment at trudging through fenland turns not on a sense of freely circulating, refreshing air, but on a sense of stagnation. He marks how a sudden encounter with the topography of the fens (‘But now my footsteps sidle round / The gently sloping hill / Now falter over marshy ground’ (ll. 185-87)) gives way to a moment of amazement at the forms of life they contain:

What wonders strike my idle gaze
As near the pond I stand!
What life its stagnant depth displays
As varied as the land
All forms & sizes swimming there
Some sheath’d in silvery den
Oft siling up as if for air
Then nimbling down again

(ll. 201-208)

The static, ‘idle’ environment offered here cultivates a turn away from a ‘correspondent breeze’ to harness instead a stagnant atmosphere as the means of revelation.   Stagnation and its requisite lack of circulation becomes a model of focussed attention and, crucially, of wonder. It is the airless (‘as if for air’) that informs Clare’s poetic gaze here, and the unhealthy connotations of stagnant water and its vapours become rehabilitated into a model of deep environmental engagement.

By figuring the fens as a source of pleasure and wonder, then, Clare offers a way into complicating the aerial imagination of Romantic poetry. He brings the specificities of his local environment to bear on his verse, and finds inspiration never far away from the threat of contagion. The sluggish atmosphere of the fens, considered the antithesis to a Romantic ideal of ‘air in motion’, is transformed in his verse into a vehicle of enchantment and attentive wonder. Clare also, I think, invites us to consider how he self-consciously sought to transform the toxic air of his locality into the material of poetic composition, and how our understanding of Romantic air can be enriched and diversified by his poetics. I conclude this post with some lines from one of the many songs Clare composed, in order to think about how the noxious air of the fens also became the source of a sung, poetic ‘air’; Clare’s song hails not from the correspondent breeze, but from the swamps, and we must think about what it means for a poet to harness deliberately such a ‘low’ form of air:

Swamps of wild rush beds & sloughs squashy traces
Grounds of rough fallows wi thistle & weed
Flats & low vallies of kind cups & daiseys
Sweetest of subjects are ye for my reed
[…] Yer skies may be gloomy & misty yer mornings
Yer flat swampy vallies unholsome may be
Still refuse of nature wi out her adornings
Yere dear as this heart in my bosom to me

(ll. 1-24)

This is not an ideal, generalised poetic ‘air’ but one borne out of a specific topography and that bears the traces of a supposedly inhospitable atmosphere. That Clare can not only breathe, but sing in the fens, is a reimagining of inspiration that brings it down from the clouds towards the material influences of a poet’s environment (healthy or unhealthy) and an alternative form of Romantic air.

[1] M. H. Abrams, ‘The Correspondent Breeze: A Romantic Metaphor’, in The Correspondent Breeze: Essays On English Romanticism (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984), pp. 25-43.

[2] Arthur Young, General View of the Agriculture of the Country of Lincoln (London: Bulmer and Co, 1799), p. 246.

[3] Fenwick Skrimshire, The Village Pastor’s Surgical and Medical Guide (London: Hatchard and Son, 1838), p. 259.

[4] William Cobbett, Rural Rides (London: William Cobbett, 1820), p. 127

[5] Steven Connor, The Matter of Air: Science and Art of the Ethereal (London: Reaktion Books, 2010), pp. 178-79.

[6] The Letters of John Clare, ed. Mark Storey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), p. 245; p. 446.

Erin Lafford is currently a Stipendiary Lecturer in English at Trinity College, University of Oxford. Her research centres around thinking about Romantic period literature in relation to medical and environmental thought, and she has recently completed her doctorate on ‘Forms of Health in John Clare’s Poetics’.

This entry was posted in Romantic Climates.

I am the Universe: Winning Poems

The British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe project collaborated with The Poetry Society’s Young Poets Network to produce ‘I am the Universe: Writing Climate Change’. The challenge and competition used Romantic texts and images alongside contemporary artworks to inspire young poets to think and write about the world’s changing landscapes.

The competition received a fantastic 239 entries. The winning poems, judged by Helen Mort, have now been announced, and can be read and enjoyed on the Young Poets Network website.

We have also published the wonderful 1st-prize-winning poem, ‘Inverie’ by Abigail Meyer, on our Public Engagement page.

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Mediating Climate Change: Programme

The draft programme for our conference Mediating Climate Change (4 – 6 July 2017) is now available!

Visit our conference page to check out the fantastic panels, papers, and events we have lined up.

On the conference page you can also find details of how to register.

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Poetry Reading Recordings

In November 2016 British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe collaborated with Leeds University Union Spoken Word Society to host an evening of readings from Romantic poetry and prose.

Members of LUUSWS performed pieces of Romantic writing about environmental catastrophe, apocalyptic weather, and climate change, inviting the audience to challenge their preconceptions about Romanticism and nature.

Now the recordings of their fantastic performances are available on our Resources page!

Photo by Talya Stitcher

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Mediating Climate Change: conference registration now open!

Registration is now open for our conference on Mediating Climate Change, which will be taking place at the University of Leeds from the 4th to the 6th July 2017.

Visit our conference page for details of how to register, and for further details about the conference including a programme and travel/accommodation information.

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I am the Universe: Writing Climate Change

British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe has collaborated with The Poetry Society and poet Helen Mort to create I am the Universe: Writing Climate Change: a challenge and competition for poets under 25. We invite young writers to respond to Romantic texts alongside Romantic and contemporary images, and use this inspiration to think and write about the world’s increasingly shifting landscapes.

The competition is now live! See the challenge and read about how to enter here, on the Poetry Society’s Young Poets Network.

Das Eismeer, or Sea of Ice (1823-1824) by Caspar David Friedrich

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