Sustainability in the Victorianist Classroom

Aspen-PopulusTremuloides-2001-09-27In 1879 Gerard Manley Hopkins returned to a very different Oxford than he remembered from his undergraduate years. The “rural keeping” that he delighted in had been replaced by the “graceless growth” of modern suburbs. Most troubling, he found that his “aspens dear” were “all felled,” leading to his heartbreaking repetition of the strokes in “Binsey Poplars”:

Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.

Like many poets of the nineteenth century, Hopkins was concerned with how “generations have trod” and “all is seared with trade.” But he also thought that there’s always a possibility of preservation because “nature is never spent” where “lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” At the same time, however, there is always a danger in tension with this optimism when he lingers on the unselved poplars or wonders “What would the world be, once bereft / Of wet and of wildness?”

In his nature sonnets, Hopkins builds an ecological spirituality that would be at home in a contemporary Jesuit community.

I mean just look at how Hopkinsian his old haunt, Saint Beuno’s, is on social media:

I tend to focus on Hopkins’s medievalism (learn more about medievalism as an object of study here), so I wanted to further enrich my understanding of how important ecocriticism is to his work and ways to approach Victorian texts on nature with students by attending the Piedmont Project’s workshop on sustainability this summer. This is a wonderful workshop that helps teachers integrate sustainability into their courses through talks on campus green initiatives, learning outcomes activities, and even a hands-on introduction to the beauty of the local biosphere

Glacier National ParkAs part of the workshop, I’m now drafting a syllabus and would like to share the class with you. In the course, we’re going to read Victorian responses to nature to understand better our own ecological imagination.

I came to this pedagogical project thinking it would be simple to bring together readings that would lead students through the ecological imagination of Victorian writers. Where do Thomas Hardy and Gerard Manley Hopkins not mourn a rural past? Could we even try to imagine Tennyson’s mourning without the image of the yew tree? But, as I sat down to creating the syllabus, I began to realize that we need much more than these examples to dive into the imagination of Victorians. How do we fit in the arts and crafts movement? Or what about the depiction of women in Victorian texts?

Applying the threefold division of sustainability into the nested categories of the ecological social, and economic spheres was liberating for developing the course. We may think of the concept of “sustainable” as merely engaging the ecological concerns, but a sustainable world also needs a just society and economic structure. And all three spheres must conform to the finite constraints of the environment.
This model works very well for understanding Victorian literature, too. Often, Victorian anxiety and melancholy is embedded in a response to industrialization that includes the natural world with concerns about the poor. Environmental blight in Dickens will have its social and economic implications, and Hardy folds the social, economic, and ecological in the fate of the green goddess, Tess.

In the course, students will explore their relationship to the Victorian imagination with the threefold division of sustainability as a mental framework. Rather than a chronological progression through Victorian literature, we will approach Victorian texts moving from environment to economy, from nature sonnets to the utopian socialism of William Morris and the anarcho-socialism of Oscar Wilde. These readings will be complemented by ecocritical texts and the creative nonfiction coming from the writer-in-residence program at the Spring Creek Project. With the critical language they gain from academic articles on sustainability and the rhetorical techniques from contemporary nature writers, students will reinterpret Victorians through an ecocritical lens and prepare their insights for a general audience in digital storytelling videos that end on a call to action for transformative change.

An assignment that I’m especially looking forward to is the commonplace books my students will keep. Whenever something strikes them, in any of our readings, they’ll write it down and think about why it works. We’ll share our commonplace books in the end and think about how we can promote sustainability with them.

Here’s the syllabus for the course:

What would you like to do in a course like this? What are your favorite Victorian nature poems? How can I better help students to find their own “aspens dear”?

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