What Lies in Wildness: My Ecocritical Manifesto

Evidence exists to support multiple interpretations of meaning in a text. That method which takes advantage of the largest number of methods, and applies them in a way that affects change outside literary study, is the method I prefer. A method commonly called “ecocriticism” is the approach I’ve found that fits this bill best. Ecocriticism explores the way texts reflect humanity’s interaction with the non-human world. I have included links to more resources on ecocriticism below, but the methods here are my take on this approach.

Ecocriticism sees texts as manifestations of how a culture feels towards its physical environment. It notes commonly overlooked textual elements, such as space and attitudes towards the “natural” (e.g. flora, fauna, climate). Figurate language, particularly personification, should be read with a consciousness of how humans interface with nature. Ecocriticism seeks out implied hierarchies among characters or non-characters (such as animals, or resources). Ecocriticism reads texts with a desire to examine how humans and other elements of the ecosystem cohabit the intra-textual system.

An ecocritical analysis utilizes most critical approaches to probe the human-non-human relationship, but feminist, gender, race, and postcolonial theory are the most commonly used. Their terminologies frame how the human-non-human relationship is described, and the way elements of a text are assigned meaning within that relationship. An ecocritical analysis of Mrs. Dalloway might describe the various attitudes towards London presented in the novel, and how concepts of the other and postcolonial theory privilege that space over others in the novel, such as the countryside at Bourton or India. “Mending Wall” could be viewed through the lens of how ideas of racial segregation find legitimization in agriculture’s use of monocropping (“his pines…will never eat my apples”). Ecocriticism’s analysis is expansive and inclusive, just as the environment is expansive and encompassing.

Ecocriticism articulates with all possible contexts and cultural phenomena; connections with others fields and theories are crucial and foster growth. Literary representations of environmental injustice beg ties with Marxist theory, while elements of Shakespeare or Chaucer would lend themselves easily to New Historicist applications of ecocriticism. Broad and diverse contexts in which to situate texts also encourage involvement beyond literary studies. Ecocriticism gives literature and its study a dialogue and call to action in engaging this major issue of our time.

Ecocriticism adds a seat for the environment at the critical feast. Not only is it a growing subject of study in English departments nationwide, but it also resonates very well with the discourse of sustainability on the our own campus. Benjamin Rush’s writings are widely accessible on campus; what does Rush have to say about the natural world? About humans’ role in it? How does your favorite novel or short story portray the human-non-human relationship? That economics article you just read?

The Ecocriticism Reader, Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism (by a Dickinson Professor!), Early Modern Ecostudies, The Future of Environmental Criticism

The Dirt on “Home Burial:” Biographical Criticism and the Poetry of Robert Frost

I’ll define biographical criticism as a critical approach that uses the events of an author’s life to explain meaning in the author’s work. Examples are ubiquitous and familiar: Samuel Clemens piloted a riverboat in the Antebellum Era, John Steinbeck researched migrant workers and families in California before publishing Grapes of Wrath, and Joseph Conrad captained a steamboat in the Congo. Chaucer’s grandmother, according to my AP English teacher, served as his inspiration for the Wife of Bath. Even as early as my 7th grade English class, I learned that Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet who died around the time the Bard wrote Hamlet.

According to Benson, a biographical approach considers a work’s first-order context – the author’s life – and recognizes literary study as being an art not a science (110). He places it at odds with New Criticism, so a work takes on a different meaning when viewed through the lens of an author’s life.

Let’s attempt a biographical critique of Frost’s “Home Burial.” We read it in class and know already that Frost and his wife Elinor, just like the poem’s couple, lost their first-born son soon after his birth. Because the poem is long, I suggest a new tab for this link to follow along at home.

Imagine the author of "Stopping by Woods..." threatening his sister from this porch

Frost’s poems are often in first person, so it seems ironic that this poem is written not only in dialogue but also in third-person. A way of pushing away a poem that Frost called “sad” and never read aloud in public (Thompson 598)? Perhaps, but Thompson gives several more details about the poem’s background. Frost admitted the emotional parallels between him and his wife after their child’s death and Amy’s and her husband’s after theirs. Amy’s declamation that “the world’s evil” in Line 110 is a verbatim quote from Elinor Frost following her own child’s death.

The true subject of the poem – from a biographical perspective – is the death of Frost’s nephew, child of his sister-in-law Leona White Harvey, in 1895. It was her relationship with her husband that inspired the poem. Thompson implies yet another connection to Frost’s life, this time to his childhood in San Francisco. In the index under “Home Burial,” he lists page 10. While no reference to the poem exists on that page, it does describe how Frost’s mother would at times leave the house when his and flee to a neighbor’s when his father was drunk. If I may posit my own connection, a fight with his sister Jeannie (Thompson 340) in which he used a loaded pistol to force her back into the house may have inspired the force alluded to at the poem’s closing. Also, the poem was written in England at a time when Frost was homesick.

Those life events are the personal context for “Home Burial.” Rather than adding meaning to the poem, whose text remains unchanged, these revelations about Frost’s life and the poem’s possible inspirations change the interpretation of Frost’s life. Biographical criticism may explain the personal context of the poem, but it does not explain the poem’s meaning, its significance.

Rather, as we discussed today in class, it limits the interpretations. Because we know Frost’s and Harvey’s firstborn children died, we assume also that Amy and her husband lost their firstborn. No mention is made of other children, but they might be there (lack of evidence is not evidence of absence). The attendant implications for Amy and her husband’s relationship are enormous; “Newlyweds” weathering a crisis from their first child’s death is more tragic and dangerous than parents struggling with the death of their third.

I argue biographical criticism casts the choices inherent in writing as clues to the author’s personality – not the poem’s meaning. In this way, Frost’s oeuvre is the leading witness in finding meaning in Frost. We can see him taking different strategies when dealing with an emotional Elinor, progressing from belittling, to consolation, to denunciation, to confrontation. In this way biographical criticism creates an interpretation of the author, as Foucault suggests, and can reveal much about the times and culture of when the work was written.





*** on this last link, click “ok” – it will take you to the search terms in the catalog

Useful Linkage:


Stanza “Exiting the Student Union from the Basement”

Exiting the Student Union from the Basement

I bear the door before me like a shield

And pressing, push my eyes the vanguard for

My mind into the field – what force awaits

My flank to tear inside the rumbling dark?

The spies report “all clear!” and I march on.

Some hawkish general steers me right

A chain link wall to face, and peer beyond

The formless there to shape what lies within.

A thing, a pipe, or enemy a shriek

For Battle-cry performs and thusly I –

Tired now of war – flee onward towards the door.

            After several years of visiting Dickinson and at least a year of residing here, many of the places on campus carry a more personal flavor that mediates the way I conceptualize and describe them. While I wrote with my perceptions in mind, I chose to represent them in a different way; my interpretation, too, excludes them.

War is a familiar but destructive force in the world. While the lives of civilians may normally remain relatively unimpacted by it, for soldiers and veterans it is a defining experience. Its powerful impression stems from its ability to generate a rush from both terror and excitement. Such a quality allows warfare to form an effective metaphor for simultaneously experienced but generally opposed emotions. Use of military vocabulary to create a war motif in “Exiting the Student Union from the Basement” recreates textually the internal emotional duality as the speaker self-dramatizes his experience.

And just what is that experience? The poem at first appears to describe a military encounter. Terms and phrases like “bear…like a shield,” “flank,” “hawkish general,” and “battle-cry,” while usable for standard descriptions, carry military annotations. Yet nowhere does the speaker refer to his being a soldier. An enemy is never seen, only heard – dubiously, at that (see below). Thus while the speaker says he is “tired now of war,” war is something in which he is evidently not participating. In reality the speaker, as the title suggests, is moving through a non-hostile space. This revelation allows for a multi-tiered reading of the text. For if the speaker is not, in fact, fighting, then the military descriptions are not literal but rather metaphorical.

Meter is used to add further dramatizations to the poem. Iambic pentameter predominates in the poem but breaks down at the beginning of Line 11 with “Tired now of war.” The speaker’s internal metaphor at this point collapses with the meter, before picking up again at the end of the line as the warfare imagery “flee” resumes. Meter also emphasizes certain thought processes in the text, such as Line 9 “a thing, a pipe, or enemy. [emphasis added]” This non-logical progression reinforces the idea that the reality from which the speaker speaks is not a military, but rather an imaginative one. The agent in most clauses is the speaker, excepting those used as dramatic metaphors such as the “general” in Line 6 or the “spies” in Line 5.