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Environmental and ecological readings

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Philippe Laplace

Part I. Nature and the Environment: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Robert Burns: Nature’s Bard and Nature’s Powers

Yann Tholoniat

Texte intégral

  • 1 Pierre Serna, ‘1793. La république des animaux’, L’Histoire, 396 (2014), pp. 80-83. See also Denis (...)

1When the menagerie of the Museum of Natural History is officially founded on June 10th, 1793, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre has already worked for a year as its curator. The author of Paul et Virginie is convinced that a zoo can be a symbol of the young French republic. In true Rousseauist fashion, he believes that animals represent nature unpolluted by tyranny and servitude: ‘L’invention d’une ménagerie républicaine en une sorte d’Eden animalier permettrait l’observation d’un temps d’avant les chasseurs et constitue le socle éthique d’une ménagerie’.1 The actors of the French Revolution brimmed with proposals of all kinds to revolutionise the way the world could be seen. As such, the end of the eighteenth century is a turning point in Western history, but also perhaps in world history, albeit for a different reason. Indeed, the end of the eighteenth century is now commonly used by scientists to mark the beginning of the ‘anthropocene’, a termed coined by Eugene F. Stoermer to designate an informal geological era characterised by the systematic influence of human action upon the earth and its ecosystems, most specifically on the environment. The Scottish poet Robert Burns lived at this period of great social and natural changes, and this paper intends to show that his work bears the mark of a visionary ecological boldness, before the word ‘ecology’ existed (as the word was coined much later, in 1866, by the pro-Darwinian German biologist Ernst Haeckel).

  • 2 Letter to Dugald Stewart, July 30, 1790, in The Letters of Robert Burns, 2 vols, ed. by G. Ross Roy (...)

2Born in Ayrshire, Burns did not feel at ease in Edinburgh, or even when he lived in Dumfries; he preferred to live in the countryside. Throughout his life, he was accompanied by nature in all its manifestations of fauna, flora, weather and seasons (which were particularly important when Burns tried his luck year after unsuccessful year as a peasant). This comes as no surprise then that he decided to publish his first selection of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786) under the aegis of two poets renowned for their idyllic staging of nature, Virgil and Theocritus. Although he mentions them in a preterition in the preface (‘not the production of a poet […] who looks down for a rural theme, with an eye for Theocrites [sic] or Virgil’), he certainly had an eye for the natural themes for which they are still remembered today. Indeed, the epigraph of the collection is endorsed by ‘Nature’s bard’, making sure that the reader understands ‘t’is Nature’s powers inspire’, the word nature being duly capitalised. In ‘Epistle to John Lapraik’, the speaker demands: ‘Gie me ae spark o’ nature’s fire, | That’s a’ the learning I desire’ (73-74). He writes in a letter: ‘a favourite study of mine, the characters of the Vegetable and the manners of the Animal kingdom.’2

  • 3 John Young, Robert Burns. A Man for All Seasons (Aberdeen: Scottish Cultural Press, 1996), pp. 197- (...)

3Robert Burns, as a peasant, naturally displays a wide-ranging first-hand knowledge of Scottish flora and fauna. But his empirical knowledge is fostered by a Spencer – a botanical reference at the time – provided by William Dunbar. The critic John Young has collected statistics about Burns’s impressive knowledge about nature. To give but a few examples, Burns’s oeuvre includes 236 references to flowers (37 different species), 154 references to trees (26 species), 835 references to landscape elements (rivers, mountains, woods…), 170 references to seasons, 350 allusions to the weather.3 He is also interested in the debates about geology and evolution. Burns shows how deeply concerned he was with nature and environment by and large: he wrote indignant lines to protect spots that he delighted in, and he positively roars, in his poems and in his letters, when he sees that nature is molested by men. As such, he is a fascinating topic for ecocriticism. Indeed, in the perspective of ecocriticism, nature is not to be considered as an allegory or a projection of the poet’s psyche, but as a living entity and a process. One of its aims is to assess the ecological dimension of an author’s work. Lawrence Buell suggests that the following four elements be taken into account to assess the ecological awareness of an artist’s work:

  1. The non-human element is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.

  2. Human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.

  3. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation.

    • 4 Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Pres (...)

    Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.4

  • 5 Jonathan Bate, Romantic Ecology (London: Routledge, 1991).
  • 6 Karl Kroeber, Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and the Biology of Mind (New York: (...)
  • 7 For a study of what Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats owe to Robert Burns, see Yann T (...)
  • 8 Thomas Pughe, ‘Ré-inventer la nature: vers une éco-poétique’, Études anglaises, 58 (2005/1), p. 69.

4As a paradigm of an ecocritic work, Jonathan Bate chooses elements from William Wordsworth’s poems and prose5. He shows how Wordsworth’s work has had an impact on the ecosystem of the Lake District, which has become a magnet for tourists from all over the world. Following Bate’s work, Karl Kroeber considers that Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley may be seen as ‘proto-ecologists’.6 Yet all these critics, by limiting the British Romantic corpus to the ‘Big Six’, overlook the influence Robert Burns proves to be in shaping their poetics.7 Indeed, if, according to Thomas Pughe, ‘l’idéal d’une poétique écologique serait donc de dire l’altérité de la nature (de ce qui est sauvage) sans la civiliser’,8 this article sets out to show how an ecocritical reading of Robert Burns’s work allows one to reassess the part played by nature in his poems. However Burns may indulge in self-posturings in his poems and in his letters (which allows him to take his place in the tradition of nature-inspired poets), he fundamentally construes nature as a place to protect against man’s ruthless assertion. Indeed, from his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786) onwards, he perceives the natural world as a dynamic ecosystem. His poems are written with a view to preserve Scottish flora and fauna, and in order to foster a harmonious balance between the human world and the natural milieu.

Nature and revolution (s)

  • 9 Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses (Paris: Gallimard, 1966), p. 160 and p. 149.
  • 10 Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses, p. 138.
  • 11 Olivier Postel-Vinay, ‘Anthropocène, nouvel âge géologique?’, L’Histoire, 396 (2014), pp. 32-33.

5Michel Foucault points out the fact that in the eighteenth century, ‘la continuité de la nature est exigée par toute histoire naturelle’, and he underlines ‘la préséance épistémologique de la botanique’.9 He identifies the period between 1775 and 1795 as the time when a revolution in knowledge affects the scientific organisation of living beings – which he calls ‘une ontologie sauvage’ – paving the way for ‘une valorisation éthique de la nature’.10 Historians confirm that it is around the end of the eighteenth century that the anthropocene begins11 – the anthropocene being the name given to that particular moment when mankind begins to systematically exploit the resources of the earth. Historians identify the beginning of this period with the growth of the industrial revolution and the development of rural migration towards cities.

6The eighteenth century has often been called the age of revolutions, but among the various radical changes of the time, the very spark of them all might well be the agricultural revolution. Indeed, the phenomenon of enclosures, preventing agricultural workers from taking their livestock (cows, sheep) easily to the Commons, leads many to the verge of bankruptcy and to a migration towards the city, which needed new manpower for its newly-built factories.

  • 12 Burns mentions Tull in his ‘autobiographical’ letter to John Moore (August 2, 1787, in Letters 1: 3 (...)

7Enclosures are but a facet of the agricultural revolution which takes place in the eighteenth century. The age of the Enlightenment is also an age of agricultural ‘improvement’: improvers wrote and discussed treatises of agronomy (the term is coined around 1760), and with Jethro Tull among others, technical efficiency rose steadily. Burns reads the works of Tull and George Dempster,12 but to no avail apparently, as he was eventually reduced to ask for a job as an excise-man!

8Like Burns, albeit on a larger and more successful scale, improvers tried to develop a speculative market for goods. Small farmers were sometimes turned outdoors and would work only as agricultural hands on the owner’s land. Oliver Goldsmith, in The Deserted Village (1770), describes the malaise of the countryside:

Ill fares the land, to hast’ning ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroy’d, can never be supplied.

A time there was, ere England’s griefs began,
When every rood of ground maintain’d its man;
For him light labour spread her wholesome store,
Just gave what life requir’d, but gave no more:
His best companions, innocence and health;
And his best riches, ignorance of wealth.

But times are alter’d; trade’s unfeeling train
Usurp the land and dispossess the swain;
Along the lawn, where scatter’d hamlets rose,
Unwieldy wealth, and cumbrous pomp repose;
And every want to opulence allied,
And every pang that folly pays to pride. (51-68)

  • 13 Robert Burns’s Tour of the Highlands and Stirlingshire, ed. by Raymond L. Brown (Ipswich: The Boyde (...)

9Lines 61-62 have a particular Rousseaust ring to them. In his notebook entry for August 25, 1787, Burns expounds on the wildness of nature, still untouched: ‘an enclosed, half-proven country is to me more agreeable, and gives me more pleasure as a prospect, than a country cultivated like a garden’.13 In the poem ‘Castle Gordon’, he appreciates the wildness of the place: ‘Wildly here without control, | Nature reigns and rules the whole’ (19-20).

  • 14 Some owners want to turn even their agricultural spots of land into an object of admiration, as is (...)

10Another radical element of the transformation of the landscape is the desire of many owners to turn nature into a show.14 A famous literary example is that of Darcy’s house in Pemberley, described in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) in Book III, chapter 1. In Pemberley, the balance between nature and artifice reaches a climax, as Elizabeth Bennet notices with a premonitory feeling of lady of the house. In Germany, in the Elective Affinities (1809), Goethe describes how a young lord puts his land upside down so as to achieve a garden laid out according to the latest gardening fashion.

11A major consequence is the tremendous pressure exercised against peasants and farmers. In France for instance, Fouquet has the village of Vaux (together with two neighbouring hamlets) removed, so as to get the land he needs to have his Vaux-le-Vicomte castle built in 1641. In England, Simon Harcourt, 1st Earl Harcourt and owner of Nuneham Courtenay in Oxfordshire, has the local village destroyed for the erection of Nuneham House in 1756. He entrusts Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown with the design of the grounds.

12The transformation of the British countryside has a consequence for the livestock: cows and sheep are kept within more limited space. In Burns’s ‘The Death and Dying Words of Poor Mailie’, the dying sheep, speaking to her son about their owner, evokes the curtailed freedom of animals:

O, bid him never tie them mair,
Wi’ wicked strings o’ hemp or hair!
But ca’ them out to park or hill,
An’ let them wander at their will: (19-22)

13The sheep asks for her right to walk amidst vast pastures, as opposed to the growing tendency towards intensive animal farming.

Burns’s landscapes

14Robert Burns is fully aware of these social upheavals throughout the country. ‘The Twa Dogs’ provides an example of the violence men carry out against their neighbours. The house expulsions are compared to a violence wreaked upon nature, the peasants are rooted out of their ecosystem like plants: ‘decent, honest, fawsont [respectable] folk, | Are riven out baith root an’ branch’ (142-143). Some of his poems describe an idealised and idyllic nature:

O Nature! a’ thy shews an’ forms
To feeling, pensive hearts hae charms!
Whether the summer kindly warms,
Wi’ life an light;
Or winter howls, in gusty storms,
The lang, dark night! (‘To William Simson’, 79-84)

15If Burns mentions all times of the year, winter is the most quoted season. If ‘Spring, thou darling of the year’ (‘Elegy on Captain Matthew Henderson’) is the time of sowing, and ‘Autumn, benefactor kind’ (‘Address to the Shade of Thomson’) the time of harvesting, winter offers a propitious time for creation which is eagerly sought after by the poet:

While winds frae aff Ben-Lomond blaw,
An’ bar the doors wi’ driving snaw,
An’ hing us owre the ingle,
I set me down to pass the time,
An’ spin a verse or twa o’ rhyme,
In hamely, westlin jingle. […]

Yet nature’s charms, the hills and woods,
The sweeping vales, and foaming floods,
Are free alike to all.
In days when daisies deck the ground,
And blackbirds whistle clear,
With honest joy our hearts will bound,
To see the coming year:
On braes when we please, then,
We’ll sit an’ sowth a tune;
Syne rhyme till’t we’ll time till’t,
An’ sing’t when we hae done. (‘Epistle to Davie’, 1-6, 46-56)

16All the meteorological manifestations are evoked, from the most common ones (from sunshine to rain and hailstones) to the rarest phenomena:

Or like the Borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the Rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm. (‘Tam o’ Shanter’, 63-66)

  • 15 Romanticism: An Oxford Guide, ed. by Nicholas Roe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 204.

17As far as landscape is concerned, many poems belong to the tradition of loco-descriptive15 poems: they embody the poet’s pleasure to sing of the hills and dales of Scotland. In ‘To William Simson’, his clear ambition is to raise Scotland’s rivers and mountains to a mythical status which has already been reached by other foreign rivers:

Ramsay an’ famous Fergusson
Gied Forth an’ Tay a lift aboon;
Yarrow an’ Tweed, to monie a tune,
Owre Scotland rings;
While Irwin, Lugar, Ayr, an’ Doon
Naebody sings.

Th’ Illissus, Tiber, Thames, an’ Seine,
Glide sweet in monie a tunefu’ line:
But Willie, set your fit to mine,
An’ cock your crest;
We’ll gar our streams an’ burnies shine
Up wi’ the best!

We’ll sing auld COILA’s plains an’ fells,
Her moors red-brown wi’ heather bells,
Her banks an’ braes, her dens and dells,
Whare glorious WALLACE
Aft bure the gree, as story tells,
Frae Suthron billies. (43-60)

  • 16 Robert Burns’ Commonplace Book, 1783-1785, ed. by J.C. Ewing and Davidson Cook (Glasgow: Gowans & G (...)

18Indeed, as he confides in his Commonplace Book: ‘we have never had one Scotch poet of any eminence to make the fertile banks of Irvine, the romantic woodlands and sequestered scenes of Ayr, and the healthy mountainous source, and winding sweep of the Doon, emulate Tay, Forth, Ettrick, and Tweed’.16 What is at stake here, beyond the mere pleasure of evocation, is, first, the expression of Burns’s Scottish pride in his country – as opposed to England and its inhabitants, ‘Suthron billies’ –, and secondly, the endeavour to convert these Scottish places into actual lieux de mémoires, places which incarnate the national memory of the Scots. As is shown in the excerpt from ‘To William Simson’ above, he selects the landscapes for the historical associations they bear (here, with Wallace). Another device consists in assuming a genius loci (for instance, ‘the genius of the stream’, in ‘On the Destruction of Drumlanrig Woods’, 8), in the Hellenistic tradition which consisted in dedicating a garden to a particular nymph. In ‘A Vision’, Coila, the muse in the county of Kyle, is designated as the source of Burns’s inspiration and poetical calling. The Hellenistic emulation is confirmed at the beginning of ‘O Were I on Parnassus Hill’:

O, were I on Parnassus hill,
Or had o’ Helicon my fill,
That I might catch poetic skill
To sing how dear I love thee!
But Nith maun be my Muse’s well,
My Muse maun be thy bonie sel’, (1-6)

  • 17 John Young, Robert Burns, p. 209.

19Clearly, his love of Scotland and his poetical impetus are tightly interwoven. Burns’s topographic pleasure goes hand in hand with a toponymic pleasure in naming places: he mentions 25 hills over 18 references, out of a total of 835 landscape elements: heath, dales, waterfalls, lochs, marshes, cliffs, valleys, banks, fields and meadows17. Burns projects or rejects the feelings that are induced by the landscape, as in ‘The Braes o’ Ballochmyle’:

Low in your wintry beds, ye flowers,
Again ye’ll flourish fresh and fair;
Ye birdies, dumb in with’ring bowers,
Again ye’ll charm the vocal air;
But here, alas! for me nae mair
Shall birdie charm, or floweret smile:
Fareweel the bonie banks of Ayr!
Fareweel! Fareweel sweet Ballochmyle! (9-16)

  • 18 Letter to William Greenfield, December 1786 (Letters 1: 73).

20Here the Scottish landscape is literally a ‘pretext’. On the one hand it is used as an opportunity to suggest the feelings elicited by a beautiful sunset or a relief reminiscent of female attributes; on the other, the expanse of land becomes a text, a natural text – ‘Les Belles-Lettres de la Nature’,18 as he writes in a letter – for which the poet is a kind of interpreter and spokesman. Indeed, the rivers seen from afar are compared to poetical lines inscribed on the landscape, as is the case in ‘To William Simson’ (‘a tunefu’ line’, 50) and in ‘Sketch (Poem on Pastoral Poetry)’, where the poet evokes Allan Ramsay’s ‘sweet Caledonian lines’ which undergo a metamorphosis into ‘burnie strays’. As a whole, Burns mentions 33 Scottish streams and rivers, and 26 rivers located in England, Europe and in two other continents. The rivers are personified according to the twofold Homeric device consisting in providing a river with a personality (like Scamander in the Iliad), and a recurring epithet. Burns thus describes ‘Auld Hermit Ayr’ (‘The Vision’), ‘Tweed[‘s] aged head’ (‘Address to the Shades of Thomson’), and ‘The Tay meand’ring sweet in infant pride’ (‘Verses Written with a Pencil’). Burns prefers running streams over the standing waters of lakes and lochs. In order to refer to water in motion (about 150 times), he makes use of a number of synonyms: broo, burn/burnie (where his own name can be heard), floating, floods, flow, rill, rin, rivulet, stream, rivers, tide, linn [waterfall]…

21Burns takes pleasure in walking along the riverside with a pastoral backdrop: this enables him to see his poetical self under the light of the poets of old who drew their inspiration from the locus amoenus:

The muse, nae poet ever fand her,
Till by himsel he learn’d to wander,
Adown some trottin burn’s meander,
An’ no think lang:
O sweet to stray, an’ pensive ponder
A heart-felt sang! (‘To William Simson’, 85-90)

  • 19 Pierre Grimal, L’art des jardins (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1954), p. 74

22As noted by Pierre Grimal,19 ‘promenoirs’ or central avenues to walk around one’s premises were fashionable in eighteenth-century gardens. Burns owns no personal pleasure-garden, but to him, the whole of nature is his garden, and his promenoir. Burns loves to walk at dawn along a river, and he enjoys the interplay of the sunshine and shadows, the birdsong and the river’s murmuring. According to a Persian proverb, a king without a garden is not a true king; if right, then Burns is happier than the happiest king as the whole world is his garden… These strolls are vital for his inspiration, as he finds on his way places suitable for poetical meditations. To this activity, he gives the name ‘musing’, a term which can be glossed as meditating, but also as being visited by the muse. Such is the case of the river Nith, one of his favourite walks. First evoked as ‘Oft as by winding Nith I, musing wait’ (‘On Seeing a Wounded Hare’, 17), the river eventually develops into: ‘Nith maun be my Muses’ well’ (‘O Were I on Parnassus Hill’, 5).

  • 20 Michel Serres, Le contrat naturel (Paris: Flammarion, 1992), p. 76.

23How can one conceive of a river without trees on its banks? It is an aesthetic issue: ‘Bruar Falls, in Atholl, are exceedingly picturesque and beautiful; but their effect is much impaired by the want of trees and shrubs’, Burns writes in a note appended to ‘The Humble Petition of Bruar Water’. This issue soon turns, however, into a political one. Indeed, in the poem, he asks for what Michel Serres will later call a ‘physiopolitics’,20 that is to say a political strategy taking into account the relationship between the human world and the natural world. Indeed, the trees that used to scan the countryside like a natural, visual rhythm are felled in order to build the Royal Navy in various shipyards, so that Britain may rule the waves. Burns is infuriated by this unfortunate but sadly common practise, and he resorts to the following plea to the Duke of Atholl. Under the guise of a prosopopoeia, the river respectfully but firmly demands that more trees be planted again on its river banks:

Would, then, my noble master please
To grant my highest wishes,
He’ll shade my banks wi’ tow’ring trees
And bonie spreading bushes. (33-36)
[…]
Let lofty firs and ashes cool
My lowly banks o’erspread,
And view, deep-bending in the pool,
Their shadows’ wat’ry bed:
Let fragrant birks, in woodbines drest,
My craggy cliffs adorn,
And, for the little songster’s nest,
The close embow’ring thorn! (73-80)

24The Duke of Atholl heard of Burns’s poem and request, and he implemented a plantation policy in the area. In a similar fashion, Burns wrote ‘On the Destruction of Drumlanrig Woods’ (situated in the area of Ellisland): he was outraged by the deforestation ordered by the Duke of Queensberry. The banks of the river Nith were once so beautiful (‘When hanging beech and spreading elm | Shaded my stream sae clear and cool’), but the wood of the trees is now sold by a greedy owner. The indignant poet concludes thus: ‘The worm that gnaw’d my bonie trees, | That reptile wears a ducal crown’ (47-48). Burns opposes ‘honest men’ (‘The Humble Petition of Bruar Water’, 87) who respect nature, to ‘cruel men’ (‘On the Destruction of Drumlanrig Woods’, 45) who denature nature. In an ecocritical perspective, Burns’s performative energy is to be underlined: he goads the reader’s conscience so as to create the possibility of an awareness about the consequences of a local environmental crisis. Before Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes, ‘The Humble Petition of Bruar Water’ and, by and large, Burns’s whole work exemplify a positive impact of literature on the environment.

  • 21 Catullus, in poem 11 usually entitled ‘Words against Lesbia: to Furius and Aurelius’, concludes: ‘l (...)

25Embedded into a sentimental poem such as ‘To a Mountain Daisy’ lie the workings of an ecological strategy which can be seen in several poems. The poem probably belongs to a Catullian tradition,21 and, with a elegiac tone, describes a moment of lost innocence in a lost Eden. Together with the rhetoric of pathos, the poet confers on the flower the part of conveying an aesthetic dimension to nature (‘crimson-tipped flower’, 1; ‘bonnie gem’, 6), in harmony with the sunset (‘the purpling east’, 12). Nature’s aesthetic dimension is also to be seen in the lark (‘the bonie lark, companion meet, | […] with speckled breast! ’, 8-10), which is called ‘neighbour’ (7), a term which bears the idea of closeness, but also that of brotherhood, especially in such a humanised and pantheistic perspective. This suggests that only nature can restore the harmony which has been shattered by man’s modern behaviour. More intricately, the pathetic fallacy associated with the flower is twofold. On the one hand, the poem’s speaker assumes that the flower shares human qualities in being ‘modest’, ‘humble’, ‘unassuming’ with a touch of pride (‘Thou lifts thy […] head’, 27). All these values characterise the ideal peasant, according to Burns. When the speaker engages in a dialogue with the flower, he designates a common relative: ‘the parentearth’ (17). On the other hand, from the second half of the poem (stanza six) onward, the anaphora ‘Such is the fate’ introduces an inverted relationship between the human and the natural worlds: the girl, the poet, all the oppressed, even the reader, have to abide by a fate similar to that of the flower.

26If ‘To a Mountain Daisy’ finely interweaves the ideas of melancholic sentimentalism and an intimate bond with nature, many Burns’s poems simply display an encomium naturae:

Come let us stray our gladsome way,
And view the charms of Nature (‘Now Westlin Winds’, 29-30)

How lovely, Nith, thy fruitful vales,
Where bounding hawthorns gaily bloom;
And sweetly spread thy sloping dales,
Where lambkins wanton through the broom. (‘The Banks of Nith’, 9-12)

Upon a simmer Sunday morn
When Nature’s face is fair,
I walked forth to view the corn,
An’ snuff the caller air.
The rising sun owre Galston muirs
Wi’ glorious light was glintin;
The hares were hirplin down the furrs,
The lav’rocks they were chantin
Fu’ sweet that day. (‘The Holy Fair’, first stanza)

27But beyond what might again sound as sheer sentimentalism, Burns’s sense of politics consistently lurks, as in the bawdy ‘Green Grow the Rashes, O’ and ‘Ode to Spring’, which both thwart any kind of mawkish expectations by standing the tradition on its head. ‘Green Grow the Rashes, O’ ends on a well-known feminist interpretation of the Bible:

Auld Nature swears, the lovely dears
Her noblest work she classes, O:
Her prentice han’ she try’d on man,
An’ then she made the lasses, O. (22-25)

  • 22 Letter to George Thomson, January 1795 (Letters, 2: 335-336).

28Musing about the spring, Burns writes: ‘For these three thousand years we poetic folks have been describing the spring […]; and, as the spring continues the same, there must soon be a sameness in the imagery’, but he resolves to write a poem about this season with such traditional elements as ’the verdant fields, – the budding flowers, – the chrystal streams, – the melody of the groves, – & a love-story into the bargain & yet be original’.22 As a result, ‘Ode to Spring’ evokes a sexual encounter in a natural setting as the ‘climax’ of a communion with nature.

29The foremost feeling that characterises Burns’s presence within Nature is bliss. If we come back to ‘The Humble Petition of Bruar Water’, we can see the river displaying all its powers of seduction. The process of reforestation ‘she’ advocates would restore the endangered harmony of the place, and this generous action would bring its own reward:

Delighted doubly then, my lord,
You’ll wander on my banks,
And listen mony a grateful bird
Return you tuneful thanks. (37-40)

30The river goes as far as comparing its reforested banks to paradise on earth: human beings, flora and fauna would live together in a sensuous mood where colours and perfumes harmoniously combine:

And here, by sweet, endearing stealth,
Shall meet the loving pair,
Despising worlds, with all their wealth,
As empty idle care;
The flow’rs shall vie in all their charms,
The hour of heav’n to grace;
And birks extend their fragrant arms
To screen the dear embrace. (57-64)

31As a whole, the main difference with regard to nature between Wordsworth and Burns is that, if Wordsworth meditates about nature, or uses nature as the background for many meditations, he does so without knowing nature as intimately as Burns does. Quite simply, Wordsworth never had to toil the land to earn his living. By contrast, Burns does not envision nature like a spectator or a tourist; he consistently conveys the idea of nature as a complex eco-system of which man is but a part, an ecosystem that man can enjoy if s/he takes care of it. By underlining the interdependence between the natural world and the human world, he points out the duty to go beyond the nature/nurture divide to reinstate man within nature. The dramatisation of animals in his poems serves the same purpose.

Fauna

  • 23 John Young, Robert Burns, pp. 200-11.
  • 24 Letter to Mrs Dunlop, December 7, 1788 (Letters 1: 341).
  • 25 Letter to Mrs Dunlop, January 1st, 1789 (Letters 1: 348-49).

32As was the case with vegetal species and weather manifestations, Burns’s work displays an amazing range of animal references: 18 mammal species (91 references in all), 42 bird species (366 references), and many other species (fish, insects…), according to John Young.23 Birds, in particular, seem to draw the poet’s attention, as they embody a freedom of mind that he envies: ‘I had better been a rook or a magpie at once, & then I should not have been plagued with any ideas superior to breaking of clods & picking up grubs’.24 The frequency of the words ‘bird’ and ‘birdies’ (62 times according to Young) may be explained by their closely echoing another frequent pair under Burns’s pen: ‘bard’, and ‘bardie’. Obviously, birds have a very long tradition of poetical representation, and Burns acknowledges his heirloom: ‘I never hear the loud, solitary whistle of the Curlew in a Summer noon, or the wild, mixing cadence of a troop of grey-plovers in an Autumnal-morning, without feeling an elevation of soul like the enthusiasm of Devotion or Poesy’.25 He mentions about 40 bird species (over 328 references), and for poetical purposes he ascribes a character to most of them:

The sober lav’rock, warbling wild,
Shall to the skies aspire;
The gowdspink, Music’s gayest child,
Shall sweetly join the choir;
The blackbird strong, the lintwhite clear,
The mavis mild and mellow;
The robin pensive Autumn cheer,
In all her locks of yellow. (‘The Humble Petition of Bruar Water’, 41-48)

33Here the musical allusions (‘warbling, music, choir’), the alliterations, the binary rhythm stemming from the caesura, colour-scheme (‘black / white’), the alternate rhymes, all conspire to suggest, through the idea of a canon, the complementariness of the natural elements, and their overall harmony.

34No wonder then that, when this harmony is destroyed by human actions, the poet denounces the latter as outrageously cruel:

Thus ev’ry kind their pleasure find,
The savage and the tender;
Some social join, and leagues combine;
Some solitary wander:
Avaunt, away! the cruel sway,
Tyrannic man’s dominion;
The Sportsman’s joy, the murd’ring cry,
The flutt’ring, gory pinion! (‘Now Westlin Winds’, 17-24)

35Burns feels no empathy whatsoever towards those who hunt out of leisure or pleasure. ‘On Seeing a Wounded Hare Limp by Me, Which a Fellow had just Shot at’ is a poem whose circumstances are best documented, as far as Burns’s feelings are concerned:

  • 26 Letter to Alexander Cunningham, May 4, 1789 (Letters 1: 404-05). See also the letter to Mrs Dunlop, (...)

I have just put the last hand to a little poem, which I think will be something to your taste. – One morning lately, as I was out pretty early in the fields, sowing some grass seeds, I heard the burst of a shot from a neighbouring plantation, & presently a poor little wounded hare came crippling by me. – You will guess my indignation at the inhuman fellow who could shoot a hare at this season, when all of them have young ones, & it gave me no little gloomy satisfaction to see the poor injured creature escape him.— Indeed there is something in that business of destroying, for our sport, individuals in the animal creation that do not injure us materially, which I could never reconcile to my ideas of Virtue & eternal Right.26

36The poet’s incipit to the poem strikes a clear tone of indignation, with a particularly indicting pun in the very first words:

Inhuman man! curse on thy barb’rous art,
And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye!
May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,
Nor never pleasure glad thy cruel heart! (1-4)

37Burns shares the very Rousseauist (and sentimental) view of mercy as a cardinal virtue; the pun therefore suggests that, by killing animals, hunters set themselves apart from everything that is humane in humanity; they have become barbarians (‘barb’rous’), beyond the pale of civilisation. Moreover, the heart, which is usually associated with human feelings of love (as the epitome of all humane passions in mankind), and which is the organ that allows blood to flow, is, in the hunter, denatured, as it is the spring from which originates his decision to shed the blood of another animal. Burns underlines the sadistic impulse in all hunters who indulge in the dubious pleasure of killing other living beings. In a letter to Patrick Miller some time after the event, Burns states his opinion more clearly:

  • 27 Letter to Patrick Miller, June 21, 1789 (Letters 1: 417-18).

I have always had an abhorrence at this way of assassinating God’s creatures without first allowing them those means of defence with which he has variously endowed them; but at this season when the object of our treacherous murder is most probably a Parent, perhaps the mother, and of consequence to leave two helpless nurslings to perish with hunger amid the pitiless wilds, such an action is not only a sin against the letter of the law, but likewise a deep crime against the morality of the heart.—We are all equally creatures of some Great Creator […].27

38Burns’s attitude decentres the usual human point of view towards nature. The anthropomorphism he wants to ascribe to animals is not a pathetic fallacy, but the suggestion of a deep awareness of a common bond between all living beings, man being only one species among the others. His critique of anthropocentrism is staged in ‘To a Mouse’. Seamus Heaney feelingly describes the psychological drama at stake in this oft-anthologised poem:

  • 28 Seamus Heaney in Robert Burns and Cultural Authority, ed. by Robert Crawford (Edinburgh: Edinburgh (...)

[…] as the address to the unhoused mouse continues, the identification becomes more intense, the plough of the living voice gets set deeper and deeper in the psychic ground, dives more and more purposefully into the subsoil of the intuitions until finally it breaks open a nest inside the poet’s own head and leaves him exposed to his own profoundest forebodings about his fate.28

39From an ecocritical perspective, it is striking to note that in this poem, Burns makes use of the word ‘dominion’ (a term he also uses in ‘Now Westlin Winds’): ‘I’m truly sorry man’s dominion, | Has broken nature’s social union’ (7-8). ‘Dominion’, however, is a Biblical term coming from the book of Genesis when the relationship between human beings and animals is defined by God:

26. And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. 27. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. (Genesis 1. 26-28)

40Burns’s position in the poem consists in subtly revising the Creator’s words by completing them in asserting the idea of a ‘social union’ between human beings and other beings. In other words, Burns extends Rousseau’s ideas expounded notably in the Social Contract (1762) to the whole sphere of flora and fauna. As he writes in ‘On Scaring some Water-Fowl’, we are all ‘fellow-creatures’ (3). Against man’s hubris – originating in the usual interpretation of this passage in the book of Genesis – Burns envisages the necessity of a pact with nature. Burns’s poem suggests a revolution in perspective: instead of using the social world as a conceptual grid to read the natural world, Burns starts from the natural world to reflect on the continuous link from it to the human world. Indeed, this is nature which ought to be the guarantor of ‘social union’: all life stems from it, as the peasant who earns his living thanks to it well knows. Burns reaffirms the idea of a natural contract in another poem, ‘Glenriddel’s Fox’, in which he puts forward the phrase: ‘Nature’s Magna Carta’ (46). All the words are capitalised, and the Latinate words stretch back over a whole history of social struggles for greater justice in the human world.

  • 29 Michel Serres, Le contrat naturel, p. 64.
  • 30 And successfully so, as we have seen in the case of Bruar Water. Nowadays, there is a sign with an (...)

41Thus, in an ecocritical perspective, Robert Burns is no less than a visionary. Before Wordsworth, and with a more combative tone, he also anticipates what Michel Serres will remark in Le Contrat naturel: ‘exclusivement social, notre contrat devient mortifère’.29 There is no anthropolatry in Burns, but an acute awareness of the links which bind mankind to other kinds. The human world and the natural world are not parallel, or rival, entities, for they share the same universe and interact all the time by means of porous borders. Man’s conception of his relation towards the living world as inherited from the Middles Ages stipulates that man is at the centre of the living universe. Contrary to this view, in an age of many revolutions (agricultural and political), Burns displaces the reader’s view so as to encourage him or her to envision a long-term partnership with nature. Of course, Burns’s empathy towards flora and fauna originates from his experience as a ploughman, and from his being influenced by a sentimentalist view of nature. Yet he takes all these elements one step further in performatively requesting an ecological policy30, and in demanding that the rights of Nature be defended and taken into account in abstentia – simply because they are present everywhere – for the benefit of all ‘fellow-creatures’.

Notes

1 Pierre Serna, ‘1793. La république des animaux’, L’Histoire, 396 (2014), pp. 80-83. See also Denis Guedj, La Révolution des savants (Paris: Gallimard, 1988), pp. 88-89.

2 Letter to Dugald Stewart, July 30, 1790, in The Letters of Robert Burns, 2 vols, ed. by G. Ross Roy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 2, p. 42. [henceforth abridged as Letters]

3 John Young, Robert Burns. A Man for All Seasons (Aberdeen: Scottish Cultural Press, 1996), pp. 197-210.

4 Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 7-8.

5 Jonathan Bate, Romantic Ecology (London: Routledge, 1991).

6 Karl Kroeber, Ecological Literary Criticism: Romantic Imagining and the Biology of Mind (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 2.

7 For a study of what Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats owe to Robert Burns, see Yann Tholoniat, ‘Robert Burns et les Romantiques; ou, le poète et ses ménades’, RANAM, 43 (2010), 137-155.

8 Thomas Pughe, ‘Ré-inventer la nature: vers une éco-poétique’, Études anglaises, 58 (2005/1), p. 69.

9 Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses (Paris: Gallimard, 1966), p. 160 and p. 149.

10 Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses, p. 138.

11 Olivier Postel-Vinay, ‘Anthropocène, nouvel âge géologique?’, L’Histoire, 396 (2014), pp. 32-33.

12 Burns mentions Tull in his ‘autobiographical’ letter to John Moore (August 2, 1787, in Letters 1: 38), where he evokes his (lost?) interest in agronomy: ‘I read farming books; I calculated crops; I attended markets’ (ibid., 143). George Dempster, another agricultural thinker, is quoted as a model in ‘The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer’ (line 73) and in ‘To James Smith’ (line 133).

13 Robert Burns’s Tour of the Highlands and Stirlingshire, ed. by Raymond L. Brown (Ipswich: The Boydell Press, 1973), p. 37.

14 Some owners want to turn even their agricultural spots of land into an object of admiration, as is shown in Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews, painted around 1750.

15 Romanticism: An Oxford Guide, ed. by Nicholas Roe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 204.

16 Robert Burns’ Commonplace Book, 1783-1785, ed. by J.C. Ewing and Davidson Cook (Glasgow: Gowans & Gray, 1938), pp. 1070-71.

17 John Young, Robert Burns, p. 209.

18 Letter to William Greenfield, December 1786 (Letters 1: 73).

19 Pierre Grimal, L’art des jardins (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1954), p. 74

20 Michel Serres, Le contrat naturel (Paris: Flammarion, 1992), p. 76.

21 Catullus, in poem 11 usually entitled ‘Words against Lesbia: to Furius and Aurelius’, concludes: ‘let her not look for my love as before, she whose crime destroyed it, like the last flower of the field, touched once by the passing plough’. This image impressed Burns, who used it also in the conclusion of ‘The Ninetieth Psalm Versified’: ‘They flourish like the morning flow’r, | In beauty’s pride array’d; | But long ere night cut down it lies | All wither’d and decay’d’ (25-28).

22 Letter to George Thomson, January 1795 (Letters, 2: 335-336).

23 John Young, Robert Burns, pp. 200-11.

24 Letter to Mrs Dunlop, December 7, 1788 (Letters 1: 341).

25 Letter to Mrs Dunlop, January 1st, 1789 (Letters 1: 348-49).

26 Letter to Alexander Cunningham, May 4, 1789 (Letters 1: 404-05). See also the letter to Mrs Dunlop, April 21, 1789 (Letters 1: 397).

27 Letter to Patrick Miller, June 21, 1789 (Letters 1: 417-18).

28 Seamus Heaney in Robert Burns and Cultural Authority, ed. by Robert Crawford (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997), p. 219.

29 Michel Serres, Le contrat naturel, p. 64.

30 And successfully so, as we have seen in the case of Bruar Water. Nowadays, there is a sign with an excerpt of Burns’s poem on the river bank.

Auteur

Is Professor at the University of Lorraine. He has written a number of articles on Robert Burns, William Blake, Thomas De Quincey, Robert Browning, Wilfred Owen and Joseph Conrad, and also in Spanish on Pío Baroja, Vicente Huidobro and Juan Carlos Onetti. He edited Culture savante, culture populaire dans les pays anglophones (RANAM n° 39, 2006), and co-edited Culture savante, culture populaire en Écosse (RANAM n° 40 / 2007) with Christian Auer. His latest book is ‘Tongue’s Imperial Fiat’: les polyphonies dans l’œuvre poétique de Robert Browning (Strasbourg, 2009).

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