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Couplet Ecology
Nineteenth-Century Subfield, University of Minnesota (2010)
  • Neil Chudgar, Macalester College
Pope’s Windsor-Forest hardly seems like a document of ecological thinking. In that poem, the youthful Pope celebrates the way trees turn into lumber, lumber turns into ships, and ships extend the British empire around the terrestrial globe. In his later years, Pope himself would grow dissatisfied with the ecology of Windsor-Forest—more dissatisfied, indeed, than any latter-day ecocritic might be. We might regret that Pope failed to mourn the death of trees; but the poet, looking back on his juvenilia, would blame himself for having failed, more direly, to observe his ethical duty to the whole material world. In Windsor-Forest, the young poet boasts that “The Groves of Eden, vanish’d now so long,/ Live in Description.” 1 Two decades later, in the Epistle to Arbuthnot, a wiser Pope would lament that “pure Description,” in his early works, “held the place of Sense.”  2 The gravity of this indictment might be hard for us to grasp, so today I’m hoping to make some sense of its significance for literary history and also, though as yet only inchoately, for thinking we may want to do about ecology. As Bruno Latour reminds us: “There is in ‘mere description’ an overly powerful form of normativity: what is defines the common world and thus all that must be.”  3 In his later years, Pope came to understand that it is not the business of poetic language to “define the common world”: his mature poetry rejects the poetic superbia of description; it locates itself not in or out of the universal order but tangent to it, like a veil, a film, a “curtain of words.” In conceiving poetry this way, Pope helps to create a distinctive poetics, from which—and this is what I hope to begin arguing here—we can learn about a forgotten chapter in the history of ecological ideas. To work toward that end, I want to show how Pope outgrew his youthful confidence that poetic description could recover a lost Eden. I think he came to understand that Eden could not be described, because Eden had never been lost. 1. Alexander Pope, Windsor-Forest (1713), ll. 7f. 2. Pope, An Epistle from Mr. Pope, to Dr. Arbuthnot (1735), ll. 147f. 3. Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004), 224.
Publication Date
October, 2010
Citation Information
Neil Chudgar. "Couplet Ecology" Nineteenth-Century Subfield, University of Minnesota (2010)
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