Poetry and Ecology

June 17, 2010

This interesting review by Daisy Hildyard offers a careful critique of Diane Kelsey McColley’s book Poetry and Ecology in the Age of Milton and Marvell (Ashgate, 2007).

When I read the book I was intrigued to find that McColley made little mention of the thought-weaving nuns and their separate community in her chapter on Marvell’s Upon Appleton House, particularly as there is so much consideration of what it could mean to constrain nature and what it means to be ‘ungirt’  in that chapter. The nuns present an example of constraining, straining and preserving that applies to both the fruits of nature, and to writing that is not erroneous.

Within the poem there is a considerable section in which a nun’s original speech to Isabel Thwaites is reported. The stanza directly before the transition to the nun’s speech goes thus:

Near to this gloomy Cloysters Gates
There dwelt the blooming Virgin Thwates,
Fair beyond Measure, and an Heir
Which might Deformity make fair.
And oft She spent the Summer Suns
Discoursing with the Suttle Nunns.
Whence in these Words one to her weav’d,
(As ’twere by Chance) Thoughts long conceiv’d.

The nun speaks about life in the nunnery as though making a spontaneous speech, whereas she actually recites thoughts that were made a long time ago. This echoes the jam-making process the nun describes as a pleasurably-pious activity undertaken by her and her sisters:

‘Nor is our Order yet so nice,
Delight to banish as a Vice.
Here Pleasure Piety doth meet;
One perfecting the other Sweet.
So through the mortal fruit we boyl
The Sugars uncorrupting Oyl:
And that which perisht while we pull,
Is thus preserved clear and full.’

The horror of the nuns’ jam-making process particularly appealed to me when I first encountered this poem, and their awareness of the transformative aspect of the jam-making process that is the key to that horror and their trickery. The nuns’ thoughts are wicked because they are like a trick-jam, presented as though fresh, yet, like preserved* fruit, long bottled. The aim is enchantment (c.f. stanza 34): to hold Isabel spellbound. Contemporary readers were supposed to recognise this as error.

In sync with Diane Kelsey McColley’s book, this could be read as a particularly ecological kind of error, as where she states on p.8 that: ‘Readers sometimes speak of “capturing” things in words […] One way we can learn to speak without appropriation is by listening to poets’ ever-fresh particularity and responsive form. A living earth needs a living language’, etc. For different reasons to McColley’s twentieth-century ‘literature and the environment’ commentators, Marvell contemplates a similar-seeming argument. His image of jammy, unnatural speech and enchantment here has a lot in common with contemporary images of how bad-knowledge circulated in repeated old wives’ tales and unchallenged old news – images found in the armories of both anti-Catholic and pro-experiment commentators.

Reading DH’s review and the book itself makes me want to add my own item to the shopping list for further investigation in this area. My sense is that the ‘dilemma of language’ (pp.7-9 in McColley’s book) needs to be vastly extended and considered principally in light of the contemporary dilemma of language.

*         *         *

*preserved, adj. 2. a. Of organic material, esp. foodstuffs: treated so as to prevent decomposition, fermentation, or decay (OED)

Of course, making jam was not an intrinsically suspicious process at this time! The world would soon see Boyle conducting experiments to preserve fruit by removing air rather than adding sugar (Hidden Qualities of the Air, 1674).


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