Outcasts from Eden

Ideas of Landscape in British Poetry since 1945, by Edward Picot

So far as the circumstances in which we live are concerned, the most significant challenge and influence for the modern landscape poet must be the environmental crisis. When we look at the landscape today, we are more inclined than ever before to read it in terms of the damage being done to Nature by Man. And since much of this damage is something we have learned about, rather than something which can easily be observed by the naked, untrained eye, this must mean that we are more and more inclined to see the landscape in a scientific way - specifically, from the point of view of the modern ecologist. The scars made by new roads and the rubbish swept up on our beaches are plain enough, but many of us now read the landscape in terms of absences, too: the absence of hedgerows, of wild flowers, of insect-life, of certain native trees, and so forth. And we worry about the invisible things: the pesticides which we know are being used on the land, the poisons leaking out of buried landfills, nuclear waste in the Irish Sea, exhaust pollution in the air, ozone depletion...

As the environmental crisis deepens, so it becomes apparent that the myths and images, by which we in the West have traditionally sought to characterize the natural world, are inadequate to our new situation. It no longer makes sense to think of Nature as an alien force which lies beyond us and exists independently from us - a bestower of gifts and a bringer of destruction, inexhaustible, inscrutable, unpredictable and all-powerful. The following lines from the Book of Job exemplify the extent and depth of the change that has taken place:

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish spears? (Job 41:1,7)

No modern reader can contemplate this ancient challenge without realizing with a slight shock that the answer is different now to what it was when the lines were first written...

© 2000 Edward Picot