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Is There a Poet Laureate of the Anthropocene?


“Annihilating all that’s made/To a inexperienced thought in a inexperienced shade.”
–Andrew Marvell, 1681

Someday in 1612, the genius dramatist, unofficial Poet Laurette, and all-around Falstaffian character that was the author Ben Jonson imagined a kind of epic voyage down London’s now-long-lost Fleet River. Jonson’s epic involved neither the harrowing of hell, nor the lack of Paradise, or no less than it didn’t do both in fairly the way that Dante had or that Milton would. Slightly, Jonson envisioned the travails of his characters on this industrial Styx as much less sacred and extra profane, missing transcendence however making up for it within the sheer fecundity of sewage that floated upon the canal that at this time flows beneath the bohemian environs of Camden City, and whose tinkling may be heard by way of sewer grates in Clerkenwell.

In Jonson’s mock-epic “On the Well-known Voyage,” the bucolic and pastoral have been changed with offal and shit, the place “Arses have been heard to croak, as an alternative of frogs,” and a thick crust referred to as “Ycleped Mud” composed of excrement and refuse was recognized to bob like moss on the floor of the water. So disgusting are the noxious fumes from each commerce and latrine that Jonson’s fellow colleague, the poet Sir John Harrington, would write in his 1586 A New Discourse of a Stale Topic Referred to as the Metamorphosis of Ajax that such smells “are two of these pains of Hell…and subsequently I’ve endeavored in my poor buildings to keep away from these two inconveniences as a lot as I’ll.” And so, at his manor of Kelston, he constructed the forerunner of the fashionable flushing rest room.

Conventions of pastoral poetry typically had characters with names like Strephon and Chloe in repose upon halcyon shores; Jonson’s is somewhat a type of anti-pastoral, one consistent with the grime and dust that more and more outlined his period.  On the Fleet River, “The sinks ran grease, and hair of measled hogs, /The heads, houghs, entrails, and the hides of canine.” Flowing from the middle inexperienced of the town out to the Thames, the Fleet was polluted with the rubbish of nascent business, a slick, oily stream; a fetid and beshitted, offal-filled cesspool, made glistening with the rendering of animal fats and the corpses of canine and cats. Infamous prisons like Ludgate and Newgate have been on the banks of that now-subterranean river; plague-ridden slums full of rural transplants clung to the brown shores of the Fleet. 


In his pleasant A Time Traveler’s Information to Elizabethan England, social historian Ian Mortimer describes the privies that might have been in houses lining rivers just like the Fleet: a “twelve-foot shaft of a number of hundred gallons of decomposing excrement and urine…seeping into the clay, for 2 or three years.” Mortimer reminds us, nevertheless, that although “Noisome smells and noxious fumes are widespread” in early trendy England, this “doesn’t imply that folks don’t discover them.” Certainly, each the inhabitants progress of London in addition to the beginnings of mass business, from leather-based tanning to wool dying, would have wafted new smells into the nostrils of the English. As Jonson wrote with infernal gleam, “Your Fleet Lane Furies…That, with still-scalding streams, make this place hell.”


Filth had been a subject of literary expression lengthy earlier than Jonson, one solely learn Geoffrey Chaucer, Francois Rabelais, or Giovani Boccaccio to know that poets have lengthy sung not simply of heaven, however of the asshole, the piss-bucket, and the privy as properly. I’d enterprise that “On the Well-known Voyage” does one thing somewhat bit totally different than the scatological depictions in The Canterbury Tales, nevertheless. As a result of Jonson’s London was a lot greater than Chaucer’s, as a result of it was simply starting to be ensnared within the environmental degradations of industrialization, the scope of the olfactory and hygienic assault is bigger than a Medieval author might have imagined. “On the Well-known Voyage” is satirical verse, sure; nevertheless it’s additionally an ecological poem.


Virtually three centuries earlier than the Romantic poet William Blake would castigate the “darkish Satanic Mills” of Britain’s industrial revolution, Jonson gave expression to misgivings about how London was shortly erasing nature within the identify of mercantile aspiration. All through the 16th-century, London expanded from the previous sleepy agrarian capital of a sleepy agrarian kingdom into what would quickly be the most important metropolis on Earth. Round when Jonson was born, the town’s inhabitants was roughly 70,000 individuals; by the point he wrote “On the Well-known Voyage,” it had grown to 200,000. Solely a half-century later and London was residence to half-a-million men and women. Emily Cockayne writes in Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England that “London was a rich bustling and increasing metropolis, however infrastructural improvement couldn’t maintain tempo and elements of the town turned more and more crowded, soiled and noisy.” Jonson didn’t simply converse of dust, he sang about waste; he didn’t simply speak of filth, he was revulsed at rubbish. “On the Well-known Voyage” was among the many first of what critics name ecopoems, and that’s as a result of it’s an early missive from the start of our present geological epoch of the Anthropocene.


That time period has turn into just lately fashionable in educational discussions of literature, a designation borrowed from geologists and climatologists to make clear the methods during which the Earth has been inextricably altered by humanity. With coinage incessantly credited to the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen, the Anthropocene is meant to outline our present period, when individuals have (principally for worse) altered the setting of the world in such a method that we’ve develop into the dominate actor and drive within the acidity of the ocean, the thickness of the ozone layer, the very temperature of the planet. Authorized scholar Jedediah Purdy explains in After Nature: A Politics of the Anthropocene that “we have now made the world our anthill: the geological layers we at the moment are laying down on the earth’s floor are marked by our chemical compounds and different industrial emissions, the pollens of our crops, and the absence of the various species we’ve got pushed to extinction.”

Scientists disagree on when it’s applicable to mark the beginnings of the Anthropocene. Because the interval is most spectacularly outlined by anthropogenic local weather disaster, the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, with its harnessing of fossil fuels similar to coal and oil, would appear an applicable start line. Others determine the Anthropocene’s creation second as lately because the Trinity check of the primary atomic bomb in 1945, to so long as 10 millennia in the past when agriculture first emerged on the silty banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. On the danger of betraying my very own early-modern-minded myopia, a reputable case might be made for Jonson’s period because the daybreak of the Anthropocene, which might have sure implications for a way we learn him and his compatriots in our personal day, when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Local weather Change’s 2018 report concludes that we might have lower than a decade to avert the worst outcomes of worldwide warming.


There are social, cultural, technological, and financial causes for understanding the 16th and 17th centuries because the earliest many years of the Anthropocene. By Jonson’s delivery there had already been a century of the Columbian Change, whereby the wildlife of the western and japanese hemispheres, which had been separated for hundreds of thousands of years, out of the blue circumnavigated the world in a flurry of commerce that radically altered the planet. Most of the financial and social tendencies that we affiliate with modernity—colonialism, globalization, and capitalism—see their begin in Jonson’s century. The Renaissance additionally helps us to know the interactions between local weather and humanity, because the men and women of Jonson’s day have been within the midst of what’s been referred to as the “Little Ice Age.” Throughout that interval, temperatures plummeted, probably because of the reforestation of North America caused by plague and genocide that decimated native populations. Arguably, this course of didn’t finish till the cumulative impact of the Industrial Revolution’s mass emissions of carbon-dioxide started to heat the planet—clearly an ongoing course of. Throughout these years of snow and ice, Europe appeared radically totally different from the best way it does at present, as accounts of Tudor festivals upon the frozen Thames or the gray winter work of Peter Breughel attest. Philipp Blom in Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Lengthy Seventeenth Century Reworked the West and Formed the Current writes that “Local weather change…affected everybody. There was no escaping the climate.” What’s essential to recollect is that although the thermometer’s mercury was headed in a special course than it’s as we speak, the climate of Jonson’s day was additionally formed profoundly by the affairs of individuals. 

An essential results of humanity’s modified relationship to nature—the alteration that defines the Anthropocene—is the emergence of latest city areas, new relationships between individuals and place that basically modified the expertise of what it means to be an inhabitant of Earth. One thing new in “On the Well-known Voyage:” Jonson has produced a literature that isn’t nearly hygiene (or the shortage thereof) however about mass air pollution. For such lyrics to be written, the circumstances of crowded, filthy, industrialized urbanity have been required. “On the Well-known Voyage” is about environmental collapse. Although not often regarded as such, Jonson is an ecopoet on the exact second in historical past once we redefined our relationship to nature—for the more severe.  Which is exactly what begs for a reevaluation of not simply Jonson, however that complete tribe of under-read 17th-century poets whom he influenced and that referred to as themselves the “Tribe of Ben,” posterity remembering them (when it does) because the Cavalier poets. Writers like Robert Herrick, John Suckling, Thomas Carew, Richard Lovelace, and most well-known of them, although solely sometimes categorized of their firm, Andrew Marvell. Editor Miriam Okay. Starkman writes in her introduction to 17th-Century English Poetry that for the Cavalier poets, “Exterior nature is…[the] most direct referent, supply of magnificence, pleasure, and mutability.”

For the Cavaliers, the pastoralism of classical poets like Hesiod and Virgil had a lot to advocate. Certainly one of their favored genres was the “country-house poem,” the place their ecological considerations turn out to be obvious. In Jonson’s 1616 “To Penshurst,” he described the manor of Sir Richard Sidney with a language very totally different from that which he deployed 4 years earlier in his panegyric to the Fleet River. In “To Penshurst” Jonson extols this property with its “higher marks, of soil, of air, /Of wooden, of water,” this “decrease land, that to the river bends, /Thy sheep, they bullocks, kine, and calves do feed;/The center grounds they mares and horses breed.” Jonson’s is a rhetoric of Eden, with prelapsarian tongue he describes:

…thy orchard fruit, they backyard flowers, hurst
Recent because the air, and new as are the hours.
The early cherry, with the later plum,
Fig, grape, and quince, every in his time doth come;
The blushing apricot and wooly peach
Hold on thy partitions, that each baby might attain.

Such prelapsarian evocation of Eden is a standard
trope in country-house poems, what Starkman described as “obscure overtones of a pale
perfume, a world simply misplaced.” In contrast to the Puritan, the Cavalier doesn’t merely
mourn paradises misplaced, however quite preserves a little bit of that charged immanence
inside nature as it’s now, acknowledging for the potential for transcendence
slightly below floor appearances. What the country-house poem presents is paradise
in verse, a lyric crafted by the human thoughts as certainly as a backyard is planted by
human arms, with the verse itself turning into a kind of perfection that you could
step into. Think about Jonson’s clear affect in Marvell’s almost-perfect 1681 “Upon
Appleton Home:”

Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my arms themselves do attain;
Stumbling on melons as I move,
Ensnar’d with stream’rs, I fall on grass.

By imagining a world with out the autumn, poems comparable to these question us with the potential of a future the place the autumn has been reversed, the place the exploitation of nature is ceased. “On the Well-known Voyage,” with its bawdy, earthy, fecal corporality could seem an extended distance from Penshurst Palace. But pastoralism and its discontents are literally a part of the identical venture; the disjunct between depicting nature in its abundance in addition to the exploitation of the setting share an identical ideological underpinning. Starkman explains that for the Cavaliers, there’s a “stoical consciousness of the tragedy of Nature, the backyard of innocence violated by expertise.” Whether or not writing about bucolic orchards or shit-contaminated rivers, whether or not speaking of nature or its violation, what these poems take as their topic is the setting. What their critics may say they lack in ingenuity, the Cavaliers greater than make up in ecological prescience.

Drawing inspiration from Jonson’s verse, the Cavaliers have traditionally (and with a lot reductionism) been made to distinction with the opposite dominant custom of 17th-century English poetry, the metaphysical faculty influenced by John Donne, and together with George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and Thomas Traherne. Owing a lot to a distinction made by Dr. Johnson (of no relation to Ben) in his 1781 Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, the writer described the Cavalier as worrying with “sprightliness and dignity,” a verse which “endeavors to be homosexual,” the place the poetry is “liberally provided with… tender pictures; for magnificence is extra simply discovered.”  Against this, Dr. Johnson noticed the metaphysicals as writing poetry the place the “most heterogenous concepts are yoked by violence collectively; nature and artwork are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and illusions.” One thing, maybe, to be noticed in the truth that the place the Cavaliers have been content material to watch nature, the metaphysicals mined the surroundings for metaphors, as in the event that they have been a valuable non-renewable useful resource hidden under the damaged crust of the world. Poetry resembling Donne’s was outlined by the so-called “metaphysical conceit,” the deployment of a metaphor that was shocking and novel—Dr. Johnson’s “heterogenous concepts… yoked by violence collectively.”


If the Cavaliers have been plain-spoken, the metaphysicals have been refined; the previous literal and bodily, the latter metaphorical and religious; the primary have been backward-looking pastoral conservatives, the second forward-looking aesthetic radicals. To not point out the approaching political and sectarian splits of the English civil wars, with the Cavaliers (true to their courtly identify) related to Excessive Church faith whereas preventing on behalf of the Royalist trigger. John Stubbs writes in Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil Struggle that “the cavaliers have been elegant gents, chivalrous if typically dissipated,” although against this their political adversaries “the roundheads have been spiritual and social revolutionaries.” Such a distinction might presumably be seen of their writing. Cavalier verse lends itself to the just about pagan imagery of a poem like Herrick’s 1648 “The Argument to His E-book,” which certainly might be learn as an ars poetica for the whole custom:

I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers:
Of April, Might, of June, and July-flower.
I sing of Maypoles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes
Of bride-grooms, brides, and of their bridal-cakes.
I write of youth, of affection and have entry
By these, to sing of cleanly-wantonness.


No one would mistake that sentiment for a Puritan ethos. But there’s a simplicity to the normal division; it implies that the Cavaliers lacked in Christianity (although Herrick was a priest), or that the metaphysicals lacked in sensuality—and anyone who has learn Donne is aware of that that’s not the case. Literary historians typically nonetheless train the cut up between these two 17th-century literary traditions as an archetypal and Manichean wrestle between abstraction and literalism, metaphysical sophistication and nostalgic pastoralism. Regardless of the crudeness of such a formulation, there’s a romanticism in understanding seventeenth-century poetry as divided between the top of the Puritan and the guts of the Cavalier. Scholar Earl Miner observes in an essay included within the Norton Essential Version of Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets that the Cavalier splendid “displays many issues: a conservative outlook, a response to a social menace, classical recollections, love of a really English lifestyle, and a brand new mixing of previous concepts.”

Dr. Johnson, it ought to be stated, cared not for the metaphysicals; his poetic conservatism and political royalism predisposed him to the Cavaliers, however this can be a place that has not been generally held for a really very long time. For the literary modernists of the early 20th-century, the Cavaliers appeared naïve, sentimental, easy, pastoral; poet T.S. Eliot in his 1922 essay on the metaphysicals argued that “civilization comprehends nice selection and complexity… The poet should develop into increasingly complete, extra allusive, extra oblique, in an effort to drive, to dislocate if crucial, language into his which means.” For Eliot and others like him, the metaphysicals with their ingenious and complicated rhetoric, their complexity and abstraction, have been a mannequin to be emulated, and the Cavaliers, nicely, not a lot.

The result’s that the Cavaliers have seen a essential eclipse over the course of the final 10 many years. The metaphysicals dwelled amongst the celebs, however the Cavaliers have been content material to muck within the dust, and maybe to dwell upon the great thing about the rosebuds whereas they have been there. The ideology of the Cavalier was seen as hopelessly archaic when confronting the complexity of modernity. Not for nothing, the Cavaliers—and their royalist political program—are related to Maypoles and Mummer parades, feast-days and carnival, and all the remainder of the lackadaisical accoutrement conflated with a Merry Previous England swept apart by Puritanism and trendy capitalism. The Cavalier is thus a determine of naïve romanticism, Stubbs writing of how “Everybody can image him…together with his lovelocks, his broad hat, his mantle and bucket-topped boots, the basked dealt with rapier at his aspect, a buskin masking his satin doublet.” It’s true that the Cavaliers have been typically aristocratic (although not all the time), typically royalist (although some like Marvell equivocated with chameleon-like urgency relying on politics), and that their verse might be plain-spoken and conservative (although deceptively so).


However we’d like not abandon them due to their embrace of a royalist politics; we’d like not obscure them as a result of they spoke to not Eliot, or as a result of modernists didn’t discover their verse sufficiently difficult. To slur the Cavaliers as “conservative” is to carry out a political class mistake; it’s to impose the circumstances of the current day onto a interval the place actual corollaries are unimaginable to seek out. Michael Schmidt writes in Lives of the Poets that the Cavaliers mark the “beginnings of a literary custom that takes pastoral conference into the precise countryside and finds within the concord between nature and nurture a civilizing theme.” They’ve on the core of their ethics an understanding about an inseparable connection between nature and humanity that’s virtually “pagan in angle.” For all of their status as being steadfastly traditionalist, and as a lot as their enthusiasms for the Caroline regime strike us as reactionary, the Cavaliers’ embrace of nature does have a radical message, standing because it does in opposition to the environmental exploitation that in our present day takes us to the precipice of full collapse.

Stubbs described how the “cavalier and the puritan are potent archetypes. The puritan upholds the work ethic and the desire to surrender pleasure, scourging the soul for flaws. Within the cavalier we have now the individualist, extra attuned to the passing second and in larger contact together with his wishes.” How might we not advocate them, the Cavaliers, standing as they did in opposition to positivism, Puritanism, and privatization—forces that threaten to destroy our world—on the exact second when these forces first emerged? Typically dismissed for missing seriousness, for his or her enthusiasm for sport and drink, for his or her indulgence, foppery, and libertinism, might we not determine such values as exactly people who must be valorized? Might we not see of their celebration of festivals, feasts, festivals, flora, and fauna a denunciation of labor, business, commerce, and all the remainder of the alienated soullessness that now threatens us with ecological collapse?

Now’s the exact second to think about the earliest physique of eco-poems ever penned—in the intervening time when the Anthropocene dawned. There’s as a lot of Extinction Rebel in Cavalier poetry as there’s royalism. In embracing nature, they rejected the Puritanism that threatens our world, and within the course of, what emerged was a strong aesthetic of “Anarchopastoralism.” Schmidt writes that a “very long time should move earlier than an anachronism is launched again into time,” but when ever there was a second to embrace the novel ecopoetics of the Cavaliers and their Anarchopastoralism, it’s in our present heat winter of the late Anthropocene. Too typically dismissed by the ruthless individualists of modernism as embarrassing throwbacks engaged in Medieval affectations, the Cavaliers truly provided a posh meditation on the connection of humanity to nature, and the way the violation of the later compels the identical for the previous.

What the modernists noticed as so rightly evocative in metaphysical poetry—the abstraction, the ingenuity, the philosophical sophistication—is arguably the inspiration of the very alienation that has so simply separated us from nature; an inadvertent capitulation to the inhuman perspective that treats each individuals and the surroundings as mere commodities. This isn’t accountable the metaphysicals—that may be absurd, and I’m an excessive amount of in love with the verse of Donne and Herbert to ever countenance such a factor. Apart from, I’ll argue that the Cavaliers are extra than simply charming, however it’d be a tough declare to rely Lovelace the poetic equal of Donne. What the metaphysical poets did accomplish, nevertheless, is a sure achievement of abstraction; a product of the age that allowed for mechanistic metaphors for human anatomy, the place the French thinker Rene Descartes might argue contra all expertise that animals are merely little machines. Such a perspective is one which hasn’t unsurprisingly pushed us deeper into the Anthropocene.

To courtroom reductionism as soon as once more, it’s the Puritanism that’s so harmful within the metaphysicals, however we’d but be saved by the paganism within the Cavaliers; we might but discover our correct relationship to what Herrick referred to as the “civil wilderness.” Stubbs writes that the “puritan is extra dominant in current occasions, current within the astonishing mental and bodily achievements of the fashionable period—achieved at crushing human value.” May we not discover room for the Cavalier then? For theirs is a theology that Starkman described as “beneath the influences of Neo-Platonism,” a “sensibility…properly on its solution to secular transcendentalism,” the place nature “is divine.”

Maybe probably the most essential, if most delicate, distinction between the metaphysicals and the Cavaliers is of their strategy in the direction of time, mutability, finality, and demise. With a contact of crucial eccentricity, I declare that for the metaphysicals their strategy to the hereafter is considered one of memento mori, however for that of the Cavalier it’s carpe diem. The primary refers back to the strategy that asks a penitent to eternally keep in mind whereas they’re alive that in the future, they shall be lifeless; the second is the exhortation that since you’ll shall be lifeless in the future, it’s essential to “Seize the day” within the current. Memento mori is the aesthetic of spoiled fruit and time-glasses depicted in Dutch vanitas work; it’s the winged cranium on a Puritan’s grave. Carpe diem, against this, is the drained wine-glass, the hen bone cleared of meat. Not essentially mutually unique positions, however as aesthetics they differ by giving the metaphysicals a gloss of piety, prayer, and death-obsession; the Cavaliers one in every of a lusty embrace of the second. Carpe diem is the conference that permits Herrick to implore virgins to “Collect ye rosebuds whereas ye might, /Previous Time continues to be a-flying;/And this similar flower that smiles as we speak/To-morrow might be dying.”

Whereas typically merely learn as an injunction to reside life to the fullest, Stubbs appropriately notes how this poem from Herrick’s 1648 Hesperides is “virtually an austere lyric.” For missing the obvious sobriety of memento mori, poems learn as carpe diem are counter-intuitively extra extreme. With out claiming that any of the poets throughout each traditions have been something aside from (principally) orthodox Christians, the variations between a memento mori and a carpe diem perspective are essential. Whereas it will appear that the later would encourage us to stay a life that might be wasteful, the other is definitely true. With out the consolations of eternity, we’re to make our lives as match as attainable whereas we’re truly dwelling them, for when “now to the abyss I cross” (as Marvell wrote in 1651), any continued motion turns into an impossibility.

What the ecopoetics of the Cavaliers supply us, on this period the place (to repurpose a lyric of Carew), “the winters [are] gone, the earth hath misplaced/Her snow-whited robes, and now no extra the frost/Candies the grasse, or casts an ycie creame/Vpon the silver Lake, or Chyrstall streame,” is a kind of knowledge. Memento mori might ask us to mirror on the singularity of our personal dying, but such a view presupposes a passing second separating this life from the subsequent, an entrance into eternity the place all could also be reconciled, all could also be answered, all could also be saved. However we will’t anticipate such a second of enlightenment, or for saviors aside from ourselves to offer entrance into the subsequent scene. Carpe diem, opposite to its fame, doesn’t essentially maintain such a naive religion. What “Collect ye rosebuds” reminds us of isn’t just our personal mortality, however that of Arcadia as properly. It’s an elegy for a dying world. The Cavalier intuits that the backyard isn’t a logo for something greater; the backyard is all that we’ve got—and it’s ok. Now our activity is to protect it.

Ed Simon
is the Editor-at-Giant for The Marginalia Assessment of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Evaluation of Books. A daily contributor at a number of totally different websites, his assortment America and Different Fictions: On Radical Religion and Submit-Faith might be launched by Zero Books this yr. He could be adopted on Fb, his web site, or on Twitter at  @WithEdSimon.