Widening the Lens: Reflections on Eco-Criticism

This piece was my final project for a Senior Seminar course at Humboldt State University
The Bioregional Classroom


Widening the Lens: Reflections on the Continually Broadening Scope of Literary Criticism

 No one wants to be left out. Unfortunately, it seems that in various discourses, from the interpersonal to the historical, the perspectives of many marginalized groups are absent. One of the most important functions of education is lending the power of self-expression -- through writing and other creative means – to those who may otherwise continue to go unheard by the dominant culture, to give voice to the voiceless. Fortunately, critical theory seems to be developing toward the inclusion of more diverse voices, and in examining the dominant schools of literary criticism, one discovers a distinct historical trend toward the consideration of extra-textual elements in the process of explication and discussion—that is, a clear progression emerges in which contextual elements take on greater and greater importance in literary analysis.

Over the course of my studies at HSU, I have been introduced to several forms of literary criticism, including New Criticism, Structuralism, Cultural Studies and Gender Theory. After reflecting on the literary theory I have learned, I have come to the conclusion that the best measure of a critical theory is the extent to which extra-textual elements form part of its arguments and methodologies, and that the most comprehensive approach is one that borrows ideas from more than one school of critical thought, at the same time that it emphasizes the significance of factors outside the limits of the text itself. And while the development of critical practice in English studies is certainly a large topic—too large to deal with thoroughly in a paper of this length—by drawing upon my personal experience using various approaches, I hope to demonstrate the importance of examining extra-textual elements in the analysis of a literary work.  The four pieces of my own writing that I introduce in the following discussion provide an opportunity to look at the role of contextual elements in literature, each piece speaking to the importance of these elements in different ways. “Warriors of Antiquity,” for instance deals almost exclusively with the human realm of culture and historical context. On the other hand, “The Wonder of the Land” uses a more complex approach, blending aspects of Cultural Studies and Eco-Criticism. “Empire and Legacy” is similar to “The Wonder of the Land…” with the significant difference that it touches upon Post-Colonial concerns as well.  Finally, in my prose poem, “The Loop,” the element of specific geographical location functions as both subject and context. 

The essay “Warriors of Antiquity…” compares Beowulf, as translated by Seamus Heaney, with the ancient account of “The Battle of Maldon.”  Written to satisfy a midterm assignment for a survey of British Literature course, the paper was intended to demonstrate familiarity with the texts, as well as to help me develop some skill in comparing and contrasting literary works.  I chose to approach this essay in a manner that took into account the similarities and differences between the two works in terms of the extra-textual elements of culture, history, and geographical location. In many respects, “Warriors of Antiquity…” is a successful work. It strikes me as more coherent and more thoroughly developed than some of my efforts. For instance, I feel that I effectively managed to develop discussions of the themes, stylistic elements, and cultural and historical factors surrounding each work. As I reread this piece, I remember that I had a very clear idea of the overall structure in mind before I started writing. As a matter of fact, I attribute the success of this piece to two factors—my genuine interest in the two works examined, and the fact that I had a fairly clear plan in mind before I started writing. One of the opening sentences illustrates the clarity of organization in “Warriors of Antiquity,” “The importance of kinship, the prominence of the heroic imperative – that is the desire of warriors to prove their worth in battle – and what the Norton Anthology of British Literature calls“a somber and dignified elegiac mood…” unite these two works of Anglo-Saxon literature.work Still, the main thing this essay taught me was that by looking closely at a work in terms of its broad literary, historical, and cultural background, one is often able to generate a deeper, more insightful discussion than when one considers a work divorced from such extra-textual elements.  This approach has served me well in virtually every paper I have written since.

The essay “The Wonder of the Land…” is one of the best I have ever written.  I feel I was able to build on the organizational and analytical skills that I learned in the writing of “Warriors of Antiquity...” and incorporate a large amount of research fairly smoothly and effectively.  While the essay is by no means perfect, and would benefit from some revision, I believe that the depth and quality of its content makes it a solid research paper. Written for a “Special Topics in Literature” course dealing with contemporary Irish poetry, the essay reflects my attempt to fulfill an assignment requiring me to select an Irish poet and write a research paper on a particular element of their work. I chose the female poet Nuala Ni Dhomnaill, focusing on the theme of traditional Irish Nature writing, or dinnseanchas, as it appears throughout her work. I found the obvious connection between dinnseanchas and Eco-Criticism, and, using this connection, was able to incorporate an examination of a number of extra-textual elements into my analysis of Nuala Ni’ Dhomnaill’s verse.

            Researching dinnseanchas captured and sparked my imagination. This topic leant itself readily to Eco-criticism, the critical approach that I find the most interesting and consider the most widely developed in terms of the scope of extra-textual elements it includes. In fact, it was a course at my community college in which the text was a reader on Nature and Culture college course that helped me reach the decision to major in English. Every story, essay, and poem in that class dealt in one way or another with the connection between man and nature, and the ways in which literature can express, and explore that connection. Consequently, while  many of the underlying concepts of Deep Ecology and Eco-Criticism were already familiar to me when I wrote “The Wonder Of the Land…,” in discovering dinnseanchas I found an even deeper way of looking at and understanding the multifarious connections between human beings, nature, and literature. I read all the books I could find on the subject, and feel that by researching the role in nature writing of a wide array of pertinent extra-textual elements I learned some of the skills necessary for University level work.

            This assignment also gave me a lot of practice in utilizing my research effectively. For instance, I feel that both the introduction and conclusion of the paper are strengthened by quotes from the poet herself. As a result of close reading and analysis of the research materials germane to this essay, I feel I was able to substantiate every point I made in great detail. However, although I am proud of this essay, I also recognize that the large amount of material I brought to bear on the topic did cause me certain organizational problems that I now feel I could have handled more smoothly. Specifically, I feel that this essay wanders a little in places, and, if I had it to do over again, that I would try to narrow my focus topic even more. The discussion of the Ogham alphabet, for instance, is only obliquely related to my treatment of dinnseanchas, and though a connection between the concept of the Ogham and dinnseanchas does exist, the short length of the paper did not allow for an adequate articulation of this connection.  All in all though, except for typographical errors, and some minor organizational problems, I feel that this paper reflects my best work, and that the practice it provided in both the research process and the effective use of secondary materials has helped in the essays I have written since.

            The essay “Empire and Legacy…,” comprises another examination of the way in which extra-textual elements work together to form cultural contexts. Essentially, this paper compares and contrasts the views of nature expressed in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Countee Cullen’s “Heritage.” The assignment required that I employ one of the critical approaches discussed over the course of the semester in Marianne Ahokas’s Practical Criticism class. By blending some of the practices of Cultural Criticism, Post-Colonialism, and Eco-Criticism, I feel I was able to create a cohesive and cogent argument for the importance of extra-textual elements in literary analysis.

            In considering the different views of nature posited by Cullen and Conrad, I found myself encountering problems that no single form of criticism seemed able to deal with to my satisfaction.  For this reason I attempted to synthesize elements of several critical approaches in my textual analysis of the works in question.  I feel my attempt succeeded for the most part, though I also feel I could have written a better paper by developing some of my arguments in greater detail, rather than assuming that the reader would fill in certain logical gaps in my analysis. For instance, the “similar view of a primeval earth” that I claim is held by both the speaker in Cullen’s poem and the narrator in Heart of Darkness is very much a cultural construction, but I now see that I neglected to express or develop this notion adequately. Nevertheless, I feel that the argument in this paper is fairly compelling, and that in the process of writing it I learned how to apply specific aspects of contesting critical theories.  This essay represents my first attempt at incorporating elements of various critical approaches in a discussion of a literary work, but during my time at HSU, I have continued to work at developing the skills I acquired completing this assignment, and now believe that synthesizing elements of differing approaches for analysis of extra-textual elements is one of the most important things I have learned in my career as an English Major.

I have included the short prose poem “The Loop,” for two reasons: because I wanted to include a piece of creative writing, and because this is an example of an attempt to convey strong emotions through the written word in the context of the extra-textual element of place. This piece was written to satisfy an assignment in Jerry Martien’s Nature Writing course that required students to write about a place that held strong personal significance.  It is particularly important to me because in the process of writing it I discovered the therapeutic quality of both the natural world and the creative act of writing. What is more, the classmates with whom I shared this paper in workshop gave me extremely positive feedback on it, and I am convinced it represents my finest creative work.

            As I read over this piece again, I can see that I was going through a very emotionally turbulent period when I wrote it—evident in the numerous errors in punctuation and grammar found throughout the work. For instance, I unintentionally omitted the necessary commas in a simple list: “...the fields streams and valleys…” On the other hand, the strong emotions I was experiencing during the writing of this piece also contribute to what I feel are its strengths—namely invoking memories of place and the emotions associated with place,  and expressing those memories with clarity and immediacy.  In particular, I am proud of the section where I relate my recollections of my mother’s reactions on seeing a group of birds. Anyone who has lost a loved one knows the sensation of momentarily forgetting that the person is gone forever. I feel that I captured this sensation clearly here.

            This piece taught me a lesson concerning the effect of emotion in the writing process. I learned that when I care deeply about something, I perform at a much higher level than when I do not. I have made use of this insight by trying to take a personal interest in some facet of the topic at hand, creative or academic—even with topics which do not immediately catch my interest—and I have discovered that I do my best work when I become emotionally involved. Additionally, in writing this piece I learned how to share a personal experience, a useful ability in any kind of writing, be it poetry, fiction, or discursive prose.

In conclusion I would have to say it is limiting to look at a text from a strictly structuralist point of view – i.e., as though the text were an independent entity, divorced from its cultural, historical or geographical context.  The demands of feminist criticism and multi-cultural studies that readers and critics consider the relevance of contextual elements often ignored in academia have given rise to a more complete way of looking at literature. This holistic orientation has been widened even further by Eco-criticism, which emphasizes the place of non-human as well as human, extra-textual factors in the analysis and interpretation of any given work.           I agree. It seems to me that the articulation and exploration of the extra-textual elements of a text provide an excellent starting point for literary analysis, and that current critical theory owes much of its sophistication to the development of analytic approaches that adequately take into account all pertinent extra-textual elements.