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This Furred Place—the Woolfs’ anthropomorphism, bunnies in people suits and the zoomorphic other—

by Meredith Wattison

shapers of a purely undefinable intuitive shape
not unlike a gesture of
pure thoughtless good intent

“About Bats”, Martin Harrison

I’m really interested in people as animals.

Lucian Freud

And I’m the hare, a long way ahead of the hounds my critics.

Virginia Woolf, 1931


Sometimes an image will find us when we’re not looking for it, an image that can instantly make succinct an evasive argument. Time and again in Flush—a biography (of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel), for example, Virginia Woolf laments this elusive shortfall of words. “The fact was that they could not communicate with words, and it was a fact that led undoubtedly to much misunderstanding. Yet did it not lead also to a peculiar intimacy?”(Flush, 27). The consummate modernist extends her delicious tropology and vestigial Victorian anthropomorphism. In Flush Virginia had, as model, used her own spaniel, Pinka, given to her by Vita Sackville-West in 1926; a “portrait” photograph is the frontispiece of the first Hogarth Press edition of 1933 and used on the cover of the 2002 Vintage edition.

I had finished making intensive notes to round off and tie up this essay through studying Flush, but I was relying on words and they weren’t complying or adequate. They eventually agreed, in light of the proximity of the anniversary of Virginia’s birth, to lift and gather like birds and shape-shift into three resonating, call and response subheadings, as follows.

Double portrait, Mongoose and Narcissus

It remains tricky to write about this “peculiar intimacy”. One of my poems, “Dürer”, about bathing my shaved, and newly unstitched, old “white heeler”—“some stitches he removed himself / like a tailor”—as an act of devotion on my birthday after his cancer surgery, again, relies on an image: the delicate beauty, though passive and lamb-like, of Dürer’s dogs.

Though I recognise and admire his collie-dingo smarts (pensive depths, shallow guile, unabashed hope and want), I don’t, unlike Elizabeth Barrett Browning who had as a child read Virgil in Latin and gravitated towards metaphysics, imagine that he can fundamentally read. She had, also, before the arrival of Robert Browning and his supersedence, imagined her “Flushie” as Pan himself in Arcadia and she a nymph. Without speech, he epitomised her prepubescent ideal and never discussed the mundane. Although her poem, “To Flush, My Dog”, is by modern standards “on (Victorian jet) stilts” and may appear grandiose and mawkish, it offers these lines: “After, – platforming his chin / On the palm left open.” Right there repeats my unsought clarifying image: Double Portrait, found in Robert Hughes’s Lucian Freud paintings, a book I had found, or had found me, in a Lifeline Store wrapped in clear plastic with a handwritten “graphic nude content” warning sticker, the simple white text of its thin plain spine had caught my eye. (A small copy, as labelled and quenched with a similar warning, of that zoometric transfiguration of sinuous pleasures, in graded variations, the Kamasutra, was tightly wrapped in coarse brown paper and also subtly tendered.)

Lucian Freud’s impasto unsentimental Double Portrait, 1985–1986, is of his sleeping adult daughter and nestling whippet, incidentally bearing the barred markings of a mackerel, Virginia’s trademark Rosetta stone. Their simple pleasure is in the presence of “the other”. They are painted as equals, their forelimbs entwine and counterbalance. The dog’s one-upmanship game of pure gesture has been played, its forepaw rests upon her forearm, its head rests on her shoulder, her chin rests upon its head, its suppliant gamer’s nose rests “on the palm left open”. It is without a constructed composition and beautifully illustrates that inter-specific shelter, intimate rest and sympathetic languor. The dog’s hind legs have left a tracery in the sheet through their hardwired movements, their re-running, as they descend / ascend into sleep. The plaintive drama of its shifting nervous system’s stifled shuddering barks, shrill whimpers and yelps, the vague wagging of the tail has subsided. It has found the gentle rest of the sequestered wolf.

Flush can be a deceptive read and unforgiving of the simplistic reader and reviewer who may misrepresent its substance by quoting out of context. Although written to further the iconoclasm of (the Bloomsbury’s star debunker) Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, as a psychodrama it gently revives Barrett Browning and is also a tangential treatise on control and captivity, racism, classism, sexism and tyranny through the objectification, transference and infantilism of “the animal” or “pet”. It does not pretend to be one of Woolf’s major works and perhaps this triggered the jump to contempt and “female fiction” condescension by its various reviewers.

Flush was written after Woolf read the “Browning love letters” while resting after her exhausting completion of the exquisite The Waves, which she was sure would fail. She immediately realised the possibility of using “the dog” or “animal mind” as a voice of reason and witness, much like the subsequent Gert Hofmann’s “child”, and enjoyed the sympathetic physical, almost mirroring likeness, of dewy-eyed Barrett Browning’s ear-like banks of ringlets and the spaniel’s. She also tired of “polishing off” Flush and on 3 January 1933 confessed to her diary of wanting to “wipe off the intensity of concentration trying to re-write that abominable dog Flush in 13 days”. On 26 January the book was “despatched”. On 15 January, she had wondered “why should Flush stiffen the back of my neck?”

Twenty-four-years earlier, at age twenty-four, Virginia had—in a review of Percy Lubbock’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning In Her Letters (1906)—written of the almost, it would seem, forgotten and certainly trivialised eminent Victorian poet and political activist, who had campaigned for the abolition of slavery (despite her family’s Jamaican interests) and for women’s rights, and whose influence helped to reform child labour legislation. Barrett was perhaps mostly remembered, however, as a sickly, breathless Romantic, cinched into hoops, on laudanum, and “saved” from the extended childhood of an unmarried Victorian woman, at age forty, by Robert Browning and sensual Italy. In Flush Virginia gives Barrett Browning’s commitment to her work and correspondence artisan proportions.

She satirises, with equal balance, the renown and theatre of Victorian mediums and Barrett Browning’s uninhibited spiritualism, through Flush’s sceptical observation; at the end of his life, and true to form she closes with this: “The drawing-room table, strangely enough, stood perfectly still.”

Flush is decidedly Dickensian through its scratched-at Victorian hypocrisy’s elitist “surface” and its apparent injustices without a turned or blinded eye. Virginia brilliantly juxtaposes with Barrett Browning’s world, the squalor of “the Rookery” slums in Whitechapel, where Jack The Ripper would strike and disappear in forty-years or so, and where Flush is held for ransom when stolen. This was a common practice if coddled dogs were not lead on a chain amongst the four-storeys and mahogany doors of The Barrett’s Wimpole Street, in Westminster, “not a stone’s-throw”, but a world away. Typhus and cholera would intermittently “clear” these desperate and “dissolute” areas. Dickens had roamed these streets during his curative and journalistic “Night Walks” as a temporary insomniac and, much earlier, as a lost child in his essay, “Gone Astray”. It was here he met homelessness and the diverse homeless with his customary humanitarian empathy.

Although Barrett Browning had some social awareness, she is unaware of the true squalor and “types” that Flush—who although bred to catch rabbits considers himself “an aristocrat”—experiences there. She cannot quite imagine the realities of it. Into the chaos of a hellish room the matchless Virginia confines a cockatoo, of all things, with “its great yellow-stained dove-grey wings in frenzy”.

But Flush was also written to pay the bills—and it did, firstly serialised in The Atlantic Monthly in July, August, September and October of 1933 and then published by Hogarth Press in October, 1933. Including its coinciding American Harcourt Brace Janovitch edition release, it sold around 35,000 copies after the three printings and reimpressions of that year alone (Flush, xlv). It was distributed as an alternative selection of The Book of the Month Club Inc., New York. Sadly, it would seem, Woolf also derived professional embarrassment from both its critical reception and commercial success.

Flush is a clever little shrine to restrained simplicity like an illuminated silky tuft of russet fur weighted by a small smooth pebble on a Wimpole Street windowsill. The pebble is from St Ives, Cornwall, where Virginia spent her early happy (and sweetly feral) summers until the crushing death of her mother. The book redraws the line between the very distinct exteriors and interiors of her extraordinary early short stories, in which she herself is more obviously present and still pushing at her own boundaries, craft and form. These echo in her later well-known, faultless and fearless masterworks in which her innate anthropomorphism doesn’t merely dazzle and delight, it unravels the DNA of, and rinses beneath an icy scullery tap (in The Waves), her Rosetta.

Tenderly, the beautiful child Rhoda is constructed thus: “Her shoulder-blades meet across her back like the wings of a small butterfly.” (The Waves, 15) Frighteningly, the battle-fatigued Septimus Warren Smith’s hallucinations extend to a Skye terrier “turning into a man”—“He could not watch it happen! It was horrible, terrible to see a dog become a man!”(Mrs Dalloway, 59). Fanny Elmer deliciously has “the ankles of a stag” (Jacob’s Room, 99). Mr Ramsay wants to prepare his children for “that fabled land where our brightest hopes are extinguished” (where they’ll need “courage, truth, and the power to endure”) and where “our frail barks founder in darkness” (To the Lighthouse, 10).

Idiosyncratic (and with a Victorian childhood’s response) Virginia and Leonard Woolf endearingly delighted in pet-naming themselves, family, friends and others by employing shared histories, noted quirks, zootaxia and either their fondness for, or aversion to, various resonating animals through this vivid ethology. Within their menagerie they had Lucian Freud’s grandfather, Sigmund, whom as his English publisher they had corresponded with and eventually met shortly before his death in 1939 as a Jewish refugee in London, and had mutually liked each other. Freud had given Virginia a narcissus,[1] and she had attributed to him “a monkey’s light eyes” (Flush, xiii). (I would presume that any gift from a psychoanalyst could be perceived as “loaded” and in the Language of Flowers the narcissus does convey “egotism”, but also “formality” and “stay as sweet as you are”. Perhaps he just liked the flowers; or didn’t, though he liked The Woolfs.)

Mongoose text boxVirginia’s sister, Vanessa, was Sheepdog, Marmot or Dolphin. To Vanessa, Virginia was variously Billy, Billy Goat, The Goat (given in early childhood and used by many), the Wallaby, the Barbary Ape, the apes, the singes, the singerie[2]—a French term for “monkey trick”, a satirical clothed primate tableau. Virginia referred to herself by using a range of little rodents’ names, or Towser, a sheepdog. Their letters are delightful.

Mandrill text boxTo Leonard, or Mongoose, Virginia was Mandril (sic) or Mandy. Sometimes, on paper, Leonard would be M’s M—Mandy’s Mongoose.[3] Such was their fantasy life, or perhaps closer to reflective “life”, such were their fantasy lives. A note from Leonard (to Virginia) reads, “I hope the Mandril went to its box early and isn’t worried by anything in the world. The end is as the beginning was and as it always will be, that it’s for me the dearest and most beloved creature in the world.”[4] After Leonard’s proposal and while needing bed-rest and isolation to decide, and knit, she resolved that she felt “very clear, calm, and moved slowly, like one of those big animals at the zoo”.[5]

Virginia often took the role of the male animal. Vanessa wrote in a note to her within days of her and Leonard’s 1912 wedding night, “Of course I should have expected him (Leonard) to be in the 7th heaven of delight … As long as the ape (Virginia) gets all he wants, doesn’t smell too much and has his claws well cut, he’s a pleasant enough bed-fellow for a short time.”[6] This plasticity and shift of gender, this mercury, was yet to facilitate the androgynous conception, in 1927, of Virginia’s tour de force, Orlando.

After a debilitating and (new marriage) disrupting relapse of Virginia’s “neurasthenia” she wrote to Leonard:

Would it make you very conceited if I told you that I love you more than I have ever done since I took you into service, and find you beautiful, and indispensable? … Goodbye Mongoose, and be a devoted animal, and never leave the great variegated creature. She wishes to inform you delicately that her flanks and rump are now in finest plumage, and invites you to an exhibition. Kisses on your dear little pate, Darling Mongoose.[7]

And later while away after weight-loss and severe headaches during a depression (Leonard’s) Virginia wrote to him, “I love your little ribby body, my pet.”[8]

Virginia’s form

Virginia text boxThis intimate and insular bent spills into Virginia’s short story, “Lappin and Lapinova”, written (revised) in 1938 and first published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1939. At just under ten pages long, it begins, “They were married.” “They”, being Rosalind and Ernest Thorburn. Rosalind begins to notice how like a rabbit Ernest is, like her pet rabbit, though he is a wild rabbit, when eating toast. From this honeymoon observation a rewilding of their tamed selves begins and an underlying “other life” keeps them cosseted and tenderly interested in one another and distances the onset of domestic monotony.

“Lettuce, rabbit?” she asks, she hasn’t named him yet, “Come and take it out of my hand,” she added, and he stretched out and nibbled the lettuce and twitched his nose. “Good rabbit, nice rabbit,” she said, patting him, as she used to pat her tame rabbit at home.

Here, again, is Barrett Browning’s “the palm left open” to “the other”.

Bunny text boxThough he is not tame, Rosalind reminds herself, she tries to name him appropriately. This seems important. She calls him the French Lapin, but he is not French, he is English; she tries Bunny, but this won’t do, he was not “plump and soft and comic”. Lappin, she decides, is perfect. He becomes King Lappin.

She begins to reveal, ad lib, while sitting by the fire one evening, the whole vigorous story of the Lappin tribe; he begins to join in, their whole complex lives manifest by speech, the wood, prairies and swamp of their existence. “‘And what’, said Rosalind, on the last day of the honeymoon, ‘did the King do today?’”

He had chased “a woman hare”. “‘A white hare!’ Rosalind exclaimed, as if she had been expecting this. ‘Rather a small hare; silver grey; with big bright eyes?’” Hare text box

Yes, exactly, it turned out, and “‘Ah, Lapinova,’ Rosalind murmured.” With “the real Rosalind” fleshed out and named, Ernest “looked at her. He felt very much in love with her”. With the name “Lapinova” Virginia concocts, with her enjoyment of, and engagement with, the exotic: the red berries, gold leaves, black ground of the Khokhloma, the forest floor of Russian folk art; Anna Pavlova (and in 1922 a principal dancer with the Ballets Russes, Lydia Lopokova had entered the insular and resistant Bloomsbury “circle” as John Maynard Keynes’s lover and, in 1925, his wife); and perhaps, shamelessly pedantically, rabbit+eggs—the expectation of sure fecundity is there. Ovaries present. There is conjecture as to why a doe hare “boxes” with a buck—some say that she will only accept a buck who can “outbox” her or boxes to fend off mating. I would hazard a guess at both.

Alpha text boxIt is “settled”—he is King Lappin and she, Queen Lapinova. “They were the very opposite of each other; he was bold and determined; she wary and undependable. He ruled over the busy world of rabbits; her world was a desolate, mysterious place, where she ranged mostly by moonlight.”(86)

Live rabbit text boxThis private, recondite world of rabbits, with the exception of one white hare, made them feel “in league together against the rest of the world”. Virginia begins to introduce some intruding forces, “people’ and relatives who speak of hunting and the price of rabbits “skins and all”.

“Aunt Mary said that she could never bear to see a hare in a dish—it looked so like a baby”. Newborn text box

They begin secretly putting these “others” into their scenarios when they need “a gamekeeper, or a poacher or a Lord of the Manor”. Ernest’s mother, modelled on Leonard’s, was cast as “the Squire”.[9]

Ernest’s “fruitful” family of prolific breeders, he has nine siblings, “many themselves married and also fruitful”, gather for his parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary (modelled on Leonard’s mother’s eightieth birthday celebration). Rosalind “an only child and an orphan at that” feels outnumbered and estranged. She and Ernest had not bred like, well, rabbits. They are childless.

A week or so before the Woolfs’ marriage, in a state of great excitement, which would soon give way to a “headache” and the need, again, for quiet isolation, Virginia had decided on a list of her and Leonard’s planned “labour and factories”, interests and writing goals, and declared, “but next year I must have a child”.[10] Leonard questioned this, given Virginia’s mentally vulnerable states, although he too wanted children. In 1913 it was recommended that they wait a year and a half before “starting a baby”. In 1919 when they were captivated by, and bought Monk’s House in Rodmell, Virginia described it as “after the fashion of a mongrel who wins your heart”[11] some of its household goods were also auctioned, which Leonard successfully bid for. One of these was an early nineteenth-century, primitive unframed painting of “a line-up of children”. Asheham House, their previous home, they felt, was complete with “a pair of ghostly lovers” who would serve Virginia as the “residents” in her short story (just over two pages), “A Haunted House”, published in 1921 by Hogarth Press in Monday or Tuesday, the only slim volume of her short stories printed in her lifetime. It begins, “Whatever the hour you woke there was a door shutting”. To Virginia and Leonard the perceived presence of these children evoked their longed-for own, and inhabited Monk’s House with them. Ultimately, he removed the painting during Virginia’s lifetime and restored it there later.

In Leonard’s, An Autobiography, vol II, he writes of it:

It was of four children heavily swaddled in hats and coats standing stiffly in a line in front of the house. They were, I am sure, the Glazebrook children (a family who had once owned Monk’s House) of a hundred years ago. Their spirits, I almost felt and feel, walk in the house, clattering up and down the narrow stairs, now deeply worn by the countless comings and goings of Clears, Glazebrooks, and Verralls. At the top of the stairs you can see the place where they had once put a small gate to prevent the children plunging downstairs. And once when a floorboard was taken up by a workman we found a tiny little wooden eighteenth-century shoe …[12]

Children surrounded them in Rodmell; Virginia, in her writing room in the garden which backed onto a lane leading to a church and a school for children between the ages of five and eleven, would have heard all their to and fro and play during the day.

After a child-filled Christmas 1925 at Charleston, Virginia and Vanessa, though close, envied one another, as sisters often do, for what they didn’t have. Vanessa, with three children, cruelly wrote to Virginia of her own maternal instincts as “animal and remorseless” and “[b]ut how can one avoid yielding to these instincts if one happens to have them? Perhaps you manage to.”[13] She suggests Virginia write a book about it. Perhaps she blithely accepted fertility as a given and couldn’t see far beyond her own unrequited contretemps.

Vita text boxIn her diary, on September 5, 1926, Virginia would write: “My own fault too—a little more self-control on my part, we might have had a boy of 12, a girl of 10: this always makes me wretched in the early hours”. She was sad for Leonard too; on October 23, 1929, she wrote with a clear insight when thinking of a similar couple they knew: “the pathos, the symbolical quality of the childless couple; standing for something, united”.

Leonard’s capacity to cope with childlessness was to dote on their dogs and their beloved marmoset, Mitz (also known as “the Zet”), theirs since 1934, who would, possessively and constantly, ride on his shoulder or be cradled “babylike, inside his jacket”.[14]

Virginia noted Mitz’s death in her diary entry of “Monday 9 January” (1939) with, “Mitz was found on Boxing Day I think: her white old woman’s face puckered; eyes shut; tail wrapped round her neck. L. buried her in the snow under the wall.”[15] The mention of “tail” is grave and aloof; without it, it is the stumbled upon death of a beloved old friend; the little body buried beneath the snow is evocative of a child’s.

For the Thorburns, all is “golden”, her mother-in-law is “sumptuous in yellow satin” at the anniversary gathering; the breeders, the gifts all deeply bitten at by hallmarks. Rosalind feels her “tribute”, “a little pinchbeck box pierced with holes; an old sand caster, an eighteenth-century relic” is slight and “senseless”. Pinchbeck, named after its inventor, a seventeenth-century watchmaker, is an imitation gold made from a copper and zinc alloy and has come to simply mean “sham”.

With its proffer, she remembers the “stubby black handwriting” on the note written by her mother-in-law at the news of their engagement; her expressed hope was that “My son will make you happy.” But Rosalind was not happy. (The expectation of happiness can be like that “Drink me” option that Alice, another rabbit cohort, accepted; it can delight; it can spoil.)

Virginia would have been familiar with the handwriting of all of her circle. Pen and paper is where they flourished pet-names, exchanged confidences and admissions, revelled in implicit conversation with such art, play, nakedness, embellishment, viciousness and tenderness. These brilliant fluid exchanges were this clique’s “social media” in hard copy, folded into their hands and kept in pockets, between the pages of books and under pillows; and perhaps torn to pieces.

Downstairs at dinner, Rosalind “dipped her spoon in a plate of clear golden soup. The raw white fog outside had been turned by the lamps into a golden mesh that blurred the edges of the plates and gave the pineapples a rough golden skin”. (88) She drifts from the conversation until mention of the propensity to breed: “‘The Thorburns—yes; they breed so, she echoed’ and rabbits. Ernest’s brother shouts, ‘Little devils! Shoot ’em! Jump on ’em with big boots! That’s the only way to deal with ’em … rabbits!’” (88)

Across the table she sees Ernest’s nose twitch through the chrysanthemums. At this, “The golden table became a moor with the gorse in full bloom; the din of voices turned to one peal of lark’s laughter ringing down from the sky. It was a blue sky—clouds passed slowly.” All “The Thorburns” are changed; a scenario unfolds, one is a poacher, one is “a white ferret with pink eyes, and a nose clotted with earth”. “The Squire” returns. They all raised their glasses and “then it was over”.

On the way home Rosalind cries, “‘Oh, King Lappin! … If your nose hadn’t twitched just at that moment, I should have been trapped!’” He reassures her that she is safe “pressing her paw” and she accepts this safety, pressing his.

A year or two later (during which Ernest’s mother has died and the family house let), Ernest comes home from the office to their “half a house above a saddler’s shop in South Kensington, not far from the tube station”. Rosalind, sewing by the fire, asks “What d’you think happened to me today?” She starts to tell him about “crossing the stream” when he interrupts with, “What stream?” Ernest has remained Ernest and, forgotten, Rosalind feels “a load on the back of her neck, as if somebody were about to wring it”. Ernest’s nose finally twitches and they spend the evening “roaming the woods much as usual”.

This lapse on Ernest’s part greatly disturbs Rosalind. She cannot sleep; she thinks King Lappin is dead as she watches Ernest sleep without twitching. On waking him to tell him so, he coldly dismisses her. “She lay curled up on her side of the bed, like a hare in its form.” (Hare do not burrow, they hollow out a nest or “form” on the ground). She imagines the grove alone.

From here on in there is dislocation, confusion, an unsettling dystopia. Furniture seems larger; she knocks against its “odd angles”. Rooms seem smaller—a kind of paralysis besets Rosalind, her “joints seems stiff”, and with fixity gone, “[s]he felt as if her body had shrunk; it had grown small, and black and hard”.

She walks to the Natural History Museum (one of Virginia’s favourite places), as she walks, all the front rooms she passes look like the Thorburn’s, and on arriving, shudders at the sight of “a stuffed hare standing on sham snow with pink glass eyes”.

She waits for dusk. At home, she sat

over the fire, without a light, and tried to imagine that she was out alone on a moor; and there was a stream rushing; and beyond the stream a dark wood. But she could get no farther than the stream. At last she squatted down on the bank on the wet grass, and sat crouched in her chair, with her hands dangling empty, and her eyes glazed, like glass eyes, in the firelight. Then there was the crack of a gun … It was only Ernest turning his key in the door .(91)

 “‘Well, what’s up now?’ he asks briskly, warming his hands by the fire. Rosalind, anguished, explains about Lapinova, “She’s gone, Ernest. I’ve lost her!” Ernest is glib and off-hand, “smiling rather grimly”, and then stands silent as she feels “hands tightening at the back of her neck”.

“Poor Lapinova …” He straightened his tie at the looking-glass over the mantelpiece.
“Caught in a trap,” he said, “killed,” and sat down and read the newspaper.

Here Virginia ends the story in the same matter-of-fact tone as she began: “So that was the end of that marriage.” It begins; it ends. That last sharp sentence snaps shut around the idyll, their gentle paradox, just as fatally at Ernest’s “trap”.

Are Edward Albee’s sad and sadistic George and Martha, in his venomous 1962 play, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, Ernest and Rosalind some exhausting, illusory years on? Leonard had, on being asked, given Albee permission to use Virginia’s name and referred him to her Lappin and Lapinova—had he read it?—and had found the play “moving”.[16] After a drunken, flaying evening of what George calls “games” (which began as a campus gathering) for the four players, cuckolded and spent George kills off their imaginary child with an imaginary telegram, which he has hypothetically eaten. He, a thwarted academic, an associate history professor, relishes giving Martha the news in the company of others: a young, newly-appointed, idealistic couple—nauseous, dim Honey, it seems, expedited their nuptials by “hysterical pregnancy”, although George suspects a sly abortion; quarterback and boxing champion, Nick, who Martha has compromised and then sexually derided, is none the wiser. Martha, fifty-ish, has never been pregnant.

George and Martha’s “son” had been the vestigial consummation and conception of the hare and rabbit illusion. There were no little creatures to stroke and feed and love; but there were living, breathing issues. They twitched, renamed, pressed the other’s paw, saw gorse where there was gilded domesticity, anticipated a wrung neck at the withdrawal of the other “player”; little alphas need backup by the stream, another pair of (flopsy or cocked) long, velvet ears. Amongst the gorse there are bees.[17]

Gravity and the homeless snail

It has been suggested that Virginia is at her most authentic in Lappin and Lapinova and had felt so exposed and emotionally vulnerable that she had kept it in a drawer for almost ten years before being able to consider publishing it. The story was her admission of fallibility, of fruitless wanting and hurts; her tender, domestic, and rather romantically coy, “self” uncovered and open to forum; a personal ode to infertility and its wounding depths, but also a richly furred anthropomorphic leap from a crouching woman. However, it is her joyous, introspective, stream-of-consciousness free fall, “The Mark On The Wall”, that is considered the closest to her scintillating, polymathic, multi-level conversation, or “flight”.[18] “The Mark On The Wall” was first published in 1917 in what would become their own press’s thirty-two page booklet, Two Stories (the other, “Three Jews”, by Leonard); they hand-printed and sewed one hundred and fifty copies in their Richmond—on Paradise Road—dining room, sold by subscription, reprinted in 1919, which afforded them the ordering, by Leonard, of a brass plate, “The Hogarth Press”, for their front door, and reprinted in 1921 in Monday or Tuesday. The writing of “The Mark On The Wall”, and “The Unwritten Novel”, first published in 1920 in The London Mercury, and also in Monday or Tuesday, had thrilled and freed her, although she felt they were unprintable:

I shall never forget the day I wrote “The Mark on the Wall”—all in a flash, as if flying, after being kept stone breaking for months. “The Unwritten Novel” was the great discovery, however. That—again in one second—showed me how I could embody all my deposit of experience in a shape that fitted it.[19]

A woman sitting by the fire considers a “mark on the wall”. This is what happens, what is done, for the entirety of the story; what is considered is Virginia’s virtuoso grasp and reach and ecopoetic sense of place, of life. It is, at first, an introspective exercise in memory; she establishes the time of year; it is January; it is “winter time”. She focuses on the flowers in the bowl, there are three, they are chrysanthemums, the bowl is round, it is glass. A book is open. A cigarette held. I think of Martin Amis’s “iceberg” observation / study mention at the Perth Writers Festival—how we usually show about 5% of ourselves. It is, also, a war memoir. An exercise in sureties and doubts.

Mother text boxThe “mark” on the wall, just above the mantelpiece, interrupts her staring into the burning coals, “an automatic fancy”. Was it a nail? A mark made by a nail? Too lowly placed for a picture, perhaps for a miniature? This eye-caught exaggerated detail stresses the deep and fluid distortion, the black definition like Indian ink, of firelight; of transient reveries (the ‘fraud’ miniature, she decides, would have ‘white powdered curls, powder-dusted cheeks, and lips like red carnations’); of organically malleable and reforming interior and furnishings. Her thoughts are extramural.

Now Virginia’s neurons, at full throttle, begin to stripe like the flashing waves of pigment through cuttlefish; and then steep like the slow pavonine chemistry of long-buried glass. Those “who had this house before us” are thought of—but “what happened next”?

“[W]e were torn asunder, as one is from the old lady about to pour the tea and the young man about to hit the tennis ball in the back garden of the suburban villa as one rushes past in the train.”(3) Soon she / we will be the train.

White text boxObjects lost are mulled over, “the most mysterious of losses”, “three pale blue canisters of bookbinding tools”, she begins, and lists a disparate graduating group of “gone” things, surmising with, “[o]pals and emeralds, they lie about the roots of turnips”. She wonders at having “clothes on my back, that I sit surrounded by solid furniture at this moment” And then, my favourite of Virginia’s analogies:

Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour—landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one’s hair! Shot out at the feet of God entirely naked! Tumbling head over heels in the asphodel meadows like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office! With one’s hair flying back like the tail of a racehorse. Yes, that seems to express the rapidity of life, the perpetual waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard. (4)

Lily text boxApparently, as Homer remembers in the Odyssey, the Asphodel Meadows are one of the three divisions of Hades of the Underworld. It is the realm of neither the wicked nor the virtuous; it is for those who were, like most of us, a mixture of both. For this reason, it is often planted on graves. Gods wore white asphodel crowns; its bulbs were eaten with figs. It is considered divine and remedial.

And now, here, Virginia shifts from incredulous exuberance to hallowed profundity.

But after life. The slow pulling down of thick green stalks so that the cup of the flower, as it turns over, deluges one with purple and red light. Why, after all, should one not be born there as one is born here, helpless, speechless, unable to focus one’s eyesight, groping at the roots of the grass, at the toes of the Giants? As for saying which are trees, and which are men and women, or whether there are such things, that one won’t be in a condition to do for fifty years or so. There will be nothing but spaces of light and dark, intersected by thick stalks, and rather higher up perhaps, rose-shaped blots of indistinct colour—dim pinks and blues—which will, as time goes on, become more definite, become—I don’t know what … . (4)

Again she considers the mark on the wall. It is not a hole. She thinks of the dust covering the mantelpiece and “buried Troy”, the “fragments of pots utterly refusing annihilation”. She wants to “think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interrupted, never to have to rise from my chair, to slip easily from one thing to another, without any sense of hostility, or obstacle. I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts.”(5)

She wants to grab the first idea that passes; it is “Shakespeare … Well, he will do as well as another.” I think of the mystery sitter writing “at the servants’ dinner table”, “whose ruff was a thought dirty”, dressed in “hodden brown” and the shimmering, palpable awe with which she clothes him in Orlando (Orlando, 9). She contemplates “a track indirectly reflecting credit upon myself”; she lists a self-tripping scenario, decides self-protection from idolatry keeps ridicule away and a self “too unlike the original to be believed in any longer”. She thinks of a smashing “looking-glass”: “As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking into the mirror; that accounts for the vagueness, the gleam of glassiness, in our eyes.” (6) White’s included, behind X-ray specs.

She guesses at the attention paid to and the grappling with this “reflection” of future novelists—predicts White perhaps. (Orlando easily slips androgynously, into “something comfortable” and bohemian of the sylphlike, jaded Eudoxia’s in White’s 1979 The Twyborn Affair.)

The reliably real, “standard” and “generalizations”, comes into Virginia’s equation. “How shocking, and yet how wonderful it was to discover that those real things, Sunday luncheons, Sunday walks, country houses, and tablecloths were not entirely real, were indeed half phantoms, and the damnation which visited the disbeliever in them was only a sense of illegitimate freedom.” (6) Her doubts extend to “freedom”.

Her doubts extend to “that” mark on the wall. It “seems to cast a perceptible shadow”; seems to project; doesn’t seem “entirely circular”. She imagines running her finger over it. It would, she decides, “mount and descend a small tumulus”, as though over a mound and trough of earth. Her thoughts turn archaeological, to tombs, and “desiring of melancholy like most English people, and finding it natural at the end of a walk to think of the bones stretched beneath the turf ….” “Some antiquary must have dug up those bones and given them a name …” whose

last conscious thoughts are not of wife or child, but of the camp and that arrow-head there, which is now in the case at the local museum, together with the foot of a Chinese murderess, a handful of Elizabethan nails, a great many Tudor clay pipes, a piece of Roman pottery, and the wine-glass Nelson drank out of—proving I don’t really know what.(8)

She wonders what she would gain by standing to “ascertain” what the mark actually is. She is guessing at “the head of a gigantic old nail, driven in two hundred years ago, which has now, owing to the patient attrition of many generations of housemaids, revealed its head above the coat of paint; and is taking its first view of modern life”. She “can think sitting still as well as standing up”, so she continues to deflect “knowledge”. She considers the rudimentary “learned men … who crouched in caves and in woods brewing herbs, interrogating shrew-mice and writing down the language of the stars”. She contemplates “a world which one could slice with one’s thought as a fish slices the water with his fin, grazing the stems of the water lilies, hanging suspended over nests of white sea eggs …” (This aquatic detail is both chilling and crystallising. In the days following her suicide, before her body was found by a group of cycling, picnicking teenagers throwing sticks into the river, Vita Sackville-West had mused, “The river is tidal, so she has probably been carried out to sea. She loved the sea.”[20]) She stops this “train of thought”, this “collision with reality” and scoffs at Whitaker’s Almanack’s Table of Precedency, (first published in 1868, Whitaker’s 2015 is its one-hundred-and-forty-seventh edition and still includes “The order of succession”), by which the (then cheap) wide accessibility of reference disseminated male agenda and pomp, attributing it to “knowledge” and nature.

Everybody follows somebody, such is the philosophy of Whitaker; and the great thing is to know who follows whom. Whitaker knows, and let that, so Nature counsels, comfort you, instead of enraging you; and if you can’t be comforted, if you must shatter this hour of peace, think of the mark on the wall. (9

Her conjecture on the “mark” has extended—“a nail, a rose-leaf, a crack in the wood?”—she feels that she has “grasped a plank in the sea”.

She describes “waking from a midnight dream of horror” and after switching on the light “worshipping the chest of drawers, worshipping solidity, worshipping reality, worshipping the impersonal world which is proof of some existence other than ours. That is what one wants to be sure of … Wood is a pleasant thing to think about.” (9) Her beautifully detailed observation and intimate knowledge of a living, breathing tree’s life follows; trees “paint rivers so green”; here too, there are more underwater places where she sends her thoughts: “I like to think of the fish balanced against the stream like flags blown out; and of water-beetles slowly raising domes of mud upon the bed of the river.” “The song of birds must sound very loud and strange in June”; she thinks of the cold feet of insects and concluding her biography: “One by one the fibres snap beneath the immense cold pressure of the earth, then the last storm comes and, falling, the highest branches drive deep into the ground again.” (Should we further extend its body to polished jet?) Her thoughts digress to subsequence, to what’s next as they retrace and retract: “Even so, life isn’t done with; there are a million patient, watchful lives still for a tree, all over the world, in bedrooms, in ships, on the pavement, lining rooms where men and women sit after tea, smoking cigarettes. It is full of peaceful thoughts, happy thoughts, this tree.” (10) She would like to “take each one separately” but something interrupts:

Where was I? What has it all been about? A tree? A river? The Downs? Whitaker’s Almanack? The fields of asphodel? I can’t remember a thing. Everything’s moving, falling, slipping, vanishing … There is a vast upheaval of matter. Someone is standing over me and saying—“I’m going out to buy a newspaper.” (10)

The ambiguity of the mark on the wall is simply clarified in a throwaway line by this standing speaker, after offering salient reasons why not to buy newspapers: “All the same, I don’t see why we should have a snail on our wall.”

Final text boxI imagine that Virginia and “the sitter” knew exactly why they should have a snail on the wall—a dull, brown, almost imperceptible trailing whorl, Volutidae, a self-determining, merely visiting, adventurous mollusc from the sea negating any wounding invention of precedence. Its keeled cousin, the leopard slug’s high-wire gastropodous, florescent burlesque, two ruminant creatures slow-spinning as one; a consummate act of adaptation, reversion to the sea, bewildering and ethereal as a mushroom.


[1] Glendinning, Leonard Woolf: A Life, 339.

[2] Glendinning, 150.

[3] Glendinning, 188.

[4] Glendinning, 150.

[5] Glendinning, 141.

[6] Glendinning, 152.

[7] Glendinning, 179.

[8] Glendinning, 183.

[9] Leonard’s not marrying a Jew had displeased his mother; the complex Virginia equally delighted in and struggled with this. Incidentally, rabbits and hare are nonkosher.

[10] Glendinning, 149.

[11] Glendinning, 225.

[12] Alexander, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, 129.

[13] Glendinning, 264.

[14] Alexander, 131.

[15] Woolf, Selected Diaries, 448.

[16] Alexander, 200.

[17] In 1932, at fifty (also usually around the Woolfian woman’s age of reckoning), Virginia confirms (in her diary and in Flush, xxx.) that a bee bag (like Plath’s apiarist’s bee box, the containment of a swarm) is the best electric, velvety symbol, with “arrows”, for sexuality and sensuality.

[18] The only recording of her deep-voiced, rather loose manner of speech, a BBC radio broadcast of her Craftsmanship talk from 1937, is easily accessible (; I expected it to be more clipped.

[19] Woolf, The Mark On The Wall and Other Short Fiction, xx.

[20] Glendinning, 371.


Alexander, Peter F. Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992.

Bell, Quentin and Virginia Nicholson. Charleston: A Bloomsbury House and Garden. London: Frances Lincoln, 2004.

Dickens, Charles. Selected Journalism 1850–1870. Penguin Classics. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 2010.

The Education Forum, “David Garnett—English Resources

Glendinning, Victoria, Leonard Woolf: A Life. London: Simon and Schuster, 2006.

Hofmann, Helga, Wild Animals of Britain and Europe. London: HarperCollins, 2001.

Hughes, Robert. Lucian Freud Paintings. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

Jinks, Sam. Unsettled Dogs, 2012 (sculpture). RMIT Collection.

Lippert, Wolfgang and Dieter Podlech. Wild Flowers of Britain and Europe. London: HarperCollins, 2001.

Thorburn, Archibald. Thorburn’s Mammals. London: Ebury Press and Michael Joseph, 1974.

Wattison, Meredith. terra bravura. Glebe, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2015.

White, Patrick. Riders in the Chariot. Ringwood, VIC: Penguin, 1964.

Woolf, Virginia. A Haunted House and Other Short Stories. London: Grafton Books, 1991.

—. A Writer’s Diary. London: Grafton Books, 1978.

—. Flush: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

—. Jacob’s Room. London: Penguin, 1992.

—. Mrs Dalloway. London: Vintage, 2000.

—. Mrs Dalloway’s Party. London: Vintage, 2012.

—. Orlando: A Biography. Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1995.

—. Selected Diaries. London: Vintage, 2008.

—. The Mark On The Wall and Other Short Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

—. The Waves. London: Penguin Classics, 2000.

—. To The Lighthouse. London: Compact Books, 1994.

Published: March 2015
Meredith Wattison

born 1963, a poet and essayist, her 6 books of poetry are Psyche’s Circus (Poetry Australia, 1989), Judith’s Do (Penguin Australia, 1996), Fishwife (Five Islands Press, 2001), The Nihilist Line (Five Islands Press, 2003), Basket of Sunlight (Puncher & Wattmann, 2007) and terra bravura (Puncher & Wattmann, 2015).


Seeing the Forest for the White Beech Tree: Germaine Greer and Ecofeminism

by Lara Stevens

Feminist icon Germaine Greer’s latest book White Beech: The Rainforest Years (2014) is a memoir and natural history in which Greer turns her attention to the history of environmental degradation in Australia. It recounts the period of her life that she devoted to the rehabilitation of a sixty-hectare rainforest (what she calls the Cave Creek Rainforest Rehabilitation Scheme or CCRRS) that she purchased in the Numinbah Valley in southeast Queensland in 2001. The book marks the culmination of Greer’s commitment to environmental advocacy, activism and education that spans decades, a body of work undertaken primarily in Britain and thus largely unknown to most Australians.

In Plumwood Mountain (Volume 1, Number 2), Environmental Humanities scholar Rod Giblett reviews White Beech. In the review, Giblett (2014) takes Greer to task for failing to “unpack the complex interrelationships and interactions between people and place, humans and Earth”. Giblett is critical of Greer’s political ecology, which he sees as lacking a clear theoretical framework. He contends that, even though Greer claims her own subservience to the needs and wonders of the forest, it is Greer herself who ends up being the hero of her own story. Giblett argues that by not engaging with key advances in biological, anthropological and ecological thinking, such as the work of Lynn Margulis or Tim Flannery, Greer fails to connect the individual elements of the forest, such as the White Beech tree, to the broader rainforest systems and its sociocultural exchanges.

While Giblett is correct in noting that Greer does not clearly attribute or position her thinking and ecological work in relation to the traditions that have preceded her, he misses the more subtle indications that Greer is well aware of these important discoveries and ideas. Although she does not explain Margulis’ endosymbiotic theory or Flannery’s arguments around co-adaptation, the broad range of topics explored in White Beech and the structure of the book show that Greer is keenly aware that the current state of the Australian environment is intimately connected to much broader systems of domination and mastery. In particular, Greer’s lifelong interest and knowledge of feminist issues inflect her critique of the patriarchal nature of white settler attitudes towards Australian flora, fauna, weather patterns and uniquely Australian biological processes. In White Beech, discussions of native edible fruits, nuts and vegetables that were ignored by white settlers are placed alongside her thoughts on the role and treatment of women in Australia historically and today.

Val Plumwood’s (1994: 78) ecocritical viewpoint conceives “oppression as a network of multiple interlocking forms of domination linked by a flexible, common ideology and structure of identity”. Plumwood (1993: 1) names this mode of critique “critical ecological feminism” or “environmental feminism”. In the absence of what Giblett calls an “explicit theory of ecology” in White Beech, I suggest that Greer’s memoir can be usefully read and understood within the framework of critical ecological feminism. White Beech focuses on the interlocking forms of environmental domination, linking the power structures of patriarchy, colonialism, feminism and capitalism to cultural and scientific representations, rainforest topography, botanists naming Australian species and the relationships of Indigenous Australians to the land.

Plumwood’s theories of ecological feminism are not only concerned with the ways in which the environment impacts on women’s lives and vice versa, but in these theories she also traces how attitudes towards women and nature / the environment converge within a broader set of systemic oppressions. Given the Western Enlightenment project of ordering “chaotic” nature, Plumwood (1994: 64, 74) argues that the treatment of women and the destruction of nature are linked by an ideology of control that privileges reason over nature. For Plumwood, unravelling the systems and attitudes that keep women and nature subordinate can only be achieved by acknowledging their shared history of oppression.

Greer lays out this shared history of oppression throughout White Beech. In one section of the book she describes how male botanists named many of the trees that populate CCRRS after themselves, their family and friends. In the case of British botanist and explorer Allan Cunningham, his legacy is present in species such as: the Hoop Pine (Araucaria cunninghamii), the Bangalow Palm (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana), the Casuarina (Allocasuarina cunninghamiana), the Native Tamarind (Diploglottis cunninghamii), and the Brown Beech (Pennantia cunninghamii) (Greer 2014: 222). By contrast, the female botanists among the early settlers, many of whom made large contributions to knowledge in the field, rarely named plants after themselves or their friends. The naming of species by male botanists ignored local indigenous names and knowledge and was thus part of a broader practice of colonial expansion and ownership, a mode of asserting mastery over what was viewed as a harsh and un-cooperative landscape. Greer’s critique shows how the use of patronymics demonstrates an attitude towards the Australian land that played out in other ways, such as in the introduction of inappropriate European plant and animal species that were destructive to Australia’s native biodiversity, the consequences of which are still being felt today.

The history of oppression as described by Plumwood also plays out in White Beech in Greer’s discussion of the treatment of Indigenous Australian women and their relationship to the land. Key to Plumwood’s (1994: 64) feminist ecological criticism of Western scientific and philosophical systems is her interest in showing how patriarchal control over nature is linked to control over human beings, especially women. Despite Giblett’s (2014) claim that Greer offers “little sense of a multi-sensory engagement and embodied experience with the rainforest”, one of the most powerful sections of White Beech is when Greer attempts to read the topography of a location in CCRRS called “Natural Bridge”. Through engaging with the sounds and geography of the site (that includes a waterfall, cave and unique rock formation), Greer conjectures that Natural Bridge was, or possibly still is, a site of secret women’s business for certain Indigenous tribes. She extends her discussion to the case of Ngarrindjeri women whose land rights claims to a sacred burial site on Hindmarsh Island were ignored for a long time (Greer 2014: 127). Once again, the attitudes of white settlers towards Indigenous cultural and spiritual practices that European culture cannot understand, are set alongside the descriptions of the introduced lantana plant that has overrun and is choking the trees at CCRRS.

It is not only the content of White Beech that reflects feminist ecocritical concerns. The forms and modes of argumentation employed in White Beech reveal the interconnectedness of systems of domination that is key to a feminist ecocritical methodology. Greer is not a natural historian and certainly not theorist, but she has a long history as a highly effective polemicist. True to her strengths, the rhetorical mode of argumentation in White Beech is impassioned, performative, iconoclastic and often didactic. Her prose moves between first person anecdotes and historical accounts that aim to politicise readers and raise consciousness about pertinent feminist and environmental issues.

White Beech shows how systemic problems of domination are interconnected across racial, sexual, environmental and gendered lines. As such, neither the domination of nature nor the domination of women can be fully understood without reference to the other branches of these networked systems. For Plumwood (1994: 3), the Western tradition has set up the privileged domain of the master scientist “beneath” which nature is conceived as wife or subordinate other. As an alternative to such hierarchical thinking, Plumwood (1993: 2) advocates an “ethics and politics of mutuality”. The sheer range of topics that Greer covers in White Beech connect the web of patriarchal relations in which we live to show its mutually affecting components: from the use of DDT as a pesticide in Australia after the Vietnam War to issues of Indigenous women’s land rights; from the problem of introduced weeds to the acute hardships endured by female Asian migrants to Australia; from questions of female selfhood to the immensity of the rainforest ecosystems and the place of the human within it. All this is artfully connected in White Beech in a way that suggests that Greer practices an “ethics and politics of mutuality” and that her latest book might best be understood through the lens of Plumwood’s “critical ecological feminism”.


Giblett, Rod. 2014. “Rod Giblett reviews White Beech by Germaine Greer.” Plumwood Mountain: An Australian Journal of Ecopoetry and Ecopoetics 1, no. 2.

Greer, Germaine. 2014. White Beech: The Rainforest Years. London: Bloomsbury.

Plumwood, Val. 1993. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London : Routledge.

Plumwood, Val. 1994. “The Ecopolitics Debate and the Politics of Nature ” In Ecological Feminism, edited by Karen J. Warren. London: Routledge.

Published: January 2015
Lara Stevens

is the Hugh Williamson Postdoctoral Fellow in the Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne where she researches ecofeminist art and performance and the writings of Germaine Greer. Lara’s research areas include twenty-first century anti-war theatre and performance, feminist philosophy, performance and ecology.


Environmental Empathy in the Contemporary Epic: Exploring Ephemeral Waters and Phosphorescence of Thought by Amy Brown

by Amy Brown

Environmental Empathy in the Contemporary Epic: Exploring Ephemeral Waters and Phosphorescence of Thought

Looked at in one way, nature . . . is a penetrating summons to the slow efforts, patient and unseen, by which the individual, himself borne along by a whole past, humbly prepares a world he will never know (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin 1915).

Our “natures”: an introduction

Chicago poet Peter O’Leary (2013) quotes Pierre Teilhard de Chardin as an epigraph to Phophorescence of Thought, his contemporary epic on the “efflorescence of consciousness that saturates the world”.[1] Teilhard’s description of “nature” applies to both the phenomena of the cosmos and one’s innate characteristics. This subtle pun expresses a tenet of O’Leary’s poem: the mutual dependence of these two definitions of “nature”. It also provides a fitting foundation for this essay, in which I will suggest that O’Leary’s Phosphorescence of Thought and Kate Middleton’s Ephemeral Waters, both published in 2013, exemplify what I will call “environmental empathy”.

In Middleton’s account of her journey along the Colorado River, the River is addressed as “she”. What initially appears to be anthropomorphism of a natural environment could equally be described as the poet’s ecomorphism—a reversal of the usual tenor and vehicle of ecological metaphors (Nichols 2011). Similes comparing the Colorado River to human traits are crucially reciprocal. The direction of influence is pendulous, swinging between anthropomorphic and ecomorphic metaphors, which, far from being antithetical as some have suggested (Nichols 2011; Morton 2007), represent the poet’s acknowledgement of symbiosis between “nature” and “nature”, between one’s consciousness and the natural world as one interprets it.

This symbiosis is central to O’Leary’s Phosphorescence of Thought, a demonstration of the impossibility of explaining the matter of one’s innate nature (one’s thoughts) without drawing comparisons with the natural world. In examining Middleton’s and O’Leary’s poems, I hope to demonstrate that a creative work can be at once anthropomorphic and ecomorphic; that describing the natural world in human terms need not be hegemonic; and that acknowledging the symbiosis of “nature” and “nature” is an important form of environmental empathy.

Environmental empathy

In March 2010, lawyer Polly Higgins submitted to the United Nations an amendment to the Rome Statute, proposing that “ecocide” be legally recognised as the fifth international Crime Against Peace. The Rome Statute currently acknowledges four crimes against peace: genocide; crimes against humanity; war crimes; and the crime of aggression. Each of these crimes affects human victims. While Higgins’ proposed definition of ecocide attends to inhabitants’ “peaceful enjoyment”, the victim the amendment is primarily promising to protect is not human but environmental. This is an example of what I am deeming environmental empathy.

The word ecocide is prefixed with “eco”; it derives from the sixteenth-century Greek word oikos

meaning “house, dwelling place, habitation, family.” The suffix “cide” means “killer”, from the use of the French -cide, from Latin caedere “to strike down, chop, beat, hew, fell, slay.” To eradicate ecocide means to forcibly remove the systems that are killing and destroying our habitat (Higgins 2010, xi).

This definition of “eco” only pertains to human habitats, which might indicate that Higgins’ amendment is fundamentally concerned with the wellbeing of human inhabitants. However, Higgins, like Middleton and O’Leary, presumes the interdependence of habitat and inhabitant:

Our bodies are our most immediate dwellings . . . as we contaminate our own internal systems we start to suffer . . . Therefore, as we do locally, so too we must do globally for the larger habitat we inhabit (Higgins 2010, xii-xiii).

Identifying ourselves as the first layer of our “dwelling” or eco-system is an example of simultaneous ecomorphism of self and anthropomorphism of the natural world. Our skin is, in Higgins’ definition, not even a porous boundary between “inhabitant” and “habitat” but a liminal space in which both states co-exist. Lawrence Buell, in The Future of Environmental Criticism, shares this opinion: “the understanding of personhood is defined for better or worse by environmental entanglement. Whether individual or social, being doesn’t stop at the border of the skin” (Buell 2005, 23). Altering the language we use to speak about our environments, Higgins argues, will lead to a change in relationship between ecosystem and inhabitant. Middleton’s and O’Leary’s poems each reflect upon this relationship. While Higgins’ Act has not yet been ratified, these ecopoetical reflections are altering the language we use to speak about our environments.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel asked in his famous 1974 article, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The question was rhetorical; Nagel argued that we could not possibly know. Understanding another’s experiences, or feelings, is a common definition of “empathy”. According to Nagel’s article, we could not empathise with a bat. “The problem”, he writes,

is not confined to exotic cases, however, for it exists between one person and another. The subjective character of the experience of a person deaf and blind from birth is not accessible to me, for example, nor presumably is mine to him. This does not prevent us each from believing that the other’s experience has such a subjective character (1974, 438).

We would be less inclined to admit to an inability to empathise with another human, regardless of the discrepancy between our experiences. Nagel suggests that the more similarities we share with an organism, the more capable we are of relating to their experiences, and, presumably, of empathising. Understanding another’s experience would be easier, Nagel admits, if there were an objective truth to experience. “If mental processes are indeed physical processes, then there is something it is like, intrinsically, to undergo certain physical processes. What it is for such a thing to be the case remains a mystery” (1974, 441). The mystery is due less to the nature of the physical processes than to what “is” entails:

people are now told at an early age that all matter is really energy. But despite the fact that they know what “is” means, most of them never form a conception of what makes this claim true, because they lack the theoretical background (1974, 442).

Knowledge of an organism’s physical workings might appear to be an honest substitute when our human consciousness cannot relate to the organism’s “experience”. However, there is still a gap between knowledge of behaviour and understanding of experience; I know that a bat’s perception of the world relies on echolocation, but I cannot fathom its experience. I can imagine a black, shrieking world, and attempt to translate it into what I would experience as normal sights and interactions. There would be movement to these imaginings; they would swing between my own experiences (anthropomorphing) and my knowledge of the bat’s senses (ecomorphing). A narrative would form, as it does when I attempt to understand the experience of anyone other than myself. When this attempt to understand is directed at non-human matter, Val Plumwood has defined it as “re-animating” (akin to “anthropomorphising”):

In re-animating [matter], we become open to hearing sound as voice, seeing movement as action, adaptation as intelligence and dialogue, coincidence and chaos as the creativity of matter. The difference here is intentionality, the ability to use an intentional vocabulary. Above all, it is permission to depict nature in the active voice, the domain of agency (2009, 9).

The contemporary epic poems I have chosen to discuss are each “narratives of encounter with nature” (Buell 2005, 9) and employ “intentional vocabulary” (Plumwood 2009, 9). While acknowledging the impossibility of the task of understanding another organism’s experience by way of human consciousness, these contemporary epic poets attempt to succeed. Referring more broadly to the modernist epic’s attempts at capturing a whole societal truth while acknowledging the infeasibility of such an endeavour, Fredric Jameson (2007, 4) wrote, “there is a paradoxical corollary of this particular version of the imperative to fail, and that is the requirement that the writers in question not merely attempt to succeed, but also believe success is somehow possible”. Even if empathic engagement with non-human organisms cannot be based on objective truths, genuine attempts—such as O’Leary’s and Middleton’s—are still valuable. As David Orr (1992, 86) writes, “[e]cological literacy . . . requires the more demanding capacity to observe nature with insight, a merger of landscape and mindscape”.

Movement over mental landscapes, or mindscapes, is a recurring metaphor used to describe the act of empathy. Anders Pettersson (2012, 93) writes, “[t]ransportation is no doubt an important phenomenon in connection with literary art, even though it is by no means unique to literature . . . transportation obviously influences the reader towards being more affected by the text and its world”. Pettersson’s “transportation” suggests passivity—the reader is “moved”, carried into a fictional world on emotions fuelled by the text. Lesley Jamison (2014, 6), in her essay “The Empathy Exams”, also defines empathy as “a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?” Jamison’s image of travel suggests empathy is more active; instead of being carried, the empathiser’s entry into another person’s pain is deliberate and strenuous. “Empathy”, Jamison (2014, 23) concludes, “isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves”. This extension of self is the antithesis of what Plumwood deemed “hyperseparation” of the human mind and the natural world:

When we hyperseparate ourselves from nature and reduce it conceptually, we not only lose the ability to empathise and to see the non-human sphere in ethical terms, but also get a false sense of our own character and location that includes an illusory sense of agency and autonomy (2009, 10).

Higgins’ Ecocide Act, and Middleton’s and O’Leary’s poems choose to attend to and extend our capacity to relate to natural environments. But, even if their knowledge of the natural world and willingness to observe the interdependence of our two “natures” enables an empathic transportation into “the pain” of the environmental subject, what does this mean? If we do not believe an environment has a relatable, comparably human, consciousness to enter (the position of critics of anthropomorphism, e.g. Kinsella 2011; Morton 2007; Rasula 2002), where does our empathy take us? Back, I believe, into our own consciousness, as in every case of empathic engagement. Solipsism does not preclude empathy but provides a context for it, and is “stretched” by it. A mindscape’s limits expand as its understanding of the landscape it inhabits improves. Andrew Taylor defines “landscape” as

the natural world when we look at it—and that includes looking at what we have done to it and put within it . . . when we look, we also impose a point of view. We look from where we are. And we are where we are because of who we are (2008, 8).

Environmental empathy is a complex attempt to understand where one is and an acknowledgment of the fact that where one is affects who one is.

Des Plaines’ Phosphorescence of Thought

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1993, 125) called his body “a thing among other things; it is one of them. It is caught in the fabric of the world”. O’Leary portrays his consciousness in this way in Phosphorescence of Thought, describing how his thoughts are generated by his habitat, and, equally, how his habitat as he experiences it is contained by his thoughts. “As authors, in part, of the world we inhabit”, O’Leary (2013, 68) writes in the Afterword, “we’re obliged, in addition to trying to rectify problems we’ve created, to bear witness in the form of honest testimony to the declining powers of our days”. Phosphorescence of Thought is a complex witness statement, attending to both the sublime and the “Plastic tatters of sandbags two meters up, bewitched in ragged scrub:/ . . . Little solemn disaster. Little nothing really that happened” (2013, 21).

The poem’s form is a “set of traces”—Stuart Cooke’s term to describe a poem that generates a semblance of movement across the inevitably static page. This movement is evident in Phosphorescence of Thought’s “fragmentary passages and images that seemingly flare up and then die away in a series of articulated plateaus. The reader moves through these moments, deciphering them like scenes, while there is no general idea of what the whole work is about” (Cooke 2007, 119). The presence of the house wren throughout the poem provides the reader with a guide, in an ingenious demonstration of how O’Leary’s (2013, 1) consciousness relates to the bird:

The wren
the mind
to sing
– and flits –

The lack of punctuation here conveys the interchangeability of the bird and the mind. The metaphor is fluid as the Des Plaines River where the wren is sighted, but also reversible, not merely flowing in one direction. Both the wren and the mind are singing. Later in the poem, O’Leary tells the fable of “the greatest of the birds”. In a competition for primacy, the eagle suggests a high-flying contest. The sly and inconspicuous wren nestles on the eagle’s back, letting the larger bird fly to its limit; at the peak of its ascent, the wren lets go of the eagle and hovers above it briefly, announcing:

Thou hast not outflown me;
I am king of all I see
and cleverer than I am free     (54)

The reader is not allowed to decipher this fable’s metaphor; O’Leary explains in the following lines that the eagle is “life itself” and the wren “the mind’s feeling force”. The wren’s song penetrates the poem’s music, its ebullient sibilance, assonance and alliteration.

A house wren. Its beak a slightly silvered sickle, its remembered song
– rapidly rolling, a bubbling, liquid trill –
an outlandish complexity copied
inventively from an adult
– a male –
not his father. A descending chirruping, a
draining descant he daylong intones variously, marking
the little log he’s nesting in          (3)

O’Leary’s equivalent of the adult male wren, “not his father”, might be Whitman—Phosphorescence of Thought’s outlandishly complex song “copied/ inventively” from Songs of Myself. “A functional river ecosystem is connected to everything around it”, O’Leary (2013, 21) writes, declaring the poem’s holistic philosophy and intertextuality.

A major tributary of the poem’s “functional river ecosystem” is the collective human memory of creation myths, in the Judeo-Christian and ancient Greek traditions. In describing Prometheus’s theft of fire, which catalysed the human race’s “civilisation”, O’Leary demonstrates the fundamental personifications performed when the human consciousness interprets the natural world (anthropomorphism) and, mutually, the natural, physical imagery humans use to “anchor” the abstractions of consciousness (ecomorphism).

Prometheus’ gift of fire was stolen from the earth’s unsleeping mood, its
tone of feeling roused by that recalescent theft Olympus anxiously
warded against, warred for, mercilessly penalizing the act of. The mind’s
gnarled flame ignited. The earth’s unconscious pooled, fluvial        (18)

The human mind ignites as if made of plasma and the earth develops an unconscious.

There is a physical origin to O’Leary’s densely packed definition of myth—”the narrative metaphor sounds out of melodies” (19). Song, O’Leary suggests, is the basis of myth; humans’ capacity for comparison, for metaphor, allows its rhythms and pitches to equate to moods, and in turn to narratives. This is, in Phosphorescence of Thought, the natural origin of language and story, and in turn, thought. In the following stanza, O’Leary defines the soul as “an extrusion of resins” (19)—natural, viscous, flammable; susceptible to Prometheus’s gift of fire. This metaphor sticks to the reader, prompting an investigation of both its aspects: what is the soul? And, what precisely is resin? The human and coniferous each act as both tenor of and vehicle for the other.

“Why is it [myth] always current and ancient both? For I live in it”, O’Leary (2013, 19) declares, eliminating from his poem what Bakhtin (1981, 13) called “absolute epic distance”—a separation of epic singer and audience from epic setting (which made the genre anachronistic in a modernist setting). O’Leary’s statement, that the poet lives within the myth he is retelling, lets the traditionally sacred become a profane component of human consciousness. “And humans embody divinity’s holy ether like a catastrophe of weather”, O’Leary (2013, 59) writes, reminding the reader of the natural origin of this intersection between personal and divine by comparing the connection to a natural disaster. Following this stanza in which the three main tributaries of O’Leary poem (the natural world, the spiritual, and the personal) flow together and become almost indistinguishable, he writes in a separate section:

You find this mixture of thousands, beloved, this
riot of flowers let loose, overwhelming   (59)

The centring of the lines lets them resemble an epitaph, as if the poet (and reader) has been absorbed into this “mixture of thousands”, overwhelmed both figuratively and literally.

O’Leary intermittently (and apparently ambivalently: “pattern is a form of patron” [2013, 60]) deploys patterns to organise what is otherwise a chaotic depiction and demonstration of the mind’s “excessive novelty”. Meditative and incantatory repetition of syntax, motif and sound move throughout the book like birds in flight, motivated by the seasons. In attempting to define the natural world, O’Leary assembles six pages of epithets, each line beginning with “you”:

you unbearable creative moment
you consuming sacrificial force . . .
you socket of life     (27)

The epithets move from metaphorical, to metonymical, to literal—chemical (“you oxygen saturating earth’s system”), biological (“you unspooling tendrils of mushroom protein”), sensual (“you sweet sleepiness”), sexual (“you involuntary erections”), specific (“you hydrodynamic, pluvious Des Plaines”), broad (“you rapid, hapless scattering of electricity”), personal (“you relaxed body”), elevated, (“you angels of God and you heavens”), earthy (“you lumbering beasts of the land”), pure (“you light”), adulterated (“you intoxicated central nervous system”). The effect is a frenzied Wallace Stevens-esque list containing multiple ways of looking, which knits together the viewer and the viewed, the mind and the body, the theological and the biological.

“You autochthonomous animal forms shifting” is the best example of O’Leary’s nexus between spiritual and scientific imaginings of the natural world. The adjective he has coined here “slots into the center of autochthonous, which means ‘native born’ but also ‘of the earth itself,’ the Greek word nomos, which means law. So: of the earth’s own native law. Essentially this is an adjective for evolution but evolution as if it were a theology” (69). O’Leary is not interested in prioritising theology over evolutionary theory, or vice versa; instead his objective appears to be accentuating the mutual effect of the two systems on his consciousness’s interaction with the natural world. Returning to the theme of migratory patterns, O’Leary writes:

Avid explosions of warblers
bursting in patterns in woodlands and prairies,
suburbs and flyaways they zodiac with symbols
predicting our thinking      (33)

This follows six pages of incantatory epithets, demonstrating how patterns in the natural world are constantly contributing to (or “predicting”) his “thinking”; again, the components of the metaphor in this stanza are each acting as both tenor (idea) of and vehicle (image) for the other. As the warblers fly in formation, O’Leary is reminded of the zodiac, its symbolism both fed by and feeding his understanding of the warblers. The warbler and the zodiac are both image and idea; the meaning of the metaphor moves in its own migratory pattern between the two. O’Leary acknowledges:

Migration’s astonishing parallels between image and idea, between
species and soul in communion with motion, in
commotion, its eucharistic transformations      (34)

Within our phosphorescing consciousnesses, O’Leary suggests, distinctions between disciplines of thought, physical elements, aesthetic reactions and spiritual belief should not be hierarchical, and should, in fact, dissolve entirely, for each relates to the other. This Buddhist sense of oneness in O’Leary’s poem is particularly directed at limiting the division between the human self and the natural world in which one exists. “Soul in communion with motion” refers, I believe, to the act of being “moved”, of extending oneself (in a Eucharistic transformation) to empathise with species and elements usually recognised as being other.

In Phosphorescence of Thought O’Leary speaks only of (and from) the engagement of his own consciousness with the world; he does not presume that the reader’s patterns of thought are equivalently “interdisciplinary”. The reader is given a highly specific portrait of his consciousness and its habitat (Des Plaines) and is persuaded that the two are inseparable.

The Colorado River’s Ephemeral Waters

Kate Middleton’s recent book-length poem Ephemeral Waters is an equally personal portrait of consciousness engaging with natural environment. However, the environment in question—the Colorado River—is not Middleton’s home; she views its culture and geography as an outsider. In “Myths of the Wheatbelt”, John Kinsella comments:

So much poetry of the country comes out of weekend excursions—by those who leave the cities to go into the country and record their experience in picaresque-like poems. The road, the drive, bind the journey together . . . Brief encounters with the rural world and the devastation it has wrought on natural environments, usually interwoven with personal experience and anecdotes, memories of earlier journeys in childhood, or comparisons with city life.  I am not criticising these poems, but rather registering them as a sub-genre . . . In fact, the tentative “touching” of place, and the overwhelming points of reference coming out of zones so apparently very different, create insights that those very familiar with the place, or locked into the place, do not always get, or cannot get (Kinsella 2008, 166-67).

Ephemeral Waters fits well within this “sub-genre” Kinsella has identified and thus contrasts O’Leary’s meditation on his home. As an equally attentive and personal reflection on a geography, Middleton’s poem shows that environmental empathy need not be reserved for one’s dwelling and that the extension of self I mentioned above in relation to Phosphorescence of Thought is possible in a “foreign” environment.

Observing a group of children listening to a ranger’s talk, Middleton (2013) sees a crude and vulnerable sort of solipsism to human interaction with the land. Instead of examining the rock firsthand, the children are watching a slideshow—their experience two-dimensional and mediated. The children’s interest is finally piqued when they hear of the human element of the rock art:

         Yes, piss and spit—the artists
literally put themselves
         into the work . . .

         now it’s washed away
—while the petroglyphs nestle
in their pecked rock beneath

         the waterline     And the colours
and other bodily stuff, mix
with the rippling reservoir     (62)

In the reservoir of Middleton’s poem, the human “stuff”—voices conveyed verbatim—gives the reader a similar thrill to the children’s in this scene. The presence of authentic human material is comforting. However, the painting is ephemeral; its fluids easily subsumed by the River’s. This, Middleton suggests, is the River’s fate—to outlast its human inhabitants. In her Afterword, she writes, “We talk about the death of a great river—yet I have no doubt that sometime the river will resurrect itself. I have no certainty that humans will still be there to witness that resurrection” (125).

An ephemeral body of water is a shallow lake with no outlets; its water gradually evaporates, is absorbed into the ground, or consumed by animals and plants. When its water disappears, the animal and plant life relying on it for sustenance is forced to adapt. The ingenuity of Middleton’s title is its applicability to both the natural environments and human inhabitants the poem describes. Metaphorically, were a human consciousness to become shallow and lacking in outlets (empathic tributaries to other species), it would eventually dry out. In order to sustain itself, human consciousness needs to recognise its inlets and outlets, its connections to other species (as O’Leary demonstrates). Literally, the title refers to ephemeral bodies of water; what my metaphor does not capture is that ephemeral bodies of water are usually replenished. But, in the dry period between rainfalls, the species subsisting off the ephemeral water need to adapt to the new dry conditions. In this literal meaning, Middleton’s poem suggests the resilience of natural environments and the need for human inhabitants to change their behaviours in order to endure their habitats’ alterations. As in O’Leary’s poem, Ephemeral Waters recommends an attentive identification with the land.

Middleton’s attention is directed not only to the natural elements of the landscape, but to its human inhabitants, its history (both geological and human) and to its manmade components. For instance, she notices:

a perfect wedge of manicured
Bermuda grass
grass that grows over the pipes

that lead through the dam wall
growing above
the train-roar churn of river       (65)

The “perfect manicure” of the grass appears slightly repugnant and the fact that Middleton hears the river’s roar as that of a train emphasises the intrusion of the artificial onto this section of her journey. However, there is no simple dichotomy in the poem between natural beauty and manmade monstrosity. On first seeing the Hoover Dam “in person”, Middleton admits to being

left untethered by the sheer range of emotions I felt. Taking the tour, going underground, seeing small seeps through the thick concrete walls . . . Underground I could seethe. We tried to break a river the way we would break in a wild horse. Emerging into the sun again, there was the stunning curve, the dam’s concrete segments resembling an inverted parachute. Coming away from the dam, I let go too much of the beauty, retained the seethe (2014, 146-47).

The complication of the manmade or technological sublime is that “we are all implicated in the object as well as the experience of encounter” (Middleton 2014, 146). This state of simultaneously experiencing and being related to the object of encounter is similar to O’Leary’s conscious engagement with the natural world throughout Phosphorescence of Thought. Being both subject and object of an experience (tenor and vehicle of a metaphor) leads to ambivalence, which is “a kind of caring deeply—of loving both” (Middleton 2013, 124). This ambivalence is evident as the poem follows Middleton through tourist attractions and museums, in which the timelines begin to resemble rivers and the museums themselves dams for the rivers of history. At the same time, the river acquires human guises; the rock becomes a patient on an autopsy table, the water a surgeon cutting into the earth’s body. Later, in Sonora, Mexico, its vulnerability is childlike:

the water finally      curls
into itself     hides

in fetal helix        (2013, 113)

In the poem’s Epilogue, Middleton writes the River’s Prayer. By this stage of the journey, there is a fond intimacy to the description that comes with experience; she depicts the River as being hungry, hugged, messy and lovely, but despite the personifying effect of these adjectives and the feminine pronoun, Middleton lets the River be itself in all its algal glory:

         bless her for her secret, dying pockets
laced with salt
oxidised and algal-bloomed

         Bless her for her stash of desert pupfish     (2013, 122)

The “secret pockets” are the inevitable omissions of the poem, and Middleton’s acknowledgement of Jameson’s “imperative to fail”. She admits, “this poem could never be a complete document of a series of landscapes that would take, it feels, several lifetimes of a study” (2013, 125). However, despite its impossibility, Middleton pursued the task of writing the River’s poem. “Never along that journey did I forget I had come with the faith I’d be able to write about it—to make the journey somehow cohere into a poem” (2014, 141). The literal movement of the journey is an apt metaphor for the figurative movement of Middleton’s consciousness stretching to identify with the new landscape. “Cohering” her impressions of the Colorado River into Ephemeral Waters was an act of environmental empathy.

“Human centredness” and empathy: a conclusion

Both Ephemeral Waters and Phosphorescence of Thought demonstrate what I am calling environmental empathy, which is akin (but not identical) to what Gander and Kinsella deemed “environmental literacy”. In their collaboration, Redstart: an Ecological Poetics, they posit, “[m]aybe the development of environmental literacy, by which I mean a capacity for reading connections between the environment and its inhabitants, can be promoted by poetic literacy” (Gander and Kinsella 2011, 3). In reading a contemporary epic poem such as Middleton’s or O’Leary’s, one needs to attend carefully to patterns and rhythms, to infer from the absences, to wait patiently for immersion. Most importantly the reader needs to empathically identify with the consciousness responsible for the poem.

This act of readerly empathy is comparable to the poets’ acts of environmental empathy that I have described above. In order to empathise with natural environments, O’Leary and Middleton each attended, inferred, waited and empathically identified with natural phenomena. The poets perform a pendulous act of alternately “ecomorphing” their own behaviour and anthropomorphing the environment’s. This performance results in a nexus between consciousness and environment, which allows the poet to experience the environment as an extension of the self rather than as a separate entity. Each poem acknowledges and challenges what Plumwood described as “human centredness”, which results in

a failure to understand our embeddedness in and dependency on nature, that it distorts our perceptions and enframings in ways that make us insensitive to limits, dependencies and interconnections of a non-human kind . . . So human-centred conceptual frameworks are a direct hazard to non-humans, but are also an indirect prudential hazard to Self (2009, 3).

If the poems do enable poet and reader to understand their embeddedness in nature, can this interconnection really be called empathy, or is it self-preservation? In the final sentence of this quotation, Plumwood appeals to her reader’s solipsistic desire to protect his or her Self.[2] Every act of empathy involves a stretching of the edges of one’s sense of self to include the other, the subject on whom the empathy is bestowed (be it human or environmental). In order to identify with the subject’s pain, we feel it as our own, however briefly. We inhabit it. This conscious, empathic inhabitation is what I believe Middleton and O’Leary have demonstrated in their poems, and which their poems encourage their readers to attempt too.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1981. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Buell, Lawrence. 2005. The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Cooke, Stuart. 2007. “Eventing: Wandering Through the Physiology of Australian Narrative”. Antipodes 21, no. 2 (December): 117-22.

Gander, Forrest and John Kinsella. 2012. Redstart: An Ecological Poetics. Iowa: Iowa University Press.

Higgins, Polly. 2010. Eradicating Ecocide. London: Shepheard-Walwyn.

Jameson, Fredric. 2007. The Modernist Papers. London: Verso.

Jamison, Leslie. 2014. The Empathy Exams. Minnesota: Graywolf Press.

Keen, Suzanne. 2007. Empathy and the Novel. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kinsella, John. 2008a. Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography. Queensland: University of Queensland Press.

—. 2008b. “Myths of the Wheat Belt”, in Contrary Rhetoric: Lectures on Landscape and Language, ed. Glen Phillips and Andrew Taylor. Fremantle: Fremantle Press.

—. 2011. Armour. London: Picador.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1993. “Eye and Mind,” in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting, ed. Galen A. Johnson, trans. Michael B. Smith. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Middleton, Kate. 2013. Ephemeral Waters. Giramondo: Sydney, 2013.

—. 2014. “‘Oh, Why Left I My Hame?’ (Travelling the Length of the Poem)”, Rabbit, 11: The Long Poem: 11: 140-53.

Morton, Timothy. 2007. Ecology Without Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nagel, Thomas. 1974. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Philosophical Review 83, no. 4 (October): 435-50.

Nichols, Ashton. 2011. Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism: Towards Urbanatural Roosting. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

O’Leary, Peter. 2013. Phosphorescence of Thought. The Cultural Society: Chicago.

Orr, David. 1992. Ecological Literacy. New York: S.U.N.Y. Press.

Pettersson, Anders. 2012. The Concept of Literary Application: Readers’ Analogies from Text to Life. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Plumwood, Val. 2009. “Nature in the Active Voice.” Australian Humanities Review (Ecological Humanities) 46 (May):

Rasula, Jed. 2002. This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry, Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Taylor, Andrew. 2008. “Introduction”, in Contrary Rhetoric: Lectures on Landscape and Language, ed. Glen Phillips and Andrew Taylor. Fremantle: Fremantle Press.. Fremantle: Fremantle Press.


[1] The quotation comes from the cover note to Phosphorescence of Thought.

[2] A thorough discussion of the paradox of empathy and solipsism (what happens when we not only identify with but also, even provisionally and imaginatively, become the subject of our identification?) is beyond the scope of this essay, but is addressed by Suzanne Keen (2007, 44).

Published: July 2014
Amy Brown

is a New Zealand poet and novelist, now based in Melbourne. In 2012 she completed a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne, where she is currently teaching. Her latest book, The Odour of Sanctity, was published by Victoria University Press in 2013


“Into black air”: Darkness and its Possibilities in the Poetry of Jane Kenyon by Rose Lucas

by Rose Lucas

“Into black air”: Darkness and its Possibilities in the Poetry of Jane Kenyon

…If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.[1]

The American poet Jane Kenyon worked almost exclusively with the forms of the lyric poem in order to negotiate the abyss of uncertainty and loss which, in her perception, characterize broader human experience—in emotional, spiritual, intellectual and physical terms. As she writes in the poem “With the Dog at Sunrise,” despite the powerful compensations of the natural world, life nevertheless presents itself to her as a path of suffering:

Searching for God is the first thing and the last,
but in between such trouble, and such pain.

(CP, 214)

The poetic lyric in free verse form, as Kenyon used it, is imagistically and structurally compressed, often with a final volta or twist, and pivots on the crucial intersection between the subjective voice and the field of external perceptions. As a distillation of poetic structure in general, the lyric’s structural and emotional focus on the centrality of the image and its metaphoric possibilities[2] makes it able to operate at a nexus between a subjective interior and an exteriorized articulation; it is this which provides Kenyon with the perceptual and communicative scaffolding with which to understand and accommodate an experience of life as inevitably fractured with loss, grief and even clinical depression. In a poem to her dying father, she describes life, rather than death, as the period of exile which is to be endured:

…This is the abyss.
That’s why babies howl at birth,
and why the dying so often reach
for something only they can apprehend.
(“Reading Aloud to My Father,” CP, 291)

Kenyon’s poetic does not shy away from any delineations of such an abyss and is at times confronting in its depictions of the bleakness of those holes in the fabric of a life through which one can fall—into the suffocating grip of what she refers to as “the anti-urge,/the mutilator of souls” (“Having It Out With Melancholy,” CP, 231). Indeed, the poetic act, so hard won, will not always be successful in its efforts to provide consolation for despair, or frameworks of meaning to apparent meaninglessness. As Kenyon notes in the small poem “Depression,” language will not always be adequate to bridge the chasm between desire and its object, between despair and the far shores of faith. This poem itself is fractured with dusty ellipses, suggestive here not of a wealth of extra-linguistic possibilities but rather of the possibilities of failure and melancholic powerlessness; its descriptions beat hollow, desperate to summon up the power of a narrative of redemption, yet confronting the always-imminent failure to invoke that longed for presence:

…a mote. A little world. Dusty. Dusty.
The universe is dust. Who can bear it?
Christ comes. The women feed him, bathe his feet
with tears, bring spices, find the empty tomb,
burst out to tell the men, are not believed …
(CP, 93)

Nevertheless, in spite of, and perhaps even because of this dusty drag into melancholic despair with its failure to cohere fragments into any kind of story of redemption, Kenyon’s is also a poetic which resolutely strives to affirm the possibility of a positively connoted “urge,” to unearth and affirm the drive which brings, “like friends the green-white crowns/of perennials. They have the tender,/unnerving beauty of a baby’s head” (“Ice Out,” CP, 195). Her poetics document success and failure, dark as well as light—the drive of the desire for life, and for the sustenance of both body and spirit, as well as the death-bearing inertia which eschews even the power to speak. Evoking, describing, sometimes listing what Gwen Harwood has referred to as the “small voices” of the image,[3] precise and drawn from the world which surrounds us, Kenyon provides us with a scaffolding of poetic imagery which comforts, if not rescues us from the silence of loss—loss of loved ones; loss of one’s agency; loss of faith in the very possibilities of continuity and redemption.

In these ways, I argue that Kenyon enacts a poetic labour of mourning, forging a poetics of tentative presence which nevertheless acknowledges the loss or lack which variously underpins human experience. Like all poets of mourning, she is actively concerned to trace, lovingly and in an often incantatory way, what is present and graspable as well as what is not, what can only be suggested through the agency of the metaphor. In Kenyon’s poetry, this pulsing of possibility and loss, image and its shadow, is most recurringly evoked through images of darkness and light, particularly as they operate within the senses of the physical world. Such images and thematics abound throughout her poetry: From Room to Room (1978), The Boat of Quiet Hours (1986), Let Evening Come (1990), Constance (1993), and the Collected Poems (2005), published a decade after her early death from leukaemia in 1995. Tracing a direct line both from the Romantics’ interest in the figurative possibilities of the natural world, and also from an Imagist, or modernist, preoccupation with the pared down “natural image as the [always] adequate symbol,”[4] Kenyon’s poetic figures a play of light and dark, of hope, despair and the shadows of possibility—primarily by means of the precisely visualized and experienced imagery of the natural world, in particular the world of her life with poet Donald Hall at Eagle Pond Farm in rural New Hampshire. As the critic Robert Spirko notes, Kenyon’s poetry offers a crucial “confluence of experience and emotion, the place where the objective and the subjective come together.”[5] The poetic perception of the external world—its objects, seasons, people, relationships—not only notices and describes that world, performing the vital task of drawing a reader’s attention to the things outside the small house of themselves, but, in a manner reminiscent of Whitman’s great inventories of detail and perception, focuses attention upon that point of confluence, where the self confronts the wild and open fields of alterity, where the individual voice of experience overlaps, albeit only momentarily, with the cosmos in which it recognizes itself. It is in the linguistic imaginary of such a confluence that the single voice is able to articulate interior perception through the language and the imagery of the visible world. Reflecting on her own role as poet, Kenyon theorized, “We feel this pressure of emotion and thought, and we need to find, among the many things of this world, a way to body forth our feeling. It’s metaphor, the engine of poetry, that does the work for us.”[6] Echoing here Williams’ sense of the poem as a “machine made of words,” as well as his insistence upon the poetic praxis which asserts that there can be “no ideas except in things,”[7] Kenyon highlights the emotional as well as the technical work required by the poem as a confluence of inside and outside: to “body forth” that interior world into landscapes of the recognizable; as well as representing that exteriority—the specificity of lichen, or hay bales, or peony flowers—inevitably through the lens of the subjective.

The seemingly simple early poem “For the Night” (CP, 5), raises this interplay of a complex imagery of light and dark which informs her entire poetic:

The mare kicks
in her darkening stall, knocks
over a bucket.

The goose…

The cow keeps a peaceful brain
behind her broad face.

Last light moves
through cracks in the wall,
over bales of hay.

And the bat lets
go of the rafters, falls
into black air.

On a literal level, the poem describes the attenuated movement of the day and its creatures into the night. Kenyon repeatedly returns to this shifting time of twilight as a literal and metaphoric site of transition and potential transformation. This has the effect of both highlighting the temporal nature of the world and its things, enacting the idea that while there may be cycles there are also inevitably limits and final closures—“but one day, I know,/it will be otherwise” as she writes of life and love and health in “Otherwise,” CP, 266)—while also drawing attention to the symbolic significance of the two distinct spheres at their transformative point of intersection.

As this, and many other poems, makes clear, Kenyon does not present a dichotomised and unequivocal view of light/day as positive and dark/night as negative. Rather, the poems reflect the complex of associations and possibilities associated with each position. On one level, the falling night here could be understood as a lack or a failure of light, thereby casting the speaker into the exilic experience of darkness; in this sense, the poem might operate elegiacally, as a nostalgic grieving for a day which brings clarity, wakefulness, even usefulness. The kicking of the mare for example is, on one level, an incident of ordinariness, part of the fabric of the business of putting farm animals away at the end of a working day. However, it might also suggest something of Dylan Thomas’ notion of “raging”[8]—here, perhaps as everywhere, ineffectually—at the loss of light and the life which is associated with it.

However, the poem is in fact dedicated “For the Night,” and thus it also operates something like a gift to or token of appreciation for what it is the night might represent. Like any gift, it symbolizes an economy of giving, an exchange that is profoundly bi-directional. The night does not simply take away the blessings of the light—the productivity of the farm, the harvesting of the grasses as provision for the future—but offers something different, something as well as. The speaking voice takes its point of perception inside the contained space, inside the walls of the barn, watching, delineating, as “Last light moves/through cracks in the wall,/over bales of hay”; yet this movement of the light—natural, inevitable according to the logic of the physical world—is not simply evidence of the entropic passage of time and mortality. The point of perception is situated within the edifice of structure, even within the house of poetic language, but this is a house which is also open to the external world, significantly not sealed against the possibilities of change and loss. And as loss of one sort slowly takes place, as the “Last light moves,” the space of the barn/the space of the poem becomes a sphere of change—a change that always has the potential for both fearfulness and the inspiration of what is unexpected, the not-self which can only come upon us in the hiatus of loss and uncertainty.

In an interview with Bill Moyers, and referring to another poem “The Bat” (CP, 114), in which the movement of the bat’s wings is likened to the “third person/in the Trinity…/the one who astounded Mary/by suddenly coming near,” Kenyon commented:

What I had in mind was being broken in upon, the way Mary was broken in upon by Gabriel. You think you’re alone and suddenly there’s this thing coming near you, so near that you can feel the wind from the brushing of its wings.[9]

Similarly, in “For the Night,” the final stanza brings not only an additional piece of physical description, but a sense of an otherness “breaking in upon” the space of the speaker. And where the previous elements of the poem focus upon the visible, the watching of the light and its effects, these last lines move us into another sphere—of sound, the sensed pressure of wing beats in air—taking us to a different, unpredictable place. The bat certainly carries some associations of gothic terror, emblematizing the possibility of a vampiric plunge which leaves the speaker, unprotected by light, vulnerable to time’s assault upon the corporeal body. However, as Kenyon’s references to the wings of the angel Gabriel suggest, there is also a strong evocation of a positive, even transformative and inspirational aspect of this encounter with night’s messenger. Indeed, there is even a suggestion of identification of speaker with bat—an inhabiting of the metaphor of exteriority as a vehicle for a movement beyond the sphere of the known, the safe, the recognizable. The bat “lets go” of the stability and shelter of the rafters, and its transition into the space of the barn/poem is figured as a “fall[ing],” a loss of control and agency that can either signify impending disaster or the emotional “free-fall” which Adrienne Rich[10] describes as an essential component for any movement out of stasis, a necessary step to ensure the possibility of new life—poetically, emotionally, psychically. Such a risky, yet potentially productive free-falling also evokes Williams’ articulation of modernism’s charge that any concept of the new is only possible through the dangerous collapsing of the old—“a flaw, a crack in the bowl” of preconception: “It is this that one means when he says destruction and creation are simultaneous.”[11] The poem suggests that to find the next (always new) experience or understanding, it is imperative to “let go” of the supporting and shielding rafters to fall into that black air, just as, in order to convey the imperative and the risk of that plunge, it is necessary to find a new poetic house in which to accommodate and articulate that experience.

“What a lark! What a plunge!” feels Mrs. Dalloway at the beginning of Virginia Woolf’s novel.[12] As that modernist literary experiment suggests, the “plunge” can be one both of inspiration, of courage and newness derived from that “breaking in upon” of alterity, as it also inevitably correlated, within the structures of that narrative, with the suicidal plunge of Septimus Smith over his balcony. The fall “into black air,” where the night can be read both as a sea of inscriptive ink and of drowning, will thus always be one which encompasses an equivocation and an ambiguity of possibilities. It is the plunge of poetic inspiration, the energy that moves and drives any kind of creative spirit—as it is also a plunge both into the exigencies of an unknown and into the downward spiral of despair, the depression of “melancholy” as Kenyon describes it, which desires only silence and inertia, desiring death as the only possible extinguishment of its own desiring.

Depressive experiences certainly constitute an important form of “darkness” within Kenyon’s poetry, as indeed within her experience,[13] enveloping the speaking voice in melancholic webs of inertia, dissociation and exhaustion, such as in “Rain in January,” “When my arm slipped/from the arm of the chair/I let it hang beside me, pale,/useless and strange” (CP, 73); or in her most developed work on the topic, “Having It Out with Melancholy”:

A piece of burned meat
wears my clothes, speaks
in my voice, dispatches obligations
haltingly, or not at all.
It is tired of trying
to be stouthearted, tired
beyond measure.
(CP, 233–34)

In Kenyon’s poetry, depression is, at least on one level, an earthward drag, an antithetical impulse to the jubilant celebrations of nature which she also recognizes as possible. When artificially buoyed with medications, the speaker in “Having it Out With Melancholy” can see only the brightness of the day, the life-affirming possibilities of acceptance, of integration with the natural world:

High on Nardil and June light
I wake at four,
waiting greedily for the first
notes of the wood thrush. Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome

by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.
(CP, 235)

The light here is wonderful—yet it is also excessive, prising open all of the speaker’s already heightened senses, in a manner reminiscent of Plath’s “Tulips,”[14] where the eye’s “stupid pupil” is forced to take in the lively and disturbingly violent colour of the flowers. She is “greedy” for the sound of the bird, alert to the smallest nuance of interior and exterior worlds, emotional and vulnerable in her desire to connect, to love the “small, swiftly/beating heart of the bird.” Although linked to her physical experience, as she stands at the screen door at 4am, the dazzling brightness of the summer morning also contrasts with the mystical vision of light she reports earlier in the same poem, when

… I saw
that I was a speck of light in the great
river of light that undulates through time.

I was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colours – those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born. For a few

moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist.
(CP, 232–33)

This light is transcendent, perhaps even somewhat manic, and appears to join the speaker in some kind of spiritual, extra-physical way, with an ultimate communitas. It is also a paradox, in that the momentary calm which this river of light brings with it is also in some ways annihilating, something which can be experienced only outside the constraining pathways of ordinary life, outside the house of the physical body. Significantly, the speaker accuses “you”—presumably a personified “melancholy” to whom the poem is addressed—of pulling her out of that “glowing stream,” “Like a crow who smells hot blood.” It seems an act of mercy—“‘I’ll hold you up. I never let my dear/ones drown!’”—if the river of light is in fact obliterating, an inexorable tide of desire which leads toward drowning and death. It is also experienced as an act of predation, where melancholy snatches the speaker from her “easeful death” in order to subject her to yet more slow tortures of despair, to “turn me into someone who can’t/take the trouble to speak; someone/who can’t sleep, or who does nothing/but sleep; can’t read, or call/for an appointment for help.”

In his interview with Kenyon, Moyers poses the idea that “perhaps depression is itself a gift, a kind of garden in which ideas grow and in which experiences take root.”[15] Kenyon agrees insofar as “depression makes me still”—and that stillness is a precondition for the acute paying attention which is necessary for the production of the language and the shape of the poem. This idea that the dark and disturbing shadows of depression can function, in some circumstances, as a fertile ground for creativity, is explored in a number of poems, amongst them “The Beaver Pool in December” (CP, 70), and “Depression in Winter” (CP, 74). In “The Beaver Pool in December,” the poem’s speaker sits “in the cold/until dusk,” waiting to observe the activity of the beavers as they move into winter. Like many of Kenyon’s poems, this poem meticulously evokes a particular landscape, at a particular season, at a particular time of the day, creating an impression of almost documentary reportage:

The brook is still open
where the water falls,
but over the deeper pools
clear ice forms; over the dark
shapes of stones, a rotting log,
and amber leaves that clattered down
after the first heavy frost.

However, as with so many of Kenyon’s poems, it moves also us toward that point of productive confluence, where the interior world of the speaking voice intersects with the specificities of the external world, where the poet’s desires are tracked onto and through the precision of the recalled or imagined image of the beavers—industrious, prepared, changing their environment, yet now lost to sight:

Though I wait in the cold
until dusk, and though a sudden
bubble of air rises under the ice,
I see not a single animal.

The beavers thrive somewhere
else, eating the bark of hoarded
saplings. How they struggled
to pull the long branches
over the stiffening bank …

but now they pass without
effort, all through the chilly
water; moving like thoughts
in an unconflicted mind.

Set again in that liminal zone of dusk, the poet uses the image of the beavers in their freezing pool to create a seemingly idealized picture of a human mind, where what works and labours beneath the surface of consciousness might all be toward a good and rational purpose. Nevertheless, as we follow the position of the speaker—from observer, to imaginer, and back within the implied obscurity of the waters of her own mind—the notion of “conflicted” may not necessarily be construed only as a negative, just as the rational endeavours of a wintering beaver may not constitute the epitome of human aspiration. Indeed the thoughts of a “conflicted mind,” although perhaps more difficult to manage on one level, are actually the basis of the poet’s creative impulse, the material out of which, as humans, we fashion the complex and imaginative responses to our selves, to our relation to others, as well as to our natural environments. Mental or emotional conflict may be a burden to manage—an almost insupportable burden for some people at some times—but it is also that which feeds the urge to understand and to communicate our understanding to those around us.

In “Depression in Winter,” the poem first draws attention to a small space on the south side of a stone on a wintery mountain, the kind of small and specific detail that can be easily missed, not understood:

There comes a little space between the south
side of a boulder
and the snow that fills the woods around it.
Sun heats the stone, reveals
a crescent of bare ground; brown ferns,
and tufts of needles like red hair,
acorns, a patch of moss, bright green …

Once again, the poem paints a literal image with precision, although the possibilities of the tendrils of metaphoric connection are also immediately signalled with the phrase “There comes …”. In the life of the speaker/poet, in the journey of this “I” up the snowy slope, there indeed come points of potential revelation—where the external world is suddenly apparent to the self and where, in that precise clearing of perception, the self can find a space, however small, in which to productively transpose and reflect itself.

I sank with every step up to my knees,
throwing myself forward with a violence
of effort, greedy for unhappiness –
until by accident I found the stone,
with its secret porch of heat and light,
where something small could luxuriate, then
turned back down my path, chastened and calm.

Paradoxically, the drive that pushes this climber up the mountain with an excessive “violence of effort,” seems to derive from a perverse “greed   for unhappiness”—a desire for suffering and negativity which may be a destructive end in itself, and/or a way of moving into those very spaces of interior “conflict” which may ultimately yield some form of new insight, a breaking through that would not be found in the easy, apparently smooth path of the frozen surface. Indeed, as “Depression in Winter” unfolds, it is the distilled point where the negative, somewhat reckless flinging forward is arrested—the “accident” of perception—which offers this small window of revelation, the “little space” where snow and cold have not encroached, the “secret porch of heat and light,/where something small could luxuriate.” It is not a space or a perception which transforms the entire scene, which remains winter. However, it does offer enough, “a crescent of bare ground” amid desolation, to return the speaker to a more settled path, to bring her back from the bitter heights of extremity to the implied world of the ordinary and blessed world of light and shadow—a blessedness which, paradoxically, would not have been perceivable without the violence, the unhappiness of the climb.

The poem “Peonies at Dusk” (CP, 254), finds us again at the uncertain time of twilight,[16] here in Kenyon’s garden, where the magnificence of the flowers in the gloaming raises questions about the nature and the source of the light itself:

White peonies blooming along the porch
send out light
while the rest of the yard grows dim.

Outrageous flowers as big as human
heads! They’re staggered
by their own luxuriance: I had
to prop them up with stakes and twine.

The moist air intensifies their scent,
and the moon moves around the barn
to find out what it’s coming from.

In the darkening June evening
I draw a blossom near, and bending close
search it as a woman searches
a loved one’s face.

Reminiscent of Pound’s haiku-like Imagist fragment, “In a Station of the Metro,”[17] the flower is metaphorically equated with the dimensions, beauty and complexity of the human face. Significantly, the blossom is aligned with both the face of the speaker who observes and, from a position of equivalence, “props them up,” and also the face of the other, the “loved one” who is caressed and known by the gaze of the poet. The huge white heads of the peonies thus become emblematic of the productive interface between inner and outer, between the self who sees and speaks and the other who is addressed, loved, and who also requires listening to and interpreting. As growing plants, beloved by Kenyon,[18] the peonies also echo the image of the poem as a making, something that may have its own drive and life independent of the poet—yet which is absolutely dependent upon the imagination and artifice of the poet/gardener to bring it into being, to cultivate it to the point of both aesthetic and communicative clarity. The loved other may be equated with the natural magnificence of the flower, but so too is the poem itself. Luminous and fragrant in the falling of night air, the source of its own light, and yet, like the bright, white face of the moon which “moves around the barn/to find out what [the scent] is coming from,” the poem, like the peony, is also reflective, communicative, of a light from elsewhere. In this sense the poem, like the peonies, could be seen as its own ordinary miracle; it is the beauty of the natural object which is observed, yet it is also the product of that act of observation and intention, orchestrated and propped “with stakes and twine,” just as Kenyon carves her personal perceptions into what her husband Donald Hall refers to as the “art of the luminous particular.”[19]

Once again, light and dark stand in equivocal symbolic relation to one another. While on the one hand, the almost glowing peonies can be seen as an antidote to the dark, a consoling point of illumination and referentiality in what would otherwise constitute a “dim[ness],” even a fearfulness, it is also the case that the wondrousness of their luminosity, their ability to “send out light” with a presence which amazes even the moon, is in fact accentuated by the falling of the night. The night—be it redolent of darkness, loss, melancholy, death—is thus both a contrast which allows us to read the whiteness of the image or indeed the page, as it is also the condition which facilitates the emotional and linguistic insights of the poem—Moyers’ notion of depression as “itself a gift, a kind of garden in which ideas grow and in which experiences take root.” As Becky Edgerton notes in her discussion of this poem, Kenyon “confronts agony and faces up to what existence is, but she does so by giving close attention to the concrete.”[20]

Reminiscent of Ecclesiastes, Kenyon writes in “Things” (CP, 139) of the recognition of the fundamental interchangeability of light and dark, of experience and absence in the cascade of the seasons:

Things: simply lasting, then
failing to last: water, a blue heron’s
eye, and the light passing
between them: into light all things
must fall, glad at last to have fallen.

Only in this interplay of shadow and gleam do we find our place in the world; and only through a paying attention to the particularity of the things of the world—here through the intense looking of the poetic image—do we find comfort and pattern enough to see and accept our inevitable falling, to be “glad at last to have fallen.”


Edgerton, Becky. “Attention as a Palliative for Depression: The Poems of Jane Kenyon.” In Bright Unequivocal Eye’: Poems, Papers, and Remembrances from the First Jane Kenyon Conference, edited by Bert G. Hornbeck, 77–86. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

Harwood, Gwen. Collected Poems 1943–1995, edited by Gregory Kratzamann and Alison Hoddinott. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2003.

Kenyon, Jane. Collected Poems. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2005.

—. (ed.) Donald Hall. A Hundred White Daffodils: Essays, Interviews, The Akhmatova Translations, Newspaper Columns and One Poem. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1999.

—. “An Interview with Bill Moyers (1993).” In A Hundred White Daffodils, 145–71.

Lucas, Rose. “Poetry in the Cut: Harvests of Loss and Consolation in the Poetry of Jane Kenyon.” Studio, vol. 1, no. 2, 2007,

Plath, Sylvia. “Tulips.” Collected Poems, edited by Ted Hughes, 160. New York: Harper and Row, 1981.

Pound, Ezra. “In a Station of the Metro.” In Imagist Poetry, edited by Peter Jones, 95. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.

Rich, Adrienne. “Transcendental Etude.” In The Dream of a Common Language, 22. New York: Norton, 1978.

Spirko, Robert. “Affective Disorders: The Treatment of Emotion in Jane Kenyon’s Poetry.” In ‘Bright Unequivocal Eye’: Poems, Papers, and Remembrances from the First Jane Kenyon Conference, edited by Bert G. Hornbeck, 121–26. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.

Thomas, Dylan. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” from “Do not go gentle into that good night.” In Miscellany One: Poems, Stories, Broadcasts, 31. London: Dent, Everyman, 1963.

Williams,William Carlos. “Author’s Introduction to The Wedge (1944)” In William Carlos Williams: Selected Essays, 255–77. New York: New Directions, 1954.

—. “Marianne Moore (1948).” In William Carlos Williams: Selected Essays, 292–94. New York: New Directions, 1954.

—. Paterson. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway (1925). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.


[1] Jane Kenyon, “Taking Down the Tree” (1990), in Collected Poems. (Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2005), 153. Hereafter abbreviated as CP.

[2] See for examples Kenyon’s introduction to her translations of “Twenty Poems of Anna Akhmatova” (1985), and her assertion there that “Image embodies feeling, and this embodiment is perhaps the greatest treasure of lyric poetry.” Reprinted in A Hundred White Daffodils: Essays, Interviews, The Akhmatova Translations, Newspaper Columns and One Poem, (Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1999), 7.

[3] See Gwen Harwood’s description: “until we learn to listen/to small voices that tell/in fennel-plume, grass tassel,/the mystery of renewal/in ripening change,” “Tetragrammaton,” Collected Poems 1943–1995, ed. Gregory Kratzamann and Alison Hoddinott (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2003), 436.

[4] Kenyon herself cited and adopted Ezra Pound’s famous dictum of his Imagist manifesto that the “natural object is always the adequate symbol,” “Everything I Know About Writing Poetry (Notes for a Lecture),” in A Hundred White Daffodils, 140.

[5] Robert Spirko, “Affective Disorders: The Treatment of Emotion in Jane Kenyon’s Poetry,” in ‘Bright Unequivocal Eye’: Poems, Papers, and Remembrances from the First Jane Kenyon Conference, ed. Bert G. Hornbeck (New York: Peter Lang, 2000), 122.

[6] Kenyon, “Everything I Know About Writing Poetry,” in A Hundred White Daffodils, 139.

[7] William Carlos William, “Author’s Introduction to The Wedge (1944),” William Carlos Williams: Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1954), 256; Paterson, Section 1 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963), 6.

[8] Dylan Thomas, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” from “Do not go gentle into that good night,” in Miscellany One: Poems, Stories, Broadcasts (London: Dent, Everyman, 1963), 31.

[9] Kenyon, “An Interview with Bill Moyers (1993),” in A Hundred White Daffodils, 165.

[10] Adrienne Rich, “Transcendental Etude,” in The Dream of a Common Language (New York: Norton, 1978), xxx.

[11] William Carlos Williams, “Marianne Moore,” in William Carlos Williams: Selected Essays, 121.

[12] Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway. (1925; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 3.

[13] Kenyon talked openly of her struggle with depressive symptoms, as in the interview with Moyers: “Depression is something I’ve suffered from all my life. I’m manic-depressive, actually, and I was not properly diagnosed until I was thirty-eight years old. In my case it’s more like a unipolar depression … Mine behaves almost like a serious depression only and I rarely become manic …”, in A Hundred White Daffodils, 153.

[14] Sylvia Plath. “Tulips,” in Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), 160

[15] Bill Moyers, “Interview with Jane Kenyon” (1993), in A Hundred White Daffodils, 166.

[16] See also my discussion of “Things,.” “Let Evening Coming,” and “Twilight: After Haying” in this context, “Poetry in the Cut: Harvests of Loss and Consolation in the Poetry of Jane Kenyon,” Studio, vol 1, no. 2 (2007),

[17] Ezra Pound, “In a Station of the Metro”: “The apparition of these faces in a crowd;/petals, on a wet, black bough,” Imagist Poetry, ed. Peter Jones (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 95.

[18] Cf., for example, Kenyon’s essay: “The Moment of Peonies,” written for the magazine Yankee, and reproduced in A Hundred White Daffodils, 46–47.

[19] Donald Hall, “Introduction,” in A Hundred White Daffodils, x.

[20] Becky Edgerton, “Attention as a Palliative for Depression: The Poems of Jane Kenyon,” in Bright Unequivocal Eye, 78.

Published: February 2014
Rose Lucas

is a Melbourne poet, critic and academic. Her collection of poems, Even in the Dark, was published by University of West Australia Press, July 2013. She is currently teaching Poetry and Poetics at Victoria University.

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