17 June 2024

Romantic reading essential for the perilous present 

The Author of Reclaiming Romanticism, Kate Rigby. Picture: University of Cologne

By Duncan Reid

22 September 2022

Kate Rigby, Reclaiming Romanticism: Towards an Ecopoetics of Decolonization (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021). 

So what does Romanticism have to do with decolonization? Quite a lot actually, as Professor Kate Rigby argues in this book. The former member of our Melbourne Synod now lives in the UK, but in September the work received its COVID-delayed launch at the CERES Community Environment Park in Brunswick. Rigby is an authority on the European Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a genre often summarily dismissed as the overblown flowerings of the era that gave us our colonial past. But she brings this literary canon to bear on the twofold crisis of global ecological collapse and the erasure of Indigenous voices and presences.  

Rigby’s close and extraordinarily sensitive readings and vigorous, at times racy prose brings fresh light to particular texts from the English Romantics, such as Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, and especially John Clare. Speaking of the famous Lake District poet, we hear: “Now, it must be admitted that it is hard to recite this poem without an ironic smirk”, and a little later “Wordsworth, it turns out, was seriously into things”. Both these allusive and enigmatic statements make perfect sense in context. Highlighted is the ecopoetic critique of late 18th century mercantile political economy and the “internal colonization” of clearances and enclosures, the commodification of land.  

A significant part of this counter-reading of this venerated but often unfamiliar tradition is Rigby’s erudite exploration of the philosophical and theological strands that lie behind it, and which informed its original readership. Schleiermacher is seen as particularly important, as is Johann Herder, arguably one of the very few Enlightenment figures to be relentlessly critical of European colonialism. The notions of purely exploitative relationships between creatures, on the presumption of a “selfish gene” theory, cannot survive contemporary ecological thinking on interspecies communication. On Rigby’s reading this was foreshadowed by the philosophers and poets of 200 years ago. Recent attempts to silence yet again the voices of the traditional custodians of the land can also not survive this thinking.  

In addressing the “perilous present” in which we all live, what is required is: “the strategic recovery of European counter-traditions that might be brought into creative conversation with Indigenous understandings and practices. Among these are the ecopoetic arts of contemplative, affective, creaturely and prophetic resistance to the logic of colonization”. To achieve this strategic recovery, Rigby brings the already subversive voices of the English romantics into dialogue with a range of more recent, some very contemporary writers, mainly but not exclusively Australian.  

This book is a call to action, to speak the performative, ‘deed-full,’ poetic word (davar, in biblical Hebrew) that brings about change. Rigby’s motivating vision is one of a decolonized Australia, a place of ‘existential common ground’ between settler and Indigenous cultures that will draw us beyond this country’s exploited and ecologically damaged landscapes. Rigby’s book is essential reading for anyone concerned about the climate crisis or reconciliation in Australia, and who may be tempted to surmise that the European literary tradition has nothing to offer.  

The Reverend Duncan Reid Is head of Religious Education at Camberwell Girls Grammar School and an adjunct faculty member at Trinity College Theological School and the University of Divinity, Melbourne. 

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