English 248 - Winter, 2015

18th Century Literature

Class Information

Instructor: Menely, Tobias
CRN: 72857
Time: R 3:10-6:00
Location: 120 Voorhies
Breadth: Earlier British
Focus: Genre, Interdiscipline, Theory


    The Early Anthropocene:
    Poetry, Ecology, and Political Economy in the Long Eighteenth Century

    According to geologists, the Earth has entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which human beings are collectively transforming geophysical systems on a global scale. This planetary age is often said to begin in Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century, with the onset of industrial capitalism and the intensifying use of fossil fuels. In this seminar, we’ll ask how the vicissitudes of a literary mode, "locodescription," might express a sense of historical crisis that exceeds social relation and encompasses environmental change. We’ll consider how representations of landscape and locale were shaped by (1) deforestation, enclosure, urbanization, and industrialization, especially the transition to coal energy, (2) colonial expansion and the developing capitalist world-system, and (3) natural-historical inquiry, especially the discovery of geological deep time. Readings in environmental history and theory (from Adorno to Chakrabarty and Latour) will inform our study of the rise and fall of this distinctly eighteenth-century poetic mode.

    Locodescriptive verse is concerned with the relation between the economy of nature and the political economy of the nation, the integration, in a given locale, of natural conditions (geology and climate) and social organization (labor and commerce). We’ll consider this mode’s antecedents (selections from Virgil’s _Georgics_ and Milton’s _Paradise Lost_, Denham’s “Cooper’s Hill”), its eighteenth-century heyday (Pope’s _Windsor-Forest_, Thomson’s _Seasons_), its disenchanted engagement with globalization and industrialization (Wordsworth’s “The Ruined Cottage,” Goldsmith’s _The Deserted Village_, Seward’s “Coalbrooke Dale”), and its Romantic afterlife (Smith’s _Beachy Head_). We will also test our definition of locodescription by reading two prose works: Defoe’s novel of primitive accumulation, _Robinson Crusoe_, and Wollstonecraft’s travelogue of uneven development, _Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark_.

    In the literature of locodescription, we’ll discover a rich and at times unfamiliar ecological vocabulary forming under the pressure of Britain’s epochal transition from an agrarian to an urban-industrial nation: of scarcity and abundance, surplus and reserve; of the relation of energy to labor (human and animal) and of labor to value; of population, species-being, and extinction; of particular locales and global totality; of atmosphere and climate; of aesthetics (the beautiful, the picturesque, the sublime); of unlimited growth and resource exhaustion, sudden elemental cataclysm and slow ruination.


    Presentation, online discussion forum, conference-length paper


    Eighteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology
    Letters Written During a Short Residence, Mary Wollstonecraft
    Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe