Nothing lowly: The anti-picturesque in American nature poetry

Date of Completion

January 2006


Religion, General|History of Science|Literature, American




This dissertation deals with the depiction of unattractive, repugnant, violent, and disordered aspects of the natural world in nature-oriented poetry of the past two centuries. What began in the nineteenth century as an occasional departure from the prevailing vision of nature as majestic and picturesque developed during the twentieth century into a sustained and appreciative fascination with natural disorder, death, decay, bodily waste, garbage, and lowly creatures such as reptiles, rodents, invertebrates, and microorganisms. Such work, which represents an anti-picturesque variety of American ecopoetry, also rejects static images of nature as an ordered system in favor of depictions that emphasize the dynamism and chaos present in the natural world. Additionally, anti-picturesque poetry often extends beyond the normal range of human vision to encompass the most minute or inaccessibly distant subjects, including those that exist on a microscopic or telescopic scale. The anti-picturesque aesthetic emerges in figures ranging from Emerson and Whitman in the nineteenth century, through the Modernists H. D., T. S. Eliot, and Marianne Moore, to contemporary poets such as Theodore Roethke, William Everson, A. R. Ammons, Gary Snyder, Maxine Kumin, Mary Oliver, and Pattiann Rogers. Questioning traditional assumptions about what constitutes beauty, such poets broaden the subject matter of nature poetry by validating as beautiful and sacred that which may be superficially repellent. Whereas the historical fascination with picturesque nature in the United States was grounded in British Romanticism and the aesthetic theories of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, attention to unlovely, repugnant, or chaotic nature is largely a result of poets' interest in scientific subject matter and modes of thinking. In exploring the relationship between poetry science, I also consider how the anti-picturesque aesthetic interacts with other aspects of American culture, including analogous developments in the visual arts, shifting attitudes toward religion and spirituality, and the growth of the environmental movement. Employing an interdisciplinary approach that builds on recent scholarship in environmental literature and the history of science, I examine the fundamentally ecological character of anti-picturesque poetry and situate it in relation to traditions such as Romanticism, pastoralism, and the sublime, as well as recent theories of ecopoetics. ^