Environmentalism and 19th Century England

Dr. Shubhankar Roy

Department of English

Faculty of Arts and Humanities

Kalinga University


In the 18th and 19th centuries the landscape of England was reshaped by the Industrial revolution. Coal mines, textile mills, railroads and shipyards were the visible signs of an enormous expansion of Industry and trade which made England the foremost economic power in the world. Industrialization was accompanied by rapid urbanization; between 1801 and 1911 the proportion of the British population living in cities increased from 20 percent to 80 percent. But the countryside was also being transformed, with a new breed of landowners producing wool, cotton and grain for the urban market. Peasants, shepherds and artisans, who had formed the backbone of the rural economy in medieval times, increasingly joined the ranks of the dispossessed, flocking to the cities in search of employment.

England was the home of industrialization, but also of opposition to it. The anthropologist Alan Macfarlane captured this paradox well. In the mid-nineteenth century, he writes:

England was the most urbanized country in the world, yet one where the yearning for the countryside and rural values was the most developed. Its strangely anti-urban bias was shown in the prevalence of parks, the ubiquity of flower gardens, the country holiday industry, the dreams of retirement to a honeysuckle cottage and the emphasis on nature and rural values in the Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite movements.

This affirmation of country life, in direct opposition to the emerging urban-industrial culture, was perhaps the most eloquently expressed in a rich literary tradition, flowering in some of the finest works in the English language.

An early exemplar of this tradition was William Wordsworth (1770-1850), whose poetry expresses an intimate affinity with the natural world. During his lifetime Wordsworth walked some 175000 miles through England.  As the literary historian Jonathan Bate remarks, he taught his readers “how to walk with nature” too. In his travels Wordsworth saw only the darker side of the great change wrought by the Industrial revolution: the outrage done to nature by the cities and factories, such that the common people were no longer ‘breathing fresh air’ or ‘treading the great earth’. The poet was profoundly out of sympathy with the mores of city life, with its impersonality and its elevation of money-making above all other values. In the country lay ‘the secret spirit of humanity’, which, despite war, revolution and economic change, still survived. The following lines are worthy of careful study:

Amid the calm oblivious tendencies

Of nature, mid her plants, her weeds and flowers,

And silent over-growing, still survived.

Underlying Wordsworth’s poetry and philosophy was a defense of the organic union with nature of the peasant and shepherd, a way of life that the deadly combination of industrialization and market farming wished to obliterate. Although village folk were illiterate and inarticulate, they were in closer touch nature than the city dweller. Wordsworth wrote:

That the green Valleys, and the Streams and rocks

Were things indifferent to the Shepherd’s thoughts.

Fields, where with cheerful spirits he had breathed

The common air…

This is from a poem about the Shepherds of the Lake District, the region with which Wordsworth is most closely identified. He even wrote a guide to the people and scenery of the Lakes. Indeed, in the last years of his life, Wordsworth was moved to begin a public campaign against the extension of the railway to the Lake District, a development he feared would disrupt the beauty and integrity of the region.

Unlike Wordsworth, John Ruskin (1819-1900) focused closely on the physical consequences of the industrialization of England: the befouling of the air and of the waters, as well as the impact of this pollution on human health and the landscape. As with Wordsworth, Ruskin’s love of the land was inseparable from his love of the rustic who dwelled in it. In opposing the railways he wished as much to protect nature as the moral fibre of the villagers whose strength and virtue yet survive to represent the body and soul of England before her days of mechanical decrepitude and commercial dishonour. His writings apart, Ruskin also worked to build institutions which would recapture the flavour of a world rapidly being lost. He set up a guild, named for St. George, that ran farms and craft shops which stressed self-sufficiency and simplicity, producing food and weaving cloth for their own use.


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