In his essay “‘This Green Earth’: The Vision of Nature in the Romantic Poets,” literary critic M. H. Abrams highlights how the Romantic poets at the turn of the nineteenth century used metaphor to connect humans to nature, rendering humans “at home” in the natural world. In a metaphor, as defined by Abrams in his volume A Glossary of Literary Terms, “a word or expression which in literal usage denotes one kind of thing or action is applied to a distinctly different kind of thing or action, without asserting a comparison.” Abrams quotes philosopher John Searle, emphasizing that metaphor transcends the literal “word, or sentence meaning” to encompass the “utterance meaning” or wider figurative significance (“Figurative Language” 65-66). Or, as David Mikics observes, reminding us of the root meaning of the term in classical Greek, metaphor involves a degree of “carrying or bearing across” where one thing is expressed as something else (180). Accordingly, the Romantic poets used metaphor as a kind of bridge between themselves and nature. More specifically, these poets, as Abrams shows, applied human feelings to nature through metaphor to “transform a divorced and alien world, in which the human being would feel himself to be outcast, into a congenial world, in which he can feel thoroughly at home” (140). For example, William Wordsworth uses metaphor to describe “the voice / Of mountain torrents” that entered his heart and “the bosom of the steady lake” (qtd. in Abrams 138). This metaphorical oneness with the world was exuberantly summarized by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “To have a genius is to live in the universal, to know no self but that which is reflected not only from the faces of all around us, our fellow creatures, but reflected from the flowers, the trees, the beasts, yea from the very surface of the [water and the] sands of the desert” (qtd. in Abrams 144). Romantic poets used metaphor to portray nature as replete with other living beings that humans should recognize a connection with and feel at home in. Central to the Romantic vision was the notion that humans must “journey through alienation back to integration” in order to become at home in nature (141). Metaphor was essential, then, to achieve that return to home for the Romantic poets. Abrams emphasizes that such use of metaphor is not outdated, but, on the contrary, “of crucial import to us” today (131) in dealing with present threats to the environment.
Romantic poets used metaphor to portray nature as replete with other living beings that humans should recognize a connection with and feel at home in.
Such use of metaphor is very much present in the writings of modern-day environmentalists, although it serves somewhat altered objectives in the way in which it depicts our relationship with “home.” Two modern environmental texts by scientists—Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which explores the myriad harmful effects of increased pesticide use on natural habitats and human health, and James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia (2006), which argues for a shift in mindset to prevent continued global warming and destruction of the planet—are similarly rife with metaphor. Yet upon closer consideration, Carson and Lovelock employ metaphor with a different conception of home than the Romantics did. By the time of Carson’s and Lovelock’s books, humans, it turns out, have become far too much at home in nature, considering it as theirs alone and disregarding the fact that their actions harm both those who share their home and home itself. Carson sees this through the widespread and mindless use of toxic chemicals and Lovelock through development leading to global warming with no regard for nature. Instead of making humans feel more at home in nature (as with the Romantic poets), Carson’s metaphors aim to reveal how human actions affect other living and feeling beings in nature, and Lovelock’s metaphors focus on representing home, the Earth, itself. For example, Carson through metaphor grants human feelings to a variety of other species, ranging from the sagebrush to the salmon in order to emphasize how home is shared and how human actions negatively influence other sentient beings. Lovelock, for his part, also employs metaphor by personifying the Earth itself as a whole, showing, in one example, how it is like a feverishly warm patient and, in another example, how it is like a house owner frustrated with unruly tenants. Both authors use metaphor as what literary critic Angus Fletcher calls the “fastest-thinking linguistic form” (qtd. in Mikics 181), employing word and theme associations that bring to mind concepts readers are familiar with. The uses of metaphor in Silent Spring and The Revenge of Gaia, therefore, differ from Abrams’ depiction of the Romantic use of home as a comfortable place. In this essay, I will argue that modern environmental writers employ metaphor to depict nature’s frustration with human action and to urge a different relationship of humans with their home in nature. Instead of merely feeling at home as the Romantics proposed, these scientists realize the necessity of a vision of home based on sharing and respect in order to ensure the preservation of the Earth, a vision that requires a radical shift in values and action.
Instead of merely feeling at home as the Romantics proposed, these scientists realize the necessity of a vision of home based on sharing and respect in order to ensure the preservation of the Earth, a vision that requires a radical shift in values and action.
Throughout Silent Spring and The Revenge of Gaia, Carson and Lovelock explicitly refer to the concept of home and reveal that, in contrast to the Romantic yearning for humans to recognize and grow comfortable with their home in nature, the later authors understand that humans have in fact become too comfortable in nature, viewing it as theirs alone and able to withstand their harmful behavior. Early on, Carson and Lovelock begin to outline their ideas of home, which are then expanded upon through the use of metaphor as the texts progress. Carson’s opening chapter, “A Fable for Tomorrow,” sets the scene of an idyllic American countryside town, where since “the first settlers raised their houses,” “all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.” Carson then proceeds to explain how everything changed—how “a strange blight” engulfed the once picturesque home, resulting in human and animal sickness and death (1-2). At the very outset, then, Carson asserts that previously safe and comfortable homes in nature are greatly threatened due to humans seeing nature as their home alone, a place to engage in chemical sprayings and habitat destruction. Lovelock too introduces the concept of home early in his work. In his opening chapter “The State of the Earth,” he entreats the reader to “be brave enough to see that the real threat comes from the harm we do to the living Earth, of which we are a part and which is indeed our home” (14). He insists that the notion of home must be revised to “counter the persistent belief that the Earth is a property, an estate, there to be exploited for the benefit of humankind” and the “false belief that we own the Earth, or are its stewards” (135), views that have resulted in anthropocentric development, resource extraction, and mistreatment of home on Earth. Carson and Lovelock both express frustration with human treatment of home—that is, with how humans seem to have become disconnected from living in harmony with nature, and instead have increasingly been harming not only their own home, but also harming those they share home with and, ultimately, themselves.
Carson and Lovelock both express frustration with human treatment of home—that is, with how humans seem to have become disconnected from living in harmony with nature, and instead have increasingly been harming not only their own home, but also harming those they share home with and, ultimately, themselves.
In Silent Spring, Carson uses metaphor to expand on her notion of home, granting human-like qualities to various creatures in nature to emphasize that humans in fact share their home with other living and feeling beings. Carson does this through personification, a type of metaphor defined by Chris Baldick as “a figure of speech by which animals, abstract ideas, or inanimate things are referred to as if they were human” (254). These personifications apply human qualities to different aspects of nature to make them more relatable, with understandable qualities rather than foreign essences. For example, in her chapter on the effects of chemicals on plant life, “Earth’s Green Mantle,” Carson personifies the sagebrush in describing how it became the primary plant of the highlands of the American West before humans decided to eradicate it for grasslands. A variety of plants had “attempted the colonization of this high and windswept land” until the sagebrush alone “could hold its place on the mountain slopes and on the plains” (64-5). The sagebrush is depicted as the hero of the colonizing effort, eliciting our sympathetic reaction to its persistence and toughness. Yet the story of how humans proceeded to systematically eliminate it causes feelings of dismay and the realization that home also belongs to many other living beings, whose lives human action has completely disrupted. In a later chapter entitled “Rivers of Death” focused on the harm to waterways, Carson grants the salmon a human-like ancestral yearning for home, describing how “for thousands and thousands of years the salmon have known and followed these threads of fresh water” that help them “return to the tributary in which [they] spent the first few months or years of life” (129). She proceeds to recount how chemicals have completely distorted this cycle and killed thousands of salmon. By characterizing salmon as having human feelings and wanting to return home, Carson makes the situation all the more disheartening. These are two of many instances in which Carson applies sympathetic human traits to non-human beings, allowing readers to relate and consider that they in fact share their home on Earth with many other creatures that experience similar life stages and emotions. Through personifying metaphor, Carson thus establishes that human actions can ruin home for the creatures that share it.In The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock engages with the idea of home by channeling personifying metaphor in a slightly different way, focusing instead on attaching human feelings to the Earth itself. Lovelock’s overarching metaphor for the Earth is “Gaia,” an ancient Greek deity for “mother Earth.” Throughout the text, he characterizes the Earth as a living being—a “she” that is “like an animal” and able to control its temperature and regulate life just as humans do (16). In the preface, he introduces the Earth as “seriously ill and soon to pass into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years” (xiii). Instead of using scientific language to explain the Earth’s warming in terms of degrees Celsius, for example, the personification and description of illness in human terms conveys the seriousness in a way that readers can better understand. Similarly, Lovelock depicts the Earth as a threatened ruler and claims that humans “have usurped Gaia’s authority and thwarted her obligation to keep the planet fit for life” because “they thought only of their own comfort and convenience” (146). Thus, Lovelock’s metaphors are central to rendering the Earth—home—more relatable and understandable. Like Carson’s emphasis on how human action disturbs living beings far beyond humans, Lovelock’s personifications of the Earth emphasize that humans have transformed a once balanced and respectful relationship with home into one in which humans think only of themselves and bring great harm upon home—"we ha[ve] ceased to be just another animal and begun the demolition of the Earth” (6). At the end of his preface, Lovelock emphasizes that “[m]ost of all we should remember that we are a part of Gaia, and she is indeed our home” (xiv). Through such personifications, Lovelock begins to construct his notion of home—namely, the Earth as a living being that has been mistreated by human activity.
Lovelock’s metaphors are central to rendering the Earth—home—more relatable and understandable.
Carson and Lovelock establish the concept of home in different ways through personifying metaphors, but both emphasize how home has grown increasingly frustrated with human action. Carson describes in great detail how human chemical use has caused a multitude of ripple effects throughout nature and disrupted the flow of life in natural ecosystems, causing harm to chains of life from soil to rivers, not to mention harm to human health. Humans have become quite comfortable in nature, to the point that they act without regard to how their actions affect other beings that share the planet. After her numerous chapters on the effects of chemicals on different aspects of nature and the human body, in her chapter “Nature Fights Back,” Carson emphasizes not only how human behavior is causing the destruction of various life forms, but also how nature is beginning to combat human action, demonstrating home’s opposition to human action. Spraying certain insects has led to the rise of more harmful insects, and some species have even developed chemical resistance. Human use of chemicals has been extremely destructive to their home, and nature is beginning to rebel in frustration. Lovelock too shows a home irked with human behavior. He provides telling personifications of the Earth as a home that has been mistreated and as an elderly woman who has not been respected. Lovelock claims that “[w]hen the Earth was young and strong, it resisted adverse change […but] now it may be elderly and less resilient” (2). In one instance, he depicts the Earth as an “old lady who has to share her house with a growing and destructive group of teenagers.” The woman has been “growing angry” with her residents’ “schizoid tendencies” and is prepared to kick them out if they do not improve their behavior (47). In Lovelock’s eyes, humans are like houseguests on the planet, and must change their ways to respect their home and their caretaker. In this way, metaphor serves to provide “two ideas for the price of one,” as English writer Samuel Johnson famously remarked (qtd. in Mikics 181). Indeed, Lovelock simultaneously presents the ideas of both the Earth itself and the Earth as a house owner. He later offers a similar metaphor: “we were the human family growing up in the natural world of Gaia and, like children, we took our home for granted and never questioned its existence” (137). The use of personification in these ways emphasizes that humans have been mistreating home, and that the Earth is becoming progressively more frustrated and is starting to respond.
The use of personification in these ways emphasizes that humans have been mistreating home, and that the Earth is becoming progressively more frustrated and is starting to respond.
These different understandings of the concept of home align with the authors’ respective visions for the future—their insistence that humans must act in new ways, recognizing that their home in nature is not solely their own. Unlike the Romantic poets, who suggested that humans relate more to nature and recognize it as their home, Carson and Lovelock urge humans take a step back and act less at home in nature. In her concluding chapter, “The Other Road,” Carson represents the future metaphorically as a fork in the road: the current road leads only to “disaster,” whereas the alternative “offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth” (277). She urges the exploration of a wide variety of solutions that preserve rather than destroy nature. She also encourages a greater sense of “humility” (297) by recognizing that humans share a home in nature and that they are not experts in regulating nature or its inhabitants. In his concluding chapter, “Beyond the Terminus,” Lovelock similarly implores humans to shift thought and action, to “mobilize and unstintingly bring about an orderly and sustainable withdrawal to a world where we can try to live in harmony with Gaia” (150). He recognizes that humans are developing at far too fast a pace and ignoring the needs of their home. For the sake of humans, other living beings, and the Earth itself, both authors agree that humans must treat the Earth more like a home that is not theirs alone, with the proper respect and harmony that this entails. Carson’s personifications highlight that humans do not live alone on Earth, but that their home is shared with a myriad of creatures that feel and live as they do. Lovelock’s personification of the Earth emphasizes that humans’ home itself is also a living being in need of care and respect. Carson states that “man, however much he may like to pretend to the contrary, is part of nature” (188), and Lovelock similarly declares that “we are part of, and not separate from Gaia” (145). Both authors agree on this concept of a shared home as something humans have neglected and must return to.
Finally, it is interesting to look at how the authors themselves reflect on the use of metaphor and its effect on promoting visions of home and appeals for future action. Carson uses metaphor more discreetly and locally, employing it with skill to make nature relatable. By doing so, she not only reveals the other living organisms that share our home, but also the effects of human action on home. Yet she does not explicitly reflect on the use of metaphor as a means for characterizing nature in such a light. Lovelock, on the other hand, directly explains his use of metaphor when he first depicts Gaia as a living being, providing further insight into its role in his text, and, perhaps, indicating his anxieties about metaphor. He asserts that without recognizing the Earth as living, “we will lack the will to change our way of life and to understand that we have made it our greatest enemy” (17). By showing the Earth to be alive, as seen through his personifications of Gaia and depictions of an increasingly frustrated human-like Earth, clear instances of the application of human traits to inanimate objects, Lovelock believes that humans will realize the harm they are doing to home and the need to change course for the future. Lovelock is quite defensive about his use of metaphor, which adds yet another interesting element. He opens and closes the text with reflections on his use of the living Earth metaphor, and at the start claims that his personification is purely instrumental, merely “an aide pensée, no more serious than the thoughts of a sailor who refers to his ship as ‘she’” (16). Some readers might accept Lovelock’s defense that metaphor is instrumental, that it is a mere tool. But throughout the course of the text, Gaia becomes much more than an aid-to-thought, taking on a life of her own, described repeatedly as being wholly alive and conscious. Lovelock sees metaphor as absolutely central to explaining how humans must shift in their relationship to nature, and it becomes far more than just a way of thinking; he seems to believe that the Earth as home is truly alive, and even uses science to try to validate it. While Carson does not openly reflect on her use of metaphor, it is just as central to her depiction of a home shared by a multitude of living beings and opposed to humans’ destructive actions.
The fact that metaphor is so prevalent in both Romantic poetry and modern environmental arguments demonstrates that this form of emotional connection remains useful in eliciting genuine responses and actions.
To conclude, in his essay “‘This Green Earth’: The Vision of Nature in the Romantic Poets,” Abrams declares that the Romantic use of metaphor – “an emotive power” – may be the only way “to release the energies, the invention, and the will to make the sacrifices that are needed if we are to salvage this no-longer-quite-so-green Earth while it is still fit to live on” (150). He suggests that understanding nature through metaphor is a more powerful approach—and more likely to spur action – than an argument lacking such emotional tools. In their respective books, Carson and Lovelock would seem to agree, each channeling metaphor to convey their understandings of home and to prompt a response. However, the purpose of metaphors in Silent Spring and The Revenge of Gaia is slightly different than in Romantic poetry, focusing less on making humans feel at home in nature and more on urging humans to change their relationship with home and cease their harmful behaviors. Without such emotional tactics, Carson and Lovelock’s texts—both of which are prominent examples of popular environmental writing by scientists—would be much more dry and far less relatable, lacking the emotional force of why readers should care and what they should do next. Yet when home is depicted as shared by so many human-like beings and as frustrated and injured by humans’ destructive actions, readers can connect far more deeply. True to its etymological meaning of “carrying or bearing across,” metaphor indeed serves as a bridge between feeling and action. By providing a different way of connecting with and feeling at home in nature, both authors urge courses of action. The fact that metaphor is so prevalent in both Romantic poetry and modern environmental arguments demonstrates that this form of emotional connection remains useful in eliciting genuine responses and actions. Although the Romantic poets, Carson, and Lovelock employ metaphor differently with different ends, their representations of home remain of continued relevance today, as humans struggle to find the proper balance between their needs and the needs of the Earth as home. Ultimately, applying metaphor to advance visions of home allows readers to recognize the faults of the past and the possibilities of a future in which the relationship is repaired between humans and nature, their one and only home.
Ultimately, applying metaphor to advance visions of home allows readers to recognize the faults of the past and the possibilities of a future in which the relationship is repaired between humans and nature, their one and only home.
Abrams, M. H. “‘This Green Earth’: The Vision of Nature in the Romantic Poets.” The Fourth Dimension of a Poem and Other Essays. 2012. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. 130-150. Print.
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Baldick, Chris. “Personification.” The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. 1962. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2002. Print.
Lovelock, James. The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & The Fate of Humanity. New York: Basic Books, 2006. Print.
Mikics, David. “Metaphor.” A New Handbook of Literary Terms. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. 180-82. Print.