In The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms, literary scholar Chris Baldick defines metaphor as a figure of speech “in which one thing, idea, or action is referred to by a word or expression normally denoting another thing, idea, or action, so as to suggest some common quality shared by the two” (Baldick 134). To give a simple example, the phrase “a rollercoaster of emotions” is a metaphor. One does not actually refer to an amusement park ride when using this phrase: rather, this expression means that an experience has many ups and downs, much like a literal rollercoaster. Metaphors are a stronger way of insinuating connections between two ideas than more direct comparison for two main reasons. They require more imaginative thinking on the part of the writer to ensure that his or her metaphor fits. Yet, they also prompt the reader to form associations between concepts that would not normally be formed. For instance, with metaphor the reader can draw connections that substantiate an argument, understand complicated concepts, and comprehend ideas for which he or she has no existing knowledge. In this way, metaphors offer a simpler way for readers to understand new things. The Romantic poets at the turn of the nineteenth century used metaphors in a new way, namely to resist what they saw as the harmful effects of science on society. In his essay “‘This Green Earth’: The Vision of Nature in the Romantic Poets,” literary scholar M. H. Abrams introduces metaphor in Romanticism as a literary device that “enlarged the expressive possibilities of the existing vocabulary” (Abrams 136). The Romantics believed that the advent of science following the Industrial Revolution was the cause of a major divide between humankind and the natural world. These writers did not have the foundation of vocabulary and knowledge to express their new ideas, so they used literary devices in order to effectively convey their sentiments in a way that readers could understand and relate to (Abrams 136). To reconnect nature and humanity within people’s frames of mind, Romantic writers used metaphor in order to counteract science and bring society closer to the natural world.
The Romantic poets at the turn of the nineteenth century used metaphors in a new way, namely to resist what they saw as the harmful effects of science on society.
Today, popular environmental writers do not look toward the entirety of the discipline of science as the cause of the separation between the natural world and humankind as the Romantics had earlier done. Instead, they have identified several specific issues that have arisen from a modern separation of nature and humanity, including pesticides, pollution, and climate change. One seminal work of environmentalism – effectively the progenitor of the genre of popular environmental writing – is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which exposed the human activities that harm the environment, especially the indiscriminate use of pesticides in America and their deadly consequences. Carson’s book gave rise to the global environmental movement, and it is still studied today. Another pivotal author in this movement is the British climatologist James Lovelock, who, like Carson, can be regarded as a maverick scientist. In his book, The Revenge of Gaia (2006), Lovelock continues to develop his famous and controversial Gaia hypothesis, which regards the Earth as a living organism with self-regulating feedback loops. To his readers, Lovelock presents himself as a “planetary physician” capable of medically diagnosing the Earth’s problems, especially that of global climate change (Lovelock 1). Through this metaphor of the Earth as a sick patient, Lovelock offers a bleak outlook on the future, claiming that humans have not performed their responsibility of ensuring Gaia’s health and are now facing Gaia’s wrath, but he insists that there is still slight hope for humanity.
Today, popular environmental writers do not look toward the entirety of the discipline of science as the cause of the separation between the natural world and humankind as the Romantics had earlier done. Instead, they have identified several specific issues that have arisen from a modern separation of nature and humanity, including pesticides, pollution, and climate change.
Whereas Romantic writers used metaphor to eschew the use of science, Lovelock and Carson embrace science as evidence for their claims. In The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock explains in detail the parameters and science that went into his Daisyworld model, a simulation of a planet that contains only black and white daisies in which Lovelock altered the survival requirements of each species in order to illustrate how “Darwin’s theory of evolution from natural selection is [. . .] part of” Gaia theory (Lovelock 24). The Daisyworld model is a kind of metaphor because it is a concept that is meant to represent another idea. Moreover, through Daisyworld, Lovelock creates a simplification of where current scientific language cannot describe the complex intertwined nature of Earth systems science. Therefore, Daisyworld fits Abrams’ definition of metaphor as well. Lovelock then expands on this scientific model and presents a graph of the simulation’s output data, a very scientific approach to supporting his point (Lovelock 33). Similarly, Rachel Carson in Silent Spring implements Romantic metaphor in describing the sagebrush’s “colonization” of the American West (Carson 64). Sagebrush is a native plant of the western United States, among the few that can grow in the extreme conditions in that region. As cattle drives began expanding to the West, there was a push to remove the sagebrush and plant grass for livestock to graze upon (Carson 65). This removal of the sagebrush creates several major problems in the ecosystem, mainly revolving around indigenous animals, such as the sage grouse, that need the sagebrush to live. Nature created a delicate balance in the West, of which Carson shows her awareness through her summary of geological history. Carson recognizes that her target audience would not empathize with or understand the ecological value of the sagebrush. In referring to the sagebrush through a personifying metaphor that evokes agency and personhood, Carson uses human qualities and traits as a way to describe the scientific ecology of the plant so that a layperson reading her book could understand the “tragic example” of the sagebrush (Carson 64). While popular environmental writers are similar to the Romantic poets in their use of metaphor, they differ from them in their perspectives toward science. The Romantics saw science as the cause of the separation of humans and nature, whereas Carson and Lovelock, as demonstrated in the previous examples, heavily rely on science in their arguments and metaphors. This reliance on science brings up an important question: How do Carson and Lovelock balance their use of Romantic metaphors with their heavy reliance on science in their books? I will argue that Carson and Lovelock use science to support the Romantic metaphors in their books with the aim of reconciling humankind with the natural world, in a markedly different way from the Romantics. This issue of the separation between humans and nature has been a vexed question in recent history, ranging from the concerns of the Romantics 200 years ago to contemporary environmental movements. Carson and Lovelock, like other modern popular environmental writers, actively use science, a major contrast from the perspective of the Romantics in the past. With advanced science that reveals more about the inner workings of the Earth’s complex systems, the environmental writers of today, therefore, have an updated perspective on solving this centuries-old issue.
With advanced science that reveals more about the inner workings of the Earth’s complex systems, the environmental writers of today, therefore, have an updated perspective on solving this centuries-old issue.
Rachel Carson’s short opening chapter of Silent Spring, “A Fable for Tomorrow,” is in effect an extended metaphor. She describes an idyllic, almost utopian town in America where “the roadsides were places of beauty, [. . .] the countryside was [. . .] famous for the abundance and variety of its bird life, and [. . .] the streams [. . .] flowed clear and cold out of the hills” (Carson 2). The pastoral ideal she presents is replete with Romantic qualities – rhythmic prose emphasizing the town’s harmony with nature. However, Carson goes on to reveal that all is not well: everything in this town unexpectedly died out with silence replacing the songs and sounds of life. After further describing the desolation, Carson bluntly explains, “[t]he people had done it themselves” (Carson 3). This fable is in effect a morality tale that tells the reader a story to articulate Carson’s concerns for the direction in which the environment is headed. Given this, it might not appear to be metaphor; rather, it seems like an elaborate story. However, this morality tale plays a very similar role to that of the more traditional metaphors present in Silent Spring. It is clear that this fictional fable is an idea Carson uses to convey another concept: the potentially devastating effects of environmental mismanagement. In this sense, this fable fits the definition of metaphor. Moreover, this metaphor is specifically Romantic because Carson’s intent in Silent Spring is to write for the general reader who lacks technical knowledge about science and would not necessarily be interested in the science behind complex scientific processes. Therefore, she is forced to adapt the layperson’s vocabulary to describe new science to her readers. Science provides the backbone of Carson’s metaphor, the substance upon which the metaphor is built. The metaphor of the fable aims to describe the science that her readers need to know in order to understand environmental mismanagement in an intuitive and comprehensive way.
In addition to the metaphorical fable in the opening paragraph, Carson uses other types of metaphor as well. In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson describes the weathering of rock through a metaphor of a chisel: “the chisels of frost and ice split and shattered the rocks” to create the soil (Carson 53). There is an immediate metaphor for the weathering processes of frost and ice, represented by the chisel. Much as the process of weathering slowly carves away layers of rocks over time, the metaphor of the chisel, which is also used to slowly carve into stone, provides the reader with an intuitive understanding for this complex geological process. The chisel could also be interpreted as an implied personifying metaphor given that nature herself would seem to be holding the chisels and splitting and shattering the rocks. Regardless of the interpretation, this personification fits Abrams’ definition of Romantic metaphor, though in a subtler way. Critics may argue that the breaking up of rocks can already be described with words present in the English language, but this claim ignores Carson’s intent throughout Silent Spring. Carson wrote this book for the layperson – for people who were completely unaware of environmentalism to begin with, for people with limited knowledge of science. Thus, she could not stay true to her purpose by using complicated scientific concepts and jargon such as the meteorological process of weathering. To have the science support her claims, Carson had to simplify her language and use straightforward concepts to explain difficult ideas in a manner similar to the definition of metaphor as described by Abrams (136). Through a Romantic personifying metaphor, Carson formed the association for the reader between the easily-relatable image of a human breaking up rocks with a chisel and the obscure science of weathering through ice and the complicated thermodynamic properties of rock. In this way, Carson uses science in order to give substance to her Romantic personification of geology and physics.
Similar to how Carson used personifying metaphors in Silent Spring, James Lovelock represented the complexities of Earth systems science as the metaphor of Gaia, specifically a female personification of the Earth. Lovelock recognized how looking at “a loose collection of separated disciplines” fractured scientists’ understanding of the cross-disciplinary dependencies of the many systems at play in the environment (Lovelock 6). For example, a chemist’s understanding of atmospheric greenhouse gases may overlook a physicist’s knowledge of photon-gas interactions, while a biologist would study gases released by only animals, such as methane. All three of these specialized scientists lose sight of the fact that these relationships are connected by the process of climate change. Thus, this “loose collection” leads to experts with narrower frames of reference. Lovelock identified this issue and came up with the Gaia hypothesis as “the whole system of animate and inanimate parts” (Lovelock 15). His interconnectedness among disciplines is reminiscent of the interconnectedness emphasized by the Romantics between humans and the environment. Lovelock takes this concept a step further, concluding that there is a disconnect among humans that must be resolved before we attack the dissociation between humankind and the natural world. Instead of coming up with a complex set of environmental theories, Lovelock recognized that the most comfortable way for his audience to understand these ideas was through the Romantic metaphor of the interconnected system as Gaia. It could be argued that Gaia is uncomfortable, specifically citing the portrayal of Gaia as “an old lady who has to share her house with a growing and destructive group of teenagers [and . . .] will evict them” (Lovelock 47). The image of the Earth evicting humanity is of course unsettling, but this misses the point. The overall concept of Gaia is comfortable because Lovelock chose personification as his specific form of metaphor. Lovelock’s readers empathize with other humans, know human feelings and urges, and understand the aspects of Earth that allude to Gaia. In describing Gaia as a “patient [who] complains of fever,” Lovelock creates an association which the reader can immediately understand, since everyone has been to the doctor before and understands that there are many complex systems that affect fevers (Lovelock 1). What is comfortable to the reader is this metaphor’s humanity. This makes the Gaia personification stronger and more effective as a literary device, guiding the reader to comprehend the intricacies of Earth systems science through their previously established “old vocabulary” that describes humanity.
Lovelock takes this concept a step further, concluding that there is a disconnect among humans that must be resolved before we attack the dissociation between humankind and the natural world.
In “‘This Green Earth’: The Vision of Nature in the Romantic Poets,” Abrams considers the plight of the Earth given the current environmental crisis. He muses that “it remains to be seen whether merely to know the facts is enough, or whether it will take a revival and dissemination of some equivalent to the Romantic vision of nature to enable us, in Shelley’s great phrase, ‘to imagine that which we know’” (Abrams 150). On the basis of Silent Spring and The Revenge of Gaia, it appears that popular environmental writers are indeed now leaning in the direction of reviving Romanticism. They look at the duality between humankind and the natural world, as the Romantics did, yet use metaphors together with science as opposed to using them to combat science. Through their literature, the Romantics aimed to “restore the lived world its sensuous concreteness and human values, thereby [making] it possible for human beings to feel that they belonged again in a world from which [they had been] ‘alienated’” (Abrams 135). This alienation is very much present today owing to environmental issues such as climate change, habitat destruction, and pollution, among others. With humanity’s increasing reliance on technology regarding environmental issues, humanity is exposing itself to greater problems that technology cannot yet handle. Carson’s book changed the course of human use of artificial and dangerous pesticides. Whereas Silent Spring became the book that started a movement, it is not yet clear whether James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia will have a similar effect on the issues of today. Nonetheless, both use intrinsically Romantic metaphors to heal the divide between humans and the natural world. These kinds of metaphors have withstood the transition from Romanticism through the modern environmentalism movement, and will likely continue to be paramount in writings about pressing environmental concerns that face the world today.
These kinds of metaphors have withstood the transition from Romanticism through the modern environmentalism movement, and will likely continue to be paramount in writings about pressing environmental concerns that face the world today.
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.
Baldick, Chris. “Metaphor.” The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford University Press, 2001.
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.