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    Wisdom and Time: the Keepers of Anthropocentrism

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    What does the dichotomy between man and nature mean? This question has long haunted mankind, and because literature reflects human thinking and feeling, it has long haunted texts as well. Ecocriticism, a field of literary theory, particularly focuses on comprehending human subjectivity in relation to nature in order to formulate answers to that age-old question (Bennett and Royle, 2016, p.159 et seq.). One of ecocriticism’s many sub-branches, ecosophy, offers a specifically interesting perspective to consider the dualistic systems which are at work in nature and society. Ecosophy, a portmanteau of ecology and philosophy, concentrates on the environment and man’s role in it. In light of this thinking about the place of humans in nature and vice-versa, two poems prove fascinating: The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower by Dylan Thomas and William Butler Yeats’s The Lake Isle of Innisfree. In the latter, the speaker wishes to exchange the busyness of London for the oasis of calm on the island of Innisfree (near Sligo, Ireland).

    In Green Fuse, the speaker observes how the destructive and creative force of time overpowers him and nature alike. Both poems offer an interesting insight into the connection (or division) of humanity and nature, whilst also providing ideas about human subjectivity –partly due to their first-person speaker– in the cycle of nature. As Bennett and Royle suggest, the perception of the world is often driven by anthropocentrism (Bennett and Royle, 2016, pp.154, 168-9, 173). Human reasoning and presupposed intelligence are important factors which establish and uphold anthropocentric thinking. The Norwegian deep ecologist Arne Næss exposes this dogma and offers alternative perspectives on human subjectivity. The inescapability of time is also rooted in the human experience. the question then arises how Thomas and Yeats retain or refute anthropocentrism in their poems and how that relates to time and wisdom. ‘Human subjectivity’ in literary terms can be defined as the unique identity which every human has. Bennett and Royle (2016) dedicate their chapter “Me” to subjectivity in order to demonstrate the importance of personal identity in literature. They state that the emphasis on the lyrical subject presumably originated in romantic culture, where it articulated a polarity between subject and object. This concept of an “(impossible) desire for a fusion between subject and object’ (Bennett and Royle, 2016, p.156) is present in both Green Fuse and Innisfree. The lyrical subjects want to fuse with nature (although in Innisfree this fusion is more positive than in Green Fuse).

    However, to merge man and nature means that anthropocentrism must be abandoned: being in harmony with nature is impossible when the human subject clings onto their distinctiveness. Humans should be able to let go of their separateness from nature and, accordingly, let go of their sense of superiority. One requirement for this abolition of opposition is to reconsider the notion of intelligence. From an anthropocentric view, the ability to think (allegedly) discriminates humans from plants and other animals. Literary critic Howard Abrams, for instance, remarks how Friedrich Schelling set out an antithesis between ‘subject’ and ‘object’ largely based on the opposition between ‘intelligence’ and ‘nature’ (Abrams, 1958, p.209). The way wisdom features in Green Fuse and Innisfree may, then, signal whether anthropocentrism is refuted or preserved. In Innisfree, the bean rows are of utmost importance to understand how wisdom is a marker of anthropocentric thinking. Shawn Normandin (2015) argues that there are two ways to analyze the bean in the poem (l.3). He takes into perspective how Yeats wrote his poem because he longed to live in imitation of the philosopher Henry David Thoreau . From a Thoreauvian perspective, the beans stand for gaining ascetic wisdom. In this case, the speaker wants to use nature to enhance his apprehension of himself and the world around him. This coincides with Arne Næss’s theory that identity may partly be established by relationships with other people, but even more so by the relationship with nature. (Næss, 2005, p.516)

    In this respect, Luca Valera also points out that: “[T]hrough the process of identification with otherness, the self perceives the world as a home and achieves the ‘ecological self,’ i.e., its real anthropological structure.” (Valera, 2018, p.7). These two theories show how the speaker can achieve a more developed identity by his closeness to nature. Normandin offers a second interpretation of the beans: from a Pythagorean perspective, the beans may signify the betrayal of wisdom, yet it is not entirely clear what Normandin wants to convey with this second reading. Beans, in conclusion, symbolize the speaker’s conflict: he is intellectually exhausted by his busy life in London and seeks refuge in nature, yet by doing so he may be betraying himself since he is still searching for intellectual growth there. As Normandin summarizes it: “Doubt stalls him: Is going to Innisfree a way to obtain cleansing knowledge or contaminating folly?” (Normandin, 2015, p.27). In Green Fuse, the speaker does not experience the same intellectual conflict, but instead, he seems to be aware of the shortcomings of his anthropocentric wisdom. The repetition of the phrase “and I am dumb” throughout the poem (ls. 4, 9, 14, 19 & 21) is the first significant element: “Dumb” here does not refer to a low IQ, but rather to ignorance. The speaker obliviously assumed that humans are at the center of the world, but he has come to the realization that humans are only one of nature’s many subjects. The following examples from the first stanza display how the lyrical subject is equal to nature: the force drives both him and the flower (l.1), both the plant and the subject are described as “green” (l.2), and both him and the rose are bent by the “same wintry fever” (l.5). The word “fuse” additionally emphasizes the equality between man and nature thanks to its polysemy. Firstly, “fuse” means stem which immediately relates the poem to the natural world. Secondly, a fuse is also a weapon, a notably human phenomenon.

    Thirdly, and most importantly, “to fuse” means “to join together”, which is precisely what Thomas tries to do with this text. The speaker is no different from other living things, subjected to the same forces and bound to the same faith. Understanding all this, Thomas’s lyrical subject has retrieved true wisdom, as opposed to Yeats’s artificial wisdom, because he is able to see through the veil of anthropocentrism. The force of time escapes the boundaries of the human and the natural, which makes it able to fuse man and nature. Although not explicitly present, time is a crucial motive in both poems. The speaker in Green Fuse realizes that humans and nature are subject to the same faith, namely that life ends in death. Time is the force which fuses man and nature in this poem, it is the link which makes the anima mundi possible. There are a couple of instances that show the comparison of the speaker to nature and vice versa. For instance, the age of the subject and the flower are described in the same terms, namely by “green”, which is a metaphor for youth. That youth is in both cases “bent by the same wintry fever” (ls.4-5), meaning that neither can escape aging. The rose and the lover are also both at the mercy of time: be they human or natural, they must die eventually (ls.4&21).

    On top of that, time itself is described in both human and natural terms. In line 5, time is a “wintry fever”, referring to the winter season (a natural phenomenon), whereas in line 10 and 11 it is described as a “mouth” and a “hand”, relating time to the human anatomy. This personification may also be seen as a critique of human forces that destroy nature. Ultimately, the speaker in Green Fuse accepts the superiority of time, in contrast to the denial of time by the speaker in Innisfree. Yeats’s speaker attempts to escape from time by fleeing his busy life in London to the isolated island of Innisfree. The second stanza reveals the speaker’s wish to slow down time, as the passing of the day is meticulously described. “For peace comes dropping slow” (l. 5) especially stresses how time runs more slowly in nature as opposed to in the city where night and day seem to succeed each other at a rapid pace (l.9). The speaker also denies the progressive passage of time because he wants to turn back time. Yeats grew up in Sligo and had a special relationship with Innisfree during his childhood. The homesickness which is often analyzed in this poem (Jeffares, 1968, p.34) is not only spatial (bound to Ireland) but also temporal, because the speaker wants to return to his childhood, a time without worries (nostalgia). In other words, Innisfree’s lyrical subject refuses to be subjugated by time and therefore does not see that the beans he wants to plant will die, how the bees he wants to hold will die, and how he himself is mortal too. In denying his submissiveness to time, he keeps up the illusion of anthropocentrism, thinking (or hoping) that he is excluded from the natural course of things.

    Thomas’s speaker, on the contrary, by accepting his likeliness to nature, acknowledges mortality and respects the time he receives. He knows that there is no special treatment for humans and that time works the same way for every living thing. In conclusion, when wisdom and time do not discern humans from nature, anthropocentrism is revealed as an illusion. Without these two markers, man has nothing to distinguish himself from nature and will thus have to come to the realization that he is not, in fact, at the center of the world. He is instead a small part of a universe in which he holds no superiority over other living beings. This comprehension can lead him to lose his sense of uniqueness and identity, which in turn may leave him feeling useless or meaningless. The speaker in Thomas’s poem serves as an outstanding example for an individual who doubts his subjectivity. The speaker holds no agency over his actions but is instead overpowered by the all-controlling force of time. He faces the fact that humans are not at the center of the world, and are unable to control themselves or the natural world. This awareness of human limits results in a pessimistic poem about finiteness, circularity and the inevitability of death. Yet, one can also find consolidation in the harmony with nature, provided that they do not lose their human subjectivity. This sentiment prevails in Yeats’s poem, where the speaker maintains his personal identity through the resistance of time and the cultivation of wisdom.

    He remains the agent of the action: he will arise, he will go, he will have bean rows, while Green Fuse’s speaker has become a patient. This maintenance of agency and distinctiveness keeps the anthropocentrism running and results in a more optimistic poem about humans becoming (more or less) one with nature. The question then arises whether it is beneficial to refute anthropocentrism in order to retain a positive view on life. However, perhaps it would be more suitable to use ‘anthropogenesis’ to talk about how humans should perceive the environment. As Valera concludes: “It is clear that this task is for human beings only, since they are the only living beings able to understand and recognize the essence of every living being, as well as to allow for its flourishing.” (Valera, 2018, p.3)

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    Wisdom and Time: the Keepers of Anthropocentrism. (2022, Jan 28). Retrieved from

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