‘Every common bush afire with God’: Things Not Shown

‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World

The exhibition explores the intersection of religious and ecological concerns in nineteenth-century literature and art, from William Wordsworth to Gerard Manley Hopkins. You can read more about its content here. The exhibit was curated by Molly Lewis, a doctoral student of English at Baylor University during a ten-week summer internship through the Armstrong Browning Library.

Things Not Shown: What Didn’t Make It into the Exhibit

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” from New Poems. London: Macmillan and Co, 1867.

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” from New Poems. London: Macmillan and Co, 1867.

The Armstrong Browning Library holds a first edition of Matthew Arnold’s New Poems, including what is perhaps his most famous, “Dover Beach.” Hardly an argument for religion’s advocacy for ecological care, “Dover Beach,” provides a sobering counterpoint to many of the texts displayed in this fall’s exhibition, “‘Every common bush afire with God: Divine Encounters with the Living World.” While most of the exhibition’s writers and artists advocate for creation care because of nature’s participation in the grace and presence of God, Arnold’s poem argues the reverse. Rather than being “afire with God,” the natural world is empty of divine purpose or presence:

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world. (113)

Arnold’s image of the “Sea of Faith…Retreating” represents for many what religious faith in the nineteenth century looked like. In the face of scientific and industrial progress, little room was left for the mystery of a divine Creator.

 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s A Drama of Exile, London: George G. Harrap & Co, 1900.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s A Drama of Exile, London: George G. Harrap & Co, 1900.

But other writers not only held to their Christian faith; they were moved by it to care for the world around them and create art and poetry that reflected that world’s beauty, fragility, and dignity. One could argue that Elizabeth Barrett Browning acknowledges Arnold’s perspective in A Drama of Exile. Written as a theatrical narrative of Adam and Eve, A Drama of Exile explores the broken relationship between nature and humanity as a consequence of the fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. At one point, Eve laments her separation from nature, remembering what she had been in the Garden:

…was I not, that hour,

The lady of the world, princess of life,

Mistress of feast and favour? Could I touch

A rose with my white hand, but it became

Redder at once? (72-73)

In sinlessness, Eve’s presence made nature more fully itself—the roses more red, the grass more green, the leaves of the trees more quivering with life, the birdsong more glad. In turn, she was more herself as well, more “princess of life, / Mistress of feast and favour.” Eve’s separation from God places her at odds with the natural world, limiting its capacity to communicate divine grace.

It is precisely because of this distance that poets like Barrett Browning must remind us through their poetry that nature has its own unique relationship with God, and that the common material of the world around us is also more than material. The distance incurred by the fall keeps God’s presence in the ordinary world from being self-evident. In her introduction to A Drama of Exile, Barrett Browning argues against those who would separate religious concerns from common life, “As if life were not a continual sacrament to man, since Christ brake the daily bread of it in His hands!… As if the word God were not, everywhere in His creation, and at every moment in His eternity, an appropriate word!” (6).

 

William Blake’s “The Lamb,” from Songs of Innocence and Experience. London: W. Pickering, 1839.

William Blake’s “The Lamb,” from Songs of Innocence and Experience. London: W. Pickering, 1839.

Poets like Barrett Browning who wished to speak prophetically on the state of nature in nineteenth-century imagination drew heavily on William Blake’s poetic works. Blake’s familiar poem, “The Lamb” from Songs of Innocence and Experience, is one such reminder, not only that God made the “Little Lamb,” but that “he calls himself a Lamb” (11). The poem is a gentle, childlike reminder that nature shares in God’s blessings, and that all of God’s creatures are his children—not humanity alone. God can be known and understood by humanity through his other creatures.

 

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” from Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1st Edition. London: Humphrey Milford, 1918.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” from Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1st Edition. London: Humphrey Milford, 1918.

Much later in the century, Gerard Manley Hopkins expands beautifully on this idea in his poem “God’s Grandeur.” In it, he describes how the whole earth is “charged with the grandeur of God,” but that we fail to feel his presence because “the soil / Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod” (26). This line echoes the narrative in Exodus in which God commands Moses to remove his sandals before approaching the bush burning with divine presence. The ABL’s current exhibition displays Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s prose novel Aurora Leigh, showing the famous passage quoted in the exhibit’s title: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God: / But only he who sees, takes off his shoes” (304). Christina Rossetti’s poem “Tread Softly,” from A Pageant and Other Poems is displayed next to Aurora Leigh, which also alludes to the Mosaic narrative: “Tread softly! All the earth is holy ground. / It may be, could we look with seeing eyes, / This spot we stand on is a Paradise” (153). In Hopkins’s poem, our failure to “tread softly” is directly related to our excessive concern with false progress. We have stripped the soil of its fruitfulness and beauty through “trade” and “toil”—both consequences of the fall, like Eve’s distance from the created world—and in the process we’ve “shod” our feet as well.

Hopkins’s poem ends in confidence, however, that “nature is never spent.” Looking back with twenty-first-century hindsight, it’s difficult to have such a hope. His poem “Binsey Poplars,” featured early in the exhibition, seems more honest about the irretrievable loss of nature as a result of human carelessness and destruction. To have hope, we need to take more seriously the possibility that the “grandeur of God” lies within all of nature. We need to believe with Barrett Browning that our deepest humanity is found in recognizing our participation in the natural world, not in setting ourselves at odds with it. Until then, it’s small wonder that Arnold’s poem rings true for so many readers. We have failed to take off our shoes.

 

 

Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World“:

‘Every common bush afire with God’: Welcome to the Process

‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World

The exhibition explores the intersection of religious and ecological concerns in nineteenth-century literature and art, from William Wordsworth to Gerard Manley Hopkins. You can read more about its content here. The exhibit was curated by Molly Lewis, a doctoral student of English at Baylor University during a ten-week summer internship through the Armstrong Browning Library.

 

Welcome to the Process: What I Learned and How I Did It

At the beginning of the summer, all I knew about the exhibition was its general topic—ecology and religion. How the Brownings and their contemporaries explored this topic in their writing was a mystery to me. I began by talking to people familiar with the authors at the ABL, especially Dr. Josh King. I also read through a lot of secondary scholarship on my topic and hunted down primary texts those authors may have referenced. Emma Mason’s recent book, Christina Rossetti: Poetry, Ecology, Faith, for example, includes a comprehensive chapter on Rossetti’s relationship with the Tractarians. Though they didn’t end up in the exhibit, the ABL holds a wide collection of tracts and pamphlets from this nineteenth-century religious movement so influential to the poet. I spent several weeks slowly looking through each item my secondary reading suggested to me, often using keyword searches of digital editions to narrow my focus. This kept me from over-handling rare and fragile volumes.

Four editions of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh

Four editions of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh

When multiple copies of the same text we available, I compared those copies to determine which one displayed my chosen text most clearly, which was most durable for display, etc. The Library has many copies of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, for example. Not only did I keep a recently-published critical edition at my desk for my own reference, I looked at half a dozen editions to determine which one showed the “Every common bush afire with God” passage most readably. I compared Wordsworth’s first and second editions of Lyrical Ballads to EBB’s own collection of his poetry to see which would best illustrate not only his conviction about nature’s capacity for spiritual renewal but also the influence that vision had on the poets that came after him.

Exhibit Layout Mockup

Exhibit Layout Mockup

I photographed everything I looked at so that I could reference digital images when necessary. This also reduced how often I handled the books. When I had found a few dozen solidly relevant and compelling texts, I grouped them by theme, and considered how they might relate to one another. Texts that had less in common with the rest, I culled. Sometimes a connection—like the burning bush image in two separate poems by two different authors—made my choice for me. I wasn’t planning on using that particular page of Aurora Leigh to begin with, but it makes for a very interesting comparison with Christina Rossetti’s sonnet, “Tread softly! all the earth is holy ground.”

Christina Rossetti's Sing Song: A Nursery-Rhyme Book

Christina Rossetti’s Sing Song: A Nursery-Rhyme Book

Some discoveries were surprises. For example, I looked at Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner self-indulgently. After all, if a first edition Coleridge is available, you ask to look at it. As I was rereading the poem—which I hadn’t really looked at closely for years—I realized that it shared the same central theme of the relationship between recognizing nature’s beauty and being able to pray that several other poets had already considered. Including Mariner pushed me to display the “Linnets” poem from Sing-Song in addition to “Hurt No Living Thing”—even though that meant relying on facsimiles, as the pages don’t face each other.

Once these decisions were made, I began drafting text for each item based on what I knew. I revised that text for brevity, then asked for feedback from peers and professors. This feedback led to a lot more clarification about each item’s unique characteristics as well as their relationship with the overall theme. As I revised, I also digitized some texts for use in blog posts, social media, and other promotional material. I worked with Laura French and others at the ABL to build custom cradles for display. And I continued reading about the subject, the authors, and the texts along the way. There’s still a lot for me to learn about these authors and this subject, but the process of curating the exhibit has been a remarkable opportunity to learn about the Armstrong Browning Library’s resources and the long history of ecological care rooted in robust Christian faith and practice.

 

Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World“:

“Every common bush afire with God”: How Shall We Live Now?

‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World

The exhibition explores the intersection of religious and ecological concerns in nineteenth-century literature and art, from William Wordsworth to Gerard Manley Hopkins. You can read more about its content here. The exhibit was curated by Molly Lewis, a doctoral student of English at Baylor University during a ten-week summer internship through the Armstrong Browning Library.

How Shall We Live Now? Recognizing and Caring for the Natural World Where We Are

William Morris and John Ruskin were passionate advocates for attending to the natural world around them, from the shores of the Thames in London to the shores of Lake Coniston at Brantwood. But what mattered to writers and artists in nineteenth-century Britain may look very different for us in the places we live today. Part of recognizing the natural world means observing the unique beauties and vulnerabilities of the places we call home. In Waco, TX, home to the Armstrong Browning Library, there are many ways to respond to these artists’ call to recognize the beauty and dignity of nature, and respond with care:

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Binsey Poplars,” from Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1st Edition. London: Humphrey Milford, 1918.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Binsey Poplars,” from Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1st Edition. London: Humphrey Milford, 1918.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Binsey Poplars,” from Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1st Edition. London: Humphrey Milford, 1918.

If you’re moved by Gerard Manley Hopkins’s challenge to remember the lost Binsey Poplars, consider visiting the Carleen Bright Arboretum in Woodway. Part of the Arboretum’s mission and vision is to be “stewards of the natural environments and resources within its boundaries.” Seeing first-hand what this stewardship looks like for them provides a helpful—and beautiful—model for how to steward our own environments and resources.

 

William Morris’s “Wandle” (1884). Reproduced by Sanderson. 2019.

William Morris’s “Wandle” (1884). Reproduced by Sanderson. 2019.

William Morris was so committed to recovering the beauty of the Thames that he wrote a whole novel about it in News from Nowhere. The Brazos River could use some of Morris’s passion. Among their many campaigns for change, Keep Waco Beautiful hosts quarterly Brazos clean-up days. Try joining the next one and consider investing your time in some of their projects to beautify and restore Waco neighborhoods.

 

Christina Rossetti’s “Tread Softly!” from A Pageant and Other Poems. London: Macmillan, 1881.

Christina Rossetti’s “Tread Softly!” from A Pageant and Other Poems. London: Macmillan, 1881.

When we read Christina Rossetti’s words to “Tread softly!” because “all the earth is holy ground,” it can be difficult to imagine what that might look like practically in our daily lives—especially if we live in a city where beautiful landscapes are hard to come by. Mission Waco’s Urban REAP helps us think creatively about how we can use our resources in urban spaces, both responsibly and beautifully. Whether you live in the city or the country, your daily life relies on rural spaces—farm land, fields of cattle, waterways—increasingly at risk thanks to our industrialized agricultural system. World Hunger Relief provides educational encounters and partnership opportunities for those who would like to “tread softly” on the earth that sustains us.

What are some other ways you can recognize and care for the natural world you’re a part of?

 

Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World“:

‘Every common bush afire with God’: Recognition, Prayer & Gratitude in the ABL’s Archives

‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World

The exhibition explores the intersection of religious and ecological concerns in nineteenth-century literature and art, from William Wordsworth to Gerard Manley Hopkins. The exhibit was curated by Molly Lewis, a doctoral student of English at Baylor University during a ten-week summer internship through the Armstrong Browning Library.

 

Recognition, Prayer & Gratitude in the ABL’s Archives

This fall, the Armstrong Browning Library is hosting “‘Every common bush afire with God’: Recognition, Prayer & Gratitude in the Nineteenth Century,” an exhibition on the intersection of ecology and religion in the work of some of the century’s most admired poets and artists. Many nineteenth-century British writers were deeply concerned with the destructive consequences of the Industrial Revolution on their natural environment, both as artists of the written word and as deeply religious thinkers. Much of their concern with the despoliation of the natural world stems from their conviction that we encounter God through the living world of plants, animals, water, sky. These writers believed that humanity is not alone in bearing the image of God; all of creation reflects the divine. Recognizing this divine reflection in nature makes prayerful communion with God possible. But, by extension, harming the earth can further separate us from God. The writers and artists represented here were inspired in their own creative acts—works of art like poetry and painting—as they paid attention to and cared for the world of nature around them. Through their words and images, we may better understand how a robust faith encourages us towards better care for creation in the twenty-first century.

William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” from Wordsworth’s Poetical Works. Volume 2. London: Edward Moxon, 1836. The Brownings’ Library. P. 162.

William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” from Wordsworth’s Poetical Works. Volume 2. London: Edward Moxon, 1836. The Brownings’ Library. P. 162.

The exhibition is broken up into three parts, focusing in turn on “Recognition,” “Prayer,” and “Gratitude” as they relate to human participation in the natural world. Throughout the nineteenth century, writers like Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), and others, saw that both humanity and the natural world are cared for by God. These poets warn against simply using nature rather than recognizing its value in God’s eyes, and suggest that attending to nature’s inherent dignity may lead to a better understanding ourselves of what it means to be children of a creative God. These poets encourage us to ask: What have we missed out on because of the carelessness of our nineteenth-century ancestors? What will our own children miss out on because of our carelessness today?

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The section on “Recognition,” highlights Barrett Browning’s “Patience Taught by Nature,” Hopkins’s poem, “Binsey Poplars,” and Christina Rossetti’s “Innocent Eyes Not Ours.” When Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes, “Grant me some smaller grace than comes to these,” she implies that non-human nature receives God’s grace as freely as humanity does. In “Binsey Poplars,” Gerard Manley Hopkins argues that deliberately harming nature is actually an act of violence against God. Rossetti’s poem is an excerpt revised from her longer work, “To What Purpose Is This Waste?” published by her brother William Michael Rossetti after her death. Both the excerpt and the full poem challenge readers to consider the nature’s value apart from its utility in human industry. Rossetti suggests that such value lies in nature’s inherent posture of praise: “All voices of things inanimate / Join with the song of Angels and the song / Of blessed spirits, chiming with / Their Hallelujahs.” If the natural state of the created world is continual praise of God, we are challenged to treat the natural world with the same reverence we give to the rest of his children. Moreover, we can even learn from nature how best to do praise the Creator ourselves.

The exhibition’s second section on “Prayer” compares works by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Wordsworth (1770-1850), Christina Rossetti, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) to see how the theme of prayer through nature is carried across the century. In his poem “Tintern Abbey,” William Wordsworth suggests that the mere memory of nature can restore him when he is confined to “lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din / Of towns and cities.” Wordsworth’s dear friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge and later poets like Elizabeth Barrett Browning draw on such encounters with nature to suggest that being attentive to the created world makes us better able to pray. Whether through the limited view of a window or tramping about on the holy ground of the earth, honoring nature brings us closer to God.

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Barrett Browning’s poetic novel Aurora Leigh offers two especially helpful scenes in which the title character discovers this truth for herself. Confined, like Barrett Browning herself, to a bedroom with a single window connecting her to the natural world, Aurora is struck by the reminder (brought to her by the light of the sun) that God has heard nothing from her but tears in many days. Gradually, as she sits by the window and strokes the leaves of the woodbine just outside, her spirits awakes to life and love. “Wholly, at last,” she cries, “I wakened, opened wide my window and my soul.” Much later on a journey through Italy, Aurora continues her reflection on nature’s capacity to draw the viewer to God. “Earth’s crammed with heaven,” she writes, “And every common bush afire with God.” For Barrett Browning, the natural world is more than material. Like the human person, it bears the stamp of the divine presence. Recognizing its beauty can thus draw us closer to the Creator—even as harming nature drives us away from him.

William Morris’s “Wandle” (1884). Reproduced by Sanderson. 2019.

William Morris’s “Wandle” (1884). Reproduced by Sanderson. 2019.

The exhibition’s third section on “Gratitude” shows how artists and writers like William Morris (1834-1896), John Ruskin (1819-1900), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), and Robert Browning (1812-1889) respond to nature in their art and writing, reflecting the beauty of the ordinary world with gratitude and care. Art and social critic John Ruskin argues in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) that “God is a household God, as well as a heavenly one,” encouraging readers to not abandon the world around them for an eternal utopia. He writes:

“God has lent us the earth for our life; it is a great entail. It belongs as much to those who are to come after us…as to us; and we have no right, by anything that we do or neglect, to…deprive them of benefits which it was in our power to bequeath.”

Ruskin’s language of attending to future generations resonates with current conversations about environmental care. In his own time, poets and painters alike were moved by his challenge to create in harmony with the natural world rather than in antagonism with it. In turn, their work inspires readers like us to respond with our own acts of creation—and creation care.

 

Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “‘Every common bush afire with God’: Divine Encounters in the Living World“:

Making Connections: Literary Networks in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

In fall 2016, students in Dr. Kristen Pond’s upper-level English course, “Literary Networks in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” explored the relationships between writers of the Romantic, Victorian, and Modernist Periods and the influences they had on each other’s works. “Authors did not, in fact, work alone,” Dr. Pond argued, “but often collaborated, either directly by each person contributing something to the final piece or indirectly through the influence of conversations, interactions, or from reading one another’s works.” Utilizing the letters, manuscripts, rare books, and other collection materials at the Armstrong Browning Library, the students ended their semester by curating an exhibition that uncovered connections between one particular literary figure and Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning—the centers of the literary network for the course—or another significant literary figure.

The exhibition Making Connections: Literary Networks in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries is on display in the Hankamer Treasure Room, Armstrong Browning Library, until April 21, 2017.

The Armstrong Browning Library would like to thank Dr. Kristen Pond and the students who made this exhibition possible:

Marcus Appleyard, Rebecca Causey, Victoria Corley, Annie Dang, Taylor Ferguson, Casey Froehlich, Madelynn Lee, Mollie Mallory, Anne McCausland, Emily Ober, Shannon Ristedt, Chris Solis, Alexander Stough, Alex Ueckert, Baylee Versteeg, and Jonathan White.