This essay explores the ecofeminist characteristics of Ann Radcliffe and Sylvia Plath’s poetry. Employing an ecofeminist lens offers a novel approach to studying their shared vision of nature across literary movements. This essay centres on how the poets challenged the essentialist link between nature and women through Radcliffe’s “Sunset” (1791) and Plath’s “The Moon and the Yew Tree” (1961). Both poems explore empowerment and control of the environment through the feminised imagery of the Moon.
While critics such as Jane Stabler and Alison Milbank have started to unpack the impact of Radcliffe’s poetry, the ecofeminist characteristics of her verses have remained relatively unaddressed in recent scholarship. In his eco-critical reading of Radcliffe’s novels, Christopher Hitt states that “the visionary is apprehended only in fleeting glimpses, obliquely and indefinitely” (139). The feminised Moon in Radcliffe’s verses, especially the “pale orb” in “Sunset”, is one such example of a “fleeting” and “oblique” symbol of motherhood and the natural world. “Sunset” is a poem narrated by the heroine Adeline in The Romance of the Forest.The twenty-two line single verse poem begins with the onset of Twilight, a soft, obscuring and nurturing female force, characteristic perhaps of an “Edenic Evening” (Milbank 147). The first twelve lines of the poem are devoted to establishing “Ev’ning’s dome”, a space seemingly constructed by female figures who control the transition into the night (Radcliffe 297).
The appearance of the Moon contrasts with the shadow-casting of Meek Twilight. Countering the gloomy “purple” and “gray” hues, the Moon relights the earth by “throwing her radiance wide” (Radcliffe 297). Her power is concentrated in a sharp and bright “line”, which is at odds with the inky “curling tide”. The “pale orb” ushers in an unpredictable flow of syllables, couplets, and a triplet:
Or the Moon’s pale orb appear,
Throwing her line of radiance wide,
Far o’er the lightly-curling tide,
That seems the yellow sands to chide. (Radcliffe 297)
The unbalanced succession of ‘-ide’ rhymes speaks to wildness in nature. The water commanded by the gravitational force of the moon “chides”, or rather “scolds” the sand, suggestive of raising a child (Johnson 365-6). Radcliffe gives the impression that the guiding hand of the maternal Moon shapes the coast, but this mother figure is not necessarily a gentle force. Her “chiding” juxtaposes the sweep of Meek Twilight’s “shadows” over the landscape. However, the final disruption of the scene comes not from the stars, Moon, or shadowy female figures who have established a silence, but from the distant activities of sailors and oars on the surface of the water. These sounds, which ride the “dying wave,” hail in a masculine gothic presence, immiscible with the evening space (Milbank 147, Passey 194).
Like Radcliffe’s poetry, ecocriticism remains an under-researched area in Plath’s work, with only a handful of critics, such as Tracy Brain, Scott Knickerbocker, and Irena Ragaišienė, engaging with the ecological aspects of her writings. The figure of the Moon in Plath’s “The Moon and the Yew Tree” challenges the essentialist link between women and nature. Plath wrote the poem in October 1961 in Devon. She reflects on a tree growing next to a churchyard, visible from her office window. The material existence of the tree that still stands in the village of North Tawton highlights that without the natural tree, there are no “trees of the mind” that dominate the speaker’s imagination (Plath 172). “The Moon and the Yew Tree” not only rejects the essentialist view of ‘Mother Nature’ but removes the dominant structure of patriarchy altogether. The four seven-line stanzas are characterised by gothic imagery and isolation. In this ambiguous, feminised landscape, the Yew appears as a death-tree, and the Moon represents the antithesis of the nurturing Christian mother. Christina Britzolakis argues that Plath “inverts Romantic lunar symbolism and refuses empathetic identification” (126). Other critics like Judith Kroll noted the influence of Robert Graves’s The White Goddess in Plath’s Moon-Muse, particularly the Moon as a Triple Goddess, such as Hecate (Kroll 44).
The use of the female pronoun personifies the Moon and singles it out as the only living subject. The Moon “is bald and wild. / And the message of the yew tree is blackness—blackness and silence” (Plath 173). Here, Plath portrays the Moon as a violent supernatural entity that humans cannot control. Escaping from a male-dominated society symbolised by the physical presence of the church, the speaker desires the ambiguous maternal Moon and the ominous presence of the yew tree. The poem contrasts the Christian religious setting of the churchyard with a pagan Moon-mother, which challenges anthropocentric views of nature: “The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary. / Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls. / How I would like to believe in tenderness –––” (Plath 173). Here, the Moon signifies the freedom of nature as she’ releases’ the flying creatures into the night. The speaker longs for a mutually respectful and intimate connection, similar to what she perceives to be between the Moon and nature. She questions the legitimacy of the Christian mother figure and prefers the non-hierarchical and authentic maternalism of the Moon, suggesting an ecofeminist reading of the human and nonhuman relationship.
In Radcliffe and Plath’s poems, the “pale orb” or “White as a knuckle” face of the Moon represents an empowered female force in a gothicised landscape. Although these poets are part of different literary movements, both use a maternal Moon figure to symbolise a challenge to patriarchal structures. Radcliffe achieves this through an environment under female control, where the Moon relights and reshapes the darkened earth. On the other hand, Plath expresses an interest in nature without a dominant human presence, counters the simplicity of a ‘motherly’ Mother Nature, and presents the ambiguous Moon and the deathly Yew as independent entities.
Brain, Tracy. The Other Sylvia Plath. Harlow: Longman, 2001.
Britzolakis, Christina. “‘Gothic Subjectivity’.” Sylvia Plath. Edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2007. 115-146.
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Ragaišienė, I. “‘I am not a Tree with my Root in the Soil’: Ecofeminist Revisions of the Tree/Root Dialectics in Sylvia Plath’s Poetry.” Journal of Ecocriticism 1.2 (2009): 31-41.
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Dorka Tamás has submitted her PhD thesis at the University of Exeter, which explores the supernatural themes in Sylvia Plath’s poetry. Her research interest includes literary representations of magic and witchcraft and the relationship between the natural environment and supernatural subthemes across literature and culture.
Roslyn Irving is a PhD candidate co-supervised by the University of Liverpool and XJTLU. Her research centres on Ann Radcliffe’s third novel, The Romance of the Forest and the author’s eighteenth-century socio-political environment.