Jonathan Bate

Jonathan Bate is a research fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.

Cry Treedom

Jonathan Bate, 4 November 1993

It must be cause for at least mild celebration that the United States now has a Vice-President who can use the word ‘Cartesian’ in place of one who could not spell the word ‘potato’. In a chapter called ‘Dysfunctional Civilisation’ in his book Earth in the Balance, Al Gore writes that ‘the Cartesian approach to the human story allows us to believe that we are separate from the earth, entitled to view it as nothing more than an inanimate collection of resources that we can exploit how we like; and this fundamental misperception has led us to our current crisis.’ For Gore, Descartes’s influence has been both cause and symptom of a separation between the mind and nature which has served as Western man’s licence for his ravaging of the environment. An array of Greens from ecofeminists to holistic New Agers share Gore’s hostility to what is seen as the arrogance of the Enlightenment, arguing that we are all now paying a price for it in the form of global warming, acid rain and so forth. Over a century ago, John Ruskin was arguing that Cartesian (‘modern’) thought had destroyed man’s reverence and wonder in the face of the external world, and that the death of God-in-nature would eventually bring the end of nature. Gore’s book is squarely in this tradition: it is an appeal for spiritual regeneration as much as a manifesto for environmentally-sensitive policies.

Saint Terence

Jonathan Bate, 23 May 1991

In 1978 Terry Eagleton wrote an essay on John Bayley in the New Left Review. It is a ritual excoriation of that most tactful of ‘liberal humanist’ critics, punctuated with predictable sneers about ‘a view of life from the Oxford senior common room window’ and how Bayley’s criticism prizes a liberal disorder that depends on a conservative order ‘within which the gentleman may wear his art and opinions lightly’. But it opens with great generosity, even warmth. I begin with its opening passage, having changed a word here and there, in order to suggest that Oxford has its continuities:

Silly Willy

Jonathan Bate, 25 April 1991

To write well about William Blake you need to be enthusiastic, aphoristic and contrary. It also helps to be slightly mad. You need to begin your book with a paragraph like this:


Jonathan Bate, 27 July 1989

In Book Two of Disraeli’s Sybil, or The Two Nations the hero meets two strangers in the ruins of an abbey. One of them claims that the monasteries represented the only authentic communities England has ever known. In modern times, ‘there is no community in England; there is aggregation, but aggregation under circumstances which make it rather a dissociating than an uniting principle.’ This dissociating aggregation is at its most intense in great cities, where ‘men are brought together by the desire of gain. They are not in a state of co-operation, but of isolation, as to the making of fortunes; and for all the rest they are careless of neighbours.’ Those who make fortunes in the great City do so in a state of even greater isolation than their 19th-century predecessors: the so-called communications revolution has had the curious result that they communicate not with other human beings but with green screens, fax machines and modems.

Shakespeare and the Literary Police

Jonathan Bate, 29 September 1988

Henry Crabb Robinson had a busy evening on 27 January 1818: having attended William Hazlitt’s lecture on Shakespeare and Milton at the Surrey Institution, he hurried over the river to the London Philosophical Society to hear the first lecture in a new course by Coleridge. He was gratified to find there ‘a large and respectable audience – generally of very superior looking persons’. There was considerable activity on the London literary scene that month, for at an institution in Lincoln’s Inn Fields John Thelwall was lecturing to a much less respectable audience on Shakespeare and Dr Johnson.’

Don’t break that fiddle: Eclectic Imitators

Tobias Gregory, 19 November 2020

The boundary between the broader and narrower senses has never been firm, and the history of literary imitation has always been bound up with the histories of philosophy, rhetoric and education. Plato,...

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In 1801, Wordsworth congratulated a reader of Lyrical Ballads for identifying the pathos of the poems as ‘the pathos of humanity’ and not ‘jacobinal pathos’; only ‘bad poets and misguided men’,...

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So much in the life and work of Ted Hughes was weird and transgressive that even now, 18 years after his death, it is hard to assess his actions and literary achievement.

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In a glass case in the garret of a house just off Fleet Street, a historic publishing contract has just gone on display.* It only takes up one piece of paper, rather smaller than a sheet of A4,...

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In 1865, a year after John Clare’s death in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, Frederick Martin, a former amanuensis of Thomas Carlyle, published the first biography of the...

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Gobsmacked: Shakespeare

Michael Dobson, 16 July 1998

‘Soul of the age!’ exclaimed Ben Jonson in the prefatory pages of the First Folio (1616), ‘The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!’ His climactic description was...

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A Kind of Scandal

A.D. Nuttall, 19 August 1993

Ovid was Shakespeare’s favourite poet. The fact is central to his genius, crucial to the understanding of his work. Shakespeare himself remains visible to posterity; Ovid is now, through...

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Constable’s Plenty

John Barrell, 15 August 1991

The catalogue of the Constable exhibition which opened at the Tate in June is probably the glossiest, the heaviest, the most unwieldy volume ever to accompany an exhibition of the work of a...

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John Bayley, 22 March 1990

Hazlitt has a modern feel about him. Among the poets of his age, dying young or turning, like Wordsworth, into pillars of the establishment, he represents a kind of muddling through, an honesty...

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