Katherine Mansfield and anima mundi

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This presentation proposes a reading of Katherine Mansfield’s work that will begin with the medieval theories of anima mundi or world soul, the concept of an animistic universe in which the earth can be revivified through a spiritus mundi. It will refer to the French theological scholars of the 12th century who were influential in promoting the Pythagoraean-Platonic doctrine of anima mundi through allegories of ‘Dame Nature’: Bernard de Sylvestris of Tours (De Universitate Mundi) and Alanus of Insulis (De Planctu Naturae and Anticlaudianus), Jean de Meun’s continuation of Guillaume de Lorris’s Le Roman de la Rose. This strand of medieval culture and cosmology - often considered as tangential to mainstream European intellectual and Christian religious belief — was popular throughout the Renaissance and has survived in various literary forms in modernist writing, often as a vigorous rebuttal of modernization from an environmental perspective. Although no direct connection with the anima mundi tradition can be traced in Mansfield’s work, her close identification with nature and the non-human is undeniable, and some familiarity with popular survivals of the tradition of nature personified appear, for example, in her interest in the Greek god, Pan. Her creation of transitive, linking relations between herself and the natural world recalls the close participation between man and the rest of creation characteristic of the medieval world view. Certainly anthropomorphic thinking and the perception of human subjectivity as rooted in non-human nature underpin the sense of wonder and the marvellous found in her representations of the created world and her emphasis on its mystery and splendour. This Arcadian, pastoral orientation also appears in her empathy with living creatures, flowers, plants and trees, while cultivated gardens and wild outdoor spaces are settings for epiphanies, sites of revelation and transformation. Yet, I will argue, Mansfield also introduced her own modernist, gendered critique of the tropes and images associated with nature worship. The talk will refer to the traditions associated with anima mundi in relation to stories like ‘Epilogue II’, ‘In the Botanical Gardens’, ‘The Escape’, ‘See-Saw’ and ‘Prelude’, read as modernist adaptations of classical/medieval topoi of the locus amoenus (pleasant place), the hortus conclusus (enclosed garden), and the sacred tree.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 19 Jun 2014
EventKatherine Mansfield and France - Universite Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris III, Paris
Duration: 19 Jun 2014 → …


ConferenceKatherine Mansfield and France
Period19/06/14 → …
Internet address


  • Katherine Mansfield
  • anima mundi
  • sacred tree
  • epiphany
  • environment
  • anthropomorphism
  • Virginia Woolf
  • D.H. Lawrence
  • locus amoenus
  • Pan


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