Nature Poetry: From A Poet's Glossary
nature poetry, nature in poetry: The natural world has been one of the recurring subjects of poetry, frequently the primary one, in every age and every country. Yet we cannot easily define nature, which, as Gary Snyder points out in his preface to No Nature (1992), “will not fulfill our conceptions or assumptions” and “will dodge our expectations and theoretical models.” Yet the urge to describe the natural world — its various landscapes, its changing seasons, its surrounding phenomena — has been an inescapable part of the history of poetry. Wendell Berry provides a simple useful definition of nature poetry as poetry that “considers nature as subject matter and inspiration.”
Our concepts of nature are relative, historically determined. The nature poem is affected by ideology, by literary conventions as well as social and cultural ideas. Raymond Williams contends, “Nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language.” The term nature is itself contested now because it seems to assume an oversimplified relationship between the human and the environment. “Nature” has been the site of so many different naïve symbolisms, such as purity, escape, and savagery. That’s why poets and critics often refer to green poetry or environmental poetry, which presupposes a complicated interconnection between nature and humankind.
The idea that the seasons structure the actual rhythms or symbolic passages of life goes back to antiquity. The Canaanite mythical "Poem of Aqhat" (fifteenth century BCE) rotates around seasonal change. Hesiod’s Works and Days (eighth century B.C.E.) takes special interest in agricultural practices. There is a long tradition of the pastoral, stemming from Theocritus’s idylls (third century BCE), which honor the simplicities of rural life and create such memorable figures as Lycidas, the archetypal poet-shepherd who inspired John Milton's pastoral elegy “Lycidas” (1638). Virgil’s Eclogues (37–30 BCE) define the tradition by characterizing the peaceful serenity of shepherds living in idealized natural settings. The Chinese Book of Songs (tenth to fifth century BCE) is rife with seasonal poetry and so is the Japanese haiku, which began as a short associative meditation on the natural world. Think of the Old English “Seafarer” and the Middle English “Cuckoo’s Song” (“Sumer is icumen in / Lhude sing, cuccu!”), of the passage of seasons in "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (fourteenth century). In the Renaissance, urbane poets apprenticed themselves to poetry by writing pastoral soliloquies or dialogues, which construct and imagine rural life. The tradition is exemplified by Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1580) and Edmund Spenser’s The Shephearde’s Calender (1579), which uses the months of the year to trace the changes in a shepherd’s life. Rural poetry flourished in seventeenth-century retirement and garden poems, in landscape poems that delivered formal and structured descriptions of topography, such as John Denham’s “Cooper’s Hill” (1642).
James Thomson, the first important eighteenth-century nature poet, infused his lovingly detailed descriptions in The Seasons (1730) with his age’s sense of God’s sustaining presence in nature. As he writes in “Spring”: “Chief, lovely spring, in thee, and thy soft scenes / The SMILING GOD is seen; while water, earth / And air attest his bounty.” Alexander Pope leads his “Essay on Criticism” (1711) with the rule, “First follow Nature.” For him, “following nature” means honoring classical precedent: “Learn hence for Ancient Rules a just Esteem; / To copy Nature is to copy Them.” Pope describes these rules as “Nature Methodiz’d.” Writing at a time when English society was being transformed from an agricultural society to an industrial one, the romantic poets treated nature in a groundbreaking way, dwelling in its localities, praising its nurturing powers, spiritualizing it. Think of these summary lines from William Wordsworth’s defining nature poem, “Tintern Abbey” (1798):
Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, — both what they half-create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
John Clare was inspired by Thomson’s The Seasons to become a poet with a rural muse, and his more than 3,500 poems seek out the secret recesses of nature, a hidden, underappreciated, overlooked country, which he detailed with a sharp eye and a naturalist’s sensibility. “Poets love nature and themselves are love,” he wrote in a late sonnet. His poetry intimately chronicles a world that was rapidly disappearing, systematically divided up into rectangular plots of land, fenced off and restricted, enclosed. There is an ethic of reciprocity that he brought to his encounters with the natural world. Indeed, each of the English romantics had a particular view of that world, a singular way of describing it—they were sometimes solaced, sometimes frightened by its alienating majesty and inhuman force—and yet romantic poetry as a whole inaugurated a new ecological consciousness, a fresh way of treating human beings and nature as interdependent.
Henry David Thoreau is the guiding spirit of American nature writing in general and American nature poetry in particular. “Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?” he asks in Walden (1854). Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature (1836) is foundational, but Walden is a forerunner and a reference point for green writing and reading, green thinking. It would take a volume in itself to track the ways that American poets have envisioned the environment—in Democratic Vistas (1871) Walt Whitman calls nature “the only complete, actual poem” —but I would pause over Emily Dickinson’s garden poems and Whitman’s luminous meditation “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (1860), over William Cullen Bryant’s celebration of the prairie and Robert Frost’s terrifying notion of “design,” over Robinson Jeffers’s California poems that mourn “the broken balance, the hopeless prostration of the earth / Under men’s hands and their minds” (“The Broken Balance,” 1928) and Theodore Roethke’ horticultural reminiscences, over A. R. Ammons’s ecological lyrics (“ecol- ogy is my word: tag / me with that”), Wendell Berry’s agricultural ideals, and Gary Snyder’s lifetime of lyrics, which often turn to Native American models for a sense of right relationship with the earth. W. S. Merwin also invokes native peoples for a reaffirmation of our connection to the natural world. I wish I had time to compare North American nature poems, which are so often sympathetic to natural forces, with those of Canadian poets, who often manifest, as Northrop Frye points out, “a tone of deep terror in regard to nature.” There is an eco-feminist pastoralism that includes poetry in Susan Griffin’s Women and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (1978) and a recent anthology, Black Nature (2010), celebrates the overlooked tradition of African American nature poetry over four centuries. We are not yet done imagining the earth and envisioning the natural world.
Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.