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Nature Poetry and the Human World

by Ken Sanes

Jump down to nature poetry by the author of the website
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Science is an activity in which people try to see nature as it really is, without illusions, psychological projections and all the misperceptions we are vulnerable to. But, as science has learned the hard way, even when people try to remove themselves from what they are observing, they have a tendency to sneak back into the picture. Many scientific studies, for example, end up with conclusions that reflect the biases and desires of the people who are conducting (or paying for!) the study.

Then there is the nature poetry that has been written in English over many centuries, which has precisely the opposite sensibility from science. While nature is the subject of this kind of poetry, most of it revels in its own humanity and turns nature into a vehicle for expressing the depth and breadth of the human vision, as it is filtered through the poet's mindset. In fact, nature poetry seeks out the very "biases," projections and entanglements with its subject that science tries to filter out.

One way that a lot of nature poetry does this, of course, is by indulging in what critics refer to as the pathetic fallacy: it attributes human characteristics to nature. As filtered through poems like this, the mountain becomes stoic and strong; the waves and wind in a storm become cruel; and the rising sun announces a new day. In the eyes of most science, this is perhaps therapeutic and entertaining, but it is precisely what needs to be avoided since it takes us closer to animistic beliefs in which nature is viewed as being alive with spirits and as acting with human intentions.

But nature poetry goes well beyond describing nature as if it is human. Basically, it can also use a description of anything in nature to work out issues that concern us. To use two obvious examples that will come up again, poetry can marvel at the beauty of nature and say it is one of the things that makes life worthwhile. Or it can express horror at the pervasiveness of suffering and death. This is part of the genius of poetry: it is existential, which is to say, it has the freedom to use anything and everything as a vehicle to express the essence of our concerns. It can't send an astronaut to the moon, the way science and its instrument, technology, can, but it can help sensitize us to why we want to go there -- and to who the humanity is that wants to go. And it can do this, not by giving us information, like science does, but by evoking an aesthetic experience that is unique and often universal at the same time.

In the end, both of these activities -- writing nature poetry and doing science -- are part of a larger unity since they are both ways we create a human world (as the late literary critic Northrop Frye would put it) out of nature. But where science wants to make nature transparent and control it in the service of our goals and desires, nature poetry tries to evoke rich experiences in readers that are about those goals and desires. They each pursue their own vision of the truth.

With this in mind, lets look at some of the ways that nature poetry expresses our humanity, with or without the conscious intention of the poet:

* Nature poetry is a product of language, frequently brimming over with literary devices from visual imagery to the repetition of sounds to storytelling. It exists in and through language.

* Nature poetry is about perceptions and states of mind that are part of our universal response to nature. To use an earlier example, expressions of joy and delight at the magnificence of nature -- as well as expressions of sadness, horror, anger, and acceptance over suffering and death -- are commonly found in nature poetry. The expression of awe at the magnificence and mystery of existence can also be found. Saying these are universal perceptions and states of mind doesn't mean that they are manifested in every person or every people. But every intact human brain has the capacity to produce these experiences and commonly does so.

In fact, even the tendency to depict nature as divine or as an expression of the divine -- or, alternately, to see its horrors as proof of the lack of a divine presence -- is primarily about our own feelings and our relation to the world.

* Nature poetry typically expresses the psychology and goals of individual poets and their specific states of mind when they do the writing. Among other things, their mood and psychology will predispose them to put some themes into their poems and leave out others.

* Nature poetry often expresses the themes and, at times, the ideology of the culture it is written in and, more specifically, the ideology of the people it is written by and for.

* The nature that many of these poems describe is itself frequently a creation of language and culture, since many of these poems were undoubtedly inspired by experiences in parks, leafy suburbs, rolling countryside, and other examples of nature that has been tamed and shaped into a more human world. This is the kind of nature we have the luxury of appreciating since we don't have to worry about catching dinner in the wild -- or being dinner. And we similarly don't have to worry a great deal about shielding ourselves from the elements.

Nature tamed (or partly tamed) is in fact the primary form of nature that many poets writing in English have contact with. This has been true for a long time, although there are also poems about untamed nature -- such as poems about ocean storms or the wilderness. But even these are typically about ourselves. Even the excerpt included here from the poem, Four Quartets, by T. S. Eliot, which talks about our efforts to control and humanize nature, still turns nature into a symbol of something in experience that the poet values.

* And, of course, all of our experiences of nature are profoundly shaped, not only by the brain (as already suggested in a number of items above), but also by our perceptual equipment, including eyes, ears, taste buds, and so on.

Below are a number of collections of nature poetry. First, are wonderful nature poems by well known poets, with commentaries that don't require a background in poetry to understand. The commentaries are partly intended as introductions to the poems, but they also make some of the larger points discussed here. Then there is British nature poetry, mostly without commentary, and my own nature poems, which embody the tendencies and themes referred to above.

You can begin with my nature poetry or exceptional nature poetry by famous writers, with commentaries, or British nature poetry, mostly without commentary. There are also links to other sites that have nature poetry, with and without commentary. Or you can go to the site homepage via links at the upper and lower left.

You are also welcome to send an email to letters@kensanes.com or make contact via Facebook

Exceptional Nature Poetry by Famous Poets

On each page, the introductions or commentaries have been placed after the poem.
But some readers may find it more helpful to read the introductions first.

Overwhelmed by the Magnificence of
the World:
God's World by Edna St. Vincent Millay

An expression of exhilaration but also of being
overwhelmed, by the miracle of existence.

A Poem that Expresses Horror at the World:
Spring by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Anger at the reality of death leads the speaker
in this nature poem to see life as absurd.

The City as Landscape:
Composed Upon Westminster Bridge
by William Wordsworth

The poet appreciates the beauty of London
as it sleeps, seen amid a natural setting.

Nature's Malevolent Transformation:
Design by Robert Frost
This masterpiece is an expression of horror at
cold blooded killing and death in nature, with
gothic imagery in which nature appears to be
malevolent and menacing.

Ecstatic Identification With Nature:
We Two—How Long We Were Fool’d
by Walt Whitman
The speaker describes how he is transformed
and takes flight in nature. But who is it that
goes on the journey with him?

Poetic Happy Face or Literary Delight?
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
by William Wordsworth

A famous work of nature poetry about dancing
daffodils that, in its form, seems to dance, as well.

Nature Poem as a Source of "Postmodern"

Morning by Sara Teasdale
This brief and brilliant poem induces
a state of confusion in the reader in
which an ostensibly positive experience
in nature reads like an expression of despair.

A Masochistic Relation to Nature:
Blue Squills by Sara Teasdale
In this poem the speaker is so enamored with
nature that she asks it to wound her so she can
carry the wound -- and thereby somehow maintain
a connection to it -- for eternity.

Imagery of Water and Numinous Time:
Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot
From Part 3, The Dry Salvages, Section I.
An excerpt from a remarkable poem by the most
influential modern poet in the English language.
In the poem, the speaker steps back from his subject,
and uses the image of river and ocean to convey a
sense of how numinous and mysterious the world is. 

British Nature Poetry
(Mostly) Without Commentary

A Romantic Poem About Nature and Death:
To Autumn by John Keats

The speaker comes to terms with death, in a
melancholy and beautiful work of nature poetry
about autumn, written a few years before the poet
died at a young age. 

To Nature by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
A fascinating poem about how we read
our fantasies into nature, and about using
it as a temple to God. The latter part
of the poem sounds sincerely religious.
But is it suggesting that using nature as a
temple would itself be a fantasy, and this
would be a good thing? Read it and see what
you think?

The Brook by Alfred Lord Tennyson
A work of nature poetry that seems to embody what
it describes in its own form

Flower in the Crannied Wall by Alfred Lord
Tennyson: A poem that reveals how the West
approaches nature and the world.

Excerpt from Panthea: We are made one with
what we touch and see by Oscar Wilde
A nature poem that describes a state of oneness
with the world

The Arbour by Anne Bronte
A poem about nature and mortality

The Rosebud by William Broome
Another poem about the same subject

The Wild Swans at Coole by William Butler Yeats
Nature, time, aging, and love

nonrepresentational art for nature poetry page

Nature Poetry by Ken Sanes

A New Day
Two poems about life and light, in which the speaker
describes waking up to the sun and a new day.

This Is the Kind of Day
This poem is an expression of joy at the
arrival of spring. It tries to convey a sense
of enthusiasm to the reader, and something
else, also.

A Day, Just Now
This rhymed nature poem is about delight and
bliss, briefly put. It uses poetic devices in an
effort to evoke a state of delight in the reader.

Lookout at the Lake
The Lookout
In these poems, the speakers perceive nature
through the lens of an extraordinary experience.

The Gift of Light
Every morning we rise with the sun
Two more poems about life and light, in which the
speaker describes waking up to the sun and a new day.

Awe of Nature
This poem asks how we can be in awe of nature's
beauty when we are appalled by all the suffering and
death. It may have been influenced by "Spring" and
"Design," two poems by well-known poets that can
be found further down.

Danse Macabre
This poem is about a living thing studied by
science that invades the bodies of ants and
turns the ants into zombies.   

They fly in eight hours
A modernist poem about geese that fly over
the Himalayas.

Call and Response
This prose-like story poem describing summer camp
is about the course of life, the beauty of the natural
environment, and suffering. In addition, it is an
ars poetica, suggesting something about why we tell
stories and create literature.

 Apostrophe To Winter
The speaker in this work of nature poetry addresses winter,
and has something to say about the snow, the darkness
and the cold -- and about spring. At the end, it becomes
clear the poem is about something else, as well.

Another Way
The speaker describes an alternative way to
experience nature and the world.

More Nature Poetry, Off Site:

The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens
In this enigmatic poem, Stevens refers to a way
of looking at winter in which we don't project our
emotions and psychology onto it, and think of "misery
in the sound of the wind." To accomplish this, he
says, "the listener" has to "have a mind of
winter" so he can behold, "Nothing that is not there
and the nothing that is." Steven's poem has a
Buddhist quality, telling us the observer of winter
is (or should be?) "nothing himself." But who
or what is the snow man referred to in the title?
Here are some thoughts about the poem:
- Discussion of this unusual nature poem
at Literature Network Forums
- The Snow Man by Wallace Steven at Wikipedia

- Wallace Stevens' The Snow Man at NPR
- The Snow Man: Wondering Minstrels

Poem in October by Dylan Thomas
A melancholy poem, imbued with a feeling
of the sacred, that is about nature, memory,
lost innocence and death, in an evocative style
that the poet is known for.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
by Robert Frost
A classic -- long since turned into a cliché by
widespread use -- about winter and death. In
the poem, the speaker seems to be drawn by
death, embodied in the dark woods, and tells us:
"The woods are lovely, dark, and deep."

- Gaia’s Plan by Mark R. Slaughter
- The Sea At Night by Sri Aurobindo
- Falling Leaves and Early Snow:
nature poetry by Kenneth Rexroth

Good Websites With
Nature Poetry and Commentary

Nature Poetry at the Poetry Archive
Nature Poetry about animals, trees, and the weather
A Discussion of Nature Poetry at Poets.org
The Romantics: Nature, Beauty, Power
Book Review -- Black Nature: Four Centuries of
African American Nature Poetry

Good discussion at nature poetry, including:
"Just a few thoughts on nature poetry and what it means
to me: in my own attempts I regard ‘nature poetry’ as an
attempt at naming a relationship. A [perceived] kinship
between myself and what I have always held most dear.
The natural world as a source and a resource, a place to
return to, honour and commune with. The natural world
as a primary source of beauty."

An article on nature poetry inspired by visual art.

Poems About Life: Homepage  
Bonus page: Short Poems
I have another website of prose essays at transparencynow.com,
and here is information about what people have said about that website,
and how it has been used in classrooms.
Please see this page for image information. And here is a note from the author
The phrase "malevolent transformation," above, is taken from the psychological
theorist, Harry Stack Sullivan.
- - - - - -
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or make contact via Facebook
Poems About Life: Copyright © 2010-2014 Ken Sanes.
All work by Ken Sanes is on file with the U. S. copyright office.