Nature Poetry and the Human World
by Ken Sanes
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nature poetry by the author of the website
exceptional nature poetry by famous writers
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
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 the 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 beginning. 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 just a few steps
beyond 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, of course, 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 only in and through language.
* Nature poetry is about perceptions and states of mind that are part of
our universal response to nature. For 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 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.
On each page, the introductions or commentaries have been placed after
But some readers may find it more helpful to read the introductions first.
Overwhelmed by the Magnificence of
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
An expression of exhilaration but also of being
overwhelmed, by the miracle
A Poem that Expresses
Horror at the World:
Spring by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Anger at the reality of death leads the
in this nature poem
to see life as absurd.
Composed Upon Westminster Bridge
by William Wordsworth
The poet appreciates the beauty of London
as it sleeps, seen amid a natural setting.
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
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
A famous work of nature poetry about dancing
in its form,
dance, as well.
Nature Poem as a Source of
Morning by Sara Teasdale
This brief and brilliant poem
a state of confusion in the reader
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
to it -- for eternity.
Imagery of Water and Numinous Time:
Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot
From Part 3,
The Dry Salvages,
An excerpt from a remarkable poem
by the most
modern poet in the English language.
In the poem, the speaker steps back
from his subject,
and uses the image of river and ocean
sense of how numinous and mysterious the
A Romantic Poem About Nature and Death:
To Autumn by John Keats
The speaker comes to terms with death,
melancholy and beautiful work of nature poetry
a few years before the poet
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
The Brook by Alfred Lord Tennyson
A work of nature poetry that seems to embody what
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
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
This Is the Kind of Day
This poem is an expression of joy
of spring, that tries to convey a sense
enthusiasm to the reader, and
A Day, Just Now
This rhymed nature poem is about delight and bliss,
briefly put. It uses a number of poetic devices in
an attempt to evoke a state of delight in the reader.
Lookout at the Lake
In these poems, the speakers' experience of nature
undergoes a radical transformation.
Awe of Nature
This poem asks how we can be
in awe of nature's
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.
Call and Response
This prose-like story poem describing summer camp is
about the course of life, the beauty of the
and suffering. In addition,
it is an
tell stories and
Apostrophe To Winter
The speaker in this work of nature poetry addresses winter,
something to say about the snow,
the cold -- and about spring. At the end,
the poem is about something else, as well.
The speaker describes an alternative way to
nature and the world.
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
the sound of the wind." To accomplish this, he
"the listener" has to
"have a mind of
winter" so he
can behold, "Nothing that is not there
that is." Steven's poem has a
quality, telling us the observer of
(or should be?) "nothing himself."
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:
in October by Dylan Thomas
A melancholy poem, imbued with a feeling
of the sacred,
that is about nature, memory,
innocence and death, in an evocative style
that the poet is known for.
Woods on a Snowy Evening
A classic -- long since turned into a cliché by
use -- about winter and death. In
the poem, the speaker seems to be drawn by
death, embodied in the dark woods, and tells us:
are lovely, dark, and deep."
Gaia’s Plan by Mark R. Slaughter
The Sea At Night by Sri Aurobindo
Falling Leaves and Early Snow:
by Kenneth Rexroth
Nature Poetry at the Poetry Archive
Nature Poetry about
animals, trees, and the weather
A Discussion of Nature Poetry at Poets.org
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.