Nature plays an important role in the history of English poetry, from the time of Chaucer right up to the present day. Consider the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales:
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages),
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages… (c.1390)
To hear these lines read in Middle English, here’s a video:
And now here’s a translation:
When that April with his sweet showers
Has pierced the drought of March and fed the flowers
And bathed each single vine in such liqueur
From which virtue becomes most every flower;
When also Zephyrus, with his sweet breath
Has brought to life in every holt and heath
The tender crops, and when the young sun
Has in Capricorn his half-course run
And when small waterfowl make melody
That sleep the whole night through with open eye
(So nature makes them, through their lineage)
Then people long to go on pilgrimage…
Is this not a delightful hymn to Spring’s awakening? And this is just the beginning…
Nature in English Poetry through the Ages
Let’s stop off at Spenser, and take a look at the opening lines of Prothalamion:
CALM was the day, and through the trembling air
Sweet breathing Zephyrus did softly play,
A gentle spirit, that lightly did delay
Hot Titan’s beams, which then did glister fair…
Once again we have the imagery of the sweet breath of Zephyrus, and of course the timeless refrain:
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
Next stop on our tour is Shakespeare, who of course compares his lover to a summer’s day in his Sonnet 18, from which comes the delightful phrase ‘the darling buds of May’ (does anyone remember that TV series?) In contrast, Sonnet 73 finds him in the reflective frame of mind of late autumn.
The Romantics were of course famed for their nature poetry, perhaps Wordsworth most famously of all. Though his best-known nature poem is ‘I Wandered Lonanzely as a Cloud,’ I prefer his ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood‘ for its rich nature imagery perfectly combined with a lyrical and unpredictable metre. Also consider the poem ‘Three Years She Grew,’ in which nature is personified as an elemental force who reclaims the poet’s sweetheart as its own:
Three years she grew in sun and shower,
Then Nature said, “A lovelier flower
On earth was never sown;
This Child I to myself will take;
She shall be mine, and I will make
A Lady of my own.
Notice the contrast between the imagery of birth and death in the second stanza:
“She shall be sportive as the fawn
That wild with glee across the lawn
Or up the mountain springs;
And hers shall be the breathing balm,
And hers the silence and the calm
Of mute insensate things.
In Blake’s famous poem, ‘The Tyger,’ the visionary poet blends the natural with the supernatural:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And let us not fail to mention Keat’s famous odes, rich with natural imagery: ‘Ode to A Nightingale‘ or ‘To Autumn;’ nor the female poets of this era. Here is Emily Brontë:
Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.
The poet is entreating nature to mirror her own despair by heralding in the winter.
Nature Poetry in the Modern Era
As we move into the Victorian era, female poets (I am glad to say) begin to rise to prominence. Here is Cristina Rosetti:
Laura stretched her gleaming neck
Like a rush-imbedded swan,
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch
Like a vessel at the launch
When its last restraint is gone.
In this excerpt from ‘Goblin Market’ we find a succession of nature similies.
Leaping ahead to the 20th Century, we find Spenser’s lines echoed in T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land:’
The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The same Thames, but changed by the advent of modernity:
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.
By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept . . .
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.
And perhaps the 20th Century’s most celebrated naturalist, Seamus Heaney. Here are the opening lines of ‘Death of a Naturalist,’ though I thoroughly recommend reading the whole poem:
All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
I have written much, but still omitted many fine poets. Above are examples of English literature from the British Isles, as this is the corpus of work I am most familiar with. Of course I could (and really should) have mentioned poets from across the Atlantic such as Emily Dickinson or Mary Oliver. The truth is, look for a poet and most likely you will find a nature poet in one form or other. Poets seem to have a strong affinity with nature and its effect upon them. Please forgive my omissions and look to the work of your favourite poet for inspiration: I almost guarantee you will find something of nature there.
Write a nature poem. You may interpret this how you choose, and use any form or structure, or write free verse. For further inspiration, I highly recommend visiting Earthweal: an online forum where poets gather to write the poetry of a changing earth. I love this forum, started by Brendan of Oran’s Well, and try to write a poem for Earthweal at least once a week.
This week’s judge will be last week’s winner, Misky Braendeholm. Her poem ‘The Commonality of Layers‘ won the Ekphrastic Poetry Challenge. Misky’s poetry has been widely published, including most recently in Visual Verse.
How to enter
You can enter one poem in any one of the following ways:
- Paste your poem into the comment section below.
- Make a blog post of your poem and link back to this post, or include the link in the comments below.
- Tweet your entry tagging @Experimentsinfc.
- Enter via Instagram @experimentsinfiction.
- Enter via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The deadline for entries is midnight CET on 23/02/21. Results to be announced as soon as possible after this time.
Best of luck, and may the muse be with you!
P.S. My son Benji has made a return to blogging with a fantastic new Thomas the Tank Engine story. I know he’d be thrilled if you paid him a visit! https://benjisverybigblog.wordpress.com/2021/02/17/goodbye-sodor-my-very-own-thomas-the-tank-engine-story/
I love the little potted history you wrote to accompany this week’s challenge.
Thanks Hobbo, it took me a while 😅
I appreciated the effort!
I just visited your Benji’s blog, and left a comment. I really enjoyed his story.
Thank you Misky – he will be pleased 🙏
Oh Ingrid .. what a superb introductory article your have presented for us to savour… I think we all love to write about nature… I have a short poem for your “Challenge”, so I will post it here…
The Cracks Are Muddy
The storm clouds are weeping
And I am loudly smiling
The sky’s tears are heavy and fat
And I am cheerily eyeing the muddy crack
That dry chasm’s filling fast
And I am hoping the deluge will last
Drowning the ground, day into night
As I dance under Thor’s neon lights
👌👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻I love it Ivor – seeing the beauty in all aspects of nature! Thank you for your entry 🙏
Thank you for reading and your kind words.
I have a little collection of poems by Wordsworth and find them so serene. I may go read them again before this next challenge. I just left a comment for Benji as well, it’s so cool that he likes to write! My son is a little too into video games but has learned how to develop and program his own games at 15 and make some extra cash so I’m allowing it, haha!
Oh Benji is heavily into videogames but at least he took a break to write this 😅 thank you for reading 🙏 Wordsworth is one of my all-time favourite poets – he was born very close to my home town!
Yes, boys are so drawn to the video games. Wordsworth is great, I would like to visit the UK eventually and take some tours.
Well if you do, let me know and I can recommend some places!
A post that delivered lessons and memories. I taught The Canterbury Tales for many years, while teaching British Lit., so naturally I loved your intro. Your son’s entertaining post reminded of reading those stories with my daughter. 💕
I hope my translation was ok 😅 unfortunately I didn’t study any American poets when I was at university as ‘English Literature’ was interpreted very narrowly as British Literature in English. So I am enjoying discovering them now, especially Emily Dickinson.
Your translation was a success. I love that you shared this. I played audio excerpts for my students that they could not understand, just so they could get a sampling of the old language. Fortunately our textbook had the translated version, which they still struggled with. 😰 Emily is one of my favorites. 💓 “Because I could not stop for Death,” is one of my all-time favorite poems. My mind is bursting with poets to share with you! Here are a few… Langston Hughes (1901-1967) and Mary Oliver (1935-2019).
Oh thank you Michele – I have read some of their work and love it so will definitely have to read more! ❤️
Hi Ingrid, thank you for your hard work in researching this challenge. By contrast, I have been lazy and reblogged an old post. I hope that’s okay. 🙂
That’s fine – your poem fits the theme perfectly 🍃
I have posted my submission here: https://milspouseprose.com/2021/02/18/silence-3/ It’s a repost of an oldie but goodie of mine! 💕
I didn’t realise that Benji was your son Ingrid. I knocked him off my followers a while back because some of the stuff I was posting was PG and you never know if kids on the net are getting the supervision they should! Anyway, I have started following him again and have just posted on his blog. That boy is going to be the Chief Exec. of World Rail PLC when he grows up!
Haha indeed he is! Don’t worry about the PG stuff, I will filter. I’m posting one later that’s at least a 12…
Thanks. I’m happy to post now I know that you’re on his case!
Hobbo you have gotta be
Careful what you write
Fam’ly friendly it should be
Not this shit and shite……
e.g. FCS is model fam-friend site….
‘swhy it hosts ‘Poet Don’s Class’
No shit and shite there…..
Thank you for the feedback Don!🙂
I’m not sure that all the photos you post are so family friendly!🙂
All our photos go through the FCS SOIKF Board…..that’s Sorting Out If Kiddie Friendly….. they decided that what kiddie doesn’t like a soap bubble……we didn’t get any parent complaints..they all thought it was a magnificant bubble……
Whoops, nearly forgot. Here is mine and Dauphy’s submission…
Excellent, thank you both!
oh boy, this one I’d love to hear!! 👏👏💖
beautiful imagery of nature and i love the breakdown and delivery!💖
Thank you Cindy 😊 I’m not going to harass you to enter this time but you know you are always welcome 🤗🌈❤️
I am so appreciative!!!! ❤️💖🤗
Here is my attempt at a Nature poem:
As I traversed the fells one night
The sun was going down
I viewed the mountains, saw their might
The sky a gleaming crown
The sunset blazed – A burning red
A flame consumed the sky
The day departing – Almost dead
Expiring with a sigh
I longed at once to steal the scene
And bind it to my heart
The contrast of a light so keen
As daylight did depart
But dawn, I know, will come again
Another day begin
Will it bring sunshine, cloud or rain?
The light, once more, will win
Thank you for your entry 🙏😊
I love nature and poetry so it was a delight to write this tanka! I have posted it on Instagram. 🙂
Thank you so much Jaya: a stunning tanka! 😊
Happy you enjoyed it, Ingrid!