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?
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 email@example.com.
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/