On Nature Poetry

I wrote this a few years ago when I was running a workshop on nature poetry. I stand by it, kind of, but it’s open to discussion.


The term nature poetry is surprisingly recent, its first entry in the OED not coming until well into the nineteenth-century. Though we might think of William Wordsworth’s 1802 lyrics (‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, ‘To the Daisy’, etc.) as classics of ‘nature poetry’ they weren’t described as such until two decades after Wordsworth’s death, in the 1870 issue of Boston-based periodical Littel’s Living Age. At the time, they would have simply been regarded as pastoral poems. To make this clear, Wordsworth went so far as to subtitle five of his poems ‘A Pastoral’.

Before nature poetry, then, was the pastoral, a form going back to the ancient Greece of Theocritus (315-260 BC). Theocritus took the folk songs and ballads of his native Sicily and adapted them for an urban audience in Athens, Alexandria and beyond. The Idylls, his most famous work, are a series of bucolic poems (from the Greek βουκόλος for herdsman) which have almost nothing to do with the actual herding of animals. The natural environment instead provides an ideal backdrop on which to project his goatherds’ alternately jubilant and suicidal songs as they fall in love and argue with the gods. Virgil (70-19 BC) would later plough this same imaginative furrow, seeking to expand the pastoral’s technical and emotional range in Latin. He developed the eclogue, a dialogue between shepherds, and the georgic, which in a more didactic tone celebrates the work of farmers.

By the time of the Renaissance, when English poets began imitating Theocritus and Virgil, the pastoral had acquired the status of a purer, more primitive form of poetic expression. It made a certain sense that the muses would have handed the pipe of poetry to shepherds first, that poetry would have started not in the towns but in the hills and dales of a lost Arcadia.

For Edmund Spenser, the pastoral gave aspiring poets the perfect opportunity ‘to proue theyr tender wyngs, before they make a greater flyght’. Like Virgil, he thus launched his writing career with a series of pastoral poems, The Shepheardes Calendar (1579), before taking flight with the epic Faeire Queene (1590-6).

Aware as Spenser no doubt was of its artificiality, it’s against this idea of pastoral that George Puttenham writes in his Arte of English Poesie (1589):

The Poet devised the Eglogue long after the other drammatick poems, not of purpose to counterfait or represent the rusticall manner of loves and communication: but under the vaile of homely persons and in rude speeches to insinuate and glaunce at greater matters.

He stresses that the eclogue did not come before but ‘long after the other drammatick poems’. His issue is not with counterfeiting – for him, in fact, the word carries no more sinister a meaning than ‘to represent’ – but with the pastoral being entirely taken up with counterfeiting a ‘rusticall manner’. This manner, as he makes clear, should never be the purpose of a poem, only the self-consciously worn ‘vaile’ through which the poet addresses his true subject.

The End of Days

In the Penguin Book of English Pastoral Verse (1974), John Barrell and John Bull (names weirdly appropriate to their interests) argue that the pastoral vision is ‘now almost devoid of any meaning’, with industrial and technological progress having rendered the English countryside little more than an extension of the town. A strange conclusion, which, true as it might be, falls back on the hoariest of pastoral clichés: the myth of Old England and the horror of living in the end of days. F.R. Leavis and Denys Thompson, for example, in Culture and Environment (1930), loudly bemoaned the loss of England’s pre-Industrial ‘organic community’.

Barrell and Bull surely miss the point that their anthology strives so hard to make: the pastoral, from the beginning, was a self-sustaining set of conventions which reflected the desires and frustrations of the poet and his or her time. (I say his or her as though Barrell/Bull actually included any female poets but, for further reference, see Aphra Behn, Mary Hutchinson, Katherine Phillips and others.)

So the Penguin Book of English Pastoral Verse ends just before Rupert Brooke picked up his pen. Before, in May 1912, he sat down at the Café des Westens in Berlin and started work on a new poem, later to be titled ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester‘.

ειθε γενοιμην … would I were
In Grantchester, in Grantchester!—
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, or Earth, or such.
And clever modern men have seen
A Faun a-peeping through the green,
And felt the Classics were not dead,
To glimpse a Naiad’s reedy head,
Or hear the Goat-foot piping low…
But these are things I do not know.
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester…

What points to this being written in 1912 and not 1812, or 42 BC? For a start, there’s the epigraph which signals this was written abroad and in a café – very chic. Elsewhere in the poem are bits of German and a reference to taking the train back to England, hinting at a more modern, well-connected Europe. But what’s most striking is his assertion that the Grantchester of his memory is a place where ‘the Classics were not dead’. As evidence, he cites fauns, naiads, and goat-footed Pan. This is not ‘Nature… or Earth, or such’, this is the world of pastoral.

It could be argued that there is a kind of modern irony at play here, in the conspicuous deployment of pastoral references and, just after this section, in the roll call of dead poets: Byron, Chaucer, Tennyson. The form of the poem also echoes the rhyming couplets of Ben Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’, which uses the same cast of characters – dryads, fauns and ‘ruddy Satyres’ – to praise the abundance, ‘hospitalitie’ and proportion of another ‘flower-lulled’ part of England.

In this way, Brooke makes the ‘centuries blend and blur’, but if this is ironic it’s only as ironic as any other poem in the pastoral tradition which, as always, must address its reader through a self-conscious ‘vaile’. As much as this poem is a product of 1912 it’s clearly been harvested from the same fields as Virgil and Wordsworth visited.

The “Thing”

‘The Old Vicarage’ was published in Georgian Poetry 1911-12, the first in a popular series of anthologies which together sold around 70,000 copies. The acclaim these poems – poems that in conventional forms dealt with mainly conventional subjects – so antagonised the young Ezra Pound that, two years later, he decided to set up his own anthology, Des Imagistes.

In a statement that was to have a lasting influence on the development of Modernism – not least for its impact on ‘nature poetry’ in the twentieth-century – Pound told F.S. Flint that what defined his movement (Imagism) was its ‘direct treatment of the “thing”, whether subjective or objective.’ This, apart from anything else, should be seen as a calculated attack on Georgian poetry, the kind of minimalist poetry it’s suggesting – see Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro‘ and H.D.’s ‘Oread‘ – being completely at odds with the rhetorical flamboyance of poems like Brooke’s ‘Old Vicarage’.

Behind his command to treat the “thing” directly is also the more radical assumption of a reality separate from that of the poet and his work. Though this might not seem so drastic a statement, Pound’s extreme realism – when applied to the writing of poems – gives a significantly altered picture of the relationship between the poet and the natural world.

The poet’s task now becomes one of waiting and observing, attempting to find the right words to describe the “thing” in question. A great number of early Imagiste poems, liberated by this task, attempt little more than that. Rather than naming names, I’d prefer to look at a more recent poem which could be seen as taking Pound’s position to its logical conclusion, while still managing to do something entirely successful on its own terms, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s ‘Estuary’:

RUSH SEDGE COUCH MARRAM BENT
CURLEW WHIMBREL GULL LAPWING TERN
ESSO MOBIL BP EXXON SHELL

One of the things this poem does so well is to parody a narrowly structuralist view of language, whereby the signifier (word) and the signified (idea) exist in static relation to one another. By reducing his ‘estuary’ to a sequence of 15 caps-locked proper nouns, Finlay challenges the reader to consider whether these are anything more than blank, interchangeable signifiers. So presented, what makes MARRAM different from TERN or EXXON?

In normal speech, the place a word occupies in a sentence tells us a great deal about it: whether it’s a subject or object; who’s doing what to whom. Here, instead, we’re drawn to read the three lines as arranged roughly by type: five plants, five birds and five oil companies. As if to say, this is the ‘Nature… or Earth’ such as it is, copied out from the first-hand jottings of a twitcher’s notebook.

But what if we swapped around a few of the words? If SEDGE was moved to the second line, for example, perhaps it would connote a sedge warbler, and if CURLEW was on the line above it might make us think of a rhododendron ‘curlew’ (a small evergreen shrub with bell-shaped flowers). SHELL, if it didn’t follow on from BP and EXXON, would mean something quite different. In each case, what’s being signified alters by its placement. It was pointed out in a workshop I ran on this poem that the text could also be read downwards, with each of the five three-line columns constituting its own mini-poem, so opening up an even wider range of reference.

The point, ultimately, is that words exert a greater pressure than their mere signification. However we choose to read these 15 words there is an emotional resonance that will be, to some extent, separate from what each refers to.

In poetry, unlike most normal speech, the goal is not only the transmission of the message but the message itself. Language is not so much understood as interrogated. But Pound chooses to ignore how the words in a poem are changed by their context. He posits the poet and natural world as two distinct entities when, in fact, they exist within the much larger context of what we might call ‘literary convention’. Rupert Brooke, though by no means a superior poet, at least self-consciously acknowledges the role of convention or tradition.

I  made these slightly fuzzy diagrams to express what I’m saying. This is Ezra Pound:

Modernist nature poetry diagram

And this is Rupert Brooke:

Pastoral diagram

Through a thin veil…

From the winter of 1799 to the autumn of 1800, Wordsworth worked intermittently on a set of new poems to be included in the second, expanded edition of The Lyrical Ballads, published later that year. He called them Poems on the Naming of Places. They were attempts to describe in blank verse the particular significance of certain spots around Grasmere. This is the fourth, written after a walk with Dorothy (Wordsworth’s sister) and Samuel Coleridge:

A narrow girdle of rough stones and crags,
A rude and natural causeway, interposed
Between the water and a winding slope
Of copse and thicket, leaves the eastern shore
Of Grasmere safe in its own privacy:
And there myself and two beloved Friends,
One calm September morning, ere the mist
Had altogether yielded to the sun,
Sauntered on this retired and difficult way.
Ill suits the road with one in haste; but we
Played with our time; and, as we strolled along,
It was our occupation to observe
Such objects as the waves had tossed ashore––
Feather, or leaf, or weed, or withered bough,
Each on the other heaped, along the line
Of the dry wreck. And, in our vacant mood,
Not seldom did we stop to watch some tuft
Of dandelion seed or thistle’s beard,
That skimmed the surface of the dead calm lake,
Suddenly halting now––a lifeless stand!
And starting off again with freak as sudden;
In all its sportive wanderings, all the while,
Making report of an invisible breeze
That was its wings, its chariot, and its horse,
Its playmate, rather say, its moving soul.
And often, trifling with a privilege
Alike indulged to all, we paused, one now,
And now the other, to point out, perchance
To pluck, some flower or water-weed, too fair
Either to be divided from the place
On which it grew, or to be left alone
To its own beauty. Many such there are,
Fair ferns and flowers, and chiefly that tall fern,
So stately, of the queen Osmunda named;
Plant lovelier, in its own retired abode
On Grasmere’s beach, than Naiad by the side
Of Grecian brook, or Lady of the Mere,
Sole-sitting by the shores of old romance.
So fared we that bright morning: from the fields
Meanwhile, a noise was heard, the busy mirth
Of reapers, men and women, boys and girls.
Delighted much to listen to those sounds,
And feeding thus our fancies, we advanced
Along the indented shore; when suddenly,
Through a thin veil of glittering haze was seen
Before us, on a point of jutting land,
The tall and upright figure of a Man
Attired in peasant’s garb, who stood alone,
Angling beside the margin of the lake.
‘Improvident and reckless,’ we exclaimed,
‘The Man must be, who thus can lose a day
Of the mid harvest, when the labourer’s hire
Is ample, and some little might be stored
Wherewith to cheer him in the winter time.’
Thus talking of that Peasant, we approached
Close to the spot where with his rod and line
He stood alone; whereat he turned his head
To greet us–and we saw a Man worn down
By sickness, gaunt and lean, with sunken cheeks
And wasted limbs, his legs so long and lean
That for my single self I looked at them,
Forgetful of the body they sustained.
Too weak to labour in the harvest field,
The Man was using his best skill to gain
A pittance from the dead unfeeling lake
That knew not of his wants. I will not say
What thoughts immediately were ours, nor how
The happy idleness of that sweet morn,
With all its lovely images, was changed
To serious musing and to self-reproach.
Nor did we fail to see within ourselves
What need there is to be reserved in speech,
And temper all our thoughts with charity.
Therefore, unwilling to forget that day,
My Friend, Myself, and She who then received
The same admonishment, have called the place
By a memorial name, uncouth indeed
As e’er by mariner was given to bay
Or foreland, on a new-discovered coast;
And POINT RASH-JUDGMENT is the name it bears.

From the off, we have a clear sense of where we are (on the eastern shore of Grasmere) and when (a calm September morning). Though written in the past tense there is no lingering on the myth of an idyllic past or a distant landscape. The interest lies in what is most present, what is as ‘rude and natural’ as the causeway they follow. A friend of mine, the poet Richard Osmond, has discussed how ‘the contemporary poet… when in descriptive mode, is concerned with nature, the chance beauty of wild things and personal epiphanies brought on more by coincidence than by heroism.’ This is where we see Wordsworth laying down that groundwork for contemporary poetry, turning his attention not to grand arguments but to the weeds and withered boughs beneath his feet.

Though strikingly immediate, his pastoral vision is still embedded in the conventions of its genre. After describing in somewhat twee fashion the beauty of various plants and flowers, he comes across the Osmunda plant, a sight lovelier than ‘Naiad by the side/ Of Grecian brook, or Lady of the Mere,/ Sole-sitting by the shores of old Romance’. Naiads and other Grecian nymphs lurk just beneath the surface of his wind-blown flora, but whereas for Brooke and Jonson overt references to the classical and chivalric worlds are intended to flatter the thing described, they do the opposite here. Wordsworth invokes pastoral convention only in order to say how little justice it does to the natural world.

The issue, he realises, is that he isn’t just describing the world as seen on a walk with his sister and close friend. The simplicity of Pound’s Imagism, reducing poetry to the direct treatment of things, would never have appealed to him because he is all too aware of a larger epistemological truth at stake: the act of description itself draws a discreet veil between viewer and object. The world as he describes it is one seen ‘through a thin veil of glittering haze’. This is shown most obviously in the encounter with the peasant.

When they first see the peasant from a glittering distance they assume, like Daily Mail sub-editors desperate for a new story, that he is another ‘idle man’ frittering away his time by the lake instead of doing his bit to harvest the remaining fields before winter. Though previously keen to reject pastoral clichés, Wordsworth now attacks this man for little other than that he doesn’t quite fit his idea of an industrious labourer (as praised by Virgil in the Georgics). It turns out, of course, that this peasant isn’t simply a skiving farmer but ‘a Man worn down/ By sickness, gaunt and lean’ attempting to fish a pittance from the lake. All three friends feel terrible. The only thing to do, they decide, is to christen the place ‘POINT RASH JUDGMENT’.

The question is, at which point does the ‘rash judgment’ really occur? Is it when Wordsworth mistakenly has a go at the peasant or beforehand, when he is describing their walk down to the lake? Wordsworth extends the pastoral genre, as Virgil once did, by trying to describe the world as he sees it – dandelion seeds, thistle’s beard, infirm peasants and all – but with a constant awareness of the artificiality of this enterprise: he recognises that, as always with pastoral or nature poetry, he’s not experiencing the world but writing a poem about it.