On the Treatment of Nature in Poetry

Clearly, the first test to be applied is that of poetic truth. With this I have already dealt at some length (pp. 80-82), and have now only to insist upon the fundamental difference between the faithful and the unfaithful or conventional treatment of natural facts.

Even to the uncritical reader the contrast is apparent between the first-hand knowledge and the specific accuracy of Wordsworth, or Keats, or Tennyson, each of whom wrote (in Wordsworth’s own phrase) with his eye “steadily fixed upon his object,” and the bookishness, the vague generalised statements, and the neglect of detail, which characterised Pope and his school. The occasional carelessness and conventionalism of Milton have already been noted. Elsewhere we may find illustrations without number of the difference in question. Thus the May morning and the garden landscape, which were partly conventional even with Chaucer, are entirely so with his fifteenth century imitators ; while on the other hand, in the writings of some of their Scottish con­temporaries (in Gavin Douglas’s prologues to his translation of the Mneid, for instance), there is a marked tendency to break away from mere literary formulas and to attempt the realistic reproduction of things actually seen. In the pastoral poetry which from the time of the Renaissance onward was written on classic models, the treatment of nature is almost wholly imitative and conventional.

This question of fidelity settled, we have next to consider the poet’s emotional response to nature, and, more broadly, the manner in which, and the purposes for which, nature is em­ployed by him. It is evident that while poetic truth is a charac­teristic which Wordsworth, Keats and Tennyson have in com­mon, the emotional response of each of these poets is strikingly different from that of either of the other two. It is equally evi­dent that nature is used in one way, let us say, in John Dyer’s Grongar Hill, in another way in Scott’s Marmion, and in ano­ther again in Arnold’s Dover Beach. So much is clear. Yet, as this is a matter in regard to which some definite guidance may be useful, I will here indicate a few of the most important ways in which poets may deal with nature ; though it must be understood that the subject is too large for full treatment within a small space and too complex to admit of exact classification. What follows is based on Principal Shairp’s  suggestive chapter on the subject in his Poetic Interpretation of Nature. I do not, however, adopt his analysis in all particulars, and I have added a good deal to it in various places.
To begin at the beginning, we may find in poetry the expres­sion, in Mr. Shairp’s words, of “that simple, spontaneous, unreflecting pleasure which all unsophisticated beings feel in free open-air life.” We get this “fresh childlike delight in nature” very often in Chaucer (as we may see by going no farther than the opening of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales), and often, too, in snatches, in our old ballads ; as in the charming lines :
When shaws beene sheene, and shradds full fayre,
And leaves both large and longe,
Itt is merrye walking in the fayre forrest
To heare the small birdes songe.
There is again the same note of simple pleasure, uncomplicated by intellectual or moral considerations, in the following passage which I translate from Walther von der Vogelweide, the most famous of the minnesingers :
“When the summer was come, and the flowers sprang up wonderfully through the grass, and the birds were singing, then came I passing over a long meadow, where a clear well gushed forth ; through a wood it ran, where the nightingale sang.”
In the very nature of things, such expressions of unreflecting pleasure must be sought chiefly among the older poets, for in our modern enjoyment of the open air and the freedom of the fields, even though the occasion be a picnic expedition, intellectual and moral elements are almost certain to intrude. Yet now and then, even in our analytical and sophisticated age, the poet will aban­don himself whole-heartedly and unspeculatively to the mood of the moment, and then we catch again, though with unmistakable suggestions of deeper passion, the simple rapture of earlier times. Keats’s sonnet, To One who has been long in City pent, and Lowell’s glorious Prelude to the first part of The Vision of Sir Launfal, may be cited as illustrations.
Superficially somewhat akin to this simple enjoyment of nature, though essentially quite different from it, is that love of nature which we may best describe   perhaps by   the epithet sensuous. Mr. Shairp has left this altogether out of his survey—a serious omission, since poetry is full, as we should expect, of the artist’s feeling for the material beauty of nature considered as material beauty only. In describing the development of his own relations with nature, Wordsworth has shown how, after leaving behind him the “coarser pleasures” of his “boyish days,” he passed into a stage in which
The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion ; the tall rock,
The mountain and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms were then to me
An appetite—a feeling and a love
That had no need of a remoter charm
By thought supplied, nor any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.
These lines exactly describe the pure artist’s sensuous love of natural beauty—a love which has no need of “any interest unborrowed from the eye.” In Wordsworth himself we do not find many expressions of this love, because, as he goes on to tell us, even this stage was in turn presently outgrown. But we find it in many modern poets ; notably, for example, in Keats. As I have elsewhere said : “Keats did not love nature as Wordsworth and Shelley loved it. There was nothing spiritual or mystical in his feeling for it ; he had little sense of those unseen realities which speak to the contemplative soul out of the external show of things. His was a sensuous love of natural beauty just for its own sake— the beauty of field and forest, of flower, and sky, and sea ; and in the interpretation of this beauty, in this simple and direct passion for nature…no English poet takes a higher place than Keats.” Wordsworth’s reproof of Peter Bell might indeed have been addressed to Keats, for of him it was in fact perfectly true that
A primrose by a river’s brim
A yellow primrose was to him,
And it was nothing more.
But then Keats’s reply would have been—why should it be any­thing more ? Why should we probe it for moral or spiritual meanings ? Is not its simple beauty enough?
We may next note, though Mr. Shairp has not done so, how nature may be used merely as a source of imagery and illus­tration. Metaphors and similes from nature are common in all poetry ; at times, poets have seen and handled nature only in the metaphorical way. Thus it has been pointed out that though the Hebrew poets generally show great fidelity in their treatment of nature, they nowhere suggest any real love of nature as such : nature being for them, as Canon Cheyne puts it, mainly “a magazine of symbols, bearing upon human life. Homer’s similes from nature are justly famous, and the fact that while they are all manifestly takes at first hand from the things described, they have often been elaborately imitated by modern poets (as by Arnold in Sohrab and Rustum), brings us back again to the difference be­tween the genuine and the traditional and bookish treatment of nature on which I have already insisted. It is, of course, important under this head to trace all metaphors and similes to their sources, whether in nature or in other literature, and to inquire both into their accuracy and into their propriety. Interesting details will often come to light. It is, for example, a point worthy of attention that though many of Virgil’s similes are fashioned directly upon Homer’s, the poet’s own intimate knowledge of nature is often revealed ; as in the passage in which (evidently recalling what he had seen on his father’s farm when a boy) he likens the labours of the men of Carthage to those of bees in their hive.
Another way in which nature is often employed in poetry is as a background  or setting to  human  emotion  or  action. This was a common way with those poets of the eighteenth cen­tury in whom the reviving love of nature was conspicuous, but who still fixed their attention chiefly on man. Thus, for instance, Gray uses landscape in the Elegy and Goldsmith in The Deserted Village. This too is the way in which nature has been employed by narrative poets from Homer down to our own times. That in the evolution of narrative poetry the tendency has been towards the greater and greater elaboration of the landscape-setting—that, in other words, description has become increasingly important and has encroached more and more upon story—is a fact the signi­ficance of which no reader is likely to overlook. Even in the Iliad, as Mr. Shairp notes, “there is little or no description of the scenes in which the battles are fought. The features are hinted at by single epithets, such as many-fountained Ida, windy Ilion, deep-whirlpooled Scamander, and the presence of nature you are made to feel by images fetched straight from every element” ; Homer, as the writer says in another chapter, being “so full of business and of human action, that he cannot stay for description.” There is more pure description in the Odyssey and again in the Æneid, as in Hebrew literature there is more pure description in Esther than in Ruth ; and in each case its greater prominence is to be interpreted, in general terms, as evidence of changing methods of narrative art. But it is only in quite modern literature that its immense development has become a persistent feature. In any case in which a recent poet has retold an ancient story we shall be certain to find ready to hand an illustration of the striking difference between the naive and the highly elaborated manner of using nature for narrative purposes. In speaking of the famous tale of Cupid and Psyche in the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, Pro­fessor Mackail remarks : ‘The version by which it is best known to modern readers, that in the Earthly Paradise, while, after the modern poet’s manner, expanding the descriptions for their own sake, follows Apuleius otherwise with exact fidelity.” Here, as will be seen, the expansion of description is the more sugges­tive because of Morris’s general adherence in all other parti­culars to his original. There is a similar contrast between Malory and Tennyson. Malory is satisfied with the bare statement that a certain knight was riding through “a wood,” and then passes on at once to the adventure which he met with there. Tennyson pauses to give a picture of the wood. Nor is this all. Another, and more important, mark of the general change which has come over our attitude towards nature is to be found in the fact that whereas the older poets habitually used nature merely as a detached back­ground, modern poets tend to relate such background to the hu­man drama which is played out against it, thus exemplifying the characteristic subjectivity of modern art. This method of using nature is a conspicuous feature of Tennyson’s narrative poetry. The whole tragedy of the Idylls of the King is worked out amid scenes which are made to correspond with each stage of the story as it is reached. Thus in the spring setting of Gareth and Lynette, in the late autumn setting of The Last Tournament, and so on throughout, nature is brought in to sustain by sympathy the inner significance of the human drama. But such human drama may be thrown into relief by contrast as well as by sympathy ; as Tennyson again shows us in Enoch Arden. When Enoch lands, and the sea haze gathers about him, turning the world to grey, nature re­sponds to his own rising doubts and becomes prophetic of his approaching doom ; but when, earlier in the poem, Tennyson paints his gorgeous picture of the tropical island on which Enoch has been cast, it is clear that he does so to intensify by contrast with the exotic fertility of the landscape the loneliness and despair of the “shipwrecked sailor waiting for a sail.” Arnold makes a very fine use of contrast when he closes the tragic story of Sohrab and Rustum with the description of the river Oxus, flowing out through the darkness and leaving the petty hum of human life behind it in its majestic passage through vast solitudes to the Aral Sea.
Again, natural scenery may be interesting to a poet because of its association with human events. Mr. Shairp is wrong in thinking that the nature-poetry, of historical association is entirely modern, for the learned and antiquarian Virgil puts much of it into the Æneid. But it is unquestionably a kind of nature-poetry  which  grows   with  the  growth   of historical studies and the historical imagination, and it must there­fore be regarded as the product of modes of thinking which are possible only in relatively advanced periods of culture. We have many striking examples of such poetry in Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage; but for its fullest development we have perhaps to turn to Scott. It is not only, as Mr. Shairp says, that Scott “has in his romantic epics described the actual features of the fields of Flodden and of Bannockburn with a minuteness foreign to the genius of the ancients. He has done this. But besides, wherever he set his foot in his native land—not in a battle-field alone, but by ruined keep or solitary moor, or rocky seashore or western is­land—there rose before his eye the human forms either of the heroic past or of the lowlier peasantry, and if no actual record hung among them, his imagination supplied the want, and peopled the places with characters appropriate, which shall remain inter­woven with the very features of the scenes while the name of Scotland lasts.” Landscape with Scott is, in fact, habitually seen through a haze of historic or romantic associations. He himself has touched upon this characteristic aspect of his attitude towards nature in the introduction to the third canto of Marmion.
While thus recognising the poetry of historical association, Mr. Shairp has failed to perceive that there is a poetry of per­sonal association as well. Indeed, the memories which colour landscape or otherwise affect our relations with it, will on analysis be found to be far more frequently of an individual than of a general character. Goldsmith’s Deserted Village, Tennyson’s The Daisy and (for the most part) In Memoriam, Arnold’s Obermann poems and Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse, and William Watson’s Wordsworth’s Grave, may be mentioned as examples, under various forms, of this kind of poetry. Under this same head a singularly interesting line of study of both kinds of asso­ciation—general and personal—is provided in Wordsworth’s three Yarrow poems— Yarrow Unvisited, Yarrow Visited, and Yarrow Revisited. Of the second of these Prof. Veitch says : “We have there the truest Yarrow, the truest Yarrow that ever was pictured ; real yet not literal ; Yarrow as it is for the spiritual sense made keen, quick, sensitive and deep through the brooding over the stories of the years and living communion with the heart of things.”
The poetry of set description, in which the poet undertakes to do with his pen what the landscape painter does with his brush, may next be referred to. Of such pictorial poetry Thomson’s Seasons is a familiar example. Its essential feature is, that while human life is often introduced into it (as figures are put by a painter into his landscape), nature is the first consideration and humanity is merely subordinate. Hence the difference between this poetry and the poetry in which, as in the Deserted Village and the Elegy in a Country Churchyard, nature is used as a background to human life. Of course, passages of set description are usually found embodied in narrative and meditative poetry, where they are so often interwoven with other elements that it is impossible to say just where pure description ends and a human interest in nature begins. But descriptive poetry has still to be recognised as a division of the poetry of nature. Questions of method and suc­cess, of course arise here ; and these, pushed home, will be found to entail a large and complex aesthetic problem—the problem, namely, how far, in what ways, and under what conditions the poet is able to paint at all. At this point the student will be well advised if he turns to Lessing’s masterly treatise, Laokoon. Lessing, indeed, carried his condemnation of descriptive poetry much too far, and neglected considerations which the reader of modern nature-poetry will readily provide for himself. At the same time Laokoon remains one of the foundation books on this, as on many other subjects connected with the relations of poetry and painting.
In principle at least descriptive poetry is entirely objective. We have now to note some of the uses to which nature may be put in poetry of a highly subjective kind.
Nature may be set in sharp contrast with the life of man, to the end that the pathetic brevity and littleness of that life may be brought out and emphasised. Sometimes the contrast is between that totality of things which we call nature— nature conceived as the vast and undying—and the tiny span of our personal existence or of the  passing  generations, which come and go, in Homer’s phrase, like leaves on the trees of a forest. So the voice of nature speaks to Arnold:
Race after race, man after man,
Have thought that may secret was theirs,
Have dream’d that I lived but for them,
That they were my glory and joy.
They are dust, they are changed, they are gone !
I remain.
Sometimes the contrast is between some phenomenon or aspect of nature and man’s life. So Catullus sings that, while suns set to rise, for us, while once our brief light is extinguished, there is nothing left but eternal night. So Keats contrasts the life of the individual man with that of the nightingale figured as an “immortal bird” ; and Tennyson finds a message in the babbling of the brook:
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever.
This note, as we might expect, is often heard in elegiac poetry. It is heard, for instance, in Longfellow’s The Warden:
Meanwhile, without, the surly canon waited,
The sun rose bright o’erhead,
Nothing in nature’s aspect intimated
That a great man was dead.
It is a recurrent note in Arnold’s Thyrsis and in Watson’s Wordsworth’s Grave.
Again, special stress may be laid on the indifference of nature—an indifference which, if we are to continue to apply words of human connotation to purely natural processes, we may even describe as cruelty. The sense that nature, though we may be a trick of the imagination personify it as the Great Mother, has, after all, no care for man and his welfare— that, in fact, there is nothing in the universe about us save impersonal, eternal, and inexorable law—weighed heavy on the thought of the noble old poet Lucretius. But it is, of course, within recent times that, under the ever growing influence of science, it has come specially to the front. Among our great English poets Tennyson in particular saw nature “red in tooth and claw with ravine,” and realised to the full what our deepening know­ledge of cosmic processes portended on the spiritual side. The vastness of the universe, in time and space, as revealed by science, appalled him :
Many a hearth upon our dark globe sighs after many a vanish’d face,
Many a planet by many a sun may roll with the dust of a vanish’d race.
Another Victorian writer of immense power dwelt on the modern scientific conception of nature as a further argument in favour of his all-comprehensive pessimism :
I find no hint throughout the Universe
Of good or ill, of blessing or of curse ;
I find alone Necessity Supreme.
In this way we are brought round to the scientific interpretation of nature, which I have already sufficiently considered in the text (pp. 84-87).
On the other hand, men may discover, and most of our modern poets have discovered, in nature, not indifference, not cruelty, not sensuous beauty only, but sympathy, companionship, and infinite spiritual significance. As every poet responds to nature according to the peculiar qualities of his own tempera­ment, the poetry of emotional interpretation takes many different forms, as in the poetry of Wordsworth, for whom nature was divine, and who sought communion through nature with nature’s indwelling Soul ; of Shelley, to whom nature was a mystical revelation of that eternal spirit in whom all modes of life are one ; of Byron, who found in nature the passionate freedom which the conditions of the human lot denied to man ; of Arnold, to whom, on the contrary, nature’s calm was a refuge and a solace to the fretful and troubled  heart. The deeply religious quality of this kind of nature-poetry will be specially remarked ; as pre-eminently in the case of Wordsworth, who has shown, as Mr. Myers has put it, “by the subtle intensity of his own emotion, how the contemplation of nature can be made a revealing agency, like love or prayer—an opening, if indeed there be any opening, into the transcendent world.”
Not to carry this analysis any farther, I may finally note that most highly subjective kind of nature-poetry in which all nature is steeped in the poet’s personal feeling. Very much of our modern poetry comes under this head, and modern readers, as a rule, find it extremely sympathetic. In fact, the ability to see and describe any natural phenomenon without reference to personal feeling, is very rare in recent literature. By way of example, let me suggest a comparison of Keats’s Ode to Autumn and the Autumn of Mr. William Watson. The former is almost completely objective ; the poet has looked steadily at his subject, and no disturbing senti­ments affect his picture. In the latter, the poet’s eye is turned inward upon himself rather than outward upon the world, and it is not with the simple facts of the autumnal landscape but with the melancholy reflections which the season inspires, that he is really concerned. Such subjective treatment of nature brings us at once to the question of the pathetic fallacy, which has already been discussed in the text (pp. 82, 83).
It will, of course, be understood that the foregoing inquiry is by no means exhaustive. It is intended only to open the way. Nor will the student assume that the different kinds of nature-poetry which have been named are to be regarded as mutually exclusive. One kind insensibly merges into other kinds ; no fixed line can anywhere be drawn ; and the different kinds will be found side by side, or overlapping, or blended, not only in the work of one poet, but often even in the same poem and passage. Outstanding features and dominant tendencies, however, are generally fairly clear.
Speak broadly, we may say that the interpretation of nature is fundamentally a matter of temperament and mood, and that the investigation of it thus forms part of the personal study of literature. But the subject has its historic aspects also, and in any large survey the spirit of the race and the age will always have to be taken into account.

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