Nature or Poetry? Choose Both


“The world is filled with the grandeur of God.”

“The sounding cataract haunted me like a passion.”

In my last two posts, I reported how poetry sprang to mind as I walked through some of California’s natural wonders, specifically Big Basin Redwoods State Park and Yosemite National Park.  Today I meditate on the relationship of natural beauty and poetic language.

Would I rather read a poem about a waterfall or see an actual waterfall?  My Slovene colleague Jason Blake asked that same question in a post with regard to sports and the answer was obvious: he’d rather see an actual hockey game than read about a fictional hockey game.  Language can’t do justice to the thing itself.

But poetry comes to our aid when we want to articulate the experience.  “Wow!” and “omigod!” go only so far.  A beautiful dawn can be enhanced if one quotes Hamlet: “But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.”  When I was walking amongst groves of ancient redwoods, I found myself recalling the opening line from Longfellow’s Evangeline, “This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks.”  Doing so helped me frame the experience in a particular kind of way.

I think I have written in a previous post that poetry can work like a fuel additive.  It takes what you are experiencing and intensifies it.

But there’s more to it than that, as my son Toby pointed out to me.  He notes that poetry has taught us how to appreciate nature in the first place.  Rather than coming up short in describing nature, poetry has set the groundwork for the initial aesthetic experience.  What we see is not nature itself but what artists have taught us to see.

As an example, I think of what Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice anticipates from a nature excursion.  Elizabeth is not a particularly romantic character (although she was created at the height of British Romanticism), but at one point she is excited over her aunt’s proposal that they visit England’s Lake District.  William Wordsworth had made the region famous a decade before through his collection Lyrical Ballads, and Elizabeth anticipates finding solace there (she is reeling from Darcy’s insulting marriage proposal and Bingley’s apparent rejection of her sister) Then she plans to use language to capture what she has witnessed:

No scheme could have been more agreeable to Elizabeth, and her acceptance of the invitation was most ready and grateful. “My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigor. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travelers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travelers.”  

To be sure, she doesn’t seem likely to start writing poetry.  She is more likely to record her impressions in a journal. But she does want to move beyond a fuzzy “wow!”

If “the father of nature poetry” provides the lens through which we see nature, however, it’s interesting that  Wordsworth would try to hide his influencing hand.  In the poem that contains the much-quoted line “we murder to dissect,” Wordsworth says that we should forego books and commune with nature directly.  Here’s the poem:

Tables Turned

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun, above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless–
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

When I was a graduate teaching assistant, I once had a student read this poem as an excuse to stop reading.  Even those who don’t go quite so far still may use the word “dissect” when it comes to poetry.  (I prefer thinking of the process as “reflecting upon.”)   Somehow, the poem instructs us, we are to stop thinking and commune only with the heart.

Which is fine.  The mind can indeed muddle things.  But the well-read Wordsworth is being disingenuous here.  He is using the fine craft of poetry to tell us to forego poetry (as well as science and philosophy).  He doesn’t acknowledge that people didn’t think much about watching and receiving nature until poets like him came along.  They were too busy farming.

So don’t stop reading nature poetry.  Use it to intensify your experiences in nature and then, when afterwards you are recollecting the emotion in tranquility (to quote Wordsworth again), use poetry to help you figure out what your encounter has meant.  The mind is going to get involved one way or another.  It might as well be a mind fine-tuned by poetry.

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  1. […] Nature or Poetry? Choose Both […]

  2. By A Spiritual Interpretation of Waterfalls on June 20, 2010 at 7:03 am

    […] thoughts:  Although, as I noted in Tuesday’s post, Wordsworth tells us to put down the “dead leaves” of our books and go experience nature […]


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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