Understanding Poetry 5: Poems and Place

Having concentrated on basic forms of poetry, we now turn to basic relationships. In Lesson 5, a poet’s identification with the surroundings, particularly nature, takes center stage. After tracing the landscape poem and its cousin the pastoral, we’ll finish with a close reading of William Wordsworth’s great survey of the land.

Poetic Bearings

The View From Here

As we’ve kept stepping back to take in larger poetic design, we’ve started to bump up against larger questions. We started by asking ourselves, What is the purpose of this form? But by now a broader question has started to crop up: What is the purpose of a poet? Knowing the tradition of the ode can only take us so far in understanding Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” for example. In order to fully appreciate why Keats chose that form — and how he exploits it — we’re going to have to adopt a broader perspective.

Now that we’ve reached the midpoint of the course, we’ll turn to fundamental concerns of poetry — its reasons for existing. Don’t worry, we’ll still pay close attention to form and its effects. No survey of poetry would be complete without introductions to the pastoral (later in this lesson), the elegy (next lesson), and the good old love poem (Lesson 7). But we’ll now fit these forms of poetry into the larger purposes they serve, beginning with the exploration of “place.”

Keeping Perspective

The connection of words to place is fundamental in poetry, both technically — as we’ve seen when it comes to meter, rhyme, and the like — and thematically. Just as rhythms in poetry can be complicated, the engagement of a poem with the real world can vary substantially.

Consider the four poems we’ve read as case studies. All these poems, at crucial times, highlight the struggle to accurately represent actual places in the world:

  • Prufrock led us around foggy slums, but sometimes, abruptly, we were “among the porcelain” — in some drawing room, presumably. We had to guess, because the poem is so fractured and so hallucinatory. The disorienting jumps between these two settings gave us a good sense of Prufrock’s own inability to relate to his surroundings.
  • Hart Crane’s ode kept its sights trained on the Brooklyn Bridge but jumped all around trying to describe it. There was no dominant perspective: we looked at the bridge from above (with seagulls and stars), from on the bridge itself (parapets to street level), and from beneath (Wall Street and the East River). The vastness of his subject literally overshadowed our poet: “Under thy shadow by the piers I waited; / Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.”
  • The Shakespearean sonnet seems our best candidate for a “placeless” poem. It describes no landscape at all. Still, our speaker refers to dramas that do, after all, “take place.” The recurring deceits, the obsession about truth and age: these might be offstage, but they bear out the truth of what he says. The poem asks us to imagine what really happens underneath words and, in fact, ends with a specific scene: “I lie with her and she with me.”
  • Finally, Keats’s ode charted two very different, contrasting places. The space of the urn had a landscape: boughs with permanent leaves, a green altar, a little town with silent streets, trampled weeds. But this was a space our speaker couldn’t enter; he was stationed “above,” in the realm of “breathing human passion.” The lack of description of this other space (a museum? a library?) is a pointed contrast: here “on earth,” impermanence wipes out details.

Comparing these poems directly is unwieldy; they are, after all, quite different. But all four reflect a fundamental concern: how does poetry represent actual places?

The connection of poems to reality is never more important than in nature poetry. By looking at verse that tries to connect to a landscape, we can see all the complications of “place” in the four poems above — but on a simplified and interactive plane.

Let’s start out our study of nature poems by considering how the description of a purple flower, for example, can take on cosmic importance.

There, There

What is the worst put-down of a city that a poet can make? Gertrude Stein’s famous dismissal of Oakland, California, still stings: “There is no there there.” It’s no wonder Stein was later at the center of a large group of American emigrant artists, all in search of a more significant place. Stein obligingly mapped it: “Paris was the place that suited those of us that were to create the twentieth century art and literature…”

Philosophy and Nature

An Old Argument

One of the oldest and most powerful attacks on poetry was launched by the Greek philosopher Plato, who regretfully, but firmly banished poets from his ideal state in The Republic. This was because, in Plato’s view, a poet revels in the world of appearances and is not really interested in reality, which is only dimly reflected in nature; “he is an imitator of images and is very far removed from the truth.”

Defenders of poetry, including Plato’s student Aristotle, have always had to wrestle with this charge. Part of that defense has been to insist that a faithful imitation of nature is truth. This philosophical showdown involves an argument about where reality is located: in an unchanging realm of ideas (Plato’s “forms”) or within the concrete processes of nature?

It’s a long and lively argument, and we can hardly hope to do more than touch on it here. But an outcome of it has been an avalanche of philosophizing about “nature” and the poet’s role in it. Awareness of this debate helps us ask interesting questions of poems whose purpose is to represent the world — especially nature poems. Why is the poet describing this scene? Is she imposing herself on it? Is she bringing out a truth that nature can’t express on its own?

For the rest of the lesson, we’ll be looking at some ways poets have grappled with these questions. First, let’s turn to a hopeful view of a poet’s fit in nature. It comes to us from a philosopher-poet, a hybrid that seems to suit many who address nature directly.

Ministering Beauty

Take a look at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Rhodora” (AFP, p. 91). It’s a lovely little poem about a fresh flower brightening up the woods, sparely and effectively combining the colors black, purple, and red.

But what is the purpose of the poem? To document that Emerson saw a pretty flower? He risks imitating the bird cooling his plumes nearby, who “court[s] the flower that cheapens his array.” Our poet turns and answers our questions head-on:

Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew;
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.

Poets see for us: they are part of nature’s own self-interpretation. The writer of “The Rhodora” leaves no doubt that he is faithfully documenting what would otherwise go unseen.

Even in such a confident interaction with nature (“dear” indeed!), we can see traces of doubt. Faced with beauty, the poet feels simple and ignorant. His intimation of connection is only supposed. Next we’ll turn to poems that share Emerson’s hopes, but also develop his hints of anxiety.

Outside the Church

Emerson was ordained as a pastor, but soon resigned his charge because, he said, he could not believe in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. But Transcendentalism, the influential American movement he founded in the 1830s, is full of religion-inflected mysticism and worship. “Nature,” Emerson maintained, “is the incarnation of a thought.” Another time he asked, “What is a farm but a mute gospel?”

Natural Anxieties

Seeking Connection

To say we have a relationship with nature is different from saying that we belong to the “self-same Power.” Many poets are caught between identifying with nature and realizing some difference. This ambivalence inflects many descriptions of natural beauty and power.

Robert Frost’s poetry is often caught in the middle this way. For example, in “Birches” (AFP, 94), the detail is so vivid Frost indeed seems to be speaking as one with nature, such as in the passage in which he describes branches covered by ice:

They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust….

Alliteration, assonance, an exquisitely managed meter: everything combines to bring this scene alive. But in the context of the whole poem, Frost renders this description reluctantly; it interrupts what he really wanted to do, which was to describe a boy bending down the branches:

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter of fact about the ice storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them…

Our poet has a whole fantasy about balancing on branches: it’s a way to lift off of earth “Toward heaven” and then return, because “Earth’s the right place for love.” “That would be good both going and coming back,” he concludes. To ride birch branches is to act out ambivalence about earthly existence. But nature can only be ridden in this way if it cooperates — and sometimes it doesn’t. An ice storm crushes the branches down, and that’s that.

The unsteady connection between nature and human desire is perceptible in a number of nature poems in our textbooks. For example:

• Beans in “The Broad Bean Sermon” (MP 229) sprout wonderfully, but a little too exuberantly — the poet has to scramble to keep up with them.
• The dazed and wonderful awakening of spring in William Carlos Williams’s “Spring and All” (MP 268) imperviously happens “By the road to the contagious hospital.”
• Even a seemingly simple poem like “Waiting for the Storm” (MP 233), which notices the loveliness of “wrinkling darkness” and chilly sand, resolves into a picture of a man forced to take shelter against nature.

The disappearing landscape

In modern poems especially, nature can be seen as disappearing, irretrievable. In this approach, it’s not so much that nature doesn’t clearly answer human needs — it’s that humans are obliterating nature, either mentally or actually, and therefore making their lives lonelier.

• James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” (MF, 219) brings us to an enchanted natural scene, where even horse droppings “Blaze up into golden stones,” before concluding, abruptly, “I have wasted my life.”

• In Amy Lowell’s long poem “Patterns” (AFP, 173), nature, corralled into a garden, offers no consolation to a war widow:

Now he is dead
In Summer and in Winter I shall walk
Up and down
The patterned garden paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
The squills and daffodils
Will give place to pillard roses, and to asters, and to snow.

Both nature and the woman are numbed by pattern — suggested by the repeated ‘ill’ in squills, daffodils, and pillard.

• Philip Larkin’s poignant “The Explosion” (MP, 218), a worker’s happy engagement with nature (he chases rabbits, finds lark’s eggs, buries them in grass) is doomed: he’s wiped out by some kind of explosion, one so powerful it dims the sun.

All these poems chart the need — and failure — to find comfort in the landscape. The restorative power of nature is a commonplace, but some of our most affecting poetry shows humans cut off from the land that should comfort them, if not reflect them.

What’s to blame for isolation from nature? Factories, of course, and wars, and the spread of cities — but also poetry of a certain kind. Ironically, verse that expresses most ardently the fantasy of a life in nature can block the landscape out. Let’s turn to the pastoral poem to see how.

A Sunnier Disposition
Not all modern poets are so anxious about their relationship with nature. Take a look at Frank O’Hara’s charming “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” (AFP, 204). Ironically, few poets are more identified with that great unnatural metropolis, New York City. But O’Hara’s poem reminds us that nature even shines down on cities, and even city-slickers can bask in it.

Pastoral Refuge

A Simple Life

A browser of certain collections of European poetry might come away thinking that, even through the 18th century, satyrs and nymphs thronged the countryside; that all shepherds were poets; and that it was always late spring. A warped vision of history, to be sure, but one kept alive by a very enduring form: the pastoral.

Simply put, the pastoral is escape literature. It is a celebration of rural delights that is usually written in the cities for dwellers of cities. Life in the pastoral countryside is easy, gentle, and full of frolic — nothing like the urban grind. This fantasy has been worked into a variety of forms — there are pastoral love lyrics, dramas, elegies, and even novels.

Pastoral indulges a fantasy most all of us have: it shows us a simpler life. Its settings are therefore regressive: the forest, the farm, Arcadia, an unspoiled past. The space that pastoral describes is thus a negative one — a reaction, an imagined opposition to reality — and this can be dangerous to poetry.

The long history of the pastoral has certainly yielded some wonderful verse — beginning in antiquity with Theocritus and Virgil, reinvigorated in ‘ecologues’ (or pastoral dialogues) by Italians humanists like Petrarch and Boccaccio, and developed in England by masters such as Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton. But even in its English heyday, the pastoral was open to accusations of artificiality. Let’s take a look at a quick example.

The Shepherd’s Seduction

What could be sweeter than Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” (MF, 209)? It’s a world where shepherds are most willing to sing and dance “For thy delight each May morning,” where “Melodious birds sing madrigals” while others tend sheep, where the only labor is making delightful clothes out of flowers, gold, and wool. Even those “pretty lambs” would probably line up to get their wool pulled.

Sir Walter Raleigh’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” (AFP, 226) is a somewhat heavy-handed but thorough squashing of Marlowe’s fantasy. Where Marlowe’s rhymes ended with the more uplifting of two terms (“falls” – “madrigals”, “cold” – “gold”), Raleigh’s rhymes provide no such comfort (“fold” – “cold”, “gall” – “fall”, “forgotten” – “rotten”). Raleigh even lifts whole lines out of Marlowe’s poem, as if to show just by repetition how flimsy such a fantasy can be.

Poets in the eighteenth century, especially, built on pastoral foundations many lectures in verse about the good and simple life to be found in nature. Many of these didactic poems were remedies for urban corruption. But many of these, too, were plagued by artificiality. The desire for a pastoral world could divert supposed description into blind fantasy — which can lead all too easily into doggerel. Poetry must engage reality in some way — or it has no real effect.

Let’s end the lesson by looking at a poem that intends to cure pastoral artificiality, William Wordsworth’s great celebration of nature, “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” (APF, 296).

Pastoral Everywhere
Are you surprised by the variety of poems that are grouped under the heading “The Pastoral” in MP, 209 -239? Pastoral works its way into a great variety of literature. One thoughtful survey of the genre, William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral, even finds it in Alice in Wonderland! For a more sustained tracing of pastoral desire through English poetry, I highly recommend Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City.

Case Reading: “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”

The Life of Things

It was the great mission of William Wordsworth to clear away mannered conventions in order to connect genuinely with nature around him. He was out to purify pastoral impulses: to celebrate the countryside, without stocking it with fake figures and emotions.

Indeed, as you read through Tintern Abbey, you encounter no shepherds, no easy rhymes. Instead, the poem reads like speech — elevated speech, to be sure, but still full of the pauses, changing rhythms, and spontaneous elaboration of talk. The poem is structured in ‘blank verse’: an unrhymed iambic pentameter. It is broken into large and irregularly shaped stanzas that again suggest various impulses of thought as they occur.

Wordsworth’s approach licensed the honest reaction to nature that can result in the modern ambivalence we looked at earlier in the lesson. But Wordsworth himself remained certain about his interaction with nature. Transcendentalists like Emerson were greatly inspired by climaxes in “Tintern Abbey” such as,

…I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the minds of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Notice the movement — here and elsewhere in the poem — from specific images to the ultimate level of abstraction: “things.” Notice too how Wordsworth builds quickly from sensory impressions (“I have felt”) to higher feelings. Specific impulses of nature, physically perceived by the poet, kick off realizations of connection — realizations that are practically beyond the power of expression.

Nature’s gift of connection is so strong, it ties together all points of human life: thoughtless youth, adult realization, and even death. The poem is full of expansive reoccurrence — words repeat (like “sublime”), the lines build up to several climaxes, and the immediate situation — a man reminiscing — even gets reframed. At the beginning of the poem, there’s no way to guess that the speaker is talking to someone else; it is only when he turns to “my dear, dear sister” that we realize the full importance of the scene.

The Specific Place

Wordsworth’s poem depends on the illusion of specificity. We’re given quite a lot of detail about the date and location of the description, almost as if it were a time-stamped photo. The first words of the poem measure an exact time frame since the poet had been exactly there. Notice all the indicatives: “these steep and lofty cliffs,” “this dark sycamore,” “These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,” “this season,” “these hedgerows,” etc.

Even though the poem insists that “These beauteous forms” are available for retrieval at any time, say “in lonely rooms… ‘mid the din / Of towns and cities,” it’s still important to Wordsworth to insist that they really exist: there is such a space, it can be physically visited.

But scholarship has pointed out that the space never really existed as described — even in 1798, Wordsworth would have to be overlooking industrial development to perceive his green, pastoral landscape. Indeed, you might have wondered how accurate he was when picturing a romantic Hermit in the woods.

These objections to “Tintern Abbey” really reflect Wordsworth’s success in insisting that nature poetry begin with an actual perception, and not some preconceived idea. ‘Place’ is crucial to a poet as a way to begin, to get out of the self in order to freshly identify and grow. The modern poets who worry about their connection to nature are guarding against the worst snare in poetry: isolation.

Moving Forward

Speaking of isolation, next lesson we’ll move on to mourning and death! But don’t worry, we won’t allow ourselves to be too morbid. Poets may protest the passage of time, but they also depend on it for rhythm and contrast.

But before we take on time, read “Tintern Abbey” carefully — again, preferably out loud, to hear its beautiful cadences — and get ready to answer a few questions in the assignment. Be sure also to discuss the poem, and nature poems in general, with the class on the message board — that’s the place for great ideas!

The End of Ballads
Strangely enough, “Tintern Abbey” was first published in a 1798 volume of poems entitled Lyrical Ballads — a volume that also included Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s more balladic “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Wordsworth wasn’t just getting his types of poetry mixed up — he was making a point. Ballads are a form of poetry that connects to the community, and Wordsworth hoped the same for “Tintern Abbey,” despite its elevated, lyric language.

Thanks, Sis

Though “Tintern Abbey” suggests that Dorothy’s imagination was fed by her brother, the feeding actually went both ways. Some of Wordsworth’s descriptive poems lift entire phrases out of Dorothy’s journals. Wordsworth’s poem “Daffodils” does this, even though it begins, “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” Sometimes it paid to write Dorothy into the scene, and sometimes it paid to write her out.

Assignment: “Tintern Abbey”

Pick a long sentence in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” (one that is more than six lines long) to answer the following questions. How does Wordsworth use meter and line structure to convey a reaction to nature?

  1. Is there any rhyme, off-rhyme, or repetition within the lines? If so, what is its purpose?
  2. In the passage you chose, does Wordsworth try to convince the reader that he is describing a real landscape? How?
  3. What pastoral fantasies can you trace in these lines?
  4. Does Wordsworth complicate his hopeful vision of nature in your lines? How exactly?
  5. And finally, why is the sentence as long as it is? Why does it end when it does?

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