poem index

Nature Poems

Year

2014
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Poets have long been inspired to tune their lyrics to the variations in landscape, the changes in season, and the natural phenomena around them. The Greek poet Theocritus began writing idylls in the third century B.C.E. to glorify and honor the simplicity of rural life--creating such well known characters as Lycidas, who has inspired dozens of poems as the archetypal shepherd, including the famous poem "Lycidas" by John Milton. An idyll was originally a short, peaceful pastoral lyric, but has come to include poems of epic adventure set in an idealized past, including Lord Alfred Tennyson's take on Arthurian legend, The Idylls of the King. The Biblical Song of Songs is also considered an idyll, as it tells its story of love and passion by continuously evoking imagery from the natural world.

The more familiar form of surviving pastoral poetry that has retained its integrity is the eclogue, a poem attuned to the natural world and seasons, placed in a pleasant, serene, and rural place, and in which shepherds often converse. The first eclogue was written by Virgil in 37 B.C.E. The eclogue also flourished in the Italian Renaissance, its most most notable authors being Dante and Petrarch. It became something of a requirement for young poets, a form they had to master before embarking upon great original work. Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia and Edmund Spenser’s The Shephearde’s Calendar are English triumphs of the form, the latter relying on the months of the year to trace the changes in a shepherd's life. In "Januarye," Spenser compares the shepherd's unreturned affection with "the frosty ground," "the frozen trees" and "his own winterbeaten flocks." In "April" he writes "Like April showers, so streams the trickling tears."

It was the tradition of natural poetry that William Wordsworth had in mind when he proposed that poetry "takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." This tranquil state might be most easily inspired if the poet would go out into nature, observe the world around him, and translate those emotions and observations into verse. (Later, transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau did exactly that.) In his poem, "Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," Wordsworth writes:


There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, 
The earth, and every common sight
                 To me did seem
            Apparelled in celestial light

Contemporary poets are equally inspired by the Japanese traditions of Haiku and Renga. Originally conceived as a short associative meditation on the natural world, traditional Haiku uses a word or phrase to indicate the season, as in this example by the great master of the haiku, Basho:


speaking out
my lips are cold
in autumn wind

Many contemporary poets are adept in blending the Eastern and Western traditions of nature poetry. Among the many notable poets who have founded their work on these traditions are Robert Hass, Gary Snyder, Mary Oliver, and Louise Glück. Snyder begins "Four Poems for Robin" with the Haiku-like meditation:


I slept under     rhododendron
All night    blossoms fell

Glück’s lyric "Mock Orange" begins:


It is not the moon, I tell you.
It is these flowers
lighting the yard.

There are thousands of nature and landscape poems to read through the changing seasons; here is just a small sampling:

"February: The Boy Breughel" by Norman Dubie
"Song of Nature" by Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Birches" by Robert Frost
"Mock Orange" by Louise Glück
"October" by Louise Glück
"The Darkling Thrush" by Thomas Hardy
"Late Spring" by Robert Hass
"Meditations at Lagunitas" by Robert Hass
"Night on the Great River" Meng Hao-jan
"Lycidas" by John Milton
"Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver
"The River-Merchant’s Wife" by Ezra Pound
"Crossings" by Ravi Shankar
Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney
The Shephearde’s Calendar by Edmund Spenser
"Four Poems for Robin" by Gary Snyder
"Assurance" by William Stafford
"Eclogue" by Derek Walcott
"Landscape With The Fall of Icarus" by William Carlos Williams
"Nutting" by William Wordsworth
"Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" by William Wordsworth
"The Wilde Swans at Coole" by W.B. Yeats