My high school experiences with nature poetry were less than ideal. After being subjected to William Wordsworth’s more didactic poetry, I concluded that Wordsworth was dry and boring. (My other reading didn’t help matters. Chesterton’s analysis of how the old poets sang of the “gods of the brook and brush” rather than the brook and brush themselves left me considerably biased against the romantics.)
My freshman year of college, I expounded those opinions to my English professor, who quickly told me that the romantic naturalists were anything but boring. Still, it took several more years for Wordsworth and I to heal our quarrel. Even the healing was an accident; I was bored and picked up my mother’s old Norton Anthology. I found some of Wordsworth’s better poetry and changed my mind. Even so, Wordsworth is not my favorite nature poet. That role goes to Gerard Manly Hopkins. Hopkins’ poetry is, admittedly, more difficult to decipher than Wordsworth’s, and it reminds me more of T.S. Eliot than of any 19th-century romantic. Hopkins comes across as a very modern poet. Yet Hopkins reminds me more of the old poets Chesterton spoke of–though, not being a pagan, he sings of the God of brook and brush. From his poem “God’s Grandeur”:
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Hopkins’ poem “The Starlit Night” contains what is currently my favorite description of the natural world.
Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
I realize that my Tolkien obsession is showing, but “fire-folk” and “elves’ eyes” are phrases too wonderful not to love. Hopkins brings to my attention something that was pointed out yet again to me in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. In the modern West, we have a temptation to ignore anything with a scientific explanation. Know how colds can be cured? Don’t pray about them. Know all the scientific “laws”? Forget that things didn’t have to work that way. Understand that a star is a flaming ball of gas? Tell yourself that every time you’re tempted to wonder at the night sky.
Or you could remember that science only explains what exists. It does not, however, infuse those things with meaning. People do that, and poets like Hopkins do it especially well.