Poetic Traditions Of Man In Nature
by Anna Scarpa

Traditions of Western literature, as exemplified by the poetry of Augustan Rome and Elizabethan England, have perpetuated the alienation of man's spiritual existence from the natural world around him, and yet, are filled with allusions to man's yearning for the very natural world that his finer spiritual self has been taught to abhor. This dilemma parallels the basis of philosophical tension between man as physical creature and man as spirit, and reflects the duality of human existence. In the Romantic Period, poets likewise recognized the dichotomy of the physical and spiritual world, but thought to unify these two elements by infusing nature with the spiritual ideals of beauty and immortal truth.

Man's relationship to his environment is largely a function of how he views his place in that environment. If, as is illustrated by the themes of Roman and Elizabethan poetry, man sees himself as existing outside of the natural realm, he will not be as inclined to preserve his environment and fully harmonize himself with it. If, however, like the Romantics, man comes to recognize the natural world as the manifestation of a shared spiritual reality, he will find more of his identity in that world and be more protective of it.

The poetry of Augustan Rome and the poetry of Elizabethan England both portray the natural world as a mere physical realm that stands separate and apart from the spiritual domain, although the manner in which these two periods depicted this separation differed. The Romans thought that nature was always subject to divine intervention. The gods would use nature as their instrument to alter the course of human events. The gods would create storms, droughts, and floods to work their will. The Elizabethan period, on the other hand, was one of Renaissance science and empiricism. Nature was demystified and God did not actively work his will through nature. The spiritual world existed completely outside the physical world. The physical world worked according to its own internal laws. Man through his immortal soul transcended that physical world. In both the Roman and Elizabethan eras, however, mankind found that he had little in common with his natural environment.

Roman poetry was characterized by the interplay of the gods with the physical world. Man aspired to be heroic and godlike. Humans were guided and often thwarted by the will of the gods, which manifested itself through the changes and events of nature. The natural world was but a physical stage upon which the fates of humans were played out, always through the will of the gods.

Horace (65-8 BC), a great poet of Augustan Rome, advises us in his Odes to do what we might to survive the winter but ultimately to trust in the gods to see us through:

["Heap logs in plenty on the grate, melt of the cold,

And tilt the crock up by lock handles, good revel master,

Pour the four year vintage out with freer hand.

Leave all the rest to the Gods;

Once they have laid asleep,

These winds that now go brawling over the boiling sea..."]

The Roman poets saw the natural world as a temporary place where the gods permit us to dwell at their pleasure. In his Satires, Horace goes on to tell us the place of the gods in nature:

["West winds temper the chill, but summer jostles spring,

Turned autumn, apple-bearer, bringer of fruits; and soon the rigid frost returns...

Where good Aeness is gone, with lordly Tullus and Ancus,

We hope to dust and shade.

Who knows if the lofty gods will add a span of tomorrows

To what is summed today?"]

Another poet of Augustan time, Virgil (17-19 BC), in the Aeneid, portrays nature as the instrument by which the gods influenced the course of human events:

["Surely by dispensation of the gods and backed by Juno's will,

The ships from Iliam held their course this way on the wind."]

In the Aeneid, Virgil shows us the gods Juno and Venus in conversation. Juno describes how he intends to disrupt a certain hunting expedition in order to bring about a desired marriage of two mortals. Again, the forces of nature are used to direct human destiny:

["While beaters in excitement ring the glens,

My gift will be a black raincloud, and hail, a downpour,

And I'll shake heaven with thunder.

The company will scatter, lost in gloom,

As Dido and the Trojan captain come to one same cavern.

I shall be on hand, and if I can be certain you are willing,

There I shall marry them and call her his.

A wedding this will be."]

In The Metamorphoses, the Roman poet, Ovid (43 BC-18 AD), describes how the gods created order out of the chaos of nature:

["Nature was all alike, a shapelessness,

Chaos, so-called, all rude and bumpy matter, ...

Till God, or kindlier nature, settled all argument,

And separated heaven from earth, water from land..."]

As a result of the natural world's manipulation by the gods, the Romans could never fully trust or rely upon nature. Things were not always what they seemed, and could suddenly change at the whim of the gods. Nature was, therefore, not fully harmonized with man's own identity. It was often hostile if not indifferent. It was something to be used, controlled, or subdued as man realized his higher destiny, either in alliance with or at conflict with the gods. This perception of nature has endured and manifested itself through various periods of human history, often with dire consequences to the environment. When the natural world is perceived as a means to an end, an exploitable resource to be used for the attainment of man's own destiny, then the environment has no validity outside of man's own wants and needs.

In the Elizabethan times, poets typically viewed nature as a fleeting and unreliable phenomenon, not as a result of manipulation by God, but by reason of its inherently temporal qualities. The physical world stood in contrast to the absolute and immortal nature of man. Man more properly belonged to the timeless realm of the spirit, rather than the temporary and changing environment of the physical world.

In one of his most famous sonnets, Shakespeare (1564-1616) tells his love that he cannot compare her to a summer's day:

["Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough windes do shake the darling buds of May,

And Summer's lease hath all too short a date."]

The Elizabethans saw nature and time as being together in the same physical world. Time, in fact, was the destroyer of nature. As time elapses, nature erodes and disintegrates, renewing itself only to repeat the same death.

John Milton (1608-1674), a poet during the Elizabethan period wrote:

["Fly envious time, till thou run out thy race,

Call on the lazy leader-stepping hours,

Whose speed is but the heavy plummet's pace;

And glut thyself with what thy womb devours,

Which is no more than what is false and vain, and merely mortal dross;

So little is our loss, so little is thy gain."]

In these lines, Milton sees time as that which literally consumes the natural world. But this is of no consequence to man who is immortal and outside the reach of time. The physical world, to Milton, is false and vain.

To the Elizabethans, man's truest and noblest nature was transcendent of the physical world. John Donne's (1572-1631) A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning tells us that in true love, our souls become as one. A physical separation of the lovers cannot affect their immortal attachment in spirit:

["Out two soules therefore, which are one,

Though I must goe, endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion,

Like gold to airy thinnesse beate."]

The poets of Augustan Rome, as well as, those of the Elizabethan Era, viewed man's spiritual reality as being separate and apart from the temporal world of nature. Much of the poetry of these two eras exemplifies a traditional concept that nature is, in fact, flawed and corrupt. It is an imperfect, but regrettably necessary, adjunct to humanity's mortal nature, just as clothing and all the other tools of our survival have become necessary since Adam and Eve's fall from grace and our expulsion from Paradise. No longer a Garden of Eden, the natural world, from this vantage point, is something to be endured, subjugated, and exploited. It has no inherent value outside of man's own prosaic and temporal needs. It has no spiritual reality. In the 19th Century, however, the Romantic Poets came to see nature quite differently. Their view was that nature itself represented the very embodiment of God's presence in the world and man's immortal spirit. For the Romantics, to be close to nature was to be close to one's own spiritual self.

The poetry of Augustan Rome often portrayed nature as hostile and unpredictable. The Elizabethan poets frequently despaired at the temporary and decaying essence of the physical world. The Romantics instead found solace and comfort in a benevolent natural world. They believed that man should seek out nature and find spiritual nourishment in all of its splendor and infinite mystery.

The poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) proclaims to us that, by becoming closer to nature, by sensitizing ourselves to the messages of the environment, we more fully realize our spiritual identity. In A Day Of Sunshine, Longfellow rhapsodizes about the exquisite, divine gift of a beautiful sunny day:

["O GIFT of God! O perfect day:

Whereon shall no man work, but play;

Whereon it is enough for me,

Not to be doing, but to be!"]

Longfellow goes on to describe the spiritual energy that infuses the physical world on such a day:

["I feel the electric thrill, the touch

Of life, that seems almost too much.

I hear the wind among the trees

Playing celestial symphonies;"]

The poem concludes with Longfellow's aspiration that man's soul might be more like the spirit of nature:

["O heart of man! canst thou not be

Blithe as the air is, and as free?"]

Shakespeare in his sonnet would not compare his loved one to a summer's day because, in his eyes, the beauty of nature was but a fleeting sensory experience. It soon faded while the metaphysical heart and soul of his love lived on forever, transcendent and pure.

The Romantic Poetry of Longfellow takes a contrary view. To him, it is nature that endures while people fade with age. Consider these lines from Longfellow's Autumn Within, where the vibrancy of the natural world thrives in stark contrast to the diminishment of the poet's own aging life:

["It is Autumn; not without

But within me is the cold.

Youth and spring are all about;

It is I that have grown old....

Birds are darting through the air,

Singing, building without rest;

Life is stirring everywhere,

Save within my lonely breast."]

In Longfellow's poetry, nature is imbued with eternal life. It relentlessly moves on, driven by the eternal unseen force of life. Human endeavor is meager and futile against its unyielding and constant presence. In The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls, the sea represents to us the enduring power of nature, immoveable against time, while man and all traces of him are easily washed away:

["The tide rises, the tide falls,

The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;

Along the sea-sands damp and brown

The traveler hastens toward the town,

And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Darkness settles on roofs and walls,

But the sea, the sea in darkness calls;

The little waves, with their soft, white hands

Efface the footprints in the sands,

And the tide rises, the tide falls.

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls

Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;

The day returns, but nevermore

Returns the traveler to the shore.

And the tide rises, the tide falls."]

While the Romans and Elizabethans both perceived nature with some trepidation, the Romantics signified man's return to nature as a spiritually healing source of comfort and renewal. The poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) frequently describes the revelation of the divine Presence through the beauty of nature. In Emerson's poem Autumn, man and the world that envelops him are seen as one unified reality under the guidance and protection of God:

["The leaves are falling, falling as from way off,

As though far gardens withered in the skies;

They are falling with denying gestures.

And in the nights the heavy earth in falling

From all the stars down into loneliness.

We all are falling. This hand falls.

And look at others: it is in them all.

And yet there is one who holds this falling

Endlessly gently in his hands."]

This concept of a benevolent world of nature is recurrent in Emerson's poetry. Even an overwhelming winter storm is shown to be an occasion for quiet human solitude. In his poem, The Snowstorm, Emerson writes:

["Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,

Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,

Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air

Hides hill and woods, the river, and the heaven,

And veils the farmhouse at the garden's end.

The sled and traveler stopped, the courier's feet

Delated, all friends shut out, the housemates sit

Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed

In a tumultuous privacy of storm."]

The Romantics often liked to contrast the oppressive wearying world of man's existence to the life-giving and uplifting world of nature. In Ode To A Nightingale, John Keats (1795-1821) describes the yearning and heartache that he experienced in listening to the carefree song of the nightingale and reflected upon the hardship and gloom of his own mortal life. The bird resides in the idyllic world of the forest, surrounded by beauty and serenity. He, on the other hand, is prisoner to a world of fading youth and sorrow. Thus, he beseeches the bird to stay away from mankind's world:

["Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

What thou among the leaves hast never known,

The weariness, the fever, and the fret

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;"]

The bird, like nature itself, exists on a different plane all together, and symbolizes the very immortality that the poetic soul strives for. Nature is pure and the nightingale has not been touched by the corruption of human frailties:

[" Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

No hungry generations tread thee down;

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown:

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path

Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,

She stood in tears amid the alien corn;"]

Certainly, the Romantics portrayed nature more benevolently than did their Augustan and Elizabethan predecessors. They saw a spiritual and transcendent quality in nature that represented an essential ingredient to mankind's own well-being. Yet, even to the Romantics, nature stood clearly apart from everyday human life. Nature possessed a purity and timelessness that was unattainable to the more artificial world of human society. John Keats' nightingale can no more dwell in human society than the poet ever could truly attain the idyllic life of the forest. In the end, the Romantic must come to the same conclusion as the Roman and Elizabethan: man stands outside of nature, sometimes in hostility and struggle, sometimes in awe, but always apart, always alienated.

There can be little doubt that man's alienation from his environment has contributed greatly to his abuse of that environment. If humans truly identified with nature and perceived themselves as living as one with their environment, they would not regard their environment as a consumable, disposable commodity. An abuse of nature would be nothing other than an abuse of man's own self. Yet, as illustrated by the poetry of Western civilization over the past 2000 years, man cannot ever fully identify with the world of nature. How, then, will humanity ever overcome its destructive relationship with the environment? Most probably, the answer lies in the very thing that sets man apart from the rest of his world.

Man is essentially different from all of nature by reason of his unique intelligence, i.e., the intelligence of self-reflection. This self-consciousness - not just the ability to know, but to know that he knows - separates man from all other animals. It creates a vast abyss between man and the rest of his natural environment, but it also gives man the unique ability to estimate his place in the world and, consequently, his ability to alter it. We not only can affect the environment (as is the case with any living thing), but also can conceive of ways to alter our own behavior in order to change the environment, which no other living creature can do. Accordingly, the very thing which has brought about man's separation from nature and destructive attitude towards the physical world, ultimately will be the salvation of our relationship with the environment. By being able to reflect upon our own condition and relationship with nature, we can recognize the need for changes in our conduct towards the natural world. We can consciously see the ways to change the world around us. We can comprehend the scarcity of natural resources and actively search for ways to preserve these resources. That which has separated us from the natural world in the first place ultimately will be the key to finding our harmony with that world.


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