The poetry of earth is never dead

John Keats portrait by William HiltonFebruary 23, 2021 marks the 200 year anniversary of the death of John Keats. Although his life was short, he has had an outsized influence on English poetry and literature in the years since.

But he was not always so beloved, and like many artists before and after, he was anything but acclaimed during his lifetime. In a blistering review of his epic poem Endymion, the magazine Blackwood’s called him “the most worthless and affected of all the versifiers of our time” and his poem was described as “imperturbable drivelling idiocy.”*

There was a prevailing theory at the time that only aristocrats had the capacity and sophistication to be poets. Keats’s father managed a horse stable, and although he was by no means impoverished, Keats always felt the weight of his humble beginnings. He originally wanted to be a doctor and went to medical school, but quit the profession before he even started, in order to devote himself to poetry.

Keats was inspired by nature, like many poets of the time, but his works evolved to tackle many different themes as he tried to break free of the sentimental stylings of his early work. Throughout his life he fought an internal struggle between his ambition and his ability, but he continued to work hard to become a better writer.

Many events are being planned in commemoration of the anniversary of his death, including a BBC radio play and a virtual tours at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome.

But perhaps the best way to appreciate this poet on his anniversary is to read his work. The sonnets are perhaps the most accessible of his poems, taking on subjects as varied as nature, books and authors he liked, letters to friends, or even how he was feeling that day. In the poem “On the Grasshopper and Cricket” he muses on nature and how it persists in inspiring us:

The Poetry of earth is never dead:
  When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
  And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper’s—he takes the lead
  In summer luxury,—he has never done
  With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
  On a lone winter evening, when the frost
    Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever,
  And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
    The Grasshopper’s among some grassy hills.
 
You can read more poetry by Keats here at the Poetry Foundation.

I also highly recommend the biography John Keats, The Making of a Poet by Aileen Ward, if you can find it. The biography won the National Book Award in 1964, and focuses on the poet’s creative development as well as the events in his life.

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Two great poets of nature

I began this year with high hopes of posting on this blog often, but life got in the way. Not that there hasn’t been a lot going on in the area of art and nature, it’s almost too much to keep up with.

As the year draws to a close, I want to remember two great poets of nature who passed away recently.

Mary OliverMary Oliver (1935–2019) inspired multiple generations with her keen observations of nature and the human spirit. She didn’t just write about nature, she lived it, often writing outdoors while walking through the woods.

In an appreciation in The New Yorker, Rachel Syme writes: “Oliver lived a profoundly simple life: she went on long walks through the woods and along the shoreline nearly every day, foraging for both greens and poetic material.”

She wrote of nature not only to celebrate its unique wonder, but to plumb the depths of the human condition, to understand life itself, as in this poem, “I Go Down to the Shore.”

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do?
And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

Here she reads one of her most famous poems, “The Summer Day”:

And here is a video of Mary Oliver reading another of her well-known poems “The Wild Geese”

Mary Oliver gave few interviews, but this 2015 interview from the radio program On Being provides a glimpse into her creative mind. She says that creativity is important, but so is discipline, the act of sitting down regularly to work. She says, “I think we’re creative all day long. And we have to have an appointment to have that work out on the page. Because the creative part of us gets tired of waiting or just gets tired.”

Listen or read the entire interview here. You can read more about her life and work at the Poetry Foundation.

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W.S. MerwinW.S. Merwin (1927-2019) was another acclaimed poet who passed away this year, who also wrote and cared about nature. He lived his final years in Hawaii, where he and his wife purchased land on an old pineapple plantation where the soil was depleted by chemicals and erosion. Together they planted trees and slowly restored the land into what is now The Merwin Conservancy, 19 acres of lush palm forest preserved as an arts and ecology center.

In his poem “October” he describes the magic of nature in autumn:

 What peace! To the sharp black poplar comes
a bird and sings. A cloud frays
colorless, and a single butterfly,
a light, sinks in the light…

Once asked about the role of the poet in today’s society, he said,

“We keep expressing our anger and our love, and we hope, hopelessly perhaps, that it will have some effect. But I certainly have moved beyond the despair, or the searing, dumb vision that I felt after writing The Lice; one can’t live only in despair and anger without eventually destroying the thing one is angry in defense of. The world is still here, and there are aspects of human life that are not purely destructive, and there is a need to pay attention to the things around us while they are still around us. And you know, in a way, if you don’t pay that attention, the anger is just bitterness.”

Here he is giving a talk about connections, between poetry and modern life, between humans and the earth we live on:


You can read more about Merwin’s life and work at the Poetry Foundation.

Despite the loss of these two great writers, poetry is still very much alive today, with countless poets pursuing their art. Here is a great online compilation of poems inspired by nature, many by contemporary poets. If I continue this blog in the future, I hope to highlight more of them.

Thanks for reading!

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Poetry and music – Vivaldi’s Winter

Antonio Vivaldi
Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi published his famous group of violin concertos, The Four Seasons, in 1768 at the age of forty-seven. They were what was known as “programme music”, or music written to depict specific scenes, which was looked down upon by some at the time. But Vivaldi’s compositions rose above the typical programme music of the day, creating a quartet of classics that are still heard today.

What makes them so popular? They are certainly catchy, though there is also a note of melancholy that runs through each of them, especially in the slow movements. And of course, nature is a theme that resonates with nearly everyone. Many composers have written pieces inspired by nature, but somehow The Four Seasons has captured the public’s imagination like none other.

Each composition is accompanied by a sonnet, written by Vivaldi himself, which describes the scenes depicted in the music. Below is a translation of the Winter sonnet, along with a performance by the Early Music ensemble Voices of Music. See if you can recognize the scenes as they are brought to life in the music.

Winter – Concerto in f-minor

1. Allegro non molto
Shivering, frozen mid the frosty snow in biting, stinging winds;
running to and fro to stamp one’s icy feet, teeth chattering in the bitter chill.

2. Largo
To rest contentedly beside the hearth, while those outside are drenched by pouring rain.

3. Allegro
We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously, for fear of tripping and falling.
Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and, rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up.
We feel the chill north winds coarse through the home despite the locked and bolted doors…
this is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights.

You can read the text of all four seasons, along with the original Italian, here.

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The Groundskeeper’s Daughter – ethereal music from the garden

The Groundskeeper's Daughter, by Dolls Come to LifeNature has inspired music throughout history, from Vivaldi to modern-day art installations. The duo Dolls Come to Life explore the theme of a garden on their new album The Groundskeeper’s Daughter, a series of experimental songs and soundscapes. The results are haunting, evocative, and eerily beautiful.

Dolls Come To Life are singer/songwriter Michelle Cross and experimental musician Joe Frawley. Their first album Dolls Come To Life was inspired by interior spaces — a child’s bedroom, attic, etc. Their new album is inspired by the outdoors, particularly the old fashioned gardens of Victorian literature. But these are not cheerful songs of sunshine and flowers, they evoke misty moors, haunted walls, and creeping vines. There’s an eerie thread of melancholy that runs through these tracks, as though the ghost of Mary Lennox has come back to roam the forgotten paths of her secret garden.

The track “Across the Moor”, as Joe Frawley explains, “was the result of a multi-tracked improvisation Michelle did over a drone I provided.” Much of their music evolves this way, improvising over each other’s tracks to see what comes out. The duo works long-distance, exchanging files over the internet, but their sounds blend seamlessly.

The song “Wake Up, Wake Up” features a chorus of flowers singing of their life through the seasons, while a girl sits on the ivy wall listening:

Come if you want, follow us down into the ground,
into the brown earth where we all are listening.
And when the wind comes whispering that it is spring then we begin,
making our way up shivering.

One can imagine the title character, the groundskeeper’s daughter, exploring this strange world and discovering its hidden corners. More than a collection of songs, this album creates a sonic world in the imagination, and listeners can create their own stories inspired by it.

You can sample the whole album here on their website.

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Happy Earth Day – poetry and plants

Spring Crocuses

Earth Day is a time when we celebrate and honor nature, in all its wild untamed beauty. We also search for ways to understand and appreciate nature, and one such way is poetry.

I have featured nature poetry on this website before, by the likes of Keats, Herrick, and of course Emily Dickinson. Recently I came across a wonderful article about the uses of Plants in Poetry, by Kelly Brenner of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. She demonstrates plants as symbolism in Shakespeare, plants as lessons and morals in Shel Silverstein, and plants as an appreciation of nature in the work of Dickinson.

It appears the poetic power of plants is timeless, as these works are just as potent today as when they were written. Perhaps they are even more powerful, as we seem to have grown distant as a species from the friendly flora around us. Plants are potted and mulched into neat corners of society, making our unconscious yearning for the natural world all the more powerful.

Luckily we have the poets to help bring us back, and remind us of our deep bond with the natural world. Nature poems are not always happy ones, which just goes to show how well nature reflects our inner selves.

One of the poems featured in the article above is The Withering Of The Boughs by William Butler Yeats. I’ll leave you with an excerpt, you can read the entire poem at the original post.

I cried when the moon was murmuring to the birds:
‘Let peewit call and curlew cry where they will,
I long for your merry and tender and pitiful words,
For the roads are unending, and there is no place to my mind.’
The honey-pale moon lay low on the sleepy hill,
And I fell asleep upon lonely Echtge of streams.

No boughs have withered because of the wintry wind;
The boughs have withered because I have told them my dreams.

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A glimpse at my own untended garden

Daisies

About once a year I take a break from my usual postings here to show you a peek into my own garden, which is almost as untended as this website.

One of my favorite things about having a garden is seeing all the insects that come to visit — the honeybees, bumblebees, dragonflies, crickets, beetles, spiders, green leaf hoppers, butterflies, ladybugs, ants, and many more. These are the unseen foundation of our ecosystem. Without a healthy insect population, everything else would fall apart, and I’m happy to provide them with a home for the summer.

I’ll leave you with a very short poem by that most prolific garden poet, who loved insects as much as (if not more than) people:

The Pedigree of Honey
Does not concern the Bee –
A Clover, at any time, to him,
Is Aristocracy –

Emily Dickinson

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Sweet Peas

Rabbits

Daisy

Cricket

Dahlia

Dragonfly

Rose

Garden

Mushroom

Dandelion

A little poem by Robert Herrick

Poems of Herrick book

It’s the end of another year. I’ve been too busy to post here lately, not even to mark the arrival of winter. (If you want to see what I’ve been up to lately you can read my personal blog.) For my final post of 2011 at The Untended Garden, I’ve dug up a short poem by Robert Herrick (1591-1674).

It comes from a tiny book that I purchased for 50¢ at my library book sale. It was printed in Edinburgh with a green cloth cover and no date, and the image above is only slightly smaller than the actual book. It’s one of those mysterious little books that makes you wonder how many people have owned it and what an incredible journey it must have had. It’s amazing to think that a few dozen words inspired by a walk in the garden can still be appreciated four hundred years later.

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THE OLIVE BRANCH

Sadly I walked within the field,
To see what comfort it would yield;
And as I went my private way,
An Olive-branch before me lay;
And seeing it, I made a stay,
And took it up, and viewed it; then
Kissing the omen, said “Amen:
Be, be it so, and let this be
A divination unto me;
That in short time my woes shall cease,
And Love shall crown my end with peace.”

— Robert Herrick

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I hope everyone has a great new year, and I look forward to further exploring art and nature in 2012. If you have a favorite artist or writer who uses nature in their work, feel free to share!

Autumn, in painting and poetry

Autumn Landscape With Four Trees - Vincent van Gogh
Autumn Landscape With Four Trees - Vincent van Gogh

Autumn is here once again! The changing of the seasons is a favorite topic here at The Untended Garden, perhaps because so many artists have been inspired by the seasons.

Today I present a famous painting by Vincent Van Gogh, appropriately entitled Autumn Landscape With Four Trees (click the image for a larger view.) What’s most interesting to me about this painting is the ordinariness of the scene. He did not choose a majestic vista or mountaintop, as so many landscape artists do, he chose a clump of very ordinary, almost misshapen trees – one of them has even lost its leaves. And yet the artist saw something beautiful in them, and chose to immortalize this view forever, so that we could all experience this moment the way he did.

Likewise, Emily Dickinson captured her own particular notion of autumn in the poem below. Even though autumn is beautiful, she seems to say, it also portends a passing of time that is not so easily accepted.

* * *

As Summer into Autumn slips
And yet we sooner say
“The Summer” than “the Autumn,” lest
We turn the sun away,

And almost count it an Affront
The presence to concede
Of one however lovely, not
The one that we have loved —

So we evade the charge of Years
On one attempting shy
The Circumvention of the Shaft
Of Life’s Declivity.

– Emily Dickinson

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I dreaded that first Robin

Emily Dickinson

Today I’d like to share a poem by Emily Dickinson, one of her many works inspired by nature. Despite the pleasant imagery of birds and daffodils, it’s really a melancholy poem, describing how even the most beautiful things can be painful when you’re feeling sad. And the more beloved they are (the poet clearly loves the garden in springtime) the more piercing it is to look upon them.

Like all great poems, this one has been interpreted many different ways by different people. What do you think it means?

* * *

I dreaded that first Robin, so,
But He is mastered, now,
I’m some accustomed to Him grown,
He hurts a little, though —

I thought if I could only live
Till that first Shout got by —
Not all Pianos in the Woods
Had power to mangle me —

I dared not meet the Daffodils —
For fear their Yellow Gown
Would pierce me with a fashion
So foreign to my own —

I wished the Grass would hurry —
So — when ’twas time to see —
He’d be too tall, the tallest one
Could stretch — to look at me —

I could not bear the Bees should come,
I wished they’d stay away
In those dim countries where they go,
What word had they, for me?

They’re here, though; not a creature failed —
No Blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me —
The Queen of Calvary —

Each one salutes me, as he goes,
And I, my childish Plumes,
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgment
Of their unthinking Drums —

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The Winter’s Wind – a poem by Keats

As the new year begins, I present for you a poem by John Keats, inspired by a cold winter’s wind but encompassing so much more.

The image I’ve chosen to accompany the poem is a famous one by Casper David Friedrich called “The Wanderer Above the Mists”, painted around 1817. Obviously the artist is captivated by the misty mountains, but then why place a person in the very center of the image, blocking our view? And we can’t see his face, we can only wonder at who he is and what he is thinking. It’s this kind of mystery, along with the expert composition and technique, that make the painting great. There’s a bigger idea at work here, a puzzle that the viewer must unravel.

The poem is also open to interpretation, but I won’t even try to analyze it. I’ll let the poet speak for himself.

* * *

O thou whose face hath felt the Winter’s wind,
Whose eye has seen the snow-clouds hung in mist,
And the black elm tops ‘mong the freezing stars!
To thee the spring will be a harvest time.
O thou whose only book has been the light
Of supreme darkness, which thou feddest on
Night after night, when Phœbus was away!
To thee the spring shall be a triple morn.
O fret not after knowledge. I have none,
And yet my song comes native with the warmth.
O fret not after knowledge! I have none.
And yet the evening listens. He who saddens
At thought of idleness cannot be idle,
And he’s awake who thinks himself asleep.

– John Keats (1795-1821)

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