Otto Steinmayer: Classic Ground

The beginnings of nature poetry

[New Straits Times, 24 June 1992[

At the beginning of the last school year, I did an informal survey of my entering students. "So, whaddaya think poetry is all about?" A popular reply was "nature," trees, flowers, hills, the poet wandering "lonely as a cloud" amidst them, etc.

Since the ingredients of poetry are everything in the world, it would be surprising if nature didn't find a large place in poetry. "Nature poetry," as a special genre, exists in all the world's traditions, but it was a long time coming.

The first Greek poet to give nature a look was Hesiod, whom the Greeks regarded as Homer's contemporary and counterpart. Hesiod was by profession a farmer. In one of his two long poems, the Works and Days Hesiod scolded his ne'er-do-well brother Perses and sung the labours of the farming year. 

Nature to Hesiod was not a kindly presence. Life was difficult. He had little time for the beauties of the landscape. He describes how his father settled...

...near Mount Helicon, in a wretched village,
Askra, bad in winter, harsh in summer, never good...

Yet two things mark Hesiod as the beginner of nature poetry. First, his knowledge and observation of nature, his senses of awe and respect for the elements. He lived and composed close to the land, however he may have felt about it. And second, Hesiod is the first western poet to tell us the story of the Golden Age, a time before evil when nature provided food in plenty, all on her own, when human beings lived without work, disease, war, or civilization.

The Greeks of Hesiod's time and later, into the classic age, stuck close to their towns and their own species. Nature was to them wild, and hard to approach. The gods of the countryside were alien and easily offended. Pan, the protector of wild animals, lurked in the gloomy groves ready to inspire intruders with "panic" fear.

Nature as tamed and ordered by human labour was beautiful. In book 6 of the Odyssey, Odysseus passes by the gardens of King Alkinoos:

To left and right, outside, he saw an orchard
closed by a pale---four spacious acres
planted with trees in bloom or weighted down for picking:
pear trees, pomegranates, brilliant apples,
luscious figs, and olives ripe and dark.
Fruit never failed upon these trees: winter
and summer time they bore, for through the year
the breathing Westwind ripened all in turn--- [trans. Fitzgerald]

If the Golden Age, in Hesiod's myth, was long past, then poets began the work of reconstructing it. Alkinoos' garden is one piece of the lost paradise.

Sophocles, in a chorus of his play Oedipus at Colonus, described the scenery around his home in similar terms: 

Stranger, of this land, rich in horses, you have come
to the chiefest fold of the earth,
bright Colonus, where the clear-voiced
nightingale murmurs, loving most to sit
beneath the green valleys, possessing
the winedark ivy and the unreachable
thousand-fruited foliage of the god,
shaded from the sun and untossed by winter storms...

It took some time, the rise of sophisticated international cities, and sophisticated city-dwellers, for the untamed countryside and rough country life to be glorified in poetry. The fringes of the world were occupied by shepherds, who lived by driving sheep and goats from one pasture to another, and occasionally hunting. The new poetry from the city celebrated nomadic life, and thus came to be called "pastoral" poetry.
Theocritus was the first pastoral poet. He was originally from Sicily (a fairly wild place), but soon moved to the world's centre of learning in Alexandria. Theocritus wrote of herdsmen in a half imaginary Sicily, hanging out under trees, engaging in singing contests, and intrigues of love:

The whisper of the wind in / that pine tree, / goatherd,
is sweet as the murmur of live water; / likewise
            your flute notes. After Pan
you shall bear away second prize. / And if he / take the goat
with the horns, / the she-goat / is yours: but if
he choose the she-goat, / the kid will fall / to your lot.
And the flesh of the kid / is dainty
before they begin milking them... [trans. by William Carlos Williams]

How far are these idyllic doings based on what real shepherds actually did? There must be something to the singing part of it.
To be fair, Theocritus does not romanticize and prettify his countryside until it is totally unbelievable. His herdsmen are rough types, and use coarse language, goats are never far off in the background, and the landscape with its pines and prickly plants seems passably real.

The nature of pastoral poetry is alive and responsive to human feelings. As Daphnis suffers an unhappy love...

Him the jackals, and the wolves mourned,
And the lion from the oak-wood wept as he was dying... 

Two other poets took up pastoral poetry in a small way, and then pasoral vanished from Greek and reappeared in Rome. Publius Vergilius Maro (later to become immortal as the Roman National Poet par excellence) entered into the literary life with a small volume of ten eclogae, or "selections." 

Vergil's pastoral is much more artificial than Theocritus', his shepherds' language and manners considerably cleaned up. Pastoral, in Vergil's hands, advanced towards unreality. 

Come here, o handsome boy! for you (behold!)
The nymphs bear lilies in full baskets, for you white Nais
Picks pale violets and the blooms of poppies
And twines the narcissus and the flower of sweetsmelling dill...

The language is stunningly beautiful; it might seem that beautiful language is all there is. And yet there is a purpose to this unreal air. Pastoral provided a simplified world perfect for certain poetic uses. In a world of unsophisticated characters living in near-complete leisure, Vergil could talk about the emotions of love unbothered by the harsh realities and conventions that made love in the city so complex and ambiguous.

Among the Eclogues are poems in which Vergil expresses his hope for an age of peace, imagined in the form of a new Golden Age, after a hundred years of civil war, and a poem of wonder at the physical universe. Without the licence that pastoral allowed, Vergil might have found it hard to present such idealistic themes to hard-bitten Roman society.

The poetry of the countryside appealed to a civilization that was moving farther and farther away from nature, becoming more and more wrapped up in its social and political ambitions, and feeling regret. Yet there is, in Vergil, an ambivalence: he knows he is no rustic easily content with the narrow outlook of the village, yet it offers hopes of a life away from the corruption of the city.

The feeling remains. We all suspect we come from a Golden Age, and we hunger to get back to it, as the tourists flock here to "Beautiful Malaysia" looking for tropical paradise with indolent and happy natives under the coconut palms. 

But the pastoral mode is an anxious dream under the surface. the dream attracts us, but its fulfilment seems farther away than ever. Wolves and the rest of nature remains deaf to the cries of love, and cracks appear even in Vergil's polished landscape. In modern poetry, the idealism of pastoral fades and leaves its irony more to be seen:

Not now. Love itself a flower
with roots in a parched ground.
Empty pockets make empty heads.
Cure it if you can but
do not believe that we can live today in the country
for the country will bring us no peace. 

[Raleigh Was Right.  William Carlos Williams]