Yes to the Earth
So radiant in certain mornings’ light
With its roses and its cypress trees
Is Earth, or with its grain and olives;
So suddenly it is radiant on the soul,
Which stands then alone and forgetful
Though just a moment earlier the soul
Wept bloody tears or dwelt in bitterness;
So radiant in certain mornings’ light
Is Earth, and in its silence so expressive,
This wondrous lump that’s rolling in its skies;
Beautiful, tragic in solitude, yet smiling,
That the soul, unasked, replies
“Yes” replies, “Yes” to the Earth,
To the indifferent Earth, “Yes!”
Even though next instant skies
Should darken, roses too, and cypresses,
Or the effort of life grow heavier still,
The act of breathing even more heroic,
“Yes” replies the battered soul to Earth,
So radiant in the light of certain mornings
Beautiful above all things, and human hope.
(Sibilla Aleramo, Italian, 1876-1960, tr. I.M.)
[Nature is our name for everything minus ourselves and our contrivances. As the look of the world is more and more shaped by human interference, the word nature is being replaced by the word environment – as if the rest of creation only exists for us to live in.
The impoverishment of nature is not to our long-term advantage. The deserts of the world were created by human over-use of nature. The Sahara itself was once green and fertile, its wooded hills and valleys sustaining a large human population. Now, its depleted environment is a permanent home only to creatures tougher and less ambitious than homo sapiens.
While nature was still healthy, human beings both wondered and cursed at its beautiful tyranny. We lived within its framework, and sooner or later it punished our mistakes. Its uncounted species competed with us for resources with which to prosper. Providing sustenance and wonder, causing us to suffer, watching with indifference while we die; nature was a hard taskmaster.]
When I die I don’t care how God
Treats the earth; let it parch, let it flood.
The earth doesn’t know what it consumes:
Skeletons of sheep, carcases of lion.
(Al-Ma’arri, Syrian, 973-1057, tr. Wightman and al-Udhari.)
[But there was pleasure, too, to be had. The joy of being part of nature is evident in the next five poems, where nature and poet are one in a simple fellowship of co-existence.]
Here’s my story; the stag cries,
Winter snarls as summer dies.
The wind bullies the low sun
In poor light; the seas moan.
Shapeless bracken is turning red,
The wildgoose raises its desperate head.
Bird’s wings freeze where fields are hoary.
The world is ice. That’s my story.
(Anon., Irish, 9th C., tr. Brendan Kennelly.)
The Moon (1)
At dead of night,
The darkness seems to have deepened.
To the call of geese
The sky is listening; across it
Appears the passing moon.
(Hitomaro, Japanese, 7th c., tr. I.M.)
The Moon (2)
In the sea of heaven,
Waves of cloud arise.
The moon’s boat
In a forest of stars
Rows hidden; this I see.
(Hitomaro, Japanese, 7th C., tr. I. M.)
The Blackbird’s Song
The little bird is whistling now
From the tip of its yellow beak;
The blackbird on the yellow bough
Is calling over the lake.
(Anon., Irish, 8-9th C., tr. Brendan Kennelly.)
Song of Caribou, Musk Oxen, Women and Men who Would be Manly
Glorious it is to see
The caribou flocking down from the forests
Their wandering to the north.
Timidly they watch
For the pitfalls of man.
Glorious it is to see
The great herds from the forests
Spreading out over plains of white,
Glorious to see.
Yayai, ya, yiya.
Glorious it is to see
Early summer’s short-haired caribou
Beginning to wander.
Glorious to see them trot
To and fro
Across the promontories,
Seeking a crossing place.
Yayai, ya, yiya.
Glorious it is
To see the great musk oxen
Gathering in herds.
The little dogs they watch for
When they gather in herds.
Glorious to see.
Yayai, ya, yiya.
Glorious it is
To see young women
Gathering in little groups
And paying visits in the houses –
Then all at once the men
Do so want to be manly,
While the girls simply
Think of some little lie.
Yayai, ya, yiya.
Glorious it is
To see long-haired winter caribou
Returning to the forests.
Fearfully they watch for the little people.
While the herd follows the ebb-mark of the sea
With a storm of clattering hooves.
Glorious it is
When wandering time is come.
Yayai, ya, yiya.
(Anon., Eskimo, tr. (1921-4) Radmussen and Calvert.)
[Writing is young compared to spoken language; five thousand years compared to perhaps five hundred thousand. A poem written down two thousand years ago is a spring chicken in terms of the spoken tradition, and we have no way of knowing what the earliest poems were like. But historians of language speculate that poetry is as old as language itself, which may have originated as chants cajoling nature into providing for human wants.]
The Rain Man Praises Himself
No house is ever too thick-built
To keep me, the rain, from getting in.
I am well-known to huts and roofs,
A grandson of Never-Been-There,
I am mother of the finest grasses,
Father of green fields everywhere.
My arrows do not miss their aim,
They strike the owners of huts.
I am a terror to clay walls and the architecture of termites,
Fear-inspiring above and below.
When I pour in in the morning, people say:
“He has cut off our lips and stopped our mouths,* *ie
He is giving us juicy fruits. made us
He has rained and brought us mushrooms, fall silent
White as ivory.”
(Oral tradition, Aandonga, southern Africa; written down 1920’s; tr. Pettinen, Trask.)
[The word `poet’ comes from the Greek for `maker’ or `creator’. In the poem that follows, the presence of the poet is as important as the imagery of nature.]
You know the place: then
Leave Crete and come to us
waiting where the grove is
pleasantest, by precincts
sacred to you; incense
smokes on the altar, cold
streams murmur through the
apple branches, a young
rose thicket shades the ground
and quivering leaves pour
down deep sleep; in meadows
where horses have grown sleek
among spring flowers, dill
scents the air. Queen! Cyprian!
Fill our gold cups with love
stirred into clear nectar
(Sappho, Greek, 6th C. B.C., tr. Mary Barnard.)
[Natural imagery can mirror the mood of the poet or it can provide the most extreme contrast, as in the next poem. Sweeney, a pagan prince of ancient Ireland, was driven mad by the curses of priests and the horrors of war.]
The Cliff of Alteran
As Sweeney ranged over Connaught
He came to a lonely glen
Where a stream poured over a cliff
And many holy men
Were gathered. Trees, heavy with fruit,
Grew there by the score.
There were sheltering ivy bowers
And apple trees galore.
Deer, hares and swine were there.
On the warm cliff fat seals slept.
Sweeney watched while through his heart
The raving madness swept.
(Anon., Irish, 12th C., tr. Brendan Kennelly.)
[In the three-line `haiku’ poems of Basho, natural imagery and the poet’s observation create a mood so short it’s like a flash, a moment seized for contemplation. Six of his most famous haiku:]
By the road,
In the hedgerow, a rose –
My horse ate it.
(written while looking at the ruins of a great
Summer grasses –
All that remain
Of warriors’ dreams.
A crow settles on it –
The sun is unrelenting –
(written on a journey)
My horse pisses, right
By my pillow.
(the most famous of all haiku)
Old pond –
Frog jumps in,
Sound of the water.
(Basho, Japanese, 1644-94, tr. I.M.)
[It’s frequently observed, by scientists as well as poets, that we humans seem to combine the characteristics of many other animals. We can be fierce like tigers, sadistic like cats, gentle and playful like lambs; or stolid and peaceful like sheep. We can be co-operative like the social insects, rapacious like great black-back gulls, or busy inhabitants of filth like the dung-beetle. We see our characteristics mirrored in nature all around us, some literally, others metaphorically, and this is the source of poetic imagery.
A single natural image – the washing of waves back and forth on the sea shore – pervades the next poem, giving it a sense of the relentless and desolate indifference of time.]
The Old Woman of Beare
The sea crawls from the shore
The despicable weed,
A corpse’s hair.
The desolate withdrawing sea.
The Old Woman of Beare am I
Who once was beautiful.
Now all I know is how to die.
I’ll do it well.
Look at my skin
Stretched tight on the bone.
Where kings have pressed their lips,
The pain, the pain.
I don’t hate the men
Who swore truth was in their lies.
One thing alone I hate –
The young sun
Gives its youth to everyone,
Touching green with gold.
In me, the cold.
The cold. Yet still a seed
Women love only money now.
I loved, I loved
Young men whose horses galloped
On many an open plain
Beating lightning from the ground.
I loved such men.
And still the sea
Rears and plunges into me,
Shoving, rolling through my head
Images of the drifting dead.
A soldier cries
Pitifully about his plight;
A king fades
Into the shivering night.
Does not every season prove
That the acorn hits the ground?
Have I not known enough of love
To know it’s lost as soon as found?
I drank my fill of wine with kings,
Their eyes fixed on my hair.
Now among the stinking hags
I chew the cud of prayer.
Time was the sea
Brought kings as slaves to me.
Now I near the face of God
And the crab crawls through my blood.
I loved the wine
That thrilled me to my fingertips;
Now the spinster wind
Stitches salt into my lips.
The coward sea
Slouches away from me.
Fear brings back the tide
That made me stretch at the side
Of him who’d take me briefly for his bride.
The sea grows smaller, smaller now.
Farther, farther it goes
Leaving me here where the foam dries
On the deserted land,
Dry as my shrunken thighs,
As the tongue that presses my lips,
As the veins that break through my hands.
(Anon., Irish, 9th C., tr. Brendan Kennelly.)
[Another poem follows where natural imagery, events and feelings are interdependant. It was customary in sixth century Japan to add short poems to the end of a longer one.]
On Seeing a Dead Man lying among Rocks on Samine
Island, Sanuki Province
Jewel sea-plants grow
in the province of Sanuki;
is it the nature of the land
that I can gaze on it tirelessly,
is it being the land of the gods
that makes it so beautiful?
With heaven and earth,
sun and moon, together
may it prosper.
The face of a god,
so we are told,
lies on the port of Naka, where
we launched our boat.
a tidal wind
blew out of the clouds;
as I looked out to sea
waves stood threatening,
as I looked towards the shore
white waves were seething.
The great fish-holding
sea was awesome; so
we pulled our oars to breaking-point.
Here and there,
the islands were many; but
we built a hut for shelter. Then I saw,
amidst the sound of waves,
the beach that served
as a rough-cloth pillow
who on this desolate bed
lay stretched alone.
If I knew your house
I would go and tell them;
if your wife knew
she would come and tend you. But,
although straight as a spear
there is a road, she does not know it;
she will be waiting for you,
your precious wife…
Two short poems on the above;
- If your wife were here
she would pick wild herbs for you to eat;
but on Mount Sami
even the meadow chickweed
has long since disappeared.
- Deep sea-waves
approaching, the shore is
you who sleep.
(Hitomaro, Japanese, 6th C., tr. I.M.)
[In the next poem, nature is the setting for love, peace, happiness, rest and magic.]
I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows
Where oxslips and the nodding violet grows
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine;
There sleeps Titania some time of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamelled skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.
(Shakespeare, 1564-1616, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2.1.249)
[The comforts of civilisation insulate us from the natural world and allow city-dwellers to more or less ignore it. Eighteenth-century Europeans were so infatuated with the achievments of humanity that untamed nature barely featured in their poetry. The Romantic movement reacted against this human-centredness. Poets pointed out that humanity is part of Nature, not its master, and that there is pleasure to be had in feeling a small part of a large whole. Goethe wrote:
`The reason I prefer the society of nature is that nature is always right and the error, if any, can only be on my side. But if I hold converse with men, they will err, and I will err, and so on forever, and we will never get to see matters clearly.’
Wordsworth, like many Romantics, was painfully conscious of humanity’s failings. He found an ecstasy in being alone in nature, and a sense of relief that humanity was a small part of nature, not its end-product.]
From `The Prelude’
One evening (surely I was led by her*) *Nature
I went alone into a shepherd’s boat,
A skiff that to a willow tree was tied
Within a rocky cave, its usual home.
No sooner had I sight of this small skiff,
Discovered thus by unexpected chance,
Than I unloosed her tether and embarked.
The moon was up, the lake was shining clear
Among the hoary mountains; from the shore
I pushed, and struck the oars and struck again
In cadence, and my little boat mov’d on
Even like a man who walks with stately step
Though bent on speed. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure; not without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on,
Leaving behind her still on either side
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. A rocky steep uprose
Above the cavern of the willow tree
And now, as suited one who proudly row’d
With his best skill, I fix’d a steady view
Upon the top of that same craggy ridge,
The bound of the horizon, for behind
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water, like a swan;
When from behind that craggy steep, till then
The bound of the horizon, a huge cliff,
As if with voluntary power instinct
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature, the huge cliff
Rose up between me and the stars, and still,
With measured motion, like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling hands I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the cavern of the willow tree.
There, in her mooring-place, I left my bark,
And through the meadows homeward went, with grave
And serious thoughts; and after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; in my thoughts
There was a darkness, call it solitude,
Or blank desertion, no familiar shapes
Of hourly objects, images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms that do not live
Like living men moved slowly through the mind
By day and were the trouble of my dreams.
Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!
Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought!
That giv’st to forms and images a breath
And everlasting motion! not in vain,
By day or star-light thus from my first dawn
Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me
The passions that build up our human soul,
Not with the mean and vulgar works of man,
But with high objects, with enduring things,
With life and nature, purifying thus
The elements of feeling and of thought,
And sanctifying, by such discipline,
Both pain and fear, until we recognise
A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.
(William Wordsworth, English, 1770-1850.)
[Holderlin, a German Romantic, set himself the heroic task of fusing German `rationality’ with the `holy fire’ of ancient Greece, and went mad trying to fulfil it. The poem which follows was written during his years of madness, which explains the signature and date appended. In it, he seems to have thrown off the trappings of intellectual life.]
Still the time of year is here to see, and fields
Of summer stand in lovely glow and mildness.
The green of fields is gloriously laid out,
To where the brook glides down with little waves.
So strolls the day outside through hills and valleys
Unstoppable, and with its fiery beams,
And clouds stroll peacefully in high-up spaces;
The year seems self-restraining in its glory.
9 March 1940 Your humble servant,
(Holderlin, 1770-1843, German, tr. I.M.)
[In his madness Holderlin wrote simple poems. His sense of himself hopped from one living thing to another.]
And little knowledge but much pleasure
Is given to mortal men.
Why dost thou not suffice me O lovely sun
On this May day?
Thou flower of my flowers, what have I more than thee?
Would that I were as children are!
I should be like the nightingale, were I to sing
All my delight in one enraptured song!
(Holderlin, German, 1770-1843, tr. David Gascoyne.)
[Wang Wei, who was a painter as well as a poet, hears human talk as one of the natural sounds of the forest.]
Empty mountains, no one to be seen.
Only the sound of voices, people talking.
Returning shadows penetrate the forest,
Bouncing off the coloured moss above.
(Wang Wei, 699-761, Chinese, version I.M.)
[Leopardi was an Italian Romantic poet. He was born into a stiflingly claustrophobic family, minor aristocracy fallen on hard times. He was deformed; not for him Keats’ declaration `Beauty is truth, truth beauty’. Tormented by his deformity, often stretched on the rack of unrequited love, longing for the company of like minds but finding himself easily hurt, his poems are triumphs of love over despair.
`The Broom’, title of the next poem, refers to yellow-flowering broom that grows in dry, infertile soil. It becomes an image of many parts; beauty in desolation; the fragility of life; the struggle to flourish in the face of assured destruction. Leopardi uses natural imagery to build up and express his vision of the world, of the significance of life, and of human arrogance which seemed dangerous to him then (and how much more to us now!).
Here is no idealised picture of nature. Leopardi calls nature the enemy, in that like all creatures we must struggle against the rest for space and sustenance. But he finds in nature a salutory lesson for humankind, an acceptance of our common fate, and not the arrogance which `would raise the state of mortal man above the stars’. His love of nature survives contemplation of its most awful face. The poem is a plea for human beings to cooperate, and to forsake the arrogant stupidity which leads to ruin.]
Upon the arid shoulder
Of this most terrible mountain,
Vesuvius the destroyer,
Graced by no other tree or flowering plant,
You scatter here your solitary shrubs,
O fragrant-blossoming broom,
Contented with the deserts. So have I seen
Your shoots make beautiful that lonely land
Which girds about the city
Who, once mistress of the world,
Now speaks to travellers of empires lost
With grave and ever-silent face.
I meet you here once more, O you the lover
Of all sad places and deserted worlds,
The constant comrade of afflicted fortune.
Among these fields (now sown
With barren cinders only, covered up
By lava turned to stone
That rings beneath the passing traveller’s feet;
Where the snake nestles, coiled in the hot sun,
Or under the south wind
The rabbit seeks again his hollow den)
Were farmsteads and tilled glebe,
And whitening crops of grain, and here the sound
Of lowing herds of cattle,
Gardens and palaces,
Grateful retreats for leisure
Of mighty lords, and here were famous cities
Which the great mountain, from its fiery mouth
Pouring forth streams of flame, did overwhelm
With those that dwelt in them. Now all around,
One single ruin spreads,
Wherein you take your root, O courteous flower,
As if in pity of the doom of others,
And cast a pleasant fragrance to the skies,
Making the desert glad. Now let him come
And view these slopes, whose want it is to flatter
Our mortal state; here he may gaze and see
How loving Nature cares
For our poor human race, and learn to value
At a just estimate the strength of Man,
Whom the harsh Nurse, even when he fears it least
With a slight motion does in part destroy,
And may, with one no less
Slight than the last, even now, and with no warning
Graven upon these cliffs
Is that `magnificent,
Progressive destiny of Humankind’.
Here gaze, and see your image,
O proud and foolish Century,
You who have gone astray
And left the path of re-awakened thought
Marked out for you till now, and turning back,
Even of your regress boast,
Proclaiming it advance.
All those fine wits, whose evil fate
Made you their father, with flattery receive
Your childish words, though
Deep in their hearts at times
They scorn at you. But I
Would not go to the grave bearing such shame;
Rather would I reveal the deep contempt
That lies locked in my breast,
And show it openly, while still I may;
Although I know oblivion
Lies heavy on whom displeases his own age.
But I have learned to laugh
At that bad fate we both will share together.
You dream of liberty, the while you forge
New bonds for thought – through which
Alone Man rose, in part,
From barbarism, whence only civil life
Has grown, and we may guide the common-wealth
To better things. And thus
The truth displeased you, telling
Of that low station and harsh destiny
Nature has given us. So, like a coward,
You turned your back upon the light, which showed
This truth to you, and fleeing it, called base
Those who still followed it; and he
Alone was `great of soul’ who, knave or madman,
Could fool himself or others, and would raise
The state of mortal man above the stars.
A man of poor estate, and weak in body,
Being of a high nobility of soul,
Supposes not, nor claims
That he is rich or handsome,
Nor makes himself a laughing-stock for men
By show of splendid living,
Or valour in his person;
But without shame allows it to appear
In strength and wealth he is a beggar still,
Speaks openly of this, rates his condition
According to the truth.
Nor do I think that creature
Of a high mind, but foolish,
Who, born to perish, and reared up in pain,
Says “I was made for joy,”
And with his festering pride
Covers whole pages, promising on earth
High destinies and new felicity
Which Heaven knows nothing of, much less this earth,
To a people whom one wave
From a troubled sea, one breath
Of poisoned air, one tremor underground
Might utterly destroy
That scarce the memory remained of them.
But noble in soul is he
Who dares to lift his mortal eyes
Against the common doom,
And with free tongue, not docking any truth,
Admits the weak, low state,
The evil lot assigned to us by fate;
He who in suffering
Shows himself great and strong,
And will not add fraternal wrath and hatred –
The worst of all ills – to all
His other miseries
By blaming Man for his unhappiness,
But lays the fault on her who is indeed
The guilty one, the Power who is our mother
In that she brought us forth, step-mother in will.
He calls her enemy, and thus, believing –
As is indeed the truth –
The human race was from the first conjoined
And ranked against the foe,
He takes all men as his confederates,
Embraces all men with a general love
Which is sincere; he offers,
And looks for prompt and valiant aid from them
Amid the anguish and recurring dangers
Of this their common war. But against man
To take up arms, or seek to lay a snare
To cause his neighbour stumble,
Seems mad to him, as if one in a camp
Hemmed in by enemies, beneath the threat
Of their most keen assault,
Forgot the foe, and stirred up bitter strife
Among the allied ranks,
And scattered flight and tumult with his sword
Through his own warriors.
When thoughts like these again
Shall be, as once, generally known;
And when that horror – which at first
Bound men in fellowship,
Linked together against a cruel Nature –
Shall be in part restored
By knowledge of the truth; then honesty and honour
In civil intercourse,
Justice and piety, shall find a different root
To that of those proud follies, upon which rest
The morals of the mob,
As solid in their standing
As all things else with error for foundation.
By these deserted banks,
On which the hardened flood
Casts a dark cloak of waves that still seem surging,
Often I sit by night and mark on high
In heaven’s purest blue
The stars burning above this mournful plain,
And where the far-off sea
Becomes their mirror, and the whole world ablaze
With glittering sparks circling the empty sky.
And when I fix my eyes upon those lights,
Which seem to me mere points
Yet are so vast that all
The earth and sea compared to them are truly
Only a point; to which
Not only Man, but this whole
Globe, wherein Man is nothing,
Is utterly unknown; and when I see –
Beyond them infinitely more remote –
Those clustering knots of stars
Which look to us like clouds, and where
Not only Man and Earth, but all our stars,
So infinite in number and in mass,
The golden sun among the rest,
Are unknown (or seem even as they appear
To us on earth – a point
Of nebulous light); then, to my questing thought,
What is it you appear,
O son of man? Remembering
Your state down here, of which the soil I tread
Bears witness; and yet that you
Think lordship and a purpose
Assigned you by the Whole; and how often
You are often pleased to say, on this obscure
Grainlet of sand, which bears the name of Earth,
The authors of the universal cause
Came down, on your account, often conversing
At pleasure with your race; and how this age,
Which seems in knowledge and in civil arts
The most advanced, heaps insult on the wise,
Renewing once again
These long-derided dreams; what feeling then,
Unhappy children of mortality,
What thought of you at last my heart assails?
I cannot say if pity or scorn prevails.
As a small apple falling from the tree,
Which late in autumn-time
Its ripeness and no other force casts down,
Crushes the loved homes of a tribe of ants,
Tunnelled in the soft loam
With infinite toil, their works,
And all their wealth, which, jealously collecting,
That busy race had garnered with long care
And patient forethought through the summer season –
Burying and laying waste,
All in a moment; so rained from on high,
Out of that thundering womb
Hurled to the height of heaven,
A cloud of cinders, pumice-stone, and rocks,
Darkness and ruin, mingled
With boiling streams of lava;
Or down the mountain side,
Raging across the fields,
All in a molten mass
Of red-hot sand and metals mixed together,
A mighty flood swept down,
And overwhelmed, destroyed, and covered up
Those cities which the sea
Washed on the further shore,
In a few moments; where above them now
Browses the goat, new towns
Rise in their stead, whose seat is still upon
The sepulchers of those, while the steep mountain
Seems spurning with its foot their prostrate walls.
Nature has no more care
Or value for Man’s seed
Than for the ant’s; and if disaster falls
More rarely on the former
No other cause can be
Than when he breeds, Man’s less fertility.
Full eighteen hundred years
Have passed away, since vanished, overwhelmed
By force of fire, these peopled seats of men:
And the poor husbandman
Tending his vines, whom scarce the scorched, dead soil
Upon these plains affords a livelihood,
Lifts yet suspicious glances
Towards the fatal summit,
Which, now become no milder than before,
Still full of terror stands, still threatening
Disaster for himself, his sons, and their
Impoverished fields. And often
The wretch, upon the roof
Of his poor cottage, lying
Sleepless all night beneath the wandering air,
Time upon time starts up, to mark the flow
Of that dread simmering, which still pours out
From the unexhausted womb
Over the sandy ridge, and shines upon
The shores about Capri,
And Mergellina, and the Bay of Naples.
And if he sees it coming near, or deep
In his domestic well he hears the water
Gurgling and boiling, he awakes his children,
In haste awakes his wife, and snatching up
Whatever they can seize, they go, and fleeing,
See, far behind, their home,
Their little field, which was
The sole protection they possessed from famine,
Prey to the burning flood,
Which hissing, overtakes it, then unappeased,
Spreads ever-during over all they had.
Now light of day
(Which old oblivion had quenched for her)
Returns to Pompeii,
A skeleton, dragged from the grave by greed or piety;
From her deserted forum,
Upright among the ranks
Of broken colonnades, the traveller
May gaze long on the forked peak of the mountain
And on its smoking crest
Which threatens still the ruins scattered round.
And in the horror of the secret night,
Through the deserted theatres,
Through disfigured temples and shattered
Dwelling-houses where bats conceal their young,
Like an ill-omened torch
Darkly flickering through deserted halls
The glimmer of the deadly lava runs,
Which far-off through the shadows
Glows red, and tinges everything around.
Even so, knowing naught of Man, or of the ages
Which he calls ancient, or the long succession
Of various generations,
Nature stays ever fresh, or rather she
Travels so long a course,
That still she seems to stay. While empires fall,
While tongues and peoples pass; nothing she sees;
And Man presumes to boast eternity.
And you, O gentle broom,
Who with your fragrant thickets
Make beautiful this spoiled and wasted land,
You too must shortly fall beneath the cruel
Force of the subterranean fire, returning
To this, its wonted place,
Which soon shall stretch its greedy fringe above
Your tender shrubs. You then
Will bend your harmless head, not obstinate
Beneath the rod of fate;
Nor yet till then in vain and cowardly fashion
Bow down to the oppressor yet to come;
Nor upright in mad pride against the stars;
Amid the desert, where
You find your home and birthplace,
Allotted you by fortune, not your will;
But wiser still, and less
Infirm in this than Man, you do not think
Your feeble stock immortal,
Made so by destiny or by yourself.
(Giacomo Leopardi, Italian, 1798-1837, tr. J. Heath-Stubbs.)
[Since the last poem was written, humanity has given up on its presumption to eternal life. In its place it has enshrined the ambition to satisfy every appetite. To satisfy this ambition we force nature to be more and more productive. The world sickens under this exploitation. In hope of future prosperity, we put blind faith in science to come up with new tricks. Machines and technology will, we trust, take the place of care and respect for the earth. Nature’s relegation to the status of `environment’ indicates the depth of joyless self-preoccupation to which we have fallen.
Cutting down trees has provided people with room to make fields and put up houses, with fuel to keep warm and with wood for use. But when few trees are left, when the landscape is impoverished, when the wind holds sway over all, then an intelligent human realises it has gone too far.
Unfortunately, dollars – or even sheer pigheadedness – often hold precedence over intelligence.]
Letter from the Bird Community to the Mayor.
we the bird community called a meeting
one fine clear morning
on the roof of the deserted Parliament building.
All sent their intellectuals to represent them,
all but the crows, for they were too busy
mourning their loved ones, shot dead
and drifting down the River Klang.
Special guests came as observers,
a delegation of butterflies,
involved in the issue.
though we had no hand in electing you
since franchise is not for the feathered,
still we honoured you for your promise
of a Green City.
Alas, they have desecrated the Green of nature
to worship the Green of dollars.
Since Kuala Lumpur’s mud turned to concrete
we birds have been the silent sufferers;
the late Woodpecker was crushed under a felled tree,
Turtle-dove was given a fancy name
while he and his kind were cooped up in cages.
The Sparrow delegation are protesting
against the insult in your proverb
`deaf sparrows feed in the rain’;
Sparrow and Wood-dove both feel
it’s most improper of you to call
certain parts of your anatomy
by their names, when you well know
your `pecker’ and your `tit’ can’t fly
(you have deflated our egos
in the process of inflating yours).
this letter requests that in your wisdom
you will protect each branch, each root,
each leaf, each petal, each bower,
for these have been our homes through the centuries,
and it would also be for the good of man,
his health and happiness, his peace of mind,
to let nature and its myriad beauties bloom
in the brilliant sun.
(Usman Awang, Malay, b. 1929. Tr. Adibah Amin.)
[The welfare of people must obviously be the prime concern of people. But how can people thrive in a world depleted of beauty and diversity? Besides joyless living, an `intensive monoculture’ of human beings makes us vulnerable in other ways – for instance to disease.
The next poem mourns destruction in Russia during the years under Stalin. Many in the West fondly imagined that technological ineptitude was preserving communist countries from the kind of destruction we’ve seen in the West. However, this hope turned out to be grievously wrong; what communist rulers lacked in technology they more than made up for in carelessness.
The following poem was written before 1934. The poet was a religious mystic, and he was troubled by violence against the land while other poets were understandably more preoccupied with violence aagainst humans. He was shot by firing squad in October 1937. This poem was discovered among the notes of the secret police, appended as evidence of his crime.]
The news received was bitter:
the rippling waves of the Aral sea in dead ooze,
the storks rare in the Ukraine,
the feather grass drooping in Mozdok,
and in the bright Sarov desert
the wheels of machines squealing underground.
Black clouds brought us further news;
the blue Volga is getting shallow,
evil men in Kerzhents are burning
the green pine fortresses,
the Suzhdal wheat fields bring forth
lichen and stubble.
The cranes call to us
as they’re forced to fly in for remains.
The nesting finches’ feathers fall out
and they’re plagued by ravening aphids,
the furry bees have only
the big veteran mushrooms to buzz at.
The news was black:
that there was no home land left,
as if there were no cherries in October,
when the darkness outside
decides the heart is an axe
that will heat the shivering house,
but the logs don’t obey the axe
and howl at the moon.
It’s painful when the heart sinks,
but your grey-haired mother is a friend.
How terrifying, to crucify a poem!
The news burned into our souls,
there is no home land left,
the rippling waves of the Aral sea in dead ooze,
Gritsko is silent in the Ukraine,
and the North, that frozen swan,
has flowed out onto the shelterless waves,
notifying the ships
that there is no home land left.
(Nikolai Kluyev, Russian, 1887-1937. Tr. Richard McKane.)
[As the world is more and more affected by what we do, we can no longer know whether storms, droughts, floods, plagues and other natural disasters are acts of God or acts of man.]
The Sun Parrots are Late This Year
(for Chico Mendez, murdered Brazilian environmentalist)
The great forests of the world are burning down,
Far away in Amazon they burn,
Far beyond our eyes the trees are cut
And cleared and heaped and fired:
Ashes fill the rivers for miles and miles,
The rivers are stained with blood of mighty trees.
Great rivers are brothers of great forests
And immense clouds shadowing the rose-lit waters
Are cousins of this tribe of the earth-gods
Under the ancient watch of the stars:
All should be secure and beautiful forever,
Dwarfing man generation after generation,
Inspiring man, feeding him with dreams and strength.
But over there it is not so; man is giant
And the forest dwindles; it will soon be nothing,
Shrubs sprouting untidily in scorched black earth.
The sun will burn the earth, before now shadowed
For a hundred thousand years, dark and dripping,
Hiding jewelled insects and thick-veined plants,
Blue-black orchids and white hearts, red macaws,
The green lace of ferns, gold butterflies, opal snakes.
Everything shrivels and dust begins to blow:
It is as if acid was poured on the silken land.
It is far from here now, but it is coming nearer,
Those who love forests are also cut down.
This month, this year, we may not suffer:
The brutal way things are, it will come.
Already the cloud patterns are different each year,
The winds blow from new directions,
The rain comes earlier, beats down harder,
Or it is dry when the pastures thirst.
In this dark, over-arching Essequibo forest
I walk near the shining river in the green paths
Cool and green as melons laid in running streams.
I cannot imagine all the forests going down,
The great black hogs not snouting for the pulp of fruit,
All this beauty and power and shining life gone.
But in far, once emerald Amazon the forest dies
By fire, fiercer than bright axes.
The roar of the wind in trees is sweet,
Reassuring, the heavens stretch far and bright
Above the loneliness of mist-shrouded forest trails,
And there is such a feel of softness in the evening air.
Can it be that all of this will go, leaving the clean-boned land?
I wonder if my children, come this way,
Will see the great forest spread green and tall and far
As it spreads now far and green for me.
Is it my imagination that the days are furnace-hot,
The sun-parrots late or not come at all this year?
(Ian McDonald, b. Trinidad 1933.)
[Can we really live without loving the land, the sky, the trees? It seems so, but for how long? We have nature in our power now, just as a peasant has his donkey, but a wise peasant loves his donkey and looks after it. Dead donkeys do no more work. It’s an old story, that those with power must learn restraint in using it.
In the next poem, a busy Roman official looks with envy on an old man who, he imagines, has had a life of carefree toil.]
The Old Man of Verona
This man has lived his life in his own fields.
The house that saw him as a little lad
Sees him an old man: leaning on his staff,
On the same earth he crawled on, he will tell you
The centuries that one low roof has seen.
Fate has not dragged him through the brawling crowds,
Nor ever, as a restless traveller
Has he drunk at unknown springs; no greed of gain
Kept him a-quaking on the perilous seas.
No trumpet sounded for him the attack,
No lawsuit brought him to the raucous courts.
In politics unskilled, knowing naught of the neighbouring town,
His eye takes pleasure in a wider sky.
The years he’ll reckon by alternate crops
And not by Parliaments: spring has her flowers,
Autumn her apples: so the year goes by.
The same wide field that hides the setting sun
Sees him return again;
His light the measure of this plain man’s day.
That massive oak he remembers a sapling once,
Yon grove of trees grew old along with him.
Verona further seems than India,
Lake Garda is remote as the Red Sea.
Yet, strength indomitable and sinews firm,
The old man stands, a rock among his grandsons.
Let you go gadding, gape at furthest Spain:
You’ll have seen life; but this old man has lived.
(Claudian, Roman, c. 370-405, tr. Helen Waddell.)
[Nature’s laws do not favour humanity over other species. We make our own laws to do that, and we need new man-made laws to protect us from destroying nature.
In Chinese poetry, nature is a place of retreat from the disappointments of living with one’s fellow human beings. Han Shan took to the mountains as a recluse when his efforts to conform with family expectations failed. His poems were said to have been collected from scribbles on rocks and trees by an admiring local bureaucrat. Han Shan means cold mountain; he called himself after the place where he chose to live.]
Life on Cold Mountain
My house is at the foot of the green cliff,
My garden, a jumble of weeds I no longer bother to mow.
New vines dangle in twisted strands
Over old rocks rising steep and high.
Monkeys make off with the mountain fruits,
The white heron crams his bill with fish from the pond,
While I, with a book or two of the immortals,
Read under the trees – mumble, mumble.
(Han Shan, Chinese, 8th-9th C., tr. Burton Watson.)
[Li Po was so venerated during his life that the emperor would personally season his soup. But he too needed the company of nature, and he spent most of his life wandering. If poetry is wine, his poems are distilled spirit.]
Summer in the mountains
Too lazy to shift my white feather fan
I lie naked in the green woods.
Hanging my hat on a rock,
I bare my head to the breeze in the pines.
Moonlight floods the end of my bed.
I wonder, has frost fallen?
Sitting up, I look at the moon.
Lying back, I think of home.
Talk in the Mountains
You ask me, `Why dwell among green mountains?’
I laugh in silence; my soul is quiet.
Peach blossom follows the moving water;
Here is a heaven and earth, beyond the world of men.
(Li Po, Chinese, 701-762, versions I.M.)