The Green World: Nature in English Poetry

The Green World: Nature in English Poetry

Laurence Coupe

E-Magazine 57 (September 2012), pp 27-31

Laurence Coupe looks at the ways in which poets have understood the human need to relate to the non-human environment.



In Book I of his poem Endymion, John Keats offers us a vision of nature as a healing whole. We can, he says, cure our ‘dark spirits’ by contemplating ‘Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon / For simple sheep’, and ‘daffodils / With the green world they live in’. I’ve always been struck by the simplicity and beauty of that phrase, ‘the green world’. I even used it for the title of a university course I launched on literature and the environment. Here I want to trace how nature, ‘the green world’, has been represented by English poets down the centuries.

A natural bond

If we go back to the father of English poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400 approx), we will find that in the ‘General Prologue’ to his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, the affinity between nature and humanity is clearly celebrated. Here is his description of the arrival of Spring, in the line-by-line translation available on Harvard University’s Chaucer Website:

1         Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
When April with its sweet-smelling showers
2         The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
Has pierced the drought of March to the root,
3         And bathed every veyne in swich licour
And bathed every vein (of the plants) in such liquid
4         Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
By which power the flower is created;
5         Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
When the West Wind also with its sweet breath,
6         Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
In every wood and field has breathed life into
7         The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
The tender new leaves, and the young sun
8         Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,
Has run half its course in Aries,
9         And smale foweles maken melodye,
And small fowls make melody,
10         That slepen al the nyght with open ye
Those that sleep all the night with open eyes
11         (So priketh hem Nature in hir corages),
(So Nature incites them in their hearts) …
12         Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages …
Then folk long to go on pilgrimages …

The plants and birds are part of an order that includes human beings. Just as nature stirs into life, so do people feel the need to journey to sacred places  in order to honour God and his saints. Each pilgrimage is at once a natural activity and a religious ritual; there is a bond between God, his creation and humanity.

Having begun with Chaucer, we cannot discuss the place of nature in the tradition of poetry without initially moving from Chaucer to Shakespeare (1564-1616). If we look at his poetic drama, whether it be comedy (for example, As You Like It) or romance (for example, The Tempest), we find that there is always an important role ascribed to nature, which is associated with magical transformation. The critic Northrop Frye, in his A Natural Perspective (Columbia University Press, 1965), actually uses Keats’s phrase, ‘the green world’, to indicate that realm where Shakespeare’s characters lose their former selves and are reborn. Whether it be the forest in As You Like It or the island in The Tempest, nature is celebrated as a process of renewal that is also a pattern of redemption.

On this evidence, we may say that Shakespeare has obviously inherited Chaucer’s worldview, so confident is he in his depiction of the benign power of nature. Both in turn have inherited the vision of paradise, as depicted in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. The garden of Eden, in which our first parents, Adam and Eve, were placed in order to be eternally happy, lies behind all western representations of nature in its idyllic aspect. Thus Shakespeare’s comedies and romances are, in a sense, about regaining paradise – temporarily, at least.

True, the main part of the comic action involves a confusion of identity, in which the young lovers don’t know who they are or whom they really love, and we have a sense that the normal rules of society have been suspended; but it is only by having the courage to enter into this topsy-turvy world that the protagonists can glimpse their lost Eden. What we are witnessing is the power of transformation that Perdita, the heroine of The Winter’s Tale, attributes to ‘great creating nature’. It is this power which – as Polixenes, the royal father of the young man who loves her, reminds her – is the source of all art, no doubt including the play in which they appear. As he says, the very art that we think ‘adds to nature’ is ‘an art  /  That nature makes’ (IV.iii).

Through the wilderness

Amid all this talk of paradise and redemptive transformation, we should not forget that Eden makes no sense to us unless we have something to contrast it with. In the Bible, we learn about a wilderness, through which Moses and the Israelites wander in search of their ‘promised land’. It represents the condition of humanity after the fall from the garden, caused by Adam and Eve’s defiance of God’s order. This condition is depicted in Shakespeare’s tragedies.

The paradise which we have lost, on the one hand, and the wilderness of this world, through which fallen humanity is condemned to wander, on the other: these may seem stark opposites. But they are both aspects of nature. If Shakespeare in his comedies shows the former condition being rediscovered and a new way of living revealed, then in his tragedies he shows the latter condition leading to a realisation of error and a final repentance in the face of death.

So it is that in King Lear the aged monarch who divides his kingdom between two of his daughters, Goneril and Regan, only to be rejected by them, can only come to an understanding of the human condition once he has gone out onto the wild heath and endured a terrible storm. Crying out to the lightning and thunder, he calls on them to ‘Crack Nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once / That makes ingrateful man’ (III.ii). In other words, he comes to the point of wishing that nature had not produced humanity, that it would be better off without people such as Goneril and Regan. But it is the severe discipline of nature – the torment and madness which he has endure on the heath – that brings him to the point of awakening. Reflecting on the sufferings of the ‘Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are / That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm’, he renounces his privileged position and identifies himself totally with all those who are dispossessed (III.ii). In tragedy, the wilderness has redemptive power, just as strong as that of the rural idyll of comedy.

The true opposite of ‘the green world’ is not the seemingly hostile heath but the corrupt court or city. This opposition derives from what we call the ‘pastoral’ convention, pastoral being a kind of poetry that idealises the countryside; it goes way back, as far as the ancient Greeks. In King Lear, that corruption is embodied by Edmund, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, one of Lear’s courtiers. It is Edmund who voices an alternative view of nature: not as a restorative ‘green world’ but as a place of violence and lawlessness. His evil derives not only from a literary convention, though. When he declares ‘Thou, nature, art my goddess,’ meaning that he subscribes to a non-Christian world of aggressive competition, he speaks as the ‘new man’ of Shakespeare’s day. This kind of adventurer has no respect for the medieval ‘chain of being’, as it has sometimes been called. For him nature is all about getting one’s own way, regardless of the consequences for others. It is hard to forget, once heard, the defiant declaration which concludes this speech: ‘I grow; I prosper: / Now, gods, stand up for bastards!’ It is left to Lear’s third and youngest daughter, Cordelia, to defend the idea of nature as an ideal order; and she pays for doing so with her life.

Thus Chaucer and Shakespeare both assume that between nature and humanity there lies a ‘bond’ – this being the word that Cordelia herself uses. The difference between the two poets lies in the fact that Shakespeare is writing at a time when that link is being severed: a process he condemns, but which he feels obliged to depict.

Having said that, it would be naïve unquestioningly to associate the medieval model with perfection. After all, it appealed to an eternal ideal of natural order as a sanction for a specific, historical organisation of society, namely the feudal system (kings, lords, knights, serfs). But that in itself does not discredit the notion of nature as a norm. Moreover, capitalism, as represented by Edmund in King Lear, had no more right to invoke nature to justify naked self-interest, than had feudalism to justify a rigid social hierarchy.

Poet as nature’s priest

Long after the medieval model of the ‘chain of being’ had been set aside, William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was inspired by the French Revolution, seeing it initially as an expression of natural justice, by which the oppressors were overthrown and the will of the people established. But as revolt turned to totalitarian terror, with thousands of innocent people being executed, he looked to nature not as political inspiration but as spiritual presence – one that would heal the wounds of the revolution. He yearned to become one with it, and to feel at peace. In his poem ‘Tintern Abbey’, in which he describes his journey to a much-loved landscape after a lapse of five years, he realises that, where previously he has responded to the energy and vigour of nature, now what he needs is its healing calm:

… a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

The poet speaks as the recipient of a sacred revelation: the idea of nature as an all-inclusive harmony, a living principle that has the same authority and grandeur as previously attributed to God. The duty of human beings is to regain their connection with outer nature, and to understand that our inner nature is inseparable from it.

It is this Romantic view of nature that has proved so influential on the modern world, as people realise how far we have lost our connection with what we significantly call our ‘roots’.  The Romantic poets, indeed, are now widely regarded as anticipating the discipline  of ecology, which concerns the relation between individual and environment. For poets like Wordsworth were reacting not only against political atrocities but also the horrendous damage that was being done to the land by what we call the industrial revolution. No wonder it seemed the duty of poets to defend nature, and to proclaim its supreme importance.  In doing so, they came close to substituting for the traditional Christian idea of nature as a manifestation of God the ‘pantheistic’ idea of nature and God as equivalent.

Which brings us back to Keats (1795-1821). A later Romantic, and a very different poet from Wordsworth, he yet inherited the older poet’s reverence for the natural world. He inherited, too, the idea of the poet as nature’s priest. Perhaps, though, he takes the idea further when he begins the unpromisingly entitled sonnet, ‘On the Grasshopper and the Cricket’, by affirming: ‘The poetry of the earth is never dead…’ By implication, it is the poet who shows us how to open ourselves up to the poem which is nature. He shows us how to identify with all natural objects, in a spirit of what Keats elsewhere calls ‘negative capability’: that is, a willingness to open oneself up to experience, without any ‘irritable reaching after fact and reason’. These words come from Keats’s letters, in which we also read this: ‘The setting sun will always set me to rights, or if a sparrow come before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.’ Instead of imposing himself and his ideas on creation, Keats wanted to let creation in – to the extent of letting his conventional self  be overwhelmed.

Defending the green world

For Keats, it was in this capacity for empathy with nature that he saw himself differing from his predecessor. He strongly rejected – once again, in his letters – what he called ‘the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime’. By this he meant that, where the older poet seemed to be enthusing about mountains and rivers, he was actually projecting his own idea of himself onto the landscape. I happen to think that this is an unfair charge, but if we turn from Wordsworth to a contemporary of Keats, John Clare (1793-1864), we do get a far greater sense of familiarity with the workings of nature than we get from reading the older poet. This no doubt has to do with the fact that Clare was an agricultural labourer, who had spent most of his spare time as a boy getting to know the ways of birds, badgers and other creatures which he regarded as fellow-members of the same rural community. No other English poet has depicted the lives of non-human creatures as sensitively as does Clare.

When the subsistence farming he knew was destroyed by the introduction of the ‘enclosure’ system – by which rich landowners appropriated the common land, ripping down hedges and blocking off meadows, woods and paths, in order to gain huge profits from the commercial exploitation of the land – his whole world changed. He felt as though his childhood Eden had been destroyed; the enclosure system was his equivalent of the original fall from the earthly paradise. In ‘The Mores’, written in Clare’s apparently clumsy but actually precise vernacular, he rails against those who have brought about this disaster, which he sees as an offence against nature itself as well as against all those who live close to the earth, whether human or non-human:

… Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine
On paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung
As tho the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go
This with the poor scared freedom bade good bye
And much they feel it in the smothered sigh
And birds and trees and flowers without a name
All sighed when lawless laws enclosure came…

Clare represents those who do not have a voice: not only dispossessed labourers with no means of subsistence but also birds whose familiar habitat is destroyed – not forgetting the trees and flowers. Never before has the green world been shown to matter in such vivid detail, nor its loss mourned so movingly.

Survival of the fittest?

The Romantic yearning to find peace by becoming one with a nature which it regarded as divine might be said to have been radically challenged in the middle of the nineteenth century with the publication of a scientific work by Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (1859). Or rather, it was the impact that the book had, and the way in which it was interpreted, that was decisive.

Darwin’s own thesis was that all creatures, including human beings, evolve by adaptation to their environments. He stressed that this involved cooperation just as much as it involved competition. But it was only the latter notion that entered the popular mind, subsequently enforced by one of Darwin’s followers, Herbert Spencer, coining the phrase, ‘survival of the fittest’. If Shakespeare’s Edmund had stood for the individual human being’s right to assert his rights regardless of any divinely ordained harmony others might believe in, now violent competition seemed to be the rule for all of creation.

Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-92) anticipated this pessimistic viewpoint in a long poem dedicated to his deceased friend, Arthur Hallam, published in 1850. Voicing his despondency in In Memoriam, Tennyson refers to ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw.’ That phrase is even now used by people who may never have read that poem, as a convenient way of summing up what they understand Darwinian theory to imply.

The idea of human beings struggling for survival in a hostile world was one main assumption that took hold in the England of the later nineteenth century: in particular it was used to explain, and sometimes excuse, inequality within human society itself. More importantly, and more accurately, some writers understood that the key factor was the displacement of humanity from its previously central place in a God-given (or, in the case of the Romantics, Godlike) order. One of these was Thomas Hardy (1840-1928).

Writing his greatest poetry after he decided to discontinue the novels for which he is mainly famous, Hardy frequently ponders what it means to be human when one realises that humanity might not, after all, be as important as we once thought. Here is the opening verse of a short untitled poem:

Let me enjoy the earth no less
Because the all-enacting Might
That fashioned forth its loveliness
Had other aims than my delight.

This ‘Might’, being indifferent to our claims for attention, is offering no promise of exclusive redemption to us. Indeed, it is more likely to care about the non-human population, which may well outlive us. So if paradise exists, the poet ‘will lift glad, afar-off eyes / Though it contain no place for me.’ Neither the garden of Eden nor the promised land were intended for us.

The modern waste land …and beyond

With Hardy, we approach our own world. His career overlaps with that of T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), an American who settled in England prior to publishing the most famous modern poem of all, The Waste Land, in 1922. Its main subject is the cultural decline of the West, particularly its loss of religious faith; but it addresses the theme of nature as well. Its opening lines take us back to Chaucer, but now with an ironic twist:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Instead of nature and humanity rejoicing together at the coming of spring, the renewal of the natural cycle is a cause for fear and despair. Life has become meaningless and oppressive: made all the more painful by the reminder of the burst of new life in nature, which is unattainable for mankind.

In the poem, nature offers no solace; we can only see it as a confirmation of what we already know all too well. The wilderness has entered the soul of humanity, only now it is a waste land without spiritual potential:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

Though the title phrase of Eliot’s poem is usually taken as a metaphor for an arid civilisation, the insistent depictions of desert and drought may also be taken as literal references to the way human beings have laid waste the Earth in the modern era. The distance from Chaucer could not be more obvious.

Various poets who came after Eliot tried to restore the broken bond with nature, seeking at the same time to raise environmental awareness. Ted Hughes (1930-98) is perhaps the most challenging: he rejects the Christian universe, with its idea of a creator God who transcends his own creation; he returns to pre-Christian nature religion, but not in a self-conscious or sentimental manner. He does not idealise nature: his ‘Hawk Roosting’ proudly admits that ‘I kill where I please because it is all mine,’ and ‘My manners are tearing off heads.’ He celebrates  the energy and, indeed, the violence of other species, refusing to see  our species  as somehow separate and superior.  Unlike Tennyson, he embraces Darwin’s insight that humanity and the animal kingdom are not radically distinct. His recurrent theme is the need to abandon anthropocentrism, the idea that humanity is at the axis of all creation, and to admit our own animal nature in all its complexity.

For Hughes, the better way is to leave off trying to manage and manipulate the non-human environment, and to find spiritual truth in learning to dwell on the earth with respect for the life that teems around us. ‘That Morning’, in which Hughes describes fishing with a companion in Alaska and seeing two bears come down to catch salmon nearby, concludes:

So we found the end of our journey.
So we stood, alive in the river of light
Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.

In this spirit, our species might yet survive, and ensure the survival of others.

If this question of how nature is represented in literature and culture interests you, then you might want to find out more about a recent movement in critical theory, known generally as ‘green studies’ and more narrowly as ‘ecocriticism’. Whatever we call it, its focus is on how the representation of nature affects the way we treat it, and what our responsibilities are, as both citizens and literary scholars, towards ‘the green world’.

Laurence Coupe


Note: ‘The Green World’ was not published as an academic article, so I have not provided references for the poetry quoted throughout.

Please note also that I have restored a sentence to the paragraph beginning ‘Various poets…’ in the final section of the article, in order to clarify Hughes’s position.


Further reading:

Laurence Coupe (ed.), The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism (London & New York: Routledge, 2000)

Laurence Coupe, Myth, 2nd edition (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009). [See especially Chapter 7, ‘Earth’.]

Laurence Coupe, ‘Green Theory’, in The Routledge Companion to Critical and Cultural Theory (2nd ed), edited by Simon Malpas and Paul Wake (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), pp 154-66. This article is available on ‘Green Studies’ — the same page as ‘The Green World’.