Featured Anthology: Earth Shattering – D. H. Lawrence

The third poem to feature from Earth Shattering is Snake by D. H. Lawrence. From the fifth section of our featured anthology, ‘Loss and Persistence’, this poem forms part of a collection that possess binary themes, some in celebration of the rapidly vanishing natural world and others in lamentation of what has been lost. There are also poems that recognise the glimmer of hope in perserverance of nature and in the effort of humans to recycle, to conserve and to implement environmental consideration.

Snake appeared in Lawrence’s 1923 collection Birds, Beasts and Flowers, which included some of his preeminent reflections on the “flux of life and the ‘otherness’ of the non-human world” and as this poem identifies, the downfalls of an ‘accursed human education’. These poems are an affirmation of the grandeur and the mystery of nature, of which the snake in this poem typifies: the snake is an ordinary (albeit probably poisonous) reptile, ‘yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied’, but at the same time it possess a mythical, godlike quality, one of the ‘lords’ of the ‘underworld’ embodying all the dark inexplicable forces of nature that are feared and neglected by humans.

Snake

A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.

In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark
carob tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was
at the trough before me.

He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in
the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied
down, over the edge of the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a
small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack
long body,
Silently.

Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second comer, waiting.

He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and
mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning
bowels of the earth
On the day of the Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.

The voice of my eduation said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the
gold are venemous.

And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish
him off.

But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to
drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?

Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.

And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!

And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid,
But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From our the dark door of the secret earth.

He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air,
so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, intothe air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw down his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.

And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders,
and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing
into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly
drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.

I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.

I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind
convulsed in undignified haste,
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the
wall-front.
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human
education.

And I thought of the albatross,
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in excile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I misssed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate;
A pettiness.

D. H. Lawrence, 1923

(featured in Earth Shattering (2007, Bloodaxe Books), edited by Neil Astley.)

Featured Anthology: Earth Shattering – W. S. Merwin

Sections three and four of Earth Shattering, ‘Killing the Wildlife’ and ‘Unbalance of Nature’, bring together poems within those specific themes, including issues of extinction of species and human interference with the processes of nature. There are also poems that show the effects of pollution, tree-felling and urbanisation, showing our alienation from nature in cities.

With a profound sensitivity for nature and words, W. S. Merwin has produced some of the most influential American poetry of the last fifty years. He is an environmentalist, pacifist and intensely anti-imperialist, which, combined with his intimate feeling for landscape and language has enabled him to create poetry where the natural subject interflows with the words and style of the poem. In an interview with Daniel Bourne, W. S. Merwin says:

The natural world is inseperable from us, and our attitude toward it, our use of it, is political action. If you pick up any part of it you pick up the whole thing. Sometimes I feel more immediately concerned with what’s happening to the elements, the sea, the animals, the language, than I do with any particular society. I don’t make a distinction in terms of importance. The poisoning of the soil, the imminence of nuclear disaster, are the same thing. You shut your eyes and you open them and you’re staring at the same thing though the form of it may look different.

The Shore

How can anyone know that a whale
two hundred years ago could hear another
whale at the opposite end of the earth
or tell how long the eyes
of a whale have faced both halves of the world
and have found light far down in old company

with the sounds of hollow iron charging
clanging through the oceans and with the circuitries
and the harpoons of the humans
and the poisoning of the seas
a whale can hear no farther through the present
than a jet can fly in a few minutes

in days of their hearing the great Blues gathered like clouds
the sunlight under the sea’s surfaces sank
into their backs as into the water around them
through which they flew invisible from above
except as flashes of movement
and they could hear each other’s voices wherever they went

once it is on its own a Blue can wander
the whole world beholding both sides of the water
raising in each ocean the songs of the Blues
that it learned from distances it can no longer hear
it can fly all its life without ever meeting another Blue
this is what we are doing this is the way we sing oh Blue Blue

W. S. Merwin

(This poem is reproduced with permission from Earth Shattering (2007, Bloodaxe Books), edited by Neil Astley.)

Featured Anthology: Earth Shattering – Wordsworth

Earth Shattering begins with sections entitled ‘Rooted in Nature’ and ‘Changing the Landscape’, which present us with the wilderness poetry of ancient China and a collection of work by the Romantics. These poems express the writers’ intense sense of connection with nature: the poetry of ancient China, which communicates the experience of “living as an organic part of the natural world and its processes”; the Romantic poets, who recognised the wildness and beauty of nature in times of rapid industrial change, are perhaps most analogolous to our position on the planet now. Urbanisation and industrialisation have eroded people’s previously strong connectivity with nature and the cyclical pattern of the seasons.

Realising that the natural world around us is in peril, it is time once more that we paid attention to the decline of our natural surroundings. The problem is, of course, for most of us (and this is both a feeble excuse and indicative of modern living) that it takes a fair amount of time to get to vast expanses of rural landscape but if we look close enough around us, there are beautiful elements of nature that man has not yet been able to destroy. Henry Thoreau explains:

The phenomena of the year take place every day in a pond on a small scale. Every morning, generally speaking, the shallow water is being warmed more rapidly than the deep, though it may not be made so warm after all, and every evening it is being cooled more rapidly until the morning. The day is an epitome of the year. (from Walden)

Nature, in all its multiple forms, was of paramount importance to Wordsworth but he would rarely use simple descriptions in his poetry. Instead, his poems are concerned with his position within the natural world, his response and reaction to it, using poetry both “to look at the relationship between nature and human life and to explore the belief that nature can have an impact on our emotional and spiritual lives.

from Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: – feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligble world,
Is lightened: – that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affectations gently lead us on, –
Until the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
If this
Be but vain belief, yet, oh! how oft –
In darkness amid the many shapes
Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart –
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!
And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The pictureof the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.

William Wordsworth

July 13, 1798

(featured in Earth Shattering (2007, Bloodaxe Books), edited by Neil Astley.)

Featured Anthology: Earth Shattering

We have reached 2008 and the ecological and environmental issues pressing upon us are more prevalent than ever. Don’t worry, this is not going to be another lecture about recycling and using your car less (although I do suggest that both of these things are good to do), it is simply a fact: man (and woman) are in conflict with nature. This is nothing new, of course. Throughout the history of mankind we have lived in both harmony with nature and also shown it a serious disrespect.

Towards the end of last year, Bloodaxe published an anthology of poems called Earth Shattering, a collection of work tackling not only the evident contemporary issues such as global warming, extinction of species and the felling of rainforests but also a retrospective look at ecological poems: from the wilderness poetry of ancient China to postcolonial and feminist perspectives, all addressing environmental destruction and ecological balance. The collection features a wide-variety of poets, from Blake, Wordsworth, Keats and Hardy to Plath, Levertov, Constantine and Zephaniah. It is a diverse collection, exposing the ways in which the very structure of our living earth is being torn apart and the detrimental position of a modern world that is increasingly cutting itself off from nature.

Each day next week we will bring you one poem from the collection, showing that although poems may be small and seemingly inconsequential, their power and force will have an effect on every reader. If your resolve is stirred, you’re adding your voice to a collective call for change – and that’s a good way to start the year.

If you want to receive email notifications when the poems appear (and whenever we feature a poem in future) sign up here. Your email address will not be used for any other purpose.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Featured Poem: Frost at Midnight

Coleridge’s poem ‘Frost at Midnight’ was written 210 years ago in early 1798. It is a poem that embodies the Romantic sensibility: the cold, calm night, the sleeping child, and thoughts of future possibilities. For Coleridge the city and the country were contrasting places. They are more so now; the idea of a city in which the stars are visible is impossible in our time. Still the contrast between the poet’s solitude and calmness and the busy, repeated ‘Sea, hill, and wood,’ tells us that it is not only urban settings that distract us from thinking about our place in the world. I think in the end it is the sleeping child that intrigues me most about this poem, being a symbol of the future, a responsibility to attend and the key to Coleridge’s meditation. There is a close relationship I think between this poem and Wordsworth’s ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ except that here the ‘mighty heart … sleeping still’ takes the form of a child:

Frost at Midnight, by S.T. Coleridge

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud–and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
‘Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not ;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.
But O ! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man’s only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor’s face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger’s face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.
Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

(1798)

Posted by Chris Routledge, Powered by Qumana

Featured Poem: The Franklin’s Tale

On the last day of December our featured poem is a wintry extract from the Franklin’s Tale, from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Bitter frosts are forecast for next week and this New Year’s Eve is warm and overcast, but nevertheless it is a night to ‘drynketh of his bugle horn the wyn’:

Phebus wax old, and hewed lyk laton,
That in his hoote declynacion
Shoon as the burned gold with stremes brighte;
But now in Capricorn adoun he lighte,
Where as he shoon ful pale, I dar wel seyn.
The bittre frostes, with the sleet and reyn,
Destroyed hath the grene in every yerd.
Janus sit by the fyr, with double berd,
And drynketh of his bugle horn the wyn;
Biforn hym stant brawen of the tusked swyn,
And "Nowel" crieth every lusty man.

Read the whole Canterbury Tales, in the original and modern English ‘translation’ at canterburytales.org, presented by the Electronic Literature Foundation.

Posted by Chris Routledge, Powered by Qumana

Recommended Poem: In The Bleak Midwinter

By Siobhan Chapman

I walked down Bold Street in Liverpool late in the afternoon one day last week, passing the gaudy decorations and hearing the ubiquitous refrain of Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’. As I approached Central Station a lone trumpeter, busking on the other side of the street, struck up the opening bars of the tune to which Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the Bleak Mid Winter’ is set as a carol. For that moment, the clear notes of the trumpet cut through the tinselly hubbub, just as Rossetti’s words cut through the hype of Christmas. Whether or not you share Rossetti’s religion conviction, you can’t fault her plea for simplicity and sincerity in the face of ostentatious excess.

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

(1872)

Featured Poem: On Wenlock Edge

A.E. Houseman’s poem ‘On Wenlock Edge …’ (1896) is one of my favourite poems, not least for its description of submission to the weather and the ‘anger’ of the wind. That sensation is one of the most exhilarating. In this poem Houseman makes a point of connecting his own moment with a continuity of human life around the Wrekin, but he avoids soft-hearted sentimentalism, choosing instead to focus on transitoriness. The ‘wind through woods in riot’ is no less than life itself. After a weekend in which Britain has been battered by wind, rain and, in my case, pantomime, here is a poem that celebrates our need to be rooted in place, yet takes a clear-eyed view of what good it will do us. It also contains one of the best first lines in all of English poetry.

‘On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble’

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.

___

Posted by Chris Routledge, Powered by Qumana

Featured Poem: William Blake, ‘I saw a chapel all of gold’

By Jonathan Roberts 

This poem is quintessential Blake.  It comes from one of his notebooks known as ‘The Rossetti Manuscript’ which was bought, twenty years after Blake’s death, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti from Samuel Palmer’s brother. The intellectual independence of the work in the notebook was an inspiration to the nascent Pre-Raphaelite movement.

‘I saw a chapel all of gold’ was probably written around the time of Songs of Experience (1794), and like ‘The Sick Rose’ explores the human impact of social and religious systems that simultaneously idealize and denigrate sexuality.  The narrative is brief: mourning worshippers stand outside a golden chapel.  Without announcement, a serpent bursts down the chapel doors, slides up the aisle, and vomits onto the altar, onto the sacramental bread and wine.  The narrator, appalled by this scene, turns away from it, preferring to lie down among the pigs in a sty – the abject state reached by the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).

What is Blake up to?  The genital symbolism of the poem is clear: the serpent is phallic, the chapel pristine and virginal.  The event is a figuration of a transgressive sexual encounter.  The ejaculation of the final stanza could harldy be more offensive given the context.  When female sexuality is idealized, the poem suggests, repression and denigration will follow.

To secular eyes, Blake’s concern with the religious idealization of female sexuality may seem a thing from another age.  Not so – the issues remain though the framework has changed: in terms of (principally female) sexuality, religious idealizations have simply been replaced with the idealizations of commodity culture.  Christianity, Blake argues, should mean human liberation, not dehumanizing repression. Idealization – his work asserts – is a dangerous abstraction that ultimately leads to the denigration of all those involved: subjects, agents, and spectators.

‘I saw a chapel all of gold’

I saw a chapel all of gold
That none did dare to enter in
And many weeping stood without
Weeping mourning worshipping

I saw a serpent rise between
The white pillars of the door
And he forcd & forcd & forcd
Down the golden hinges tore

And along the pavement sweet
Set with pearls & rubies bright
All his slimy length he drew
Till upon the altar white

Vomiting his poison out
On the bread & on the wine
So I turnd into a sty
And laid me down among the swine

__

Jonathan Roberts is Lecturer in Romantic Literature in the School of English, University of Liverpool. His book William Blake’s Poetry was published by Continuum in 2007.

Featured Poem: Sonnet to William Wilberforce, Esq.

On November 26, 1731 the English poet and hymnodist William Cowper was born. Cowper trained as a lawyer but became increasingly troubled. He suffered from several bouts of depression, attempted suicide more than once, and was declared insane for a short period in the 1760s. He is now best known for his hymns, which include some of the best-known lines in the English hymnal, including this from the Olney Hymns:

GOD moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Cowper was a fine poet and though he was often didactic to the point of sermonising, like many evangelicals of the time he was unafraid of confronting authority and siding with just causes. This sonnet to William Wilberforce demonstrates his non-conformist sympathies:

Sonnet to William Wilberforce, Esq.

Thy country, Wilberforce, with just disdain,
Hears thee, by cruel men and impious, call’d
Fanatic, for thy zeal to loose th’ enthrall’d
From exile, public sale, and slav’ry’s chain.
Friend of the poor, the wrong’d, the fetter-gall’d,
Fear not lest labour such as thine be vain!
Thou hast achiev’d a part; hast gain’d the ear
Of Britain’s senate to thy glorious cause;
Hope smiles, joy springs, and tho’ cold caution pause
And weave delay, the better hour is near,
That shall remunerate thy toils severe
By peace for Afric, fenc’d with British laws.
Enjoy what thou hast won, esteem and love
From all the just on earth, and all the blest above!

Posted by Chris Routledge, Powered by Qumana