W.H. Auden is a Greek poet, at least when it comes to nature. No, I don’t mean that he is all about olive trees and white sand beaches: I mean there is something fundamentally classical in his attitude toward the natural world, something that puts him at odds with the two dominant modes of nature poetry of our time—something that, indeed, casts light on the outlines of those norms.
The two most common attitudes toward non-human nature in contemporary poetry are the Romantic (or sentimental—if we can use that word without condescension) and the ecopoetic. The first of these dates back more than two centuries, and receives its most powerful theoretical articulation in Friedrich Schiller’s great essay of 1795, “On Simple and Sentimental Poetry.” Here, Schiller begins by describing the longing for the realm of nature among self-conscious and sophisticated people:
There are moments in our life, when we dedicate a kind of love and touching respect to nature in its plants, minerals, animals, landscapes . . . not because it is pleasing to our senses, not even because it satisfies our understanding or taste . . . but rather merely because it is nature. Every fine man, who does not altogether lack feeling, experiences this, when he walks in the open, when he lives upon the land . . . in short, when he is surprised in artificial relations and situations with the sight of simple nature.
The important thing here is how an encounter with the natural world catches us off-guard, and makes us feel the artificiality of our selves and our ways of going about things. We see how our will and our nature are out of sync, how our social relations and ambitions cause us to do things at odds with our inner nature. When we see the simplicity of a stone simply being a stone, or of water flowing downwards to the sea in accordance with its nature, it has a strong effect on us. We are drawn toward it. This urge to leave our own twisted, self-conscious way of being, to ditch our convolutions and artifices, is what Schiller calls sentimentality: an urge for the simplicity of nature. Such sentimentality, Schiller tells us, “is especially strongly and most universally expressed at the instigation of such objects, which stand in a close connection with us and bring nearer to us the retrospective view of ourselves and the unnatural in us.”
This attitude may well give the 21st-century reader pause, a reader for whom the notion of human artificiality opposed to natural simplicity may come across as false modesty. In the Romantic model, from Rousseau through Schiller and beyond, humans have fallen from a natural state into something worse. But hidden behind this humility there is still a human exceptionalism: nature is over there, and we, alone among all creatures, are over here, savoring our own sentimentality. We are special and separate, and there is an egoism to that, even when we think of our separateness as something to lament and overcome. Are not we inevitably part of nature, and is not everything we do in some sense natural? After all, is not Facebook, every bit as much as birdsong, an expression of creatures of the earth? Such objections notwithstanding, the Romantic tradition of sentimentality has been an enormously powerful force in poetry. From Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” with its yearning for a lost, childlike connection with the landscape, to Gary Snyder’s “Milton by Firelight,” with its sense that the Christian mythos has cut us off from an immediate connection with the environment, the sentimental tradition has launched a thousand—no, ten thousand—poems, and remains a motivating force for poetry today.
The ecopoetic movement, which began to rise to prominence after the 2001 founding of the journal ecopoetics, offers a slightly different take on nature, beginning with the premise that we need to be reminded of the otherness of non-human nature, reminded that for all of our inquiry and contemplation we can never know it completely. James Engelhardt’s influential essay “The Language Habit: An Ecopoetry Manifesto” (2007) makes the point:
Ecopoetry . . . pushes past the traditions of the pastoral or the georgic; as in science, nature is neutral and can only be approached with the understanding that non-human nature will forever remain non-human. It is profoundly Other and starkly confronts us with what it means to be human. As poets, we can approach and explore non-human nature, but the connection will always retreat.
This stance emphasizes the resistance of the non-human world to appropriation by the human mind. For those of you keeping philosophical score at home, the link between this kind of ecopoetry and object-oriented ontology—which rejects the Kantian notion that all we can really encounter in the mind are products of human cognition—is probably pretty clear. But that is neither here nor there for present purposes. What I’d like to point to, instead, is the way that the link between the human and non-human nature returns in ecopoetics, even as it insists upon the otherness of non-human nature. It does this through the insistence that human culture is the product of processes in non-human nature. Here is Engelhardt again:
The ecopoem must connect to the culture and society that it inhabits. You might ask, How can it not? But when thinking about an ecology, it’s easy to overlook aspects of the system, including the largest aspects. Culture is a product of evolution; it is a product of non-human nature.
Just as sentimental Romantic yearns to connect to non-human nature, Engelhardt’s ecopoet yearns to show the deep connection between human and non-human, to cross the gulf of perception that separates the two. The difference lies here: ecopoetry, having marked out the ultimate unknowability of non-human nature, gives a strong sense of our own unknowability. In other words, if we are formed by non-human nature, and non-human nature is ultimately Other, then we must remain always somehow strangers to ourselves.
When Auden gives us a landscape, he rushes past its otherness and uses it as a way of describing human psychological states.
Ecopoetics of this kind place a larger emphasis on the difference of non-human nature than does the sentimental tradition, but the essential matter, in both models, is the desire to cross a gulf between the conscious human mind and the non-human world of nature. Whether one sees a gap between one’s adult self and the child that was, in a less complicated way, attuned to nature, or whether one wants to show both the otherness of nature and also the way it forms and contains human culture, the basic stance is similar: the recognition of a felt division between us and nature, and the yearning to connect across that divide.
And then there is Auden, whose stance toward nature lies outside the spectrum of the sentimental and the ecopoetic. He is so unusual in this regard that even his most enthusiastic readers have been known to kidnap him and drop him, bound and blindfolded, into one of our more usual categories. This is exactly what the (generally admirable) novelist Alexander McCall Smith does in a passage from his recent appreciation of Auden’s poetry, What W.H. Auden Can Do For You (2013), where he discusses Auden’s frequent device of “personalizing the inanimate”:
The line “Perhaps the roses really want to grow,” taken from “If I Could Tell You,” is an example of this inclination to attribute human feelings to inanimate objects, nonhuman beings, or natural forces. “Come says the wind” is another, as is the inferring, in “Streams,” of playful moods in water. This personalization does more than serve the poet’s rhetorical purpose; it reminds us that Auden felt keenly our separation from nature and the need to become one with it again.
The conclusion—that Auden feels the gulf between us from nature and yearns to bridge it—comes straight out of the playbook of Romantic sentimentalism. But every piece of evidence Smith provides points toward a different conclusion: that Auden is not sentimental at all, but (in Schiller’s terms) Greek.
For Schiller, the ancient Greek poets were remarkable for their lack of sentimentality, for the absence of a yearning to cross over a perceived chasm between themselves and the natural world in all of its splendid otherness. When it comes to nature, Schiller says,
The Greek is indeed in the highest degree exact, faithful, detailed in description of the same, but yet no more and with no more excellent interest of the heart, than he is also in description of a suit, a shield, armor, house furniture, or any mechanical product. . . . Indeed, whilst he personifies and deifies it in its individual phenomena and represents its effects as actions of free being, he annuls the calm necessity in it, through which it is precisely so attractive to us. His impatient imagination leads him beyond it to the drama of human life.
In this view, the Greek mind gives no special privilege to non-human nature. Indeed, the Greek rushes past nature qua nature, and uses it as a way of discussing human motives and morals. The personification of natural forces—all those dryads and fauns and nymphs, all those anthropomorphic gods who stand for elemental forces—are evidence of the Greeks as “occupied with commencing human nature already in the inanimate world,” of erasing the gulf or otherness that keeps us from nature, and of making the non-human world a map of the human heart. It is a kind of projection, onto non-human nature, of a world of urges and morals specific to humanity.
Auden’s personifications of nature are, in this regard, much like those of the ancient Greeks. When the wind, in an Auden poem, says “come,” we are not getting a representation of nature as something different from ourselves: we are getting a glimpse of human temptation and desire. When the water in “Streams” comes across as playful, we are not being told about the quality of nature so much as about certain human moods and capacities—Auden’s personification of water is much closer to a Greek naiad than to the streams above Wordsworth’s ruined abbey. When Auden gives us a landscape, he is less interested in it as a place or an ecosystem or as a physical reality—like Schiller’s Greeks, he rushes past its otherness and uses it as a way of describing human psychological states. Consider the opening stanza of “Prologue,” the poem with which Auden introduces his book The Orators:
By landscape reminded once of his mother’s figureThe mountain heights he remembers get bigger and bigger:With the finest of mapping pens he fondly tracesAll the family names on the familiar places.
We move immediately from landscape to that most fundamental of psychological concerns, the child’s relationship with the mother. The seemingly growing mountains don’t indicate any natural sublimity, but rather mark the speaker’s regression to the smallness of childhood, and serve as a segue to an image of him marking a map of the mountains with family names—a sign of the inescapability of the Freudian family drama.
Later stanzas give us landscapes, but these environments really serve as means of reflecting on a certain kind of masculine maturation, as the speaker becomes attractive to young women, and is encouraged to be brave and combative:
Among green pastures straying he walks by still waters;Surely a swan he seems to earth’s unwise daughters,Bending a beautiful head, worshipping not lying,“Dear” the dear beak in the dear concha crying.Under the trees the summer bands were playing;“Dear boy, be brave as these roots,” he heard them saying:Carries the good news gladly to a world in danger,Is ready to argue, he smiles, with any stranger.
In the final stanza, the speaker is accused of failing in masculine courage and, more alarmingly, is accused by the mother, in the form of the giant hills in which he had perceived her curving figure, of betrayal:
And yet this prophet, homing the day is ended,Receives odd welcome from the country he so defended:The band roars “Coward, Coward,” in his human fever.The giantess shuffles nearer, cries “Deceiver.”
His betrayal of his mother comes through the acts of maturation—sexual involvement with others, the courageous staking out of a place in the world—that we saw in the middle stanzas. These hills are not nature as unreachable other. Nor do they fall into another long-established mode of feminine landscape, the eroticized territory of, say, a virgin continent, awaiting the conquering desire of one or another literary version of manifest destiny, such as one might find in Whitman (“piercing deep the mines within / We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving, / Pioneers! O pioneers!”). Here, instead, we have nature as an encompassing mother who is not to be merged with, but escaped.
The critic G.S. Fraser once remarked that Auden, unlike many of his contemporaries, was always interested in the moral rather than the sensuous element in his images, writing, “Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm” where most poets would have written something more like, “Lay your golden head, my love / Heavy on my cradling arm.” There is truth in this—Auden’s is a world of psychology and morality rather than of creaturely sentimentality. And, despite his love of a particular kind of landscape, full of disused mines and scarred limestone cliffs, he is never a particularly visual poet, preferring to allegorize, personify, and psychologize where a more usual sort of modern poet would concentrate on physical detail and specificity. Even “In Praise of Limestone,” a poem whose title seems to promise an evocation of a specific natural landscape and its otherness, quickly turns back to the human: “examine this region / Of short distances and definite places,” he writes, “What could be more like Mother?” You see the pattern: Auden turns to nature to find something specific to the human psychological drama.
What to make of a poet like Auden, with his refusal to look at nature with a yearning eye? Contra Alexander McCall Smith’s assertion, Auden does not feel keenly and sentimentally “our separation from nature and the need to become one with it again.” Nor does he follow James Engelhardt’s injunction that the poem “must connect to the culture and society that it inhabits” by showing that “culture is a product of evolution; it is a product of non-human nature,” that the human is rooted in the mysterious and elusive world of nature. The Greek poets lack an anxious yearning to connect the human and the non-human in this way, according to Schiller. Such poets, he says, can still appear in our time, but they appear “as strangers, at whom one wonders.” “By the critics, the true constables of taste,” Schiller continues, such poets “are hated as border-disturbers, whom one would rather oppress.” To be certain, Auden disturbs the borders of the spectrum on which we range our nature poetry. If we choose to, we can value him, rather than despise him, precisely for that disruption, for his scandalizing of more modern sensibilities. He can be the stranger at whom we wonder.