A little article I wrote on W.H. Auden and ecopoetics for the good people at Boston Review can now be found on their web site. It begins like this:
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...