Should We Talk About the Weather?
A Foray into Four Famous Poems
June 8, 2018
Jun 8, 2018
20 Min read time
A foray into four famous poems.
You only ever perceive your particular, anthropomorphic translation of the raindrops. Isn’t this similar to the rift between weather, which I can feel falling on my head, and global climate, not the older idea of local patterns of weather, but the entire system? I can think and compute climate in this sense, but I can’t directly see or touch it. The gap between phenomenon and thing yawns open, disturbing my sense of presence and being in the world.
–Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (2013)
Daily efforts to chart, map, predict, and report the weather seem to bind us to some atavistic human experience—the need for weather prediction takes us back to the origins of religion and the beginnings of culture’s emergence through agriculture. And weather is universal. There is, after all, weather here and in Ittoqqortoormiit. Yet the kind of weather forecasting that does not rely on our physical senses is decidedly modern. It wasn’t until 1911 that the Met Office in Britain started issuing marine weather forecasts by radio transmissions, and the first public radio weather reports didn’t happen in the U.S. until 1925. The weather, like much that marks the modernist period, became increasingly beholden to science and technology at a time when scientific explanations, having already supplanted religious ones, went through a paradigm shift. Moving away from the Enlightenment’s encyclopedic impulses, science took a more phenomenological approach to the physical world, one based on theories of relativity, uncertainty, and, eventually, chaos.
A common conception is that modernist poets had an affinity with new scientific approaches but little interest in the natural world. T.S. Eliot was an expatriated British banker, Ezra Pound was a cultured sophisticate (before he was a traitor institutionalized at St. Elizabeth’s in Washington D.C.), Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive, and William Carlos Williams was a doctor in the suburbs of New Jersey. As the story goes, high modernism arose from a rejection of Romanticism’s direct, emotional engagement with nature. The modernists defined themselves against Romanticism, preferring an urban and urbane imagism to the metaphysically tinged Sturm und Drang of the poet out on the heath. But noting the heady mix of dead leaves and autumn heat in the vibrant air of Eliot’s Four Quartets, or the autumn leaves and butterflies in Pound’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” or the sea-clouds and watery radiance in Stevens’s “Sea Surface Full of Clouds,” or a willow by the river in Williams’s “Willow Poem,” you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. These modernists write about nature with vivid avidity, but in ways distinct from Romantic conceptions of “the nature poem.”
Some modernist nature poems are iconic, and yet we do not generally recognize them as nature poems, despite the fact that they tell us things about what nature means for a society undergoing ongoing scientific and technological revolutions. In 1934, the German biologist Jakob von Uexküll published A Foray into the World of Animals and Humans, where he observes, “One should understand theory, therefore, only as a generalization of the rules that we think we discover in the study of the composition of Nature. It is therefore called for to proceed based on individual examples and establish their rules in order to get to a theory of the composition of Nature in this way.” Perhaps a foray into four famous modernist poems—The Waste Land, “Ancient Music,” “The Snow Man,” and “Spring and All”—will reveal possible theories of the composition of nature that can help us recognize these poems as nature poems. In doing so, we might also think about our tendency not to recognize them as such, and what that tells us about our contemporary conceptions of nature, especially since, as the ecological philosopher Max Oelschlaeger notes in The Wilderness Condition, “we are people who presumably must think of the world in terms of the learned categorical scheme of Modernism.”
• • •
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, Part I: Burial of the Dead (1922)
Environmentalism has coevolved with technological development at least since the Industrial Revolution, and with that, an increasing recognition of humanity’s capacity to cause environmental disaster. Coincident with an incipient modernism, the ecocide inaugurated by chemical warfare during World War I proved the human ability to make the biosphere uninhabitable on a scale that rivaled even the most destructive natural disasters. Although best known for its obsession with the dissolution of culture and the loss of the symbolic order constructed by myth and religion, The Waste Land imagines this uninhabitable postwar landscape in natural terms. Suspended between desert and flood, the land is either “where the sun beats, / And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, /And the dry stone no sound of water” or the place of “the drowned Phoenician Sailor” and where you should “Fear death by water.”
With its chorus of voices emerging from what Eliot reads as the trauma of cultural fragmentation, the poem is too long and wide-ranging for lyric and too short and discursive for epic, so it is often referred to as an epyllion, a genre that exists somewhere in between. This ambiguous demarcation, it turns out, signals an ecocritical concern inherent in the poem’s form. Writing about the differences between these “two poetic modes,” Susan Stewart says that the epic is “associated with public representations of war and the expression of tribalism and nationalism,” while the lyric is “associated with the expression of the senses and emotions out of first-person experience.” For Stewart, the lyric is not only preferable, but also a corrective to the epic’s validation of war: “Wars themselves hardly seem bound to disappear. But this fact does not negate the continuing struggle between war’s erasure of the expression of the historical and individual person of sensuous being and lyric’s role as the continuing form of such expression.” It is hard not to sympathize with Stewart’s antiwar sentiment; yet, thinking ecocritically, the insistence on the “individual person of sensuous being” as the optimal subject position with which to resist “tribalism and nationalism” might be overstated.
First consider that The Waste Land counters the anatomization of society, both its fragmentation and its potential dissolution, with a polyphonic voice that cannot be reduced to “the expression of the historical and individual person.” This polyphony, furthermore, launches a proto-ecological protest against the war. It is, after all, rarely mob rule but rather an individual leader, amplified by a group too fractured to access power another way, who typically wages war. The Iliad sings of Achilles, and Achilles fights to avenge Patroclus, both of whom enter a war arising from Agamemnon’s personal need to reclaim Helen. In other words, the traits of the “individual person of sensuous being” are just as accountable for war as the tribe. E.O. Wilson argues that as eusocial beings, human evolution has operated on two levels: the individual and the group. Individual traits have selected for selfishness and personal dominance, while group or “tribal” traits have selected for “group cohesion, networking, and the formation of alliances.” Calling it “humanity’s heredity curse,” Wilson affirms Stewart’s suspicion that group evolution has made war inevitable; yet, unlike Stewart, Wilson does not denounce tribalism, since, along with war, tribalism also accounts for altruism, sacrifice, cooperation, and collaboration.
Without the group cohesion of the tribe, individualism becomes a very precarious trait. As Wilson discerns, “If the benefit from group membership falls below that from solitary life, evolution will favor departure or cheating by the individual. Taken far enough, the society will dissolve.” In The Waste Land, the anatomization of individuals and not tribalism accounts for the sense of collective alienation in the poem. In “Cultivating the American Garden,” Frederick Turner reminds us that “[a]s an empirical fact, our natural solitude has little scientific foundation. We evolved as social beings; our ancestors were tribal.” Ironically, this distorted view of human nature, while it intends to give voice to individuals, may, in fact, produce the opposite effect when “[t]hose distortions include the neglect and isolation of persons, especially the young and old; we regard privacy as a natural right, but not community, which may well be a more important human need.” The Waste Land certainly seems to be inhabited by the private sufferings of individuals who find themselves alone in a crowd of others who are equally alienated and silenced.
Even more, in its implicit critique of individualism, The Waste Land also anticipates and redresses the transhuman wish to transcend nature and, rather than respect its imposed limits, move beyond humanity’s intrinsic animalism. Although transhumanism as a concept goes back to the 1960s, the movement really took off, perhaps not so coincidentally, in the “Me” generation of the 1980s. It is a movement that seeks nothing less than immortality. As Max More puts it in his 1999 manifesto “Letter to Mother Nature,” “we will no longer tolerate the tyranny of aging and death.” In The Waste Land, by contrast, the idea of never dying is more terrifying than death itself. Images of resurrection and rebirth gone wrong pervade the poem and the mythical immortality of the Sibyl at Cumae (albeit without eternal youth) hangs over the poem in a chilling epigraph that ends with the Sibyl stating, “I want to die.” As The Waste Land unfolds, the voices get laced with inhuman sounds—"Twit twit twit / Jug jug jug jug jug jug.” The mythological underpinnings of the poem hint at a realignment of human consciousness with a language inseparable from nature, or what we might call “pagan animism.” The poem’s linguistic representation of bird song, especially because it expresses ineffable human suffering, presents an opposing aspiration to the transhumanist wish: not humanity extruded from nature but, rather, the human enmeshed in it.
• • •
Ezra Pound, “Ancient Music” (1915)
The sense of alienation from nature is perhaps part of what the esteemed publisher William Clowes was reacting to when he refused to print “Ancient Music” among some other poems of Pound’s, declaring it “a pitiful parody of beautiful verse.” “Ancient Music” is indeed a parody of the 13th century song “Sumer Is Icumen In,” and it calls into the question the “beauty” of the original. Although Clowes cringed when he read “Ancient Music,” pining for the belletristic poems of yore, Pound’s parody indicates that something significant has happened to Western culture’s apprehension of nature. The bucolic idealism of an unfettered landscape with free-ranging but domesticated beasts gamboling in “beautiful verse” is not compatible with modern life, not even as a form of aspiration or escape. By parodying the earlier poem, Pound takes the measure of what we have imagined nature to be from the historical vantage of “culture.”
In “Pastoral, Anti-Pastoral, and Post-Pastoral,” Terry Gifford charts changes in the pastoral from the Idylls of Theocritus (316-260 BCE), where poetry presented an idealized rural setting for an court audience, to its current shattering into the mosaic of what Gifford terms “prefix-pastoral” (e.g. postmodern pastoral, gay pastoral, ghetto pastoral, frontier pastoral, domestic pastoral). As Gifford traces the categorical shift of pastoral from genre to mode to concept, he points out that “for the Victorians,” who just preceded the modernists, “the crisis of the diminished countryside was overlaid by a crisis of religious faith, the pastoral fail[ing] to offer much escape,” and “[f]or the Georgian poets who followed,” a group wedged tightly between the Victorians and modernists, “the attempt to seek escape in the English countryside from the horrors of the First World War was doomed to be read by later critics as pastoral idealization at its most desperate.” It is a small step for modernists like Pound to decide that it is no longer desirable to escape to nature but from it. Spring becomes winter, a pastoral scene becomes a gritty urban landscape, the grazing sheep turn into buses, and the cucu into honking horns. Praise becomes curse.
Still, in “Ancient Music,” winter is “icumen in” and can’t be stopped. In the midst of the Great War, this personification of nature has a devastating resonance—it becomes a potentially annihilating force. As inventions like cars, radios, elevators, and weather forecasting instruments make the lull of the idle pasture seem part of an increasingly distant past, the inventions of the tank, the flamethrower, and air traffic control systems, which contributed to what was then the most catastrophic war in history, cancel the possibility of a retreat into a sanctified copse away from the rumbling destruction. Nature becomes something to keep out. So when Clowes calls Pound’s poem “pitiful,” he may be right in a way: the root of the word “pity” goes back to “piety,” a sense of reverence behind the usual meaning of sympathy evoked by the recognition of suffering or misfortune. While Pound grouses about the weather, a totally modern thing to do, his complaints profanely echo an older, religious form of weather forecasting: the curse as a beseeching prayer.
And the prayer seems to work. Twice removed from the original ballad’s “lomb” and “calve,” “Bulluc” and “bucke,” first by time and then by the cityscape, the vulgarity of Pound’s cursing breaks through the “ancient” diction’s patina and his “Lhude (pronounced “lewd”) goddamm” incants his desire to impose his will on nature. Winter does indeed appear tamed. Nature is not a tsunami submerging a village, but a half-frozen river making you feel vaguely anxious. Nature does not inspire awe; it gives you ague. Nature is no longer a sublime apocalyptic force, but a convenient repository for civilization’s discontents. Nature is just gutter slush the bus splashes as it heaves to the curb. As the doors wheeze open, you can climb into the bus’s cavern and move through a cityscape sheltered from wind and rain. And for as long as the poem’s incantation holds, natural disasters as well as war’s devastations of the landscape will continue to happen elsewhere. And when the incantation falters, the final and last retreat will be into the modern mind.
• • •
Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man” (1921)
“The only phenomenon to which he is passionately attached,” Helen Vendler observes, “is the weather.” Stevens is best known as a cerebral, philosophical poet, as well as, somewhat paradoxically, the modern torchbearer for the Romantics. One of his most anthologized and well-known poems, “The Snow Man” encapsulates this apparent paradox, and it hinges on the ways nature gets imagined in his poems. Where Pound parodies the spring pastoral, Stevens transmutes it into a winter scene, transmogrifying the sexual excitement of the first into the spiritual austerities of the latter. Stevens meets a bleak landscape with an appropriate insouciance: the appreciation of the winter landscape elicits no emotion, but rather a kind of detachment that seems commensurate with nature itself.
Stevens shares with the Romantics a faith in the imagination, but his poems cast doubt on the ability of the imagination to apprehend nature directly or even, as Wordsworth did, to imbue it with “emotion” that could be “recollected in tranquility.” “The Snow Man” (an oxymoron that is not to be confused with a charcoal-eyed and carrot-nosed snowman) refrains from the pathetic fallacy, resisting the idea that human emotion gives the mind direct access to an experience of nature. Rendering the cognitive workings of the mind’s disembodied attempt to become an inseparable part of the landscape, this poem is a corrective to the Romantic sublime, that admixture of ecstasy and terror. In the poem, the mind recognizes nature’s unknowability, and how its absolute otherness short-circuits the imagination, leaving the mind contemplating “nothing that is not there / and the nothing that is.” The “nothing that is not there” is the mind’s attempt at being totally present through the negation of human desire, which is always directed somewhere else (of course, the negation of desire is, in its way, also an expression of desire). This leaves “the nothing that is,” or the mind’s conceptual failure to grasp nature as anything other than the opposite of its own plenum.
The poem is a single sentence unspooling a thought through an apparently barren landscape before dissolving into an abstract philosophical platitude. As the mind wends its way through the eternal evergreens, it charges the scene with the senses. Even as the poem tries not to impose human meaning on the winter scene in the form of symbol or metaphor, the mind activates human desire with its mental perception of “the pine-trees crusted with snow,” “the junipers shagged with ice,” and “the spruces rough in the distant glitter.” The mind’s mental operations must move through the physical world—from sight, to touch, to sound—in order to arrive at an abstract idea that could only be conceived in and by language. Maybe Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” isn’t so transparent after all? In the end, the mind’s peregrinations through the landscape leave it trapped in and by its own cognitive operations, but its sensual apprehension of the landscape suggests that this disembodied sense of mind is an illusion. Harold Fromm offers this insight in “From Transcendence to Obsolescence”: “A thought may have no weight and take up no space, but it exists as part of a stream of consciousness that is made possible by food, air, and water.” The mind remains phenomenological because it and its properties are a part of the physical world and not, as the Romantics tended to think, immaterial or metaphysical. The mind is not, as Satan insisted in Paradise Lost, its own place. And if it is, then, as Milton seems to suggest, this detached and alienating conception of the mind might be what we mean by hell on earth.
• • •
William Carlos Williams, “Spring and All” (1923)
By all accounts, William Carlos Williams hated The Waste Land. There’s even a subtle jibe in “Spring and All” as he takes his poem “Beyond, the / waste of broad, muddy fields / brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen // patches of standing water.” Reworking the imagery of Eliot’s poem, Williams recharges the landscape with possibility, in part by delaying the active verb (the first one comes a little more than halfway through the poem and is, appropriately, “approaches”). Similar to Pound’s winter, Williams’s spring seems at first to be coming from somewhere else, invading an urbanized landscape “[b]y the road to the contagious hospital,” but this poem does not subordinate the landscape to human activity, or technology, or even the human mind. Nor does the poem present us with a neo-pastoral scene. Rather, “Spring and All” reveals natural forces tenaciously continuing in the suburban scrub “by the road.”
For Williams, nature is first perceived as prepositional—“by,” “under,” “beyond.” It is everywhere and we are constantly being put in relation to it. Spring not only “approaches” from beyond, but from right under our feet. Nature is everywhere and “all along.” As the title and the repetition of the word throughout the poem emphasizes, it is “all.” After “spring approaches,” the poem takes a turn. People appear: “They enter the new world naked.” The “new world” that they “enter” is not so much an elsewhere as it is an awakening to what is already there, like dozing off on the grass and waking from some dream to become immediately aware of “the cold, familiar wind.” The approach of spring restarts things growing—“Now the grass, tomorrow / the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf”—but, more importantly, it restarts the people, the “they,” with “the stark dignity of / entrance.” Through the act of entering, they experience “the profound change,” despite being “rooted” to the same place: “rooted, they / grip down and begin to awaken.” In one respect, the rooting here is about localizing the “they” in a specific landscape. Even more, the poem imagines the “they” as indistinguishable from “the reddish / purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy / stuff of bushes and small trees.” All is rooted and all is awakening.
Williams’s landscape is a post-human landscape in that the poem imagines a postlapsarian recovery of nature from the impacts of human activity. In contrast to the way the “New World” was imagined by European colonial settlers, this “new world” is not a “new Eden” proffering human control over the “garden”; instead, it is human’s reentering the world after ceding control back to nature. As a post-human landscape with human beings in it, the entry is antithetical to a pastoral return that looks to the past for what Raymond Williams described as a “politically conservative reconstruction of history.” Implicit here is an idea of conservation, a byword in ecology and environmentalism that often gets elided with the idea of “managing resources.” Instead, we might replace the idea of conservation with the concept of “inter-relatedness,” which Neil Everden identifies as “the really subversive element in Ecology.” The switch from conservation, which implies independence and human control, to inter-relatedness, which implies human interdependence and embeddedness, might move us beyond the notion of being merely “connected” to nature toward a recognition that, as Everden insists, “There are no discrete entities.”
Now looking back to the “contagious hospital,” which I have often found to be a highly suggestive but strangely elusive setting for this poem, the landscape’s relation to the hospital comes into focus. The metonymic “contagion” of the hospital implies disease or, rather, microbes overtaking sick humans within the hospital walls, as well as the human “contagion” of the building imposed on the natural landscape. The “contagion” may even extend to the weedy stuff overtaking and defining the hospital and making it appear by contrast: “objects are defined.” All is indeed interrelated. There are no discrete entities, and the imagination, like all the other natural energies identifiable in spring, is not a mental tool of apprehension, but rather a wild, creative, recombinant force of creation. It may also be violent and destructive, but only in the process of incessant making. Nature awakens the imagination, not the other way around.
• • •
The Weather Report
What does it mean for us to be presented with an aestheticized modern landscape that is a wasteland instead of a pasture, a threat rather than an escape, an inaccessible “nothing” rather than copious bounty, a weedy struggle rather than Edenic flourishing? If the Romantic pastoral is not to be “dismissed as idealizing nature,” as Gifford warns against, reminding us that it “resisted the burgeoning industrial revolution,” then what are we to make of poems that don’t even try to idealize nature or resist? Modernists’ quandaries about, attitudes toward, and obfuscations of the natural world are in many ways our own. As in these poems, our idea of nature usually toggles between an erasure of the wild and an adulation of it. We can recognize the apprehension of nature as threat in our attempts to insulate ourselves from natural forces. We make “organic” and “natural” into marketing terms, while processing our food, as Wendell Berry puts it in “The Pleasures of Eating,” “beyond resemblance to any part of any creature that ever lived.” At the same time, our idyllic paeans to nature have become glossy magazine ads promising vacations in affordable but pristine paradises. And yet, these resorts (called “escapes”) have replaced wild nature with a humanly imagined simulacrum that effectively destroys the natural landscape to achieve its fabricated idealization. The “sentimental pastoral”—a work, according to Gifford, that evokes “the simple, affirmative attitude we adopt toward pleasing rural scenery”—is no longer just an occasion for a postcard. Now, coupled with the commodifying engine of global capitalism, human culture has become, ironically, an existential threat to forests, reefs, and glaciers.
What can poetry do against such annihilating cultural forces when political policy and corporate mass marketing bolster them? It is hard to say. Poetry is, first and foremost, where we recognize the human imagination, both its limits and its power, and so it remains a place that allows us to reimagine what nature might be in relation to human culture. Might poetry even suggest ways to break down this binary? For those inclined toward solving problems through the poetic imagination, there are alterative, coterminous traditions that can complicate and even resist the dominant Western conceptions of nature reflected in the poetry of the high modernists addressed here. To begin with, we can find alternative modernist perspectives on nature in Marianne Moore’s “The Steeple-Jack,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose,” Langston Hughes’s “The Bitter River,” Angelina Grimké’s “A Winter Twilight,” and Claude McKay’s “Joy in the Woods.” There are, of course, other poems by these poets and other poets and poetic traditions to consider as well. However we decide to address nature’s imperative, though, it is worth keeping Glen A. Love’s admonition in mind: “so must it happen that our critical and aesthetic faculties will come to reassess those texts—literary and critical—which ignore any values save for an earth-denying and ultimately destructive anthropocentrism.” As I write, it is 32° and cloudy with moderate winds in Ittoqqortoormiit; here it is 60° and sunny with a light breeze.
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June 08, 2018
20 Min read time