The diversity of nature provides myriad opportunities for a poet to express more than the appearance of surrounding scenery. Depending on how it's used, a setting in nature can evoke feelings and memories or provoke thoughts and actions. The landscape holds more than just descriptive beauty; it may also hold hidden meaning, taking a reader deeper into the poem's version of truth with every tree and running stream.
Perhaps more than any other poet, Walt Whitman used nature not only for setting but for effect, finding a sympathizer in its many moods. "In the close of the day with its light and the fields of spring ... / In the large unconscious scenery of my land with its lakes and forests ... / I knew death ... the sacred knowledge of death," he writes in "When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloomed," a poem expressing his feelings on the death of Abraham Lincoln. For Whitman, springtime is forever associated with his beloved president. When the lilacs revive each year from dormancy, producing rich green leaves and fragrant flowers, he will remember the slain leader. Even as the president's coffin passes through the streets and the mood shifts, a mood Whitman effects with the image of a transient cloud that "darkens the land," the poet offers a "a sprig of lilac" as a token of the beauty and renewal of life in the midst of decay.
The many elements of nature, whether they are living or merely animated, can personify human traits. For example, in the simple poem "April Rain Song" by Langston Hughes, the rain takes on human characteristics: "Let the rain kiss you. / Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops. / Let the rain sing you a lullaby." The rain provides not only setting, but character and imagery. It is demonstrative -- perhaps even cleansing -- and it sings with its own voice. Similarly, in "Ah, Sunflower" by William Blake, the poet assigns emotions to the familiar flower: "Ah Sunflower, weary of time, / Who countest the steps of the sun; / Seeking after that sweet golden clime / Where the traveller's journey is done ...." Blake equates his sunflower to those souls who have withered and died without realizing love: the youth who "pined away with desire" and the virgin "shrouded in snow." The sunflower takes on the suffering of unrequited desire. But, as it reaches for the sun, it also displays the universal trait of the struggle for illumination and self-realization.
Federico Garcia Lorca's poem, "Little Ballad of Three Rivers" uses nature, specifically a river and the wind, as a metaphor for lost love: "Guadalquivir river / Flows between orange and olive. / The two rivers of Granada come down from snow to wheat field. / Ay, Love, that goes, and never returns!" The flowing river and the "wind among orange blossoms" reflect the sometimes transient nature of love. Swiftly moving, traveling destined paths that may seem arbitrary to human minds, the forces of nature create a familiar setting that the poet uses to convey meaning. Though not every reader may have experienced the disappointing or bittersweet memory of fleeting love, most people can relate to the rapidly changing stream and the arbitrary wind.
Sense of Place
Nature's landscape creates a distinct sense of place, whether it be a New England hamlet in winter or a California beach house in summer. The elements of nature provide a rich palette for painting a picture with words. For example, in William Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," the poet creates a vivid image of pastoral England's natural elements, referring to "the wild green landscape" and "pastoral farms, / Green to the very door." Wordsworth is recalling time he spent on "the banks of the Wye," a river above Tintern Abbey. Wordsworth reflects that he thinks of nature's beauty "oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din / Of towns and cities ...," conjuring "hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines / Of sportive wood run wild" that restore him to the sense of ease he once possessed. The setting provides a backdrop for his memories of pleasure while providing solace in a difficult world.
- The Walt Whitman Archive: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd: Commentary
- Poetry Foundation: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd
- Poetry Foundation: April Rain Song
- Portable Poetry: William Blake: Ah, Sunflower!
- Poetry Foundation: The Little Ballad of Three Rivers: Lorca
- University of Maryland: Romantic Circles: Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey
- Hemera Technologies/Photos.com/Getty Images