Delaney and Bonnie
Portrait of Patience Escalier
Vincent van Gogh
There were a number of articles recently on poets. This is perhaps not surprising considering that April is National Poetry Month. There were articles on well known poets, W. H, Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and John Keats (“National Poetry Month: W. H. Auden,” “Working Girl,” and “Poet of Loss”) The Auden article was really a weeklong celebration of the poet’s work. There were also articles on less well known poets, Edward Thomas and R. S. Thomas (“Chapter and Verse: The Unknown Prose of a Great Poet” and “RS Thomas: Serial Obsessive by M Wynn Thomas – review”). These poets, with the possible exception of Auden and Millay, were known largely for their poems on nature and on those that worked in the natural world. One of R. S. Thomas’ early poems focuses on a farmer (or perhaps a fictionalized accumulation of a number of local farmers) from the rural parish he served as an Anglican priest:
Iago Prytherch his name, though, be it allowed,
Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills,
Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud.
Docking mangels, chipping the green skin
From the yellow bones with a half-witted grin
Of satisfaction, or churning the crude earth
To a stiff sea of clods that glint in the wind—
So are his days spent, his spittled mirth
Rarer than the sun that cracks the cheeks
Of the gaunt sky perhaps once in a week.
And then at night see him fixed in his chair
Motionless, except when he leans to gob in the fire.
There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind.
His clothes, sour with years of sweat
And animal contact, shock the refined,
But affected, sense with their stark naturalness.
Yet this is your prototype, who, season by season
Against siege of rain and the wind’s attrition,
Preserves his stock, an impregnable fortress
Not to be stormed, even in death’s confusion.
Remember him, then, for he, too, is a winner of wars,
Enduring like a tree under the curious stars.
The poem celebrates the simplicity of the peasant’s life. It also celebrates those that work the land and live in communion with the land. The painting by Van Gogh captures a French peasant (a gardener and shepherd) who, according to Wikipedia, Van Gogh painted because the farmer’s features resembled those of his father. There is a similarity of feeling between the landscapes of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters like Van Gogh and the poems of poets whose lyrics revolve around the natural world, the woods and the wilds, like R. S. Thomas’.
Just as the paintings capture the painters’ impressions of the land rather than a photographic representation of the land, so also do these poets capture the impressions the land makes upon them more than the actual appearance of the land. The song by Don McLean celebrates these features, this Romantic view of nature, in the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. The song by Delaney and Bonnie captures also captures a romantic view of nature and life in the country, though perhaps this romanticized view is some distance from the reality as captured in the R. S. Thomas poem.
A wooded river landscape with a man and his dog by a waterfall, ruins beyond
George Barrett, Sr.
The paintings above and below are Romantic era paintings (or just before) that, though they are more realistic than those of the Impressionists, capture the wilderness in ways that evoke the poets of that era. In the painting above the ruin is evocative of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” The ruin in the painting suggests Nature’s power and its ability to reclaim its own as that which man has built is slowly broken down into its natural elements. What is often overlooked in these poems and paintings are the more dangerous aspects of this power nature has over us and the world in which we live. Aside from what may lurk in these woods there is also the dangers of the terrain itself. And though the likelihood of getting lost in the woods has diminished over time, other dangers such as bogs and rough water are still a threat. Wordsworth in one section of The Prelude addresses this ambivalence between nature’s beauty and nature’s dangerous power:
I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon’s utmost boundary; for above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace;’ lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct
Upreared its bead. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me.
What at first, in its beauty, filled the young poet with awe (he is describing a childhood experience) suddenly fills him with fear. It is for Wordsworth a transformational experience. In reflecting on this event he begins to form an attitude towards nature that recognizes both its sublime beauty and its great power.
Where the painting above hints at the power of nature that Wordsworth suggests, the painting below by Gainsborough captures the more benign aspects of nature, its pleasant beauty and the rustics going about their business. The gathering clouds may suggest the ability of nature to interrupt our plans for leisure and recreation, but it is in the distance and far removed and more of an inconvenience than a threat.
Landscape with the Village Cornard
Unlike the Impressionists, the “impressions” in these paintings come through the choice of subject and not as much in the style in which that subject is painted. Gainsborough and Barrett are realistic painters, they are trying to capture a more “photographic” kind of image, but the subjects of these paintings communicate attitudes, “impressions” of the natural world. It may even be that the scenes themselves never existed as they are painted but that they were largely composed in the imagination of the painters. Where the Impressionists painted what they saw but did not paint what they saw as they saw it, these painters paint what they do not see, but paint it as it would look if they had seen it.
The Old Mill
Vincent van Gogh
The paintings above and below are both of “old mills.” Both painters are Dutchmen separated by about two hundred years of history. Both paintings capture an attitude toward the natural world. The brush strokes in the Van Gogh painting seem to suggest that nature is in motion, that it is visibly alive. In the Rembrandt painting the dirt, the stones, and the trees are sedentary and firmly planted in place, but the clouds and the water also suggest a world in motion. Both paintings depict people going about their business. Van Gogh’s mill looks to be a different kind of mill from Rembrandt’s and it may be from a different country as well. Van Gogh’s mill may be like the one Edward Thomas writes of in his poem “The Mill Water:”
ONLY the sound remains
Of the old mill;
Gone is the wheel;
On the prone roof and walls the nettle reigns.
Water that toils no more
Dangles white locks
And, falling, mocks
The music of the mill-wheel’s busy roar.
Pretty to see, by day
Its sound is naught
Compared with thought
And talk and noise of labour and of play.
Night makes the difference.
In calm moonlight,
The sound comes surging in upon the sense:
When it is night,–
Grief or delight
By it must haunted or concluded be.
Often the silentness
Has but this one
Wherever one creeps in the other is:
Sometimes a thought is drowned
By it, sometimes
Out of it climbs;
All thoughts begin or end upon this sound,
Only the idle foam
Of water falling
Where once men had a work-place and a home.
The poem meditates on an old mill as a ruin, a building that no longer serves the purpose for which it was created and the natural world, Nature, mocks the building as the sound of the rushing water draws our attention to the silence of the old mill’s machinery. Nature lives on and is slowly dismantling that which man has created; Nature is still at work while man’s machinery is silent and, in the words of Coleridge, “the sole unbusy thing.”
Rembrandt van Rijn
Edward Taylor began as a writer of prose, and was best known in his lifetime for his books and essays on the English landscape. After reading some of Taylor’s prose Robert Frost encouraged Taylor to write poetry (Taylor dedicated his first book of poems to Frost). Today Taylor is better known for his poetry than he is for his prose, but he said that much of his poetry was adapted from his prose depictions of the English landscape. I do not know if the “The Mill Water” began as a prose piece or not, but it is not difficult to imagine that it might have. Thomas, like other poets of his generation, was killed in the First World War. Unlike the other war poets, though, none of his poems are about the war; they focus on the natural world, most often, ironically, on the peace and serenity of the natural world.
The Park at Petworth House
J. M. W. Turner
The painting by Turner is of the deer park attached to a country manor house, Petworth House. It captures the world of the deer park in its natural beauty at sunset (it might be sunrise, but to me it “feels” like I am looking west, though of course it could just as easily be east). Though the focus of the painting is on a man made landscape there is nothing in the painting to identify it as man made and it could easily be mistaken for a “picturesque” scene from nature. Ben Jonson in his poem “To Penshurst” on the other hand focuses on the relationship between the natural world and the world that man has created:
Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show,
Of touch or marble; nor canst boast a row
Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;
Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told,
Or stair, or courts; but stand’st an ancient pile,
And, these grudged at, art reverenced the while.
Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air,
Of wood, of water; therein thou art fair.
Thou hast thy walks for health, as well as sport;
Thy mount, to which the dryads do resort,
Where Pan and Bacchus their high feasts have made,
Beneath the broad beech and the chestnut shade;
That taller tree, which of a nut was set
At his great birth where all the Muses met.
There in the writhèd bark are cut the names
Of many a sylvan, taken with his flames;
And thence the ruddy satyrs oft provoke
The lighter fauns to reach thy Lady’s Oak.
Thy copse too, named of Gamage, thou hast there,
That never fails to serve thee seasoned deer
When thou wouldst feast or exercise thy friends.
The lower land, that to the river bends,
Thy sheep, thy bullocks, kine, and calves do feed;
The middle grounds thy mares and horses breed.
There is the “ancient pile” and the “walks for health, as well as sport.” But there is also the deer, sheep, and the river, though there is the suggestion that the natural world has been made to conform to the will of man. In Turner’s painting the opposite seems to be suggested, that the world of man has been made to conform to the will of Nature. Jonson is a part of the Renaissance world, in Turner, on the other hand, we see early hints of what would become the Impressionist style of painting and the influence of the Romantic poets.
Wakefield Bridge and Chantry Chapel
The Romantic poets did not concern themselves, though, entirely with the wilderness. Wordsworth in one of his best known sonnets, “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” captures the beauty of an urban landscape:
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
The poem juxtaposes the beauty of the wilderness with the beauty of the city. It may just be me, but I think I detect a bit of “tongue in cheek” in the line “All bright and glittering in the smokeless air,” perhaps a nod to the polluted air of what is becoming the industrialized world. On this morning the smoke is not present, but the word “smokeless” suggests this might not be the air’s normal condition. That said, the poem does capture the beauty that can be found in that which humans create; there is the suggestion that we crave beauty and make our structures not just functional but pleasant to look at with a sublimity all their own. In Barrett’s painting above there can be seen in the ruin the outline of what was once a beautiful structure. In the battle between man and nature, nature may ultimately win, but that does not mean that man’s creations do not have a beauty of their own.
Westminster Hall and Bridge
Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin
Suggested in all this is how we come to know and understand the natural world. There is not much (perhaps no) science in these paintings and poems, nothing to suggest how the natural world works and how it “manufactures” beauty. That which humans construct, the buildings, bridges, and other structures are designed and their construction overseen by architects who understand the laws of the natural world that their structures must contend with and, hopefully conquer, but also they have to have an “eye” for the beautiful, for the sublime. The paintings of the two bridges and the surrounding landscapes reveal not just a functional cityscape, but an attempt to create a cityscape that is pleasurable to look at. The buildings are not just boxes and the bridges do more than just span the water.
The trees that have been planted around the buildings suggest a desire common to most of us to be surrounded not just by our own creations, but by the natural world as well. As human beings we have a desire to reconcile the natural world to our own world, the world we create to live in, that brings elements of the natural environment together with what we have built in a way that fosters community and cooperation. This is perhaps a bit idealized in that there are many within this community that are motivated solely by the products of trade, wealth and its generation, and the exploitation of labor perhaps to make the products of trade more personally profitable. But be that as it may, what we build, and what many of those “industrialists” build, are more than just functional. To be truly “happy,” truly at peace with the world, we desire the presence of the beautiful. This suggests that beauty and its presence in our lives may not always make us better people, but perhaps in contemplating beauty we are confronted with forces larger than ourselves and in ignoring these larger forces we become complicit in our moral deterioration.
The Philosophical Breakfast Club
The video begins by describing a meeting between two worlds, the world of the poet and the world of the scientist, it in fact tells us how the word “scientist” came to be invented. Where the world of the poet is more philosophical (or so Coleridge thought) and less concerned with the nuts and bolts of how nature works, the scientist is concerned with the running of the natural world. The video suggests that the poet, the philosopher, and the scientist all have the best interest of the human race at heart. It suggests they are all in their own way attracted to the natural world and to natural beauty. The members of the “Philosophical Breakfast Club” believed that science should make the world more understandable and that scientists should not profit from their own corner of the intellectual market place, but that their findings should be made public and available to all for free. Those, like harbor masters, that profited from their specialized knowledge were looked upon with disfavor. The public interest, not to mention public safety, was best served by making this information public and readily available. Then as well as now, there was much talk about who actually pays for this information that serves so well the public interest. The workman is worthy of his hire, and the work must be paid for by someone, and than, like now, the role of the public and private sectors in funding this work that serves the public good was an issue.
Of course poets, philosophers, and painters are not just concerned with the natural world, or only that part of the natural world occupied by rivers, woods, and animals. They also contemplate the human heart and much of the best poetry, art, and philosophy revolves around relationships. Shakespeare in his Sonnet XXIII writes about love, as is expected of a sonnet:
As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharged with burthen of mine own love’s might.
O! let my looks be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.
O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.
One thing that initially struck me about this sonnet is that it begins with an observation from Shakespeare’s world, the world of the theater. He gives us a picture of a poorly prepared actor struggling with his lack of preparation and with “stage fright.” Anyone who has spent time in the theater is familiar with this sensation. Shakespeare than observes that strong emotions, like rage, when given free reign over us, weaken us. He then speaks of love and how his intense love has made him distrustful of his words and asks his eyes and the silence to speak for him. Poetry, whether it is focused on the natural world or the natural man, gives voice to our emotions, to our insights into the world and into ourselves. Its eloquence proceeds from passion, but as Wordsworth observed, passion that is under the poet’s control. Poetry, and the other arts, gives voice to our passions, but it only succeeds when we are not controlled by our passions. It is perhaps, the most intensely felt and, when done well, the most intensely disciplined acts of human expression.