Connecting to Nature Through Poetry is a segment of the blog featuring poets who inspire their readers to establish strong connections to nature and community. An appreciation of poetry and art is connected to achievement in science and success in adult life; however, there is no need to be an expert on poetry to enjoy it. Poetry is for everyone. As Plato once said, “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history”.
“The true glory of a nation consists not in the extent of its territory, the pomp of its forests, the majesty of its rivers, the height of its mountains, and the beauty of its sky; but in the extent of its mental power, the majesty of its intellect, the height and depth and purity of its moral nature.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1832.
Does the name of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow remind you vaguely of high school? Chances are that’s because high school was the last time you heard about him. As celebrated as he was in his time, the early 19th century, he has become obscure in this time. It’s tempting to judge poets from times past as being too stuffy or boring for a modern audience. Which is too bad, really, because Longfellow’s poems have a true romantic’s lyrical beauty and intensity. His poetry is responsible for giving poetry a higher standing in American society during the 19th century, as it appealed to a wider and more diverse audience than other poets of the time. He also gave art a prominent position in his works, representing the importance of creative expression for all people. However, he may best be known for his narrative poetry, from “The Song of Hiawatha” to “Paul Revere’s Ride” to the lesser known “The Saga of King Olaf“. His ability to tell a tale, sometimes a rather epic one at that, with powerful descriptors and just the right amount of sentimentalism, has fallen out of favor with modern critical audiences. Don’t let that fool you. Longfellow’s poems are as good as any movie, probably better.
The Wreck of the Hesperus (in part)
It was the schooner Hesperus,
That sailed the wintry sea;
And the skipper had taken his little daughtèr,
To bear him company.
Blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax,
Her cheeks like the dawn of day,
And her bosom white as the hawthorn buds,
That ope in the month of May.
The skipper he stood beside the helm,
His pipe was in his mouth,
And he watched how the veering flaw did blow
The smoke now West, now South.
Then up and spake an old Sailòr,
Had sailed to the Spanish Main,
“I pray thee, put into yonder port,
For I fear a hurricane.
“Last night, the moon had a golden ring,
And to-night no moon we see!”
The skipper, he blew a whiff from his pipe,
And a scornful laugh laughed he.
Colder and louder blew the wind,
A gale from the Northeast,
The snow fell hissing in the brine,
And the billows frothed like yeast.
Down came the storm, and smote amain
The vessel in its strength;
She shuddered and paused, like a frighted steed,
Then leaped her cable’s length.
It gets better after that. Frozen corpses, praying maidens, trampling turf, and quite a bit of tragedy. The poem also gives quite a picture of the sea. Nature plays a big role in Longfellow’s tales; the landscape becomes a character in the story, sometimes even overtaking the characters. The best character in “The Wreck of the Hesperus” may just be the sea itself. Read “Paul Revere’s Ride” and see if the colonial town of Boston isn’t better represented than Paul Revere.
There is also much to celebrate in Longfellow’s song-like verses, his gentle moralizing, and his soft approach. Not every bit of art needs to celebrate irony and the grim realities of life; there is far too much art out there already that does just that. Longfellow’s words are sincere and simple, but that makes them accessible. The reader can sense the delight that Longfellow took in writing, how he warmed to his subjects and liked writing about them. It’s easy to see why his work appealed to the masses. His descriptions of nature, people and places are all softy done and easily read. They are so delightful that it can be hard to stop reading them at all.
Out of the bosom of the Air
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow
Descends the snow.
Even as our cloudy fancies take
Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
In the white countenance confession,
The troubled sky reveals
The grief it feels.
This is the poem of the air,
Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
Now whispered and revealed
To wood and field.
Read a full biography of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and find selected poems here.
To read about using poetry to connect children to nature, check out our blog post.
Why is poetry important to science education? Find out here.
The above photo was taken by Melissa Harding.