A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
is any more than he.
— Walt Whitman, “A child said, What is the grass?”
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Nature has long been a popular topic for poets. Its serenity, violence, sheer power and beauty make it an easy subject.
One of Whitman’s most famous poems, “Song of Myself,” has several sections where he interacts with nature, contemplates its very being, like the quote above. What a simple question! What is grass? How many of us could answer that? I can just imagine the child standing there, holding a fistful of grass.
The world below the brine;
Forests at the bottom of the sea—the branches and leaves,
Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds—
the thick tangle, the openings, and the pink turf,
Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold—
the play of light through the water,
“The World Below the Brine” contains beautiful imagery of water and its inhabitants. Whitman calls the underwater plants forests, and isn’t that accurate? Have you ever looked into the water and seen nothing but the seaweed waving about just below the surface?
Or how about his poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d?”
O powerful, western, fallen star!
O shades of night! O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear'd! O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless! O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud, that will not free my soul!
What a great way to use the exclamation device. It’s like he’s crying out to nature. How helpless and small he feels next to it.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Song of Nature” is a beautiful example of Nature poetry:
I hid in the solar glory,
I am dumb in the pealing song,
I rest on the pitch of the torrent,
In slumber I am strong.
I love that last line. It’s says so much about Nature. It doesn’t matter if it’s chaotic or calm, Nature will always be powerful.
And many a thousand summers
My apples ripened well,
And light from meliorating stars
With firmer glory fell.
I wrote the past in characters
Of rock and fire the scroll,
The building in the coral sea,
The planting of the coal.
The familiar rhyme scheme of Emerson’s poem keeps a wonderful rhythm for the subject. He is able to paint a scene of Nature’s majesty, personifies it by “building” the coral sea, or “planting” the coal. Nature’s apples “ripened well.” Emerson goes beyond personifying Nature, and almost deifies it.
Deifying Nature is how many religions started, isn’t it? Personifying the power of Nature, giving it a name, a face. Zeus, of Lightning. Tiamat, of oceans. Ra, the sun…writing of Nature like Emerson or Whitman, or even Wordsworth:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
— “My Heart Leaps Up” by William Wordsworth