(National Poetry Month, Day 22)
A special treat for Earth Day: 2 poems!
Let’s take a look at two poems that explore the same ideas, but from decidedly different perspectives.
The World Is Too Much With Us
by William Wordsworth
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
Don’t let Wordsworth’s mellifluous words fool you: he has a pretty dim view of the future! And who can blame him? Living and writing in nineteenth-century England, Wordsworth was witness to the havoc that industrialization wrought on the countryside. Wordsworth’s sonnet shows his awareness and appreciation of nature, as well as his rather pessimistic point of view: that in the commerce-driven West, we will simply continue to destroy the earth, and the only way to appreciate the natural world would be to travel back in time and divest ourselves of all modern trappings, becoming neo-pagans. My goodness!
And then, on the other hand, we have later-nineteenth-century British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who writes yet another sonnet (a Petrarchan sonnet, rather than an Elizabethan [as was Wordsworth’s], but a sonnet nonetheless), beginning in exactly the same way that Wordsworth’s begins. Is Hopkins responding to Wordsworth? Let’s take a look.
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Ahhhh…a breath of fresh air! Hopkins also recognizes that, as imperfect humans, we’ve done some damage. Yet our malfeasance isn’t the end of the story; instead, nature is constantly refreshed by the Holy Spirit (the dove who protects the earth in the final stanza of the poem). We have desensitized ourselves to the earth, but since God not only created the earth but continues to be present through his creation, the world is continually renewed through grace.
Of course, the fact remains that these poems were both written more than a century ago. We are left with two questions (challenges, really) on this Earth Day: Which poet is right? And how does this influence the way we’ll treat our planet?