By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Nature is one of the great themes of poetry, and also provides poets with a storehouse of vivid and useful images. But what are the finest nature poems in the English language?
Whether it’s the Romantics like Wordsworth and Keats, the Victorians with their growing awareness of the natural world through geological and evolutionary scientific discovery, or more modern and contemporary poets writing about a landscape marked by suffering as well as beauty, English poets have often been drawn to the world of nature for inspiration.
Below, we’ve chosen ten of the very best nature poems in English literature.
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, ‘The Soote Season’.
This is one of the first sonnets written in English, but it’s not as well known as it perhaps should be. It’s about the coming of summer and the various ways in which a world previously in a sort of stasis or hibernation is now springing into life. (‘Soote’ in ‘Soote Season’ means ‘sweet’.)
However, despite this, the poet’s sorrow also springs into new life at this time. An early example of the nature poem in English literature:
The soote season, that bud and blome furth bringes,
With grene hath clad the hill and eke the vale:
The nightingale with fethers new she singes:
The turtle to her make hath tolde her tale:
Somer is come, for euery spray nowe springes,
The hart hath hong his olde hed on the pale:
The buck in brake his winter cote he flinges:
The fishes flote with newe repaired scale:
Follow the link above to read the whole of this remarkable poem.
Charlotte Smith, ‘Beachy Head’.
This long poem by one of the overlooked pioneers of English Romanticism (and a poet who led the revival of the sonnet form in English) is actually much more than a great nature poem, engaging with early nineteenth-century politics (it was published in 1807), the threat of invasion from France, British imperialism, and many other subjects.
But it also demonstrates Smith’s talent for writing about nature, with its descriptions of ‘the toys of Nature’ such as ‘the gay harmony of birds, / And winds that wander in the leafy woods’. It begins:
On thy stupendous summit, rock sublime !
That o’er the channel rear’d, half way at sea
The mariner at early morning hails,
I would recline; while Fancy should go forth,
And represent the strange and awful hour
Of vast concussion; when the Omnipotent
Stretch’d forth his arm, and rent the solid hills,
Bidding the impetuous main flood rush between
The rifted shores, and from the continent
Eternally divided this green isle.
William Wordsworth, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
One of Wordsworth’s most famous poems, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (as it should properly be known; it’s commonly known as ‘Daffodils’) is about the poet’s kinship with nature, and how the memory of the daffodils dancing cheers him whenever he recalls them.
What’s less well-known is that Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy – and, indeed, his wife – had a hand in the composition of the poem, as we explore in the analysis of the poem in the link above.
John Clare, ‘On a Lane in Spring’.
The title of this poem by one of Romantic literature’s overlooked greats, John Clare (1793-1864), says it all: Clare describes the things he sees on a country lane during springtime, his observations on the world of nature tumbling out into the poem in gleeful abandon and apparent spontaneity.
Clare is an underrated poet whose eye for detail when it came to describing the natural world, like Gerard Manley Hopkins’s later in the nineteenth century, betrays the mark of genius. Indeed, Clare is perhaps the greatest nature poet in the English language. ‘On a Lane in Spring’ begins:
A Little Lane, the brook runs close beside
And spangles in the sunshine while the fish glide swiftly by
And hedges leafing with the green spring tide
From out their greenery the old birds fly
And chirp and whistle in the morning sun
The pilewort glitters ‘neath the pale blue sky
The little robin has its nest begun
And grass green linnets round the bushes fly
Follow the above link to read all of the poem.
Thomas Hardy, ‘The Darkling Thrush’.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead,
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited.
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
With blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
This is a great winter poem, first published in late December 1900. Poised on the cusp of a new year (and even, as the poem makes clear, a new century), Hardy reflects on the events of the nineteenth century, his own feelings about the future, and his attitude to nature – which centres on the song of the thrush whose ‘happy goodnight air’ Hardy hears as he stands in contemplation, leaning upon a woodland gate.
A. E. Housman, ‘Tell me not here, it needs not saying’.
Taken from Housman’s second volume Last Poems (1922) – which, true to its title, was the final collection Housman allowed to be published during his lifetime – this poem muses upon ‘heartless, witless nature’ during the autumn season.
For Housman, there is something reassuring about nature’s indifference to the individuals of many generations who walk among it, seeking solace in its beauty and wonder:
For nature, heartless, witless nature,
Will neither care nor know
What stranger’s feet may find the meadow
And trespass there and go,
Nor ask amid the dews of morning
If they are mine or no.
W. H. Davies, ‘Leisure’.
Davies (1871-1940) is best-known for his memoir, Autobiography of a Supertramp, and for this poem, with its opening lines, ‘What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare.’ The poem entreats us to take time out of our busy lives to stop and enjoy nature, as doing so enriches our lives:
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night:
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
Edward Thomas, ‘Thaw’.
Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flowers of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.
This four-line lyric is about nature’s superior sensitivity to the signs of the passing seasons, a sensitivity that surpasses that of mankind. We may be aware of the snow half-thawing, but the rooks see deeper than us, and notice the subtle and ‘delicate’ signs of spring’s imminent arrival.
Ted Hughes, ‘Snowdrop’.
Hughes (1930-98) offers a somewhat starker and more Darwinian view of nature than the Romantics. This very short nature poem offers a great way into the world of Ted Hughes’s poetry. It’s short, almost imagist in its concision and focus on its central image – that of the white flower, described memorably with its ‘pale head heavy as metal’ in this eight-line masterpiece.
Sylvia Plath, ‘Poppies in October’.
Although this poem gives a nod to Plath’s own numerous suicide attempts, with its reference to a woman in an ambulance whose heart is likened to the flowering poppies, it is, first and foremost, a poem in celebration of the bright red flowers.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.