Climate change has obviously become a central issue in politics, the media, and education over the last few years, but poets have written about the environment and the changing natural world for a long time, ever since the Romantics highlighted the dark side of industrialisation when factories could be seen blurting out their smoke and pollution into the air.
1. William Blake, ‘London’.
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls …
Let’s begin with a poem about industrialisation by one of the most individual and influential Romantic poets: William Blake (1757-1827). Although modern-day ‘environmentalism’ and ‘climate change’ would have been unknown to Blake, his poetry often reflects the sinister side to industrialisation and the changes it is bringing about in the landscape and society of Britain. Elsewhere, he talks of the ‘dark satanic mills’ that were springing up around the country; here, he deals with the corruption, poverty, and industrialisation rife in Britain’s capital.
2. William Wordsworth, ‘On the Projected Kendal and Windermere Railway’.
Is then no nook of English ground secure
From rash assault? Schemes of retirement sown
In youth, and ’mid the busy world kept pure
As when their earliest flowers of hope were blown,
Must perish; – how can they this blight endure? …
The Kendal and Windermere Railway was first proposed in 1844, and opened in 1847. Wordsworth opposed the building of the railway, believing it would destroy the beauty of the Lake District, and in addition to various letters to the Morning Post, he penned this sonnet, using poetry to put across the nature of his objections.
In doing so, he became one of the first high-profile poets to write about the arrival of the railways – though admittedly, he is writing about the land before the railway was built. Nonetheless, Wordsworth’s impassioned plea shows poetry and the railways beginning an uneasy coexistence.
3. Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Binsey Poplars’.
In ‘Binsey Poplars’, Hopkins (1844-89) laments the felling of some beautiful aspen trees in Oxfordshire in 1879. The poem was not published until 1918, like so much of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s work. Shortly afterwards, the poplars were replanted. In 2004 they were felled again, only to be replanted. As the Bodleian website notes, ‘The poem formed part of the successful campaign to replant the trees.’
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled …
4. May Swenson, ‘Goodbye, Goldeneye’.
In unrhymed tercets, the American poet May Swenson (1913-89) examines the damage being done to the natural world thanks to mankind’s carelessness with waste and litter, from the ‘rags of black plastic’ to the ‘slime-green drums’ being ‘hauled’ into the water. The ‘goldeneye’ refers to a sea duck whose winter habitat has been eroded by pollution, putting the long-term survival of the species under threat.
5. Philip Larkin, ‘Going, Going’.
Written in the 1970s about a vanishing idea of a romanticised England –with its ‘guildhalls’ and ‘carved choirs’ – ‘Going, Going’ laments the auctioning off of the English countryside to the highest bidder, with its title summoning, without quite being able to complete, the auctioneer’s cry: ‘Going, going, gone’. Soon, Larkin says, he fears that England will be nothing but ‘concrete and tyres’. You can listen to Larkin reading his poem here.
6. A. R. Ammons, ‘World’.
This is another poem in tercets. This 1964 poem from the American poet A. R. Ammons (1926-2001) meditates on our own place in the broader environment and natural landscape, by thinking about the algae and tiny sea-creatures we share it with.
7. W. S. Merwin, ‘For a Coming Extinction’.
Merwin (1927-2019) here addresses the ‘gray whale’ as it heads towards extinction, condemning mankind for its thoughtlessness and self-importance in letting so much of the natural world become endangered through its own selfish acts.
8. Sylvia Plath, ‘Elm’.
The elm tree is a tree associated with rebirth. In this late Plath poem, the elm tree speaks to us, saying it can bring to us the ‘sound of poisons’. Then comes the life-giving and renewing rain, but the fruit that it inspires the elm to bring forth is ‘tin-white, like arsenic’ (poison again).
There’s a suggestion here of pollution and acid rain, foreshadowing the poem’s later referencing to ‘snaky acids’ that ‘hiss’. Plath’s work is often ecologically aware – see also her poem about nuclear holocaust, ‘Waking in Winter’ – but ‘Elm’ succeeds in linking this ecopoetics with her more personal or ‘confessional’ style.
9. Heather McHugh, ‘Webcam the World’.
As the poem’s title makes clear, this is a contemporary poem about recording the world by videoing it on a computer. The poet calls upon humankind to capture and document everything before it all disappears for good – it’s a poem about climate change and the idea of the ‘last chance’ to see certain species and societies (‘the boy in Addis Ababa who feeds / the starving dog’ calling to mind the much-documented famines of Ethiopia).
Everything is fascinating – nothing fails to astonish the speaker, whether beautiful or ugly. There is even something elegiac about it, even though McHugh’s poem is not a formal elegy.
10. Eliza Griswold, ‘Ovid on Climate Change’.
With an echo of Geoffrey Hill’s poem about Ovid in the Third Reich, Griswold, an American poet born in 1973, offers a short poem about climate change, summoning the rising temperatures of equatorial and sub-Saharan Africa (Griswold, too, mentions Ethiopia). In Greek mythology, Phaethon was the young boy, the son of Helios, who drove the sun across the sky every morning in a chariot; the sun, Griswold suggests, has got out of control and is burning up the planet.
11. Oliver Tearle, ‘Earth Summit’.
All gifts are off: for this stolen spark of power
the world rebelled and asked for something back.
He cheated. Man enjoyed playing with fire
too much, thought little of him on his rock,
chained and consumed. The air grew hot and dark …
We’ll conclude this list with a poem from our founder-editor, which uses the myth of Pandora’s box (actually a jar) to discuss climate change. Weaving in the myth of Prometheus – the one who, in a sense, gave man his first technological capabilities by stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humans – the poem explores the impact of humans on the environment and suggests that, once the ills are out of the jar, it is hard to put them back in again.