Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Although poets have sometimes reached for the stars, for the moon, or for outer space and other planets, many have also written powerfully about what our own planet, Earth, is like. Below, we introduce ten of our favourite poems about planet Earth, the world we all know, but experience in very different ways.
Margaret Cavendish, ‘Of Many Worlds in This World’.
Just like as in a nest of boxes round,
Degrees of sizes in each box are found.
So, in this world, may many others be
Thinner and less, and less still by degree …
So begins this poem from the remarkable seventeenth-century writer and scientist Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1623-73), which captures the century’s vogue for scientific discovery and exploration (including Robert Hooke’s early work with microscopes), and reminds us that – in scientific but also social circles – our own vast world contains many smaller ‘worlds’.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Move Eastward, Happy Earth’.
Many poets have written poems about the sunset, but here, Tennyson (1809-92) pays as much attention to planet Earth as he does to the waning sun. The poem is short enough to quote in full here:
Move eastward, happy earth, and leave
Your orange sunset waning slow;
From fringes of the faded eve,
O, happy planet, eastward go;
Till over thy dark shoulder glow
Thy silver sister-world, and rise
To glass herself in dewy eyes
That watch me from the glen below.
Ah, bear me with thee, smoothly born,
Dip forward under starry light,
And move me to my marriage-morn,
And round again to happy night.
Walt Whitman, ‘Earth! My Likeness!’
Earth! my likeness!
Though you look so impassive, ample and spheric there,
I now suspect that is not all;
I now suspect there is something fierce in you, eligible to burst forth …
So begins this poem from the nineteenth-century pioneer of free verse, the American poet Walt Whitman (1819-92), who identifies himself with the Earth in that they are both outwardly ‘impassive’ but inwardly burning with a ‘fierce’ fire…
Henry Van Dyke, ‘Mother Earth’.
Mother of all the high-strung poets and singers departed,
Mother of all the grass that weaves over their graves the glory of the field,
Mother of all the manifold forms of life, deep-bosomed, patient, impassive,
Silent brooder and nurse of lyrical joys and sorrows!
Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933) is not much remembered (or read) now, but in his lifetime he was a respected clergyman, an author, and a professor of English literature at Princeton University. In ‘Mother Earth’, Van Dyke pays tribute to planet Earth in decidedly Christian terms: the Earth is bounteous and beautiful because, for the poet, the Lord made it like this.
Archibald Lampman, ‘Voices of Earth’. In this poem, Lampman (1861-99), ‘the Canadian Keats’, ponders the voices of ‘earth’s secret soul’:
We have not heard the music of the spheres,
The song of star to star, but there are sounds
More deep than human joy and human tears,
That Nature uses in her common rounds;
The fall of streams, the cry of winds that strain
The oak, the roaring of the sea’s surge, might
Of thunder breaking afar off, or rain
That falls by minutes in the summer night …
Robert Frost, ‘Fire and Ice’. This nine-line poem was supposedly the inspiration for the title of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and lends a curiously apocalyptic meaning to Game of Thrones. Will the world end in fire or ice? These images suggest various things – fire suggests rage, war, passion; ice suggests cold indifference and passivity – and can be interpreted in a number of ways, which lends this classic short poem about the end of the world an ambiguous, symbolic quality. We’ve analysed Frost’s poem here.
Judith Wright, ‘Eve to Her Daughters’. This dramatic monologue sees the Biblical Eve transported to a post-nuclear landscape where man has succeeded in destroying the Edenic paradise of the world as we know it. Watch out for the play on the word ‘fallout’: both the quarrel between husband and wife (Adam and Eve) and nuclear fallout from the war. An apocalypse poem that is also an anti-war poem and a feminist poem.
A. R. Ammons, ‘World’. This 1964 poem from the American poet A. R. Ammons (1926-2001) meditates on our own place in the broader environment and natural landscape of Mother Earth, by thinking about the algae and tiny sea-creatures we share it with.
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.
Eliza Griswold, ‘Ovid on Climate Change’. With an echo of Geoffrey Hill’s poem about Ovid in the Third Reich, Griswold, a contemporary American poet born in 1973, offers a short poem about how planet Earth is being affected by climate change, summoning the rising temperatures of equatorial and sub-Saharan Africa. 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.
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.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.
Thanks from Australia for including Judith Wright. She was ahead of her time on many fronts. Environmentalism and a love for the Earth was one of them.