Nature poetry

Study Day, Saturday 9 February 2019, 2.00-5.30 p.m.

Price: £50.00 / £45.00 students. Tea and coffee provided.
Venue: Stapleford Granary, Bury Road, Stapleford, Cambridge CB22 5BP.
CAMcard holders can book at the student price.

Trees in mist by Mika Luoma, Unsplash

Trees in mist by Mika Luoma, Unsplash

Nature Poetry

Nature has been an abiding concern for poets throughout history. After 1750, the natural world was subject to dramatic changes. Agricultural landscapes were transformed by the process of enclosure. Technological innovations spurred the rise of cities and caused massive shifts in the nature of work. How did poetry engage with these changes taking place in the natural world? And how does that poetry speak to us now?

Blake image.jpg

Introduction: Nature Under Pressure

Oliver Goldstein, Trinity Hall, Cambridge

One of William Blake's most famous poems from Songs of Experience begins with the line: ‘O Rose thou art sick.’ This lecture will consider the ways poets such as Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson and Christina Rossetti engaged with a ‘sick’ natural world under the conditions of industrial modernity. How did their nature poetry contemplate questions of beauty and waste? And how might their verse help us to think about climate change and environmental crisis today?

John Clare, 1793-1864

John Clare, 1793-1864

John Clare: Poet of Nature

Paul Chirico, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge 

John Clare (1793-1864) grew up in a labouring family in the village of Helpston on the edge of the Fens. Both his early working life and his social and cultural outlook were shaped by the enormous changes brought about by the local Enclosure Act in 1809.

His intimate love for his natural world underpinned an extraordinary and enduring body of poetry. This lecture will explore – and enjoy – that poetry in all its breadth, from minute observations of birds and plants, to narrative accounts of self-discovery in woodland or open landscape, to impassioned, finely-crafted declarations of resistance to environmental degradation.

We finish the day with a round-table seminar.


A Selection of nature poems. Further poems will be provided to participants who register for the course.

William Blake
The Sick Rose

O Rose thou art sick. 
The invisible worm, 
That flies in the night 
In the howling storm: 

Has found out thy bed 
Of crimson joy: 
And his dark secret love 
Does thy life destroy.

William Blake
Ah! Sun-Flower

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time, 
Who countest the steps of the Sun: 
Seeking after that sweet golden clime 
Where the traveller’s journey is done. 

Where the Youth pined away with desire, 
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow: 
Arise from their graves and aspire, 
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

William Blake
The Lamb

Little Lamb who made thee 
         Dost thou know who made thee 
Gave thee life & bid thee feed. 
By the stream & o'er the mead; 
Gave thee clothing of delight, 
Softest clothing wooly bright; 
Gave thee such a tender voice, 
Making all the vales rejoice! 
        Little Lamb who made thee
        Dost thou know who made thee 

         Little Lamb I'll tell thee, 
Little Lamb I'll tell thee!
He is called by thy name, 
For he calls himself a Lamb: 
He is meek & he is mild, 
He became a little child: 
I a child & thou a lamb, 
We are called by his name. 
        Little Lamb God bless thee. 
        Little Lamb God bless thee. 

William Blake
A Poison Tree

I was angry with my friend; 
I told my wrath, my wrath did end. 
I was angry with my foe: 
I told it not, my wrath did grow. 

And I waterd it in fears, 
Night and morning with my tears: 
And I sunned it with smiles, 
And with soft deceitful wiles. 

And it grew both day and night. 
Till it bore an apple bright. 
And my foe beheld it shine, 
And he knew that it was mine. 

And into my garden stole, 
When the night had veild the pole; 
In the morning glad I see; 
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

William Wordsworth
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

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.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

John Clare

'Tis evening; the black snail has got on his track,
And gone to its nest is the wren,
And the packman snail, too, with his home on his back,
Clings to the bowed bents like a wen.

The shepherd has made a rude mark with his foot
Where his shadow reached when he first came,
And it just touched the tree where his secret love cut
Two letters that stand for love's name.

The evening comes in with the wishes of love,
And the shepherd he looks on the flowers,
And thinks who would praise the soft song of the dove,
And meet joy in these dew-falling hours.

For Nature is love, and finds haunts for true love,
Where nothing can hear or intrude;
It hides from the eagle and joins with the dove,
In beautiful green solitude.

John Clare

The thistledown's flying, though the winds are all still, 
On the green grass now lying, now mounting the hill, 
The spring from the fountain now boils like a pot; 
Through stones past the counting it bubbles red-hot. 

The ground parched and cracked is like overbaked bread, 
The greensward all wracked is, bents dried up and dead. 
The fallow fields glitter like water indeed, 
And gossamers twitter, flung from weed unto weed. 

Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun, 
And the rivers we're eying burn to gold as they run; 
Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air; 
Whoever looks round sees Eternity there. 

John Clare
To the Fox Fern

Haunter of woods, lone wilds and solitudes
Where none but feet of birds and things as wild
Doth print a foot track near, where summer’s light
Buried in boughs forgets its glare and round thy crimpèd leaves
Feints in a quiet dimness fit for musings                                                   5
And melancholy moods, with here and there
A golden thread of sunshine stealing through
The evening shadowy leaves that seem to creep
Like leisure in the shade.

John Clare
The Skylark

The rolls and harrows lie at rest beside 
The battered road; and spreading far and wide 
Above the russet clods, the corn is seen 
Sprouting its spiry points of tender green, 
Where squats the hare, to terrors wide awake, 
Like some brown clod the harrows failed to break. 
Opening their golden caskets to the sun, 
The buttercups make schoolboys eager run, 
To see who shall be first to pluck the prize— 
Up from their hurry, see, the skylark flies, 
And o'er her half-formed nest, with happy wings 
Winnows the air, till in the cloud she sings, 
Then hangs a dust-spot in the sunny skies, 
And drops, and drops, till in her nest she lies, 
Which they unheeded passed—not dreaming then 
That birds which flew so high would drop agen 
To nests upon the ground, which anything 
May come at to destroy. Had they the wing 
Like such a bird, themselves would be too proud, 
And build on nothing but a passing cloud! 
As free from danger as the heavens are free 
From pain and toil, there would they build and be, 
And sail about the world to scenes unheard 
Of and unseen—Oh, were they but a bird! 
So think they, while they listen to its song, 
And smile and fancy and so pass along; 
While its low nest, moist with the dews of morn, 
Lies safely, with the leveret, in the corn. 

Christina Rossetti
Song (‘She sat and sang alway’)

She sat and sang alway
By the green margin of a stream,
Watching the fishes leap and play
    Beneath the glad sunbeam.

I sat and wept alway
    Beneath the moon’s most shadowy beam,
Watching the blossoms of the May
    Weep leaves into the stream.

I wept for memory;
    She sang for hope that is so fair:
My tears were swallowed by the sea;
    Her songs died on the air.

Christina Rossetti

Frost-locked all the winter,
Seeds, and roots, and stones of fruits,
What shall make their sap ascend
That they may put forth shoots?
Tips of tender green,
Leaf, or blade, or sheath;
Telling of the hidden life
That breaks forth underneath,
Life nursed in its grave by Death.

Blows the thaw-wind pleasantly,
Drips the soaking rain,
By fits looks down the waking sun:
Young grass springs on the plain;
Young leaves clothe early hedgerow trees;
Seeds, and roots, and stones of fruits,
Swollen with sap put forth their shoots;
Curled-headed ferns sprout in the lane;
Birds sing and pair again.

There is no time like Spring.
When life’s alive in everything,
Before new nestlings sing,
Before cleft swallows speed their journey back
Along the trackless track—
God guides their wing,
He spreads their table that they nothing lack,—
Before the daisy grows a common flower,
Before the sun has power
To scorch the world up in his noontide hour.

There is no time like Spring,
Like Spring that passes by;
There is no life like Spring-life born to die,—
Piercing the sod,
Clothing the uncouth clod,
Hatched in the nest,
Fledged on the windy bough,
Strong on the wing:
There is no time like Spring that passes by,
Now newly born, and now
Hastening to die.

Tiny Plant by Jeremy Bishop, Unsplash

Tiny Plant by Jeremy Bishop, Unsplash


British Library page on the Notebooks of William Blake (1757–1827).
British Library introduction to William Blake, ‘The Tyger’.
Stephen Hebron on Shelley, ‘To a Skylark’, BL website.
Philip Shaw, introduction to Wordsworth, ‘Tintern Abbey’, British Library website.
Manuscript and information about Wordsworth, ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,’ BL website.
Wordsworth, Poetry Foundation (US).
John Clare Society.
BBC Radio 4, In Our Time on John Clare.
Carl Phillips discusses John Clare, ‘On the Fox Fern’.
Richard Burton reads John Clare, ‘Autumn’.
Christina Rossetti, Poetry Foundation (US).
Victorian Web biography of Tennyson.
Victorian Web on Tennyson, ‘The Kraken’.
Jonathan Bate YouTube lecture, September 2018, on the Origins of Romanticism.

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Banner image at top: Tina Rataj-Berard, Unsplash.