The English Romantic poets of the 19th Century had a conception about nature that, over a century later, appears in the poetry of today. These poets have had a significant influence on the attitude and vocabulary a contemporary poet uses.
Among the contemporary poets, Dana Gioia, in his two poems, “Becoming a Redwood,” and “Rough Country,” has drawn on the idea of the innocence and untainted part of nature that parallels the Romantic poetry of William Wordsworth and William Blake in their poems “Nutting,” and “The Tyger.” Also, Gioia has captured the wild-like and untamable demeanor of nature that many English Romantics have similarly captured. Finally, Gioia uses the concept of the sublime in his poetry to the extent that nature becomes dangerous to humans.
Many English Romantic poets have written about the innocent and purity that can be found in nature. In Wordsworth’s “Nutting,” he comments on the beauty of the innocence of an “unvisited” nook his character discovers. Wordsworth writes, “Unvisited, where not a broken bough / Drooped with its withered leaves, ungracious sign / Of devastation; but the hazels rose / tall and erect, with tempting clusters hung, / A virgin scene!” (Ln17-31) Wordsworth is commenting on the innocence and beauty of nature without human intrusion.
This Romantic conception of innocence parallels Gioia in his poem “Rough Country.” He writes, ” a spot so hard to reach that no one comes– / a hiding place, a shrine for dragonflies / and nesting jays, a sign that there is still / one piece of property that won’t be owned.” (17-20) This last line implies that this part of nature will remain untouched, this part of nature will remain pure and innocent, and a Romantic conception of nature that even Gioia has adopted in his poetry.
Another conception that the English Romantics held about nature was that nature is wild and untamable. This wild-like aspect of nature is described in William Blake’s “The Tyger.” Blake writes, “Tyger, Tyger / Burning bright / In the forests of the night / What immortal hand or eye / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?” (1-4) Blake creates this image of the Tyger as a wild beast, an untamable creature of the forest, and thereby composes nature the same way.
Gioia in many ways parallels this view in his poems. In his poem “Rough Country,” nature is viewed as “a place no engineers can master,” (6)”a landscape made of obstacles / of steep hills and jutting glacial rock.”(1-2) This nature Gioia describes is not sweet and delicate or fantastic; on the contrary, this attitude toward nature is fierce and ferine. The landscape of the nature in this rough country is not welcoming to human’s tread, just as the “Tyger” in William Blake’s poem would not be.
In Gioia’s “Becoming a Redwood,” a wild and untamed animal is also found in this passage, “Something moves nearby. Coyotes hunt / these hills and packs of feral dogs. / But standing here accepts all that.” (19-21) Both the Tyger and the coyote have the instinct that embodies nature and both are wild animals. Gioia draws on the Romantic conception that there is wild freedom found in nature.
This concept of wild freedom and untamable nature can be more clearly seen through the diction of the poems. Wordsworth writes, “At thorns, and brakes, and brambles, — and, in truth, / More ragged than need was! O’er pathless rocks, / Through beds of matted fern, and tangled thickets, / Forcing my way, I came to one dear nook / Unvisited.” (13-17)
In Gioia’s “Rough Country,” he uses words like “tangled” (10) and “twisting” (13) and “thorn thick underbrush,” (13) all of which Wordsworth uses in his poem “Nutting.” Gioia writes, “Where tall black trunks of lightning-scalded pine / push through the tangled woods to make a roost / for hawks and swarming crows. / And sharp inclines / where twisting through the thorn-thick underbrush.”(9-14) In each passage, these poets present nature as something wild, rugged, and difficult to maneuver simply through their chosen words.
There is also a certain fear and respect of the wild, the rugged, and the untamable part of nature that can be seen in the poems of the English Romantics. In Wordsworth’s, “The Prelude: Book 1, 340-400,” he talks about the powerful image of the peak, “a huge peak, black and huge / as if with voluntary power instinct.” (39-40) Introducing the concept of the sublime he writes, “And growing still in stature and grim shape /
Towered up between me and the stars, and still, / For so it seemed, with purpose of its own / And measured motion like a living thing, / Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned.” (42-46) The powerful presence of this mountain, and its inability to be controlled causes man to fear it, and thus fear nature.
William Blake can also see the danger of nature in “The Tyger.” The Tyger represents a villainous side to nature, one that is careless, and does not worry about man. He writes, “In what distant deeps or skies / Burnt the fire of thine eyes? / On what wings dare he aspire? / What the hand dare seize the fire?” (5-8) This frightening aspect of the sublime, one in which man is afraid yet in awe of the power of nature can be seen in the work of Gioia. In Gioia’s, “Becoming a Redwood,” we are in awe of nature with the magnificence of the towering redwood tree.
Gioia writes, “Unimaginable the redwoods on the far hill / rooted for centuries, the living wood grown tall / and thickened with a hundred thousand days of light.” (13-15) With this splendor the wild part of nature implies that there is danger nearby. He writes, “Part of the grass that answers the wind / part of the midnight’s watchfulness that knows / there is no silence but when danger comes.” (25-27) This English Romantic concept of sublime that Gioia uses, makes humans to not only fear nature such as the Tyger or the mountains, but also to hold high respect for its beauty and magnificence.
It is interesting to see how much of our history actually does repeat itself. It is amazing that even today, we are asking the same questions about nature and coming to similar conclusions as people did in the 19th century. Its not that nature hasn’t changed, but the attitudes toward nature still build on many general English Romantic ideas.
Dana Gioia, in particular, has taken some of the same attitudes toward nature as the Romantics have; he has developed the untamable and wildness of nature, the innocent and virgin, as well as the sublime in his two poems, “Becoming a Redwood,” and “Rough Country.”
English Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth and William Blake influence each of his poems. Because of their strong influence on contemporary poets today, it would not be surprising to see their influence carry on in yet another century, and have the influence on poets for years to come.