The Spirit in nature

Daily Reading for October 12 • Vida Dutton Scudder, Educator and Witness for Peace, 1954 (transferred)

The truth of universal force is recognized by science as a physical fact; it becomes in poetry a spiritual law. It follows that the delight of the poets centres no longer in permanent scenes, but dwells rather on those constantly shifting and successive manifestations of power which forever struggle to shadow forth to us the ideal beauty that lies beyond our senses’ ken. The old style of dry enumeration vanishes; the sadness of decay is recognized as the necessary condition of the law of growth; and the treatment of nature, which had been purely pictorial, becomes akin to another art, — the art of the musician. As the essence of music lies in change, and the chord, indefinitely prolonged, would be no music at all, so it seems to us with the deeper harmony of the life of the world. It is curious to see how this love for transition as distinguished from permanence pervades nearly every allusion to nature in our modern poetry. The power delicately to seize fleeting effects, elusive phases of beauty, — is not this what lends interest for us to a poet’s work? Not the moments when the beauty is fixed, but those when it is fugitive, are the favorites of our poets. Listen for a moment to this description in “The Sunset”:

“There now the sun had set, but lines of gold

Hung on the ashen clouds, and on the points

Of the far level grass and nodding flowers,

And the old dandelion’s hoary head,

And mingled with the shades of evening, lay

On the brown mossy wood; and in the East

The broad and burning moon lingeringly rose

Between the black trunks of the farthest trees,

While the faint stars were gathering overhead.”

See how evanescent is the moment which the poet has chosen to depict. Another instant and the gold will have faded from the dun soft clouds, and the moon have risen above the treetops. See how the charm of the scene lies in the tremulous sense of a beauty too unearthly to linger, the reference in the first line to the day that had fled, in the last to the gathering night. The lines are Shelley’s; and more, perhaps, than any other poet Shelley is steeped in this sense of elastic and never-resting force. He turns aside with impatience from anything fixed. The soaring circle of the lark, the flowing of the river, the drift of the cloud across the sky, the onward sweep of the west wind, — these are the aspects on which he constantly lingers. Few of them, indeed, will you find emphasized in older poetry. Among our other modern poets the same tendency is hardly less marked. The revolution in temper can hardly be measured between a generation perfectly satisfied with Milton’s mechanical catalogues, or Thompson’s stereotyped and isolated studies, and one which expresses its attitude towards nature in such a poem as Wordsworth’s Lucy. In poets the most diverse — in Tennyson, Rossetti, Kingsley, Emerson — we find the same delicate vitality in the treatment of nature; and we can ascribe the change to nothing if not to the new perception of all phenomena as alike maintained and destroyed by an innate principle of force.

From The Life of the Spirit in the Modern English Poets by Vida D. Scudder (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1899).

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