Nature poems

Winter scene with frost
“When the willow world is with hoarfrost hung …”

Yesterday, I praised an early nature poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins inspired by his youthful sense of wonder.

More than 30 years ago, I woke up to a Minnesota morning that looked like a winter wonderland.  It was not snow, but frost that coated everything.  The thickest frost I’d ever seen.

It was Saturday morning, and in those days, Garrison Keillor was a local radio personality with a Saturday morning show on the local public station.  (His “Prairie Home Companion” show was just taking off, and so he still had a day job.)

He memorialized the remarkable morning by reading poetry celebrating frost and winter. I was so inspired I wrote one of my own.


When the willow world is with hoarfrost hung,
And the white fog lifts leaving trees bright new,
The foliage flashes with a crystal clue
Of how the world looked when light first leaped young.

Before man’s weight and weakness had begun
To break the branch or bruise the sodden slough,
The garden grew unburdened, bathed in dew,
Grew like a canticle, perfectly sung.


“My own heart let me have more pity on”

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poetic champion
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1884-1889)

Gerard Manley Hopkins deserves a special mention.  He’d be a poetic champion based solely on the fact he wrote some stunning poems, doing things with the language I’ve never seen anywhere else.

But he also labored in obscurity, published almost nothing during lifetime, and had to overcome inner conflicts over whether he should even be indulging in poetry at all.

He was born in 1842 into an artistic English family of devout High Anglicans.  A bright boy, he studied classics at Oxford, where he flourished as a poet and enjoyed a lively social life.  But he underwent a religious crisis and was drawn to Roman Catholicism.  He converted, to the consternation of his family, and eventually became a Jesuit priest.

During this period of turbulence, Hopkins was wracked with guilt and self-doubt.  He decided that poetry was too self centered.  So he burned his work.

Good thing for us, at Oxford he had formed a friendship with Robert Bridges (who eventually became the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom).  Hopkins had shared some of his poems with Bridges, so not all his early work was destroyed.

Hopkins later became more comfortable with using his poetic gifts and wrote a limited number of wonderful and innovative poems.  His more popular works are fairly well known.  “Pied Beauty” and “The Windhover” deservedly make it into anthologies and are still studied today.

I love one of his early works called “Winter with the Gulf Stream.”  (Could it have been one that Bridges preserved from Hopkins’ bonfire?)  It’s not included in most collections of his work, but the first few lines knock me out:

The boughs, the boughs are bare enough
But earth has never felt the snow.
Frost-furred our ivies are and rough
With bills of rime the brambles shew.
The hoarse leaves crawl on hissing ground
Because the sighing wind is low.

I think Robert Frost must have had those lines in the back of his mind when he wrote “Reluctance”:

The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.

Probably my favorite of all Hopkins’ poems is the achingly beautiful “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child.”  Take a look and see if you can read it without choking up a little.

My first poetic champion


My mother, Ida Mae Ball, loved poetry.  Her own mother died when she was just a girl, so she dropped out of school to help raise her younger siblings.  She never got to go to high school, but she loved the music of English words artfully strung together.

She read the American classics of the time: Wordsworth, Emerson, Eugene Field, and even that new fellow, Frost.  Some of my earliest memories are of her reading to me from “The Duel” (aka “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat,”) “Lil’ Boy Blue,” and “Hiawatha.”

She filled a buffet drawer scraps of paper bearing homespun verse she had copied by hand, or clipped from the pages of Capper’s Weekly.  After her death, I found her Bible.  It was worn out and held together at the spine with pieces of packing tape.  Tucked amongst the hand-scrawled Bible verses and sermon notes was a tiny piece of paper where she had written this fragment from John Greenleaf Whittier:

Of all sad words of tongue or pen
The saddest of these, it might have been

In her 70s, Mother began a long, slow journey with Alzheimer’s.  At first we thought she was just getting forgetful, but, in time, we realized she was losing her faculties.  She forgot names and nouns.

Early on, she devised clever strategies to trick us into helping her fill in the missing blanks.  “I’m going to the, um, you know,” she would offer, hoping one of us would bail her out by supplying “the A&P,” or the name of some other destination that had eluded her.

But, in time, she lost the ability to play Guess the Word with anyone.  She slipped away from us and never came back, even though she lived for years neither speaking nor, as far as we could tell, understanding anything spoken to her.  She lived so long probably due to some diligent care at the county nursing home in our small Missouri town, and to the fact my father visited her every day and spoon fed her lunch.

I wrote her a poem, which I read at her funeral.


Dear gentle woman grown so early old,
You’ve all but left us on our lonesome own.
Now after many years to spirit sown,
A creeping glacier scrapes your memory cold.
You, greener days ago, recited verse,
And planted hardy seeds of simple song
That rooted deep, perennial and strong,
To flourish in the shadow of the hearse.
Today your weathered hands no longer know
The jonquil from the mum, nor how to weed.
Today you prattle on without the seed
Of sense, that for so long you toiled to grow.
So now for you I pick this small bouquet,
Out of the garden patch you used to tend,
Now choked with worldly weeds from end to end,
In need of hands to cultivate its clay.