Nemerov’s “Elegy for a Nature Poet”

If the previous volume saw a sudden introduction of poems about nature, the early ‘60’s saw a sudden increase in humorous poems. In fact, humor, bordering on sarcasm and cynicism become prominent in The Next Room of the Dream (1962).

This one is probably my favorite for rather obvious reasons:

ELEGY FOR A NATURE POET

It was in October, a favorite season,
He went for his last walk. The covered bridge,
Most natural of all the works of reason,
Received him, let him go. Along the hedge

He rattled his stick; observed the blackening bushes
In his familiar field; thought he espied
Late meadow larks; considered picking rushes
For a dry arrangement; returned home, and died

of a catarrh caught in the autumn rains
And let go on uncared for. He was too rapt
In contemplation to recall that brains
Like his should not be kept too long uncapped

In the wet and cold weather. While we mourned,
We thought of his imprudence, and how Nature,
Whom he’d done so much for, had finally turned
Against her creature.

His gift was daily his delight, he peeled
The landscape back to show it was a story;
Any old bird or burning bush revealed
At his hands just another allegory.

Nothing too great, nothing too trivial
For him; from mountain range or humble vermin
He could extract the hidden parable-
If need be, crack the stone to get the sermon.

And now, poor man, he’s gone. Without his name
The field reverts to wilderness again,
The rocks are silent, woods don’t seem the same;
Demoralized small birds will fly insane.

Rude Nature, whom he loved to idealize
And would have wed, pretends she never heard
His voice at all, as, taken by surprise
At last, he goes to her without a word.

It’s easy to forget in your admiration of nature’s beauty that there’s always a darker side to that beauty. If you only see wolves or tigers in the zoo, you’re liable to forget that they survive by killing all those other animals you find so beautiful.

The heart of the poem seems to be found in the lines, “He was too rapt/ In contemplation to recall that brains/ Like his should not be kept too long uncapped.” The pun carries the humor, though it’s definitely a dark humor to fit the subject matter of the poem. Those who romanticize nature do so at their own risk.

It’s too easy to fall into the trap of seeing nature as we would like it to be, rather than seeing it in its fullness, which turns out to be awesomely beautiful in its own right.

3 thoughts on “Nemerov’s “Elegy for a Nature Poet”

  1. As Patchen wrote, death waits for everything that lives.

    The Scottish writer, Duncan Maclean, wrote something that’s pretty dark, but has been stuck in my head for years:

    The Big Man That Dropped Dead

    I had this pal that knew about poetry, he was in the mental asylum. He could speak poetry really good, in fact he couldn’t speak anything else. He’d see it up there and he’d just pull it down and speak it. On and on. He dropped dead though. I was standing there and he fell down right in front of me. Aye he was a big man, but he just dropped dead. So there you go, eh, poetry…

What do you think?