Modernist writers and artists were heavily influenced by the remarkable series of heavily popularized, late 19th, early 20-th century scientific findings that can still stir controversy today. The work of Darwin and Einstein in particular, as well as the less scientific work of Freud contributed to the notion that human nature was not what it used to be. The mechanized mass slaughter of World War I appeared to verify the modern picture of humans as driven by unconscious drives and primordial animal urges.
T.S. Elliot’s poem “Sweeney Among The Nightingales” can be read as a disturbed response to Darwin. The main character, Apeneck Sweeney, “the silent vertebrate” is portrayed as an ape who eats ‘oranges bananas figs and hothouse grapes’ in a café while being hit on by prostitutes. Against these animal images Eliot placed allusions to and images from classical literature – a literature which, despite the rampant violence and depravity it depicts, portrays humans as noble and heroic.
Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh,
The zebra stripes along his jaw
Swelling to maculate giraffe.
The circles of the stormy moon
Slide westward toward the River Plate,
Death and the Raven drift above
And Sweeney guards the horned gate.
Gloomy Orion and the Dog
Are veiled; and hushed the shrunken seas;
The person in the Spanish cape
Tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees
Slips and pulls the table cloth
Overturns a coffee-cup,
Reorganized upon the floor
She yawns and draws a stocking up;
The silent man in mocha brown
Sprawls at the window-sill and gapes;
The waiter brings in oranges
Bananas figs and hothouse grapes;
The silent vertebrate in brown
Contracts and concentrates, withdraws;
Rachel née Rabinovitch
Tears at the grapes with murderous paws;
She and the lady in the cape
Are suspect, thought to be in league;
Therefore the man with heavy eyes
Declines the gambit, shows fatigue,
Leaves the room and reappears
Outside the window, leaning in,
Branches of wistaria
Circumscribe a golden grin;
The host with someone indistinct
Converses at the door apart,
The nightingales are singing near
The Convent of the Sacred Heart,
And sang within the bloody wood
When Agamemnon cried aloud,
And let their liquid droppings fall
To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.
Inspired by this morning’s brunch of toad in the hole and baby bridies at St. Louis’ great Scotch bar, I’ve chosen Robert Burns’ “Nature’s Law” (1786) as this Sunday’s poem. The poem is about reproduction, and instead of God’s command to multiply and replenish the Earth, the drive to reproduce is here presented as Nature’s Law. Assigning the attributes of God to Nature (with a capital N, naturally) became a common tactic of the Romantics, who avoided traditional symbols of piety, as well as the hyper-rational Deism of Age of Enlightenment.
Recognizing “nature’s law” of reproduction is the first step towards Malthusian logic, the second step being the recognition of the consequences of unbridled reproduction. Malthus published his groundbreaking An essay on the principle of population twelve years after this poem, and of course Malthus’ writing was a direct influence on Darwin and his discovery of natural selection.
“Great Nature spoke: observant man obey’d” – Pope
Let other heroes boast their scars,
The marks of sturt and strife:
And other poets sing of wars,
The plagues of human life:
Shame fa’ the fun, wi’ sword and gun
To slap mankind like lumber!
I sing his name, and nobler fame,
Wha multiplies our number.
Great Nature spoke, with air benign,
“Go on, ye human race;
This lower world I you resign;
Be fruitful and increase.
The liquid fire of strong desire
I’ve pour’d it in each bosom;
Here, on this had, does Mankind stand,
And there is Beauty’s blossom.” Continue reading “Sunday Science Poem – Nature’s Law”
A poem on the difficulty of seeing and comprehending the world without metaphor or without “posing” its parts in our mental constructs, Wallace Stevens’ “Add This To Rhetoric”:
It is posed and it is posed
But in nature it merely grows.
Stones pose in the falling night;
And beggars dropping to sleep,
They pose themselves and their rags.
Shucks...lavender moonlight falls.
The building pose in the sky
And, as you paint, the clouds,
Grisaille, impearled, profound,
Pfft... In the way you speak
You arrange, the thing is posed,
What in nature merely grows.
To-morrow when the sun,
For all your images,
Comes up as the sun, bull fire,
Your images will have left
No shadow of themselves.
The poses of speech, of paint,
Of music - Her body lies
Worn out, her arm falls down,
Her fingers touch the ground.
Above her, to the left,
A brush of white, the obscure,
The moon without a shape,
A fringed eye in a crypt.
The sense creates the pose.
In this it moves and speaks.
This is the figure and not
An evading metaphor.
Add this. It is to add.
The first two sentences of this poem lay out the theme, our struggle to understand what “merely grows” using the only tools we have available, mental constructs, within which we pose and pose again the parts of nature. It should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), that this applies to scientists as much as it applies to the poet. Continue reading “Sunday Poem: Imposing poses on nature”