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Nature in Poetry: CSEC English B Poem Analysis and Comparison

Updated: Nov 5, 2020


  • An African Thunderstorm

  • Sonnet Composed Upon Westminster Bridge

  • Orchids

  • God’s Grandeur

  • South

The presentations of nature vary across each of the poems above. In and of itself, nature is a concept that encompasses the Earth and all of its organic inner workings. The day to day shifts of natural occurrences are testaments to its constant regeneration and infinitely flowing fortitude. As expected of different artistic portrayals, each poem represents another facet of nature, ranging from its resilience to its insurmountable destructive power.

Describing the Expression of Nature

An African Thunderstorm relates the destructive power of nature. The persona suddenly finds himself and his village in the path of a terrifying thunderstorm, a chaotic amalgam of dark clouds and powerful winds. The clouds move with eager velocity, as stated in the line ‘clouds come hurrying with the wind.’ The wind’s haphazard darting and turning in all directions builds up the sense of speed and anxiety. The movement of the wind is so frantic that the poet likens it to ‘a plague of locusts,’ revealing the definite ruinous potential such quick winds possess. Just like a plague of locusts, known for devastating crops and moving in a semblance of unison despite comprising several thousands of individual tiny creatures, the wind’s power holds the potential to destroy all in its path, despite being the summation of the chaotic movement of air particles in a low pressure weather system such as this thunderstorm. Moreover, the wind is said to ‘toss things up on its tail’ confirming its disruption of all that it passes. The poet reinforces the idea of its frantic, uncoordinated movement and cataclysmic potential by relating it to a ‘madman chasing nothing,’ a person lacking in depth of thought and thus, moving with no clear pattern and assuredly a danger to themselves and others. The clouds are described as being ‘pregnant,’ personifying them to be like mothers with children growing within waiting to be released into the world. In the same way, the clouds are full of torrents of rain and bolts of lightning, like their own children of chaos to be deposited onto the land below. These clouds, high up in the sky, take on a level of dignity moving in the wind, as noted by the poet using a personification: ‘[the clouds] ride stately on [the wind’s] back.’ Their slow procession appears now dignified, like a Lord entering his feudal manor on the back of a noble steed. The rain clouds gather ‘to perch on hills like dark sinister wings,’ relating them to crows in their dark shade and an emanating sense of evil. The “trees bend to let [the wind] pass” as it whistles by, showing the sheer force of its movement- even forcing the strong, tall-standing trees to bend as though prostrating themselves before the wind’s undeniable power. The members of the village are bearing witness to the storm as it inches ever closer, eliciting different reactions. The children are delighted, screaming joyously at the prospect of something new occurring in their village. Though apparently out of place, their limited understanding of the world would lead them to find excitement in the novelty of abnormally quick winds and massive looming clouds. The women of the village seem to be mirroring the frantic movement of the wind from the previous stanza, daring ‘about, in and out madly.’ In this anxious shuffle, they may be hurriedly attempting to make preparations for the storm, or are in a panic unsure of what to do in such an unforeseen circumstance. This fear exhibited by these women appears to be inherited by their babies, who are ‘clinging on their backs,’ presumably out of trepidation as they too are buffeted by the powerful winds. The clothes of the people of the village are affected too, made to ‘wave like flags’ as they are blown about and even off of their bodies by violent winds. All of this reinforces the idea of impending doom- inhabitants of the village are faced by this immensely powerful force of nature with no choice but to be subjugated and ruined by its arrival.

Sonnet Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802 expresses nature’s striking beauty. The persona is simply awestruck by the existence of such a serene natural scene, complimenting profusely the elegant allure of the silent morning. This poem, in contrast to An African Thunderstorm, describes a scene that exemplifies nature’s power to inspire awe through its beauty rather than its power to destroy. The beginning of this sonnet is an exaggeration- the persona states that ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’ than the scene before him. So moved by the scenery, he proclaims that anyone able to pass by it without being compelled to admire it momentarily would be ‘dull… of soul.’ Thus, the persona subtly conveys that the idyllic sight before him directly calls to the soul of the one admiring it. The speaker is looking out over the city, stating with the use of a simile that the landscape ‘now doth, like a garment wear, the beauty of the morning.’ Like a dress, the city seems to be clothed or covered by something different from what the speaker is accustomed to. Although the city itself is the same, now clothed by the silent, elegant beauty of the morning, it takes on a new personality- a novel allure. The natural beauty of the morning is capable of even transforming manmade structures seen every day by our persona into a seemingly new scene capable of touching his very soul. The buildings ‘lie open unto the fields, and to the sky,’ becoming a part of their natural surroundings through the omnipresent veil of the silent morning. Now, though so distinctly different in composition to organic structures, they too appear ‘bright and glittering’ in air untainted by the smoke of industrial work created later on in the day. The poet’s ode continues- decreeing that the sun had never so beautifully ‘steep[ed] in his first splendour, valley, rock or hill,’ conveying that the sun’s appearance to him now, sitting at the very base of the sky like a teabag steeping in the bottom of a cup, is more beautiful and touching than he had ever seen it before. This alluring natural calm of the morning is one he had never yet felt or observed. Everything seems to be at peace in the eyes of the persona, even the river glides by ‘at his own sweet will,’ unencumbered by watercrafts and humans disrupting its easy flow. Under the peaceful calm of the morning, ‘the very houses seem asleep,’ as they, too, are at peace when the bustling of humanity is subdued in slumber. The ‘mighty heart’ of the city is ‘lying still,’ as much a part of the unshakeable calm as the natural scene around it. The poem exudes admiration in the speaker’s lavish expression of the tranquil scene before him. All seems calm, and his very soul is moved by it. Nature’s ability to refresh even such an industrial town with the stillness of morning is incredible to him, and shows a face of nature different to that expressed in An African Thunderstorm. Instead of seeing the tumultuous, chaotically powerful side of nature, he is exposed to its reinvigorating calm, able to create scenes of unmatchable majesty.

Orchids relates the poetic intrigue of nature’s resilience. An African Thunderstorm and Sonnet Composed view nature’s impact on a wider scale. Sonnet Composed is the speaker’s expression of nature’s ability to create beautiful, majestic scenes through the stillness of morning as he views the serene sight of Westminster wearing this veil of morning. An African Thunderstorm descriptively conveys the ruinous capabilities of nature- its potential to destroy and inspire fear as an inextricable force in the form of a storm. Orchids instead views a smaller scale impact of nature. The persona unwittingly bears witness to the resilience of the natural world in the form of a spray of strangely stubborn orchids. As the speaker clears their home to move after seemingly only five weeks, they have boxed this chapter of their life into pieces ready to be sent on ‘to fill spaces in [their] future life.’ Now all that remains, with seemingly no place among the other boxed pieces, is a spray of orchids. The persona finds no importance in these flowers, because, even though they were given to her as a gift, it was by a person who gives flowers habitually. Thus, the gift seems meaningless, simply a product of this person’s perfunctory habits. What the orchids lack in fragrance, they make up for in visual appeal, as ‘the purple petals draw you to look at the purple heart.’ The purple centres of these orchids, referred to as ‘hearts’ to create a clever allusion to the US military prize (purple heart), are appealing to the persona. Alluding to the US military prize of the purple heart suggests that these flowers, like the soldiers granted these awards, have done something brave and valiant in their existence. The speaker reveals that they had only watered the orchids once ‘when the blossoms were full blown like polished poems,’ showing that despite their acknowledgement of the orchids’ pristine and complicated allure, they still expressed indifference to their survival. So much so, in fact, that the persona says that they were ‘sure they’d wilt, and [they would] toss them out with the five-week litter.’ The persona had expected that, in light of his negligence of their wellbeing, the orchids would succumb to the unpropitious state of their situation and die- becoming yet another thing to be discarded at the end of this chapter of his life. But, miraculously, valiantly even, they refuse to die. The persona ‘starved them,’ possibly intentionally, to deny the vapid, ritualistic nature of the gift, but they persevere nonetheless. The morning the persona intends to leave, ‘the bud at the stalk’s tip unfurled.’ Not only have the orchids survived in the face of adversity, they have thrived to the point at which the bud has bloomed in maturity. This curious turn of events motivates the speaker to preserve one of the blooms ‘between pages of memory’ rather than discarding them, hoping to one day discover the ‘peculiar poetry’ of the orchids once they dry and can be seen through (literally and figuratively). The speaker attempts to stifle the orchids through his own negligence, but is instead met head on by the remarkable resilience of nature. He is forced to notice these orchids despite initially writing them off as completely meaningless due to the nature of the gift and the giver of the gift. The peculiar poetry in the survival of these orchids communicates a fundamental idea surrounding the power of nature. In the poem, the persona experiences the valiant perseverance of these orchids- their survival and subsequent thriving- in the face of adverse circumstances created by an inattentive owner. In the same way, nature is capable of the same resilience, even when the humans within it ignore its wellbeing out of misguided indifference. In the short liminal time between shifts in a nomadic lifestyle, the persona encounters this curious circumstance and is taught a lesson of the resilience and bravery nature possesses through a stubborn spray of orchids.

God’s Grandeur examines nature from a religious standpoint, highlighting its undying regenerative quality which renews the world constantly despite the tireless attempts of humanity to tarnish its lustre. An African Thunderstorm created a scene of terror and impending doom highlighting the face of nature which holds cataclysmic potential. This is similar to the expression of God in the Bible when coupled with the facet of nature conveyed in God’s Grandeur. Nature, like God, transitions between periods of harsh destruction and sublime revitalizing calm. Sonnet Composed presents nature similarly to God’s Grandeur, highlighting its majestic beauty in applying a new veil of calm to even the mighty, industrialized city in the morning, where God’s Grandeur intimates a wider view of the organic world’s regenerative property even when tainted by human pursuits. Orchids’ relation of nature mirrors that of this poem most closely, however. Orchids tells a tale of someone inadvertently bearing witness to nature’s resilience, with or without human interference- just like how God’s Grandeur highlights the ability of nature to regenerate daily even when trod upon by generations of selfish humans. This poem, however, is seen through the eyes of a persona who already understands this resilient natural world- and now expresses his admiration of it while relating the role of the spiritual source of this power. In God’s Grandeur, the persona declares with the beginning of the poem that the natural world is ‘charged with the grandeur of God,’ indicating that nature is imbued with an innate energy related directly to God’s great power. The world is ‘charged’ as though with an electric current, but an alternate reading of the use of the word ‘charged’ suggests that instead, the people of the world are given responsibility of God’s grandeur. The greatness of God is given a fulminant, volatile quality, as it will ‘flame out, like shining from shook foil.’ It is in this ascription of the impressively beautiful and great grandeur of God that the poet introduces the point of perplexity for the speaker. This imposing strength, grandiose and fulminant for all the world to see, is understandably deserving of deference from all of creation. However, the speaker finds that humans do not accede to God’s divine authority. Instead, humanity is fixated on commercial pursuits and personal gain. The natural world, once untainted in the moment of God’s careful creation, is now ‘seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil.’ Man’s obsession with industry has left its mark on the world. In pursuing gains through financial systems of his own creation, man throws the state of the natural world to the wayside to extract, manipulate and exploit it by all means necessary. Now, all ‘wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell,’ showing that everything with which humanity has interacted in seeking self-satisfaction is besmirched by the mark of human industrialism. Everything has been impacted- nature is tainted by man’s pursuits. Once overgrowing with vegetation, ‘the soil is bare now,’ exhausted from the exploitation of commercial agriculture and being crushed under the feet of apathetic humans. It appears that man has become numb to his own connection to nature, as their feet cannot even feel the earth below, ‘being shod.’ Covered by shoes, they trample greenery without a second thought, unfeeling and indifferent. Despite all this, ‘nature is never spent.’ The natural world is never completely exhausted, even when trod upon by generations of humans who taint their surroundings with the stench of industry. The persona intimates that deep down in everything ‘lives the dearest freshness.’ This freshness is inherent to nature, charged with God’s insurmountable power, reinvigorating the world even through adversity. Even though night falls and the day comes to an end, ‘morning… springs,’ forward yet again. The world returns to fullness day after day, because, according to the speaker, the Holy Ghost, like a bird brooding over its eggs, protects the earth, warms it, and refreshes it every passing day, regardless of the abrasive impact of humanity.

South is a lot more complex in its presentation of nature. Instead of viewing nature from the perspective of the persona’s experience, nature is analysed in direct relation to the persona. The natural world has a direct bearing on the speaker, and thus, South expresses nature’s ability to affect feelings of detachment and nostalgia whilst representing a conduit for our own emotional changes. The poem opens with a triumphant statement of the persona’s reclamation of the ‘bright beaches’ and ‘blue mist from the ocean’ of his homeland. This, the land of his birth, is characterized by a direct connection to nature. The scenery and ‘sound of the sea’ breathes life into him, and is therefore always connected to emotions of happiness surrounding his childhood. When the speaker travels away from his homeland, the natural scenery around him changes- ‘bright beaches’ are replaced with northern lands in ‘slanting sleet and… hail;’ the shores of the ocean are replaced by ‘saltless savannas,’ all devoid of the ocean and island scenery he so loves. His home is now in the forest, where ‘shadows oppress [him]’ and the sea is no where to be seen- the only water he has is the ‘rain and the tepid taste of the river.’ At this point, the persona has experienced several extremes of the manifestations of nature. His early life, lit up by sunshine, spiced by the salt of the sea and given ambiance by the sound of the waves is dear to him. So much so, that every place he goes, he highlights their lack of the salty ocean (‘saltless’, ‘tepid taste’). Nature now has a direct bearing on his emotions- such a jarring shift from the life he once knew makes him feel oppressed and dejected. The river, he says, is no solace to him. The infinite flowing of the river mirrors his own unending longing for his home and the landscape which warms his heart. Nature reflects not only the thing for which he longs, but also the thing which mirrors his own yearning. When he denies the river and its ‘cunning declension down to the sea,’ he also denies his own yearning. But, when he is finally able to accept it, understanding its natural flow as a chronicle of history, he is finally able to be where both he and the river end, the sea. In this way, the river works as a method of coping for a homesick man, constantly searching for his homeland wherever he goes and being constantly disappointed. Finally able to return- reminiscing joyously despite all the hardships he must pass in his memory- the speaker is revitalized. ‘Bright waves splash up from the rocks to refresh’ the persona as he plunges headfirst into an idealized nostalgic visualization of his childhood home. Nature is no longer a mirror for his yearning, but rather a refreshing force which unencumbers him and remains as a pillar of the joy he recalls from childhood. ‘Small urchins… look up from their traps to salute’ the persona. ‘A starfish lies in its pool,’ relaxed and unburdened just like the lifestyle of the island. The persona has returned home in memory, able to experience the beautiful natural world unfold before him the way he remembers it. Nature becomes what reinvigorates him, and his progression from denial to acceptance allows him to indulge (in memory) a world of bright beaches and blue sea shells once more.

NB: On the CSEC English B Paper 2, the student is given a choice between two poetry essay questions. Since 2009, these two questions have followed a basic formula: the first question names two poems and asks that the student compare them based on a theme or concept presented by both poems. The second question always asks the student select two poems on the syllabus that present the theme given (i.e. the poems are not named). Each question is then split up into 3 parts (a, b and c) with marks allocated in the ratio of 8:8:9 (total: 25 marks). The 3 question parts will always consist of a description question (i.e. relate/describe what the poem is about or a certain aspect of the poem); a discussion (or comment) question, which requires that the student introduce and argue their own views on the attitude of the speaker in a poem, the effects of a certain theme in the poem, the treatment of that idea/theme or which poem is more effective/appealing; and a poetic device question, (always valued at 9 marks) where the student must recall a poetic device from each poem which expresses the theme given and discuss its effectiveness along with the type of figurative device. Of course, there are several different ways that these questions can be expressed, but that is the basic structure of every CSEC poetry question since 2009.

As each CSEC question requires the comparison of 2 poems, there are 380 possible permutations (combinations) of 2. However, excluding repeated combinations in this calculated value, there are also poems that have no common themes (at least as interpreted in this document). So, for the purpose of efficiency, reason and organization, the poems will be compared and separated based on themes whilst highlighting theme-related poetic devices, describing the poem in relation to the theme and exploring possible discussions.

Comparisons will be made for every theme and then uploaded as a full document.

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