Romanticism and Postmodernism in W. S. Merwin's "The Rain in the Trees"

Updated on December 18, 2017

The teaching assistant who instructed my introductory poetry workshop in college once said that she and a fellow creative writing graduate student referred to themselves as “Pomo Ros”—postmodern Romantics. She elaborated that she thought the greatest poetry was essentially Romantic because in it “what you want the most, you can’t have.” She didn’t say what made her and her cohort postmodern, though.

The term “postmodern Romantic” might as well have been coined to characterize W. S. Merwin and his treatment of nature in The Rain in the Trees, the volume that probably presents Merwin’s devotion to nature and ecological vision most fully and cogently. In this book, Merwin propounds an essentially Romantic primacy of nature over the human world but eschews, as postmodernism would, the metaphysical underpinning the Romantics usually give to this primacy, basing it instead on empirical fact and on the subjective perception of his speakers. The Rain in the Trees also at times exhibits a Romantic yearning for a language ideally fit to express the full reality of nature and not reducing it to a rationalistic understanding, while at others casting postmodernist doubts about any language’s ability to represent nature. Finally, the book continues a Romantic tradition of admiring indigenous peoples’ closeness to nature but uses postmodernist ideas of the limitations of language and the rejection of moral absolutes to complicate its participation in this tradition.

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Humanity and Nature

Akin to much Romantic literature, The Rain in the Trees valorizes nature above the human and uses a common Romantic device for doing so: associating nature with the divine or mythic. Ralph Waldo Emerson does this most definitively among the Romantics in Nature, defining nature as the physical vessel and reflection of his pantheistic spiritual essence, the Over-Soul.

  1. Words are signs of natural facts.
  2. Particular natural facts are symbols of spiritual facts.
  3. Nature is the symbol of spirit.

As critic Roger Thompson comments, “Emerson constructs here the metaphysical value of nature by assigning spiritual power to all nature symbols. The transcendentalist nature poet, following from Emerson’s formulation, takes as his or her subject divine immanence.” Emerson’s identification of nature as a manifestation of the divine is, of course, anticipated in a less axiomatic way earlier in Romanticism by William Wordsworth, who apostrophizes to it in The Prelude,

Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!

Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought

That givest to forms and images a breath

And everlasting motion, not in vain

By day or star-light thus from my first dawn

Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me

The passions that build up our human soul …

….In November days,

When vapours rolling down the valley made

A lonely scene more lonesome, among woods,

At noon and ‘mid the calm of summer nights,

When, by the margin of the trembling lake,

Beneath the gloomy hills homeward I went

In solitude, such intercourse was mine;

Mine was it in the fields both day and night,

And by the waters, all the summer long[;]

describes it in “Tintern Abbey,”

And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things[;]

and personifies nature’s power and grandeur in mythological figures in the sonnet “The world is too much with us; late and soon,”

Great God! I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Emerson’s most celebrated disciple, Henry David Thoreau, also artistically illustrates his principle of nature embodying divinity. In voicing his reverence for Walden Pond, Thoreau more than once compares the pond to the sky or heaven, asserts that “its water … should be as sacred as the Ganges at least,” and relates, “One proposes that it be called ‘God’s Drop.’” Romanticism thus positions nature as a portal in the physical world through which we can sense a more spiritual reality.

The Rain in the Trees also employs associations with the divine and the mythic to exalt nature. Early in the collection, “The First Year” creates an atmosphere with Edenic undertones for the speaker’s and his companion’s experience of nature’s rejuvenation and innocence:

we saw the first day begin

out of the calling water

and the black branches

leaves no bigger than your fingertips

were unfolding on the tree of heaven

against the old stained wall

their green sunlight

that had never shone before

waking together we were the first

to see them …

The repetition of “first,” the joint solitude of the speaker and addressee in a (mostly) natural setting, the tree that the speaker identifies in celestial terms—all these parallels to the Eden story in Genesis contribute to a sense of nature as a divinely ordained arena for the couple’s delight. The speaker of “Pastures” endows the very vocabulary of nature with sanctity (“I was taught the word/pasture as though/it came from the Bible …”), an approach derivable from Emerson’s propositions that “[w]ords are signs of natural facts” and “[p]articular natural facts are symbols of spiritual facts.” The central tree in Merwin’s allegory of environmental apocalypse “The Crust,” whose felling precipitates Earth’s destruction because the tree’s “roots held it together/and with the tree/went all the lives in it,” echoes the Yggsdrasil, Norse mythology’s cosmic tree containing all the worlds—both symbolizing our dependence on nature and portraying it as of an order much greater than ourselves, notwithstanding our ability to damage it. “Kanaloa” more overtly references mythology and inverts Emerson’s metaphysics by depicting nature centering on or being contained in a divine being, the titular Hawaiian god of the ocean:

wherever he looked the sun was coming toward him

the moon was coming toward him

month after month the wind was coming toward him

behind the day the night was coming toward him

all the stars all the comets all the depth of the sea

all the darkness in the earth all the silence all the cold

all the heights were coming toward him …

… he houses the ghosts of the trees

the ghosts of the animals

of the whales and the insects

Concomitant with their exalting nature through connecting it to the divine and mythic, the Romantics as well as Merwin devalue the human world as inferior to and alienated from nature. Business constitutes a particular bête noire for them. In Merwin’s poem “Glasses,” the herd of humanity unthinkingly pursues material gain, estranged by its focus on money and remove from the earth from the splendor of the non-human world around it:

it is morning and they pour

one by one out of the door

they are real glass and thin

and the wind is blowing

the sky is racing

they come to drink from the steel fountain

they come to walk on the carpet

they come past the doors

of frosted glass

they turn in the windows at the end of the hall

in amber light

ninety floors from the ground

walking on empty evening

they pay the electric bills

they owe money

all the stars turn in vast courses around them

unnoticed

they vote

they buy their tickets

they applaud

they go into the elevator

thinking of money

with the quiet gleam of money

“Glasses” articulates the same resentment of “[g]etting and spending” diverting us from nature’s spiritual nourishment as “The world is too much with us,” and adds dire consequences. The description of those who live in “the system” as glassy and thin implies a soullessness; their characters are empty, insubstantial. Merwin’s predecessor Thoreau corroborates such an assessment in the essay “Walking,” declaring, “I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, ay, and years almost together.”

Furthermore, The Rain in the Trees and Romanticism condemn human society and its pursuit of wealth for despoiling nature. “Native” mourns the long-term environmental loss incurred by exploiting the earth and its creatures for short-term financial gain:

I go down the slope

where mules I never saw

plowed in the sun and died

while I was in school

they were beaten to go

straight up the hill

so that in three years the rain

had washed all the topsoil

out past sea cliffs

and frigate birds

only a few years

after the forests were gone

“Shadow Passing” castigates an economy that erodes not only the earth that provides its commodities, but the human beings who provide its labor:

it was a country of mines

and faces like sawed bones

sitting outside their black doorways

staring into tunnels in the daylight

the rivers and the standing

water were full

of the dreams of presidents

of coal companies

and from the churches

on the flayed slopes

rose hymns of resurrection

The poem shines a spotlight on the hypocrisy of a society whose religion celebrates restoration of life but that skins the soil, preventing any plant growth, and wears down its workers into featureless, dead bones. Merwin presents an even more extreme assault on nature in “Now Renting”:

Nobody remembers

the original site

of course

what was there to remember

somebody

nobody remembers

wanted a little building

nobody knows why

on the original site

and cleared it

no doubt

had to

Not content with degrading nature, the real estate industry obliterates it at its targeted sites—as the poem goes on to relate, for the sake of a series of buildings continually constructed, torn apart, and expanded to gratify a perverse will to recast the landscape and outdo the previous effort merely because it can, aspiring to an ideal of a contemporary Tower of Babel existing only to testify to its creators’ power,

… adding scaffolding

with glass pictures on it

all the way up

of a glass building

never built

on that site

with nobody

inside it

at all the windows

to see the motionless clouds

This critique of money-centered life aligns with Thoreau’s in “Life Without Principle,” where Thoreau also decries the love of money not simply as pointless, but as actively pernicious to nature: “If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off the woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.” Hence, The Rain in the Trees follows a Romantic trope of attacking humanity for prioritizing the material good of wealth to the detriment of nature’s spiritual bounty.

But Romanticism does not have the last word in The Rain in the Trees. In the criticism anthology Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction, J. Scott Bryson observes that a pure Romantic impulse no longer cuts the mustard in modern nature poetry:

Yet as Robert Langbaum has pointed out, by the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, what was considered an overly romantic nature poetry—steeped in pathetic fallacy—had lost credibility, largely as a result of nineteenth-century science and the drastic changes in the way Westerners envisioned themselves and the world around them. Darwinian theory and modern geology, after all, would hardly allow readers to accept a poem that unselfconsciously anthropomorphized nonhuman nature or that celebrated nature’s benevolence toward humans.

The theory of evolution and the age of the Earth established by geologic history engender an understanding of nature as mechanistic and indifferent to humanity, Bryson argues, rendering absurd a literal Wordsworthian or Emersonian belief in a divinity invested in nature—especially one that human beings can encounter through nature. Of course, any compelling poetry about nature springs from an emotional response to it and cannot address it as entirely devoid of human interest; thus, Bryson concedes that much contemporary nature poetry, “while adhering to certain conventions of romanticism, also advances beyond that tradition and takes on distinctly contemporary problems and issues …”

A hallmark of the intellectual climate in the arts and humanities both in the late 1980s when The Rain in the Trees was published and today provides one issue the book takes on, and which thoroughly informs it: postmodernism. Particularly in the form of Michel Foucault’s deconstructionism, postmodernism makes the Romantic motif of divinity, the ultimate absolute truth, residing in nature more problematic by asserting that all “truth” is socially and culturally conditioned and denying the possibility of access to any real truth.

Close examination of the passages in The Rain in the Trees that associate nature with the divine and mythic shows that Merwin pays postmodernism its due by stopping short of actually ascribing divinity or its presence to nature. “The First Year,” for example, never mentions the Garden of Eden outright; Merwin simply sets the scene on its own terms and leaves the reader to connect its features to the Biblical story. Moreover, “the old stained wall” evidences humanity’s sullying interference in nature and signals that the parallel to Eden is imperfect even in the speaker’s mind. “Pastures” follows the statement “I was taught the word/pasture as though/it came from the Bible” with “but I knew it named something/with a real sky,” suggesting that the speaker finds the sheer physical fact of a pasture more awesome than the aura of sanctity conjured, as the word “real” backhandedly stresses, by a verbal association extrinsic to the pasture itself. The allegorical nature of “The Crust” calls attention to the subjectivity and artifice of the tree’s parallel to the Yggsdrasil as a literary and rhetorical conceit: the mythic association of this image obviously a product of the writer’s imagination seems much more a facet of the poem’s overall fabulism than an assertion of faith in divine immanence in nature. In a related vein, Merwin writes of Kanaloa,

all the stories were coming toward him …

all the humans were coming toward him with numbers

they are coming from the beginning to look for him

each of them finds him and he is different

The Hawaiian ocean god was “found” by people at the dawn of history looking for an “account” (the symbolism of numbers) of nature in divine form—another way of saying they created him. The excerpt’s last line furthermore perfectly illustrates Foucault’s argument of the subjectivity of “absolute truth.” These poems’ transparency in using myth as myth, as a fabricated construction of reality, recalls Raymond Federman’s prescription that postmodern fiction should not bother trying to conceal its fictional status or suspend disbelief in the reader, since all discourse is really fiction anyway. Merwin includes the associations of nature with the divine and mythic as devices to illustrate and inspire an emotional recognition of nature’s importance and worth, but pulls his metaphysical punches by qualifying these associations as strictly figurative.

This admission of the unknowability of the divine leads to another problem, however. If the book cannot claim nature as, in fact, a repository of divinity, what then sustains its case for the superiority of nature? The Rain in the Trees solves this difficulty in two divergent ways.

First, Merwin also bases his reverence for nature on empirical fact. (Foucault and Federman would argue that even what we call empirical fact is a fiction that society conditions itself and its members to consider true, but even accepting this line of thought the point is that Merwin employs what society considers empirical fact, its bedrock knowledge about reality.) The tree allegory in “The Crust” illustrates our utter dependence on nature; if nature dies, the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the ground we walk on die with it. The ingratitude of despoiling nature makes its collapse in the poem all the more devastating. “To the Insects” maintains that nature commands reverence because of its antiquity: “Elders//we have been here so short a time/and we pretend that we have invented memory.” Non-human life, science tells us, is exponentially older than human life: the poem argues that we are biological newcomers on the planet who have overstepped our place, withholding from older life forms the deference due to them and imagining ourselves the measure of all things, coextensive with all significance in the world. Merwin thereby deftly uses the very scientific ideas—evolution and the age of the planet—that prevent an unqualified metaphysical exaltation of nature to provide a suitable alternative.

The second alternative, used more often, takes its cue from the treatment of the Yggsdrasil myth in “The Crust”: a clearly subjective sense of sublimity in nature, in this case, however, making no suggestion of a transcendent or divine element. The stones “running with dark liquid” in “History,” the “green sunlight/that had never shone before” of the new leaves in “The First Year,” and “the apricots/from a thousand trees ripening in the air” after “the branches vanish” in “West Wall” all use figurative language to create imagery of a magic-realist sort, impossible in a literal sense and patently meant to convey a subjective perception of nature’s grandeur. The poet’s or speaker’s placement of these figurative images in the landscape contrasts with the ascent of Mount Snowdon in the Conclusion of The Prelude, where Wordsworth writes that the mist-blurred pre-dawn landscape and seascape viewed from the mountain

… appeared to me

The perfect image of a mighty Mind,

Of one that feeds upon infinity,

That is exalted by an underpresence,

The sense of God, or whatso’er is dim

Or vast in its own being; above all

One function of such mind had Nature there

Exhibited by putting forth …

That domination which she oftentimes

Exerts upon the outward face of things …

That even the grossest minds must see and hear

and cannot chuse but feel.

Nancy Easterlin analyzes, “Wordsworth explicitly indicates that the unity he perceives in the scene includes the spiritual and intellectual qualities that he has sought; asserting that ‘soul’ and ‘imagination’ have been placed by nature in the scene …” The passage from The Prelude portrays the qualities it discusses as endemic to nature, observable by anyone else in a similar situation; the passages cited above from The Rain in the Trees present simply a vision that nature sparked in the mind of the poet and offer not a promise that the reader would find exactly what the poet saw, but at most the suggestion and hope that he or she could experience a vision similar in kind. Merwin in The Rain in the Trees seems instinctually drawn to the idea of divinity or a transcendent sublimity in nature but intellectually unable to accept it, leading him to hedge this desire by couching it in terms of the fantastic.

Merwin also posits reasons for human inferiority to nature corresponding to his postmodern bases for nature’s superiority. In contrast to nature sustaining us, human technology is portrayed as unable to gratify our wants and ultimately inessential. The cheekily-titled “The Superstition” proclaims,

The cars are disappearing

and we were told they were real

they were only what we thought of them

we were taught they were beautiful

but we forgot them

we believed they were strong

but they were hauled away

we thought they would take us anywhere

but they had to stop

we thought they were fast and we have left them far behind

we believed they would save our lives

and we gave our lives for them

thinking they were worth it

Since The Rain in the Trees exalts nature for its age and longevity, human activity is denigrated for its evanescence and that of its effect on nature. The speaker of “Rain at Night” narrates,

after an age of leaves and feathers

someone dead

thought of this mountain as money

and cut the trees

that were here in the wind

in the rain at night …

and somebody dead turned cattle loose

among the stumps until killing time

but the trees have risen one more time

and the night wind makes them sound

like the sea that is yet unknown

The rancher thought he could bend the landscape to his will by clearing the forest for grazing land—but with the rancher dead and no one left to keep the land clear, nature rebounds and reclaims the ranch as forest, mocking the human attempt to alter it. And if nature offers the inspiration embodied in Merwin’s figurative imagery, the human world is attacked for concealing this source of inspiration from us:

There have been rooms for such a short time

and now we think there is nothing else unless it is raining

or snowing or very late …

for a time beyond measure there were no rooms

and now many have forgotten the sky

("The Horizons of Rooms" lines 1-6)

Inside a room, one cannot see the forest’s “halas/holding aloft their green fires” (from “Rain at Night’) and experience the spiritual and emotional benefit they provide, subjective though it may be.

In true postmodernist fashion, though, Merwin rejects not only metaphysical and epistemological absolutes, but ethical ones as well—for some postmodernists, a corollary of the inaccessibility of absolute truth is the invalidity of moral absolutes—and complicates his stance on the human world. Human ingenuity, The Rain in the Trees admits, that enables appreciation of nature rather than its destruction does have value. “The Duck” relates a boyhood incident that initiates the speaker into a devotion to nature:

The first time that I

was allowed to take out

the white canoe

because the lake was so still …

I saw the duck catching

the colors of fire

as she moved over the bright glass

and I glided after

until she dove

and I followed with the white canoe

and look what I find

long afterwards

the world of the living

The canoe, a human artifact, provides the speaker a far more intimate experience of nature at the lake than he could have gained otherwise, leading him to find himself, after much time has passed since this formative experience, in “the world of the living”—a world infused for him with the sempiternal life of nature because of his love for it.

Sitting over words

very late I have heard a kind of whispered sighing

not far

like a night wind in pines or like the sea in the dark

the echo of everything that has ever

been spoken

still spinning its one syllable

between the earth and silence"

— W.S. Merwin, "Utterance"

Nature and Language

The Romantics viewed language as an aspect of the human world that separates it from nature. “I would not have every man nor every part of a man cultivated,” Thoreau writes in “Walking,” “any more than I would have every acre of earth cultivated: part will be tillage, but the greater part will be meadow and forest…. There are other letters for the child to learn than those which Cadmus invented.” Thoreau locates language as we know it and nature in entirely different spheres, while implying nature possesses some different kind of language of its own. Unlike him, Emerson in his chain of postulates from Nature defines language as a nature once removed—but although it derives from nature, language still is removed from it. For Wordsworth, as Easterlin notes regarding “Tintern Abbey” especially, the essence of transcendent experience in nature lies beyond language’s ability to communicate that experience because “language is by nature approximate and human” and “inadequate to the description of the extraconceptual,” although “it is only through language that the significance of the extraconceptual can be recognized and, in some way, known.” Easterlin observes, for instance, that Wordsworth’s use of denotatively inappropriate modifiers in “Tintern Abbey,” as in “round ocean” and “living air” convey an impression of language short-circuiting under the strain of describing the infinity of God infused into finite physical nature.

Of this range of Romantic attitudes toward language and its relationship to nature, Merwin’s in The Rain in the Trees most resembles Wordsworth’s and, to a lesser extent, Thoreau’s. Like Wordsworth, Merwin sees the experience of nature’s sublimity as outside language. He brackets the idyllic nature scene in “The First Year” with the introduction “When the words had all been used/for other things/we saw the first day begin” and the conclusion “all the languages were foreign and the first/year rose.” This being the case, when we try to use language to know and thereby master nature, language proves inadequate. In “Notes From a Journey,” Merwin writes of visiting a “country of quarries/wagons loaded with stones and the horses/struggling and slipping on the cart tracks …/and I see that each of the stones is numbered.” As in “Kanaloa,” numbers represent an ability and will to understand and order the world around us, although here they represent a rationalistic, utilitarian understanding that exploits nature. (I consider numbers within the realm of language since numerals simply symbolize words, the names of numbers.) The numbers on the blocks of stone almost comically illustrate the inability of human beings, despite their power to break it into pieces, to claim control over this obdurate mass of the Earth that predates them by ages and, even broken, might very well outlast those who quarry it by just as long. Thus, as in Wordsworth, language cannot capture the essence of nature, and like technology its mastery of nature is superficial and transient. The poem “Native” presents another inadequacy of language in dealing with nature. The indigenous Hawaiian speaker works in an arboretum or botanical garden:

there under a roof

of palm fronds and chicken wire

I stare at the small native

plants in their plastic pots

here the ‘ohia trees

filled with red flowers red birds

water notes flying music

the shining of the gods

here seeds from destroyed valleys

open late

beside their names in Latin

in the shade of leaves I have put there

Even though humans—those subscribing to the rationalistic system of Western science—here preserve parts of a destroyed environment, they do so not by transplanting them to a similar wild environment, but by constructing an artificial environment where each plant is isolated from the earth by its pot and from other plants by the Linnaean binomial marking it as a distinct organism, calling it out from the surrounding plants. In Merwin’s poem, even when its objects of study remain in their native locale, science insists on regarding them as isolated individuals separated from their ecosystems rather than as aspects of an integral whole, and as the name labels demonstrate, so does language used in the service of science. The rationalistic mindset, though, so pervades Western society that it forms an undercurrent running through every aspect of our lives, even time: the poem opens, “Most afternoons/of this year which is written as a number/in my own hand/on the white plastic labels …” Units of time, years, are named with numbers and also viewed in isolation, rather than as elements of a natural continuum like rings on a tree.

This leads Merwin to wish and search for a different kind of language in a number of poems—more supple and intuitive, more able to convey the mysterious essential beauty of nature. Such a language would possess “the noun for standing in mist by a haunted tree/the verb for I” that he imagines for Hawaiian and the “grammar without horizons” that he imagines for insects, less beholden to the rationalism of Western languages or human languages in general and defying the categories imposed upon language by that rationalism. Understandably, The Rain in the Trees looks to nature itself, like “Walking,” as an inspiration and model for this language:

I am trying to decipher the language of insects

they are the tongues of the future

their vocabularies describe buildings as food

they can depict dark water and the veins of trees

they can convey what they do not know

and what is known at a distance

and what nobody knows

they have terms for making music with the legs

Merwin’s quest climaxes in the poem “Utterance,” in which,

Sitting over words

very late I have heard a kind of whispered sighing

not far

like a night wind in pines or like the sea in the dark

the echo of everything that has ever

been spoken

still spinning its one syllable

between the earth and silence

Allied to nature by the comparisons to natural sounds, this most sublime manifestation of nature’s “language” dissolves language, shedding articulation and meaning altogether in proto-musical sound (in contradistinction to the “words” the speaker has been sitting over), augmenting Wordsworth’s motif of nature’s ineffability by portraying nature’s own expression of its essence as beyond even Merwin’s speculated language for nature itself.

Postmodernism, though, denies that a language of the kind The Rain in the Trees seeks is attainable. The introduction to Greenhaven Press’s critical anthology Postmodernism summarizes that Jacques Derrida

argued that language is incapable of conveying the essential meaning (a so-called “signified”) of anything and is instead merely a “chain of signifiers,” or associations based on conventions that are understood within a given cultural context. For example, Derrida would argue that one cannot construct an indisputably true description of a bird using words. This is the case both because no collection of words is capable of fully describing a bird (only hinting at it) and because what is meant by the word bird changes with every situation, since the context in which the word is uttered necessarily differs in terms of time, place, cultural setting, speaker, and/or listener.

David Gilcrest, in his essay “Regarding Silence: Cross-Cultural Roots of Ecopoetic Meditation,” writes that postmodernism’s claim of language’s dissonance with reality has stuck in the craw of contemporary nature poets. “The distinction between res and verba, between the things of this earth and our words for them, has taken on epistemological and ultimately ethical import,” dividing their loyalties. They tend to side with nature, drawn by its genuine reality; language’s status as a cultural convention and incapacity for fully signifying nature impart an aura of artificiality to it. The beginning of Gilcrest’s essay concerns Charles Wright’s poem “Ars Poetica”:

I like it back here

Under the green swatch of the pepper tree and the aloe vera.

I like it because the wind repeats itself,

and the leaves do.

I like it because I’m better here than I am there,

Surrounded by fetishes and figures of speech …

Gilcrest comments, “He likes it because he is ‘better’ here than ‘there,’ better and perhaps better off in the natural here and now than over there where the seemingly unnatural artifacts of ‘fetishes and figures of speech’ surround him, hold sway.” Citing Leonard Scigaj’s Sustainable Poetry, he elaborates that the contemporary nature poet “works to direct our gaze ‘beyond the printed page toward firsthand experiences that approximate the poet’s intense involvement in the authentic experience….’ Such a gesture is predicated on experience of the world unmediated by language.” But as poets, their drive to write means they also remain beholden to language, with nature as their subject “making demands that cannot be met yet must be answered if the business of poetry is to continue.” Postmodernism thus places the nature poet in the same predicament Easterlin diagnoses for Wordsworth of being confounded in the task of conveying the encounter with nature in language. But here the problem of language’s relation to nature results from language’s inherent inexactness and abstraction, not from the sublimity or elusiveness of nature’s essence or even from whether a language is a rationalistic instrument of a rationalistic culture—from the circumscribed power of the signifying medium rather than the ineffability of the signified subject.

The Rain in the Trees recognizably places itself within this trend, often reflecting a postmodern awareness of language’s inherent imperfection. In the first stanza of “Before Us,” Merwin writes of looking at “words on pages telling of something else”; in its plain sense, “something else” refers to something other than the addressee, mentioned in the first line, of this love poem. But the impact of postmodernism on contemporary poetry cited by Gilcrest, as well as Merwin’s typically minimal context in the poem and placement of this line six lines away from the antecedent of “something else,” hints at a universal applicability: words always tell of “something else,” never directly, accurately, or completely denoting what they attempt to.

The Rain in the Trees furthermore demonstrates consciousness of the second part of Derrida’s thesis, the inevitable subjectivity of language. Although Bryson writes that Merwin focuses on the subjectivity of the speaker or writer in other books, his focus (at least his explicit focus) in The Rain in the Trees is on that of the audience. He narrates at the end of the poem “Mementos,”

a friend with a passion for freedom

said a piece of a poem and got it wrong

and put it in a letter to me …

to surprise and remind me but she

misquoted it and wrote Even

the newt the worm the germ the first spit

sing the day in full cry

and how does it go now

The speaker asks the poem’s final question as though the friend’s misremembering the poem actually changed it, because the friend’s version is the poem to her—it is what she knows of the poem and reflects her own understanding of the poem’s significance. This alternative version of the poem was created by the time that passed since reading the original text, and the speaker infers that the further passage of time could produce another modified version in the friend’s memory, as if in some one-person game of “telephone.” It shouldn’t stretch plausibility too far to assume that the author of the poem containing this anecdote of an audience’s subjectivity admits his own susceptibility to subjectivity as a writer, even when not intentionally subjective as with the imagery he uses to support his valuation of nature above the human. As Bryson writes of a poem in another of Merwin’s collections, “Although his poetry may approximate an individual version of reality, it is ultimately no more an accurate reproduction of reality than a harp’s note is of actual rain,” or a reader’s faulty memory is of an actual poem. This briefly draws Merwin to the unmediated encounters with nature that Scigaj and Gilcrest refer to and that Merwin relates in “The First Year,” for it seems that only without the distorting lens of language can one experience nature authentically.

Yet Merwin, too, is a writer, inspired by nature to create literature, even if his writing cannot totally capture nature’s reality. Merwin testifies to his drive to celebrate nature in writing in “Paper”—

What an idea

that you can put it on a piece of paper …

at the beginning

there are the tall sub-polar mountains

above a peninsula

set in a plain of ice

under deep snow

from which the light comes

white no longer there

put it on that paper

—while simultaneously exploring language’s great capacity for conveying unreality in a playful, quasi-surrealistic passage:

what is a piece of paper and how can you tell

put it on a piece of paper …

everything is white so it can disappear

everything that is not white

is alone

the colors are all white

the night is white in a place not remembered

everything is the same color as the other planets

here in this place hard to see

on a piece of paper

An additional difficulty in Merwin’s desire to celebrate nature in writing, the alternative languages of nature that Merwin wishes for in some poems are unrealizable, either because they are dying out like Hawaiian in “Losing A Language” (“many of the things the words were about/no longer exist …//the children will not repeat/the phrases their parents speak”) or because they are imaginary, as in “After the Alphabets.” The latter poem begins, “I am trying to decipher the language of insects” (italics mine), indicating that the speaker has not deciphered it and that its characterization in the entire rest of the poem comprises only what the speaker projects onto it or deduces from insects’ behavior: “their vocabularies describe buildings as food,” “they have terms for making music with the legs.” Bryson summarizes that Merwin

is well aware of the linguistic and epistemological issues that have now come to bear on the current generation of poets and other thinkers, issues that call the very existence of “knowledge” and “truth” into question. Yet simultaneously, he is also intensely aware of the importance of communicating something, and of the impending loss if he does not speak. These two sets of issues—both postmodern and ecological—form the crux of Merwin’s difficulty in writing as a contemporary ecopoet.

What’s a poor contemporary nature poet to do?

Three possibilities come to mind, and Merwin chooses all of them. He could make the postmodernist skepticism about language a subject or theme itself, as he does and instructs himself to do in the above-quoted passage of “Paper.” He could also confess the subjective nature of language; this choice informs the subjective imagery discussed in this essay’s first section, which establishes that what the speakers find in nature are their own private, individual reactions and not an objective transcendent reality. The third choice Merwin makes to negotiate the competing claims of creative drive and skepticism about language, and the most pervasive one in The Rain in the Trees, is to adopt a style of reticence. If one bothers to write something, the best way to avoid making false assertions in the process is to write as little as one can get away with and let readers draw inferences for themselves.

Take the poem “Coming to the Morning”:

You make me remember all of the elements

the sea remembering all of its waves

in each of the waves there was always a sky made of water

and an eye that looked once

there was the shape of one mountain

and a blood kinship with rain

and the air for touch and for the tongue

at the speed of light

in which the world is made

from a single star

and our ears

are formed of the sea as we listen

I confess that I have no idea what most of this poem means or is about. The reflection of the sky on the waves, “a blood kinship with rain,” and “ears/…formed of the sea as we listen” evoke identification with nature and nature’s essential unity. But what is the “eye” in each of the waves? Why is “the air for touch and for the tongue/at the speed of light”? For that matter, why is the air for touch and the tongue? The poem is mute in terms of its images’ and phrases’ import and relation to one another; Merwin refuses to assign significance to his poems and their content himself. Bryson accordingly asserts, “Because of his skepticism concerning human language and its ability to communicate something meaningful about the world, Merwin often displays reluctance toward offering finalizing statements, even about matters for which he feels intensely passionate. Instead, his poetry consistently tends toward silence,” and quotes Thomas B. Byers’s declaration that Merwin’s “‘[p]oems must not consent to the catching and killing of final statement and formal closure. Rather, they must “escape” authority—go beyond the poet’s largely delusive powers to fix and order …’” Merwin’s verse in The Rain in the Trees enacts and encodes its subtext of language’s limitations and fallibility in itself.

But Merwin complicates the postmodernist take on this aspect of the book’s approach to nature, too—specifically by qualifying its pessimism. Language, he allows, can have a powerful positive impact even given the limitations he is so wary of. In the following stanza from “Pastures,”

I was taught the word

pasture as though

it came from the Bible

but I knew it named something

with a real sky[,]

the speaker knows the word “pasture” doesn’t convey the full reality of an open grassland “with a real sky,” but it evokes that landscape sufficiently to instill a sense of its majesty in him. If language cannot accurately or completely depict nature, it can at least, in the words of a friend of mine and fellow poet, “telegraph” something of nature through Merwin’s poetry, perhaps enough of it to inspire the reader to value it and seek out the true original.

Source

Nature and Indigenous Peoples

Another facet of the approach of The Rain in the Trees to nature is the book’s treatment of indigenous peoples, mostly those of Merwin’s adopted home of Hawaii, and nature. Merwin portrays the native Hawaiians as having or having had a richer perception of nature’s beauty and variety than Westerners and, like the insects of “After the Alphabets,” their language takes account of their more nuanced understanding of the Earth:

Finally the old man is telling

the forgotten names

and the names of the stones they came from …

I have lived without knowing

the names for the water

from one rock

and the water from another

and behind the names that I do not have

the color of water flows all day and all night

Unfortunately, this nature-nourished language of the indigenous Hawaiians is always depicted as lost or in the process of being lost—a loss resulting from that of many native Hawaiians’ lives in the de facto colonization of the islands by Europeans and Americans and that of much of Hawaii’s rain forest after their arrival:

While Keats wrote they were cutting down the sandalwood forests …

while the tip of his pen travelled the iron they had coveted was hateful to them

while he thought of the Grecian woods they bled under red flowers …

while he groaned on the voyage to Italy they fell on the trails and were broken

when he lay with the odes behind him the wood was sold for cannons

when he lay watching the window they came home and lay down

and an age arrived when everything was explained in another language

The ensuing dominance of Westerners makes the Hawaiians outsiders in their own land. The speaker of “Native,” like the plants he works with, lives in an artificial habitat where his natural one should be, and must make his living in the white people’s arboretum or botanical garden instead of in the forests they destroyed. The Hawaiians are even excluded from parts of their land, like the luxury resort in the poem “Term”:

When all has been said

the road will be closed …

when the children have begged

to be able to go

to the sea there as they do

without having to be

rich or foreign

the road will be closed

for the rich and the foreign …

The most insidious effect of the ascendency of Westerners, however, is their culture becoming more desirable in the eyes of the natives than the natives’ own culture, as described in “Losing A Language.”

the children will not repeat

the phrases their parents speak

somebody has persuaded them

that it is better to say everything differently

so that they can be admired somewhere

farther and farther away

where nothing that is here is known

we have little to say to each other

we are wrong and dark

in the eyes of the new owners

The West co-opts the Hawaiians into the rationalistic society, deracinated from nature, that Merwin vilifies in most of The Rain in the Trees; they will no longer be able to say, “[H]ere are the extinct feathers/here is the rain we saw.”

The subjugation of indigenous peoples also touches on specific moral implications related to the other two sub-themes within the approach to nature in The Rain in the Trees. “The Lost Originals” describes the empathy the West should have felt for an unnamed indigenous people (the reference to them “freezing” makes it hard to suppose they are native Hawaiians) and hypothetically could have “[i]f only you had written our language,” culminating with “we might have believed in a homeland.” On the surface, this ending expresses the wish that cultural contact with this indigenous people would have taught the West to value the natural particulars of place, as the book often portrays the native Hawaiians doing. Yet latent in this cultural-philosophic wish lies a political one: thus attached to their own homeland, Westerners would have had no desire to conquer and exploit others’ homelands. Reverence for nature as found in their own homeland—appreciating nature as more than a supplier of raw materials for trade—would in turn have led Westerners to revere all peoples’ bond with their own homelands, inducing them to stay at home and preventing the crime of imperialism.

The relation of Merwin’s consideration of indigenous peoples to language and nature rests on a similarly allusive subtext. At the end of “Pastures,” the speaker recounts a cattle drive from his boyhood: “it took ten days/before they came/to the summer pastures/they said were theirs …” The otherwise superfluous phrase “they said” presupposes some doubt about the validity of the cattlemen’s ownership of the pastures, and calls to mind the theft of the continental United States from its original owners, the Native Americans. “Pastures” identifies language as the mechanism, conceptually, of whites’ ownership of formerly Native American territory. While the theft of Native Americans’ land was accomplished de facto by force of arms, de jure ownership of the expropriated land was and is usually established through language, albeit written rather than spoken (“said” can be understood in its general sense here): the royal charters of the original colonies, the property deeds of individual landowners, laws like the Homestead Act, and so forth. In its role in ratifying the dispossession of Native Americans, language moves from an ethically neutral or ambivalent medium prevented by its very nature from telling the whole truth about the world to an instrument of outright fraud. Hence, while adding an aspect to Merwin’s environmental ethics, the theme of indigenous peoples innovatively makes nature and our attitude to it a fulcrum for the ethics of human relations.

Influenced by Rousseau’s idealization of the “noble savage,” Romantics like Wordsworth, Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper, and Longfellow in Hiawatha wrote admiringly of indigenous peoples, particularly Native Americans, and their relationship with nature—although they sometimes seem less interested in the Native Americans’ actual way of life than in injecting an exotic flair into their work. Wordsworth’s “The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman” testifies to indigenous peoples appealing more to the Romantics’ fancy than to their sense of shared humanity or their love of nature, and in the long passage of the first book of The Prelude where Wordsworth lists themes he has considered for major poetic works, he imagines crediting the Native Americans’ nobility to ancient Roman ancestry:

… how the Friends

And Followers of Sertorius, out of Spain

Flying, found shelter in the Fortunate Isles;

And left their usages, their arts, and laws,

To disappear by a slow gradual death;

To dwindle and to perish one by one

Starved in those narrow bounds: but not the Soul

Of Liberty, which fifteen hundred years

Survived, and, when the European came,

With skill and power that might not be withstood,

Did, like a pestilence, maintain its hold,

And wasted down by glorious death that Race

Of natural Heroes …

Thoreau, of course, has a more objective fondness for the Native Americans, yet even Thoreau proves capable of glossing over the brutal fact of Native Americans’ dispossession. “I think that the farmer displaces the Indian even because he redeems the meadow, and so makes himself stronger and in some respects more natural,” he declares in “Walking,” continuing, “The very winds blew the Indian’s cornfield into the meadow, and pointed out the way which he had not the skill to follow. He had no better implement with which to entrench himself in the land than a clamshell. But the farmer is armed with plough and spade.” This uncharacteristic Whitmanesque, almost jingoistic, encomium to white society’s “improvement” of the land conveniently ignores the truth that the only wind that dislodged the Native Americans and their crops from their land was the blast from muskets and rifles. Thus, despite the allure indigenous peoples and their closeness to nature exerted for the Romantics, they sometimes viewed indigenous peoples fancifully and/or through white society’s standards, leading to a tone of condescension or patronization.

The Rain in the Trees’s treatment of indigenous peoples partly resembles this Romantic attitude, but by no means dovetails with it. It does considerably romanticize and idealize the native Hawaiians in depicting them and their culture as a model alternative, or even opposition, to the West. Merwin presents Hawaiian culture, as he does nature, filtered through his own subjective vision, through what he wants to see in it—he projects onto its language an expanded relation to existence and a virtually antinomian flexibility well nigh impossible for any language (“the verb for I” in “Losing A Language”). Nonetheless, the book stops short of over-exoticizing them, in large part because of Merwin’s willingness, unlike Thoreau regarding Native Americans in “Walking,” to deal with the tragedy of their dispossession and ground it in the lived experience of its consequences: a man tending plants indoors that should be wild, people fenced out from the beach where they swam as children, grandparents trying to teach their grandchildren a language they jettison as no longer relevant. In spite of the thematic emphasis on Hawaiian culture’s difference from that of the West, the universal emotions of loss and frustration aroused by these situations alert the reader to his or her common humanity with the Hawaiians, and The Rain in the Trees’s bringing Hawaiians to life as real individuals representative of an indigenous people harmonizes with Thoreau’s customary respect for and intimate knowledge of Native Americans. Needless to say, Merwin also doesn’t judge the Hawaiians by Western standards; most of the book is about Merwin’s own rebellion against those standards.

Postmodernism enters Merwin’s consideration of indigenous peoples here, through awareness of his complicated position regarding the Western values he wants to shed and the indigenous peoples he admires. In “Hearing the Names of the Valleys,” Merwin again meditates on language as an expression of cultural worldview, and again finds that the language he wants, which expresses the worldview he has the most affinity for, is inaccessible to him:

for a long time I asked him the names

and when he says them at last

I hear no meaning

and cannot remember the sounds

… and behind the names that I do not have

the color of water flows all day and all night

the old man tells me the name for it

and as he says it I forget it …

and I ask him again

the name for the color of water

wanting to be able to say it

as though I had known it all my life

without giving it a thought

Unlike in related poems, however, the obstacle to the language is the speaker’s self; everything the old man tells him leaves his memory as soon as it enters. Following from Derrida’s thesis of language’s cultural determination that we have seen Merwin explore, the speaker’s incapacity for learning the old man’s language, presumably Hawaiian, would stem from an inability to assimilate into the old man’s culture and assimilate it into himself. Merwin and the speakers who stand in for him may reject and condemn the rationalism and alienation from nature of the Western culture that produced them, but they cannot entirely escape its having shaped their minds and conditioned them to see the world a certain way. Conscience may impel them toward a worldview characteristic of indigenous peoples, but their consciousness prevents them from understanding that worldview from the inside. This internal predicament of trying to step into Hawaiian culture with one foot stuck in the West subtly nods to the irony of Merwin’s external predicament as a white man living in Hawaii: the dispossession of the natives and imperialism he deplores is what, ages later, has afforded him familiarity with the Hawaiian landscape he celebrates and the Hawaiian culture he extols.

Merwin intimates the moral complications of this position, displacing the setting to continental America, in the conclusion of “Pastures”:

even then

in the spring

there were those on earth

who drove flocks

from winter pastures

near the sea

up the green slopes

enclosed by woods

in the mountains

they went all together

it took ten days

before they came

to the summer pastures

they said were theirs

full of tall

young grass

many

now do not know

any such thing

Merwin portrays agriculture as tying people to nature and mourns its decline. As noted above, however, the lines “to the summer pastures/they said were theirs” insinuates that the benefit the cattlemen enjoyed of exposure to nature in the American landscape described comes at the cost of the past theft of the land from its original inhabitants. Still, “Pastures” clearly portrays such an agrarian life in a consistently positive light—not as glowingly as “the rare and peculiar society with nature” of indigenous peoples, but approvingly enough. In contrast to Thoreau in “Walking,” whose moral absolutism means he can only assert Western intensive agriculture’s virtue of immersing humanity in nature by arguing its superiority over the lighter kind practiced (according to him) by Native Americans that it supplanted, Merwin adheres to postmodernism’s rejection of moral absolutes by accepting the evil of dispossessing the Native Americans along with the good of agrarian life on the land expropriated from them. We can presume that Merwin believes the former evil to be greater than the latter good since many other poems in The Rain in the Trees lament dispossession of indigenous peoples, whereas only “Pastures” celebrates agrarianism. But the former evil can produce the latter good while each remains evil and good, respectively; despite their causal relationship, Merwin entertains them as distinct moral truths neither negating, neutralizing, nor mitigating each other. Here as elsewhere in The Rain in the Trees, Merwin’s postmodernist bent opens additional dimensions of the themes his Romantic bent broaches, preventing his Romantic bent from giving them an oversimplified or reductionist treatment.

Conclusion

David Gilcrest, after surveying examples of intellectual and spiritual approaches to nature in literature ancient and modern, Eastern and Western in “Regarding Silence: Cross-Cultural Roots of Ecopoetic Meditation,” concludes that “ethics precede, and inform, epistemologies (and the poetics based on them).” The Rain in the Trees, however, seems to follow the opposite of this formula; the epistemology it reflects shapes the ethics it propounds. What can and cannot be known through and about nature and indigenous peoples informs Merwin’s definition of the good they offer and the proper relationship to them, and what can and cannot be communicated about them informs Merwin’s notion of how to properly treat them in writing. Epistemology is the key to The Rain in the Trees’s ethics, and honesty is the most important criterion of that ethics. Merwin demands of himself that he must be honest about what he does not and cannot know but that he must take account of all he does and can know. Therefore, Merwin considers it wrong to deny reality, even as he embellishes it with his subjective imagery of nature. This is why postmodernism acts as a corrective to Romanticism in The Rain in the Trees—it plays the role of the reality principle by reminding the Romantic will, so often oblivious to or defiant of the limitations of facts on the ground, that it can’t have what it wants most (in the words of my old poetry workshop instructor) because what it wants most is categorically impossible. I suppose this is what makes a postmodern Romantic postmodern: he or she accepts the necessity of settling for something short of his or her aspirations.

Poetry guided by an epistemology-based ethics like that of The Rain in the Trees brings with it risks. Postmodernism is often accused of undermining morality by promoting moral relativism, which can logically lead to moral nihilism—a criticism that, in general, I agree with. It does not seem to apply to The Rain in the Trees, however. Esteem for nature and a symbiotic rather than exploitative or abusive relationship with it stand out sharply as moral imperatives consistently throughout the book. Postmodernism in Merwin rather creates a conditional morality or moral pragmatism that judges right and wrong by the parameters of each situation. It is right to associate nature with the divine or mythic to express or instill awe for it, but wrong to make nature’s divine quality seem like objective reality; it is right to crave a language so much a part of nature that it feels like nature expressing itself, but wrong to presume a human being, especially a Westerner, can attain such a mode of expression; it is right to praise indigenous peoples, but wrong to ignore one’s implication in their oppression or real distance from their culture and experience.

The Rain in the Trees succeeds less, I think, in running the risk of rejecting a transcendentalist belief in actual divine immanence in nature as the basis of its ethic of venerating nature. Basing it on the obvious fact of our physical dependence on nature works well enough. But it’s hard to see why the subjective emotional experiences nature provides the poet or his poems’ speakers should compel others to regard nature as the highest good, even if others might enjoy similar experiences themselves. The same could be said about heroin.

The Rain in the Trees runs aesthetic as well as thematic risks. Its often gnomic style, hermetic diction, and oblique perspective might give the impression that Merwin is playing some shallow literary game with his readers, or with himself, relying on willful obscurantism and incongruous verbal play to get through the book. The repetition of the same themes in several poems might test readers’ patience. Yet these faults, if that’s what they are, are also a function of Merwin’s ethic of honesty. He can hardly insist on the limitations of language without making his poetry challenging to tease meaning out of; if he forgoes either-or solutions to thematic problems, complicating even the postmodernist tempering of his Romantic approach to nature, he cannot devote a single poem to each and then leave it behind. Yes, some readers might not be satisfied with The Rain in the Trees. But I doubt it could satisfy any readers if it did not first satisfy, aesthetically and ethically, its author.

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