Poets reimagined nature to fit scientific age

Robin Schulze

In the opening decades of the twentieth century, many Americans sensed that modern, urban-industrial life was exacting a painful price—the loss of a direct relationship with nature.

“As more and more people traded the nature-centered rhythms of rural life for the rush of industrial urbanity, white middle-class Americans began to sense that their modern lives were becoming increasingly artificial,” said Robin Schultze, a Center Research Fellow and professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. “The ‘conquest’ of nature that Progressives heralded as the basis of American achievement brought with it disconcerting unnatural consequences. Spurred by a growing sense of detachment from the organic world, middle-class white Americans turned their minds and bodies to nature in record numbers.”

The resultant nature craze produced a “sprawling set of popular institutions and artifacts,” including the Nature Study Movement, the Country Life Movement, the rise of “organic” architecture, the popularization of nature books, a vogue for hiking, and a dramatic increase in visitors to national parks.

The nation’s emerging sense of the loss of its former relationship to the natural world was a much-debated subject of modernity, said Schulze, and among those deeply engaged in the debate were certain modernist poets. The poets and their response to the shifting popular attitudes about the human relationship to nature are the focus of her current book,“Beyond the Yawp”: Nature, Natural History, and the Origins of Modernist Poetry.

Schulze also is the author of Becoming Marianne Moore: The Early Poems, 1907-1924 (Berkeley: UC Press, 2002), and The Web of Friendship: Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995). Her book-in-progress, which focuses on poets Harriet Monroe, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore and Vachel Lindsay, aims to present “a new reading of the rise of American modernist verse, and literary modernism more generally.”
Nature for the modernist poets was nothing like “the reflective, responsive, animate nature of America’s Romantic childhood,” said Schulze. Americans who retreated to the woods at the turn of the century considered themselves serious, scientifically-minded modern reformers.

“Their watchwords were scientific management, efficiency, accuracy, expertise, precisionism, and professionalism. Unable to conceive of an American cultural identity distinct from American nature, Americans worked throughout the Progressive Era to reimagine their relationship to nature, their desire for it and national dependence upon it, in ways that asserted their modernity and cultural maturity.”

The cultural drive in the early twentieth century to remake nature as a subject fit for a scientific age left the emerging poets in a difficult position. While they felt the national pull to reconnect with the natural world, they were also affected by awareness of the importance of nature to the nation’s literary heritage—“the orphic, mystical attachment to American nature” that had first stamped American literature as unique and important.

“These young writers sensed, however, that if their own art was to be taken seriously as a twentieth-century cultural product, it must somehow participate in the scientific habits of mind that defined the times,” said Schulze. How was it possible to write poetry in a scientific age? How might the poet keep faith with nature and its promise of literary cultural identity without seeming silly or unscholarly? How might the American poet retain his or her defining relationship to American nature while reimagining nature as a viable subject of modernity?

In Beyond the Yawp, Schulze will argue that these questions proved central to the creation of American modernist verse during the early decades of the twentieth century.