The Power, or Powerlessness, of Nature: Eliot’s ‘Preludes’ and Hardy’s ‘Afterwards’
The conflict between humanity and the natural world is one that spans back into an ancient past, perhaps beginning with the myth of Prometheus – punished for granting the gift of fire to mankind. Due to this, it is unsurprising that both modernist poet T.S Eliot and victorian poet Thomas Hardy are so concerned with the power dynamics of nature in their poems ‘Preludes’ and ‘Afterwards’. Whilst Eliot’s poem moves between claustrophobic settings to portray the natural world as powerless and trapped, humans are characterised as able to choose whether or not they rejuvenate the power of nature. In contrast, Hardy’s perspective of nature is far more powerful, and is shown to transcend the barriers of time, whilst also memorialise the memory of human beings.
In ‘Preludes’, Eliot presents nature as powerless to the rising force of industrialism which is shown to suffocate and control both the natural world, and the poem’s city-dwellers. The setting detail of a ‘lonely cab-horse’ moving through the city’s outskirts is used in the first stanza to immediately present ‘natural’ creatures as enslaved by the surrounding cityscape: the compound noun ‘cab-horse’, implies that even powerful creatures such as the horse have been distorted into mere functions of the city’s industrial machine, designed to maximise economic profit through performing unnatural roles such as ‘cabs’. The effects of industrialism on the animal are deepened by the ‘steam’ and ‘stamp’ of the horse- dynamic verbs which draw correlations with the movements of a machine, with the monosyllables also mirroring the utter force of the city-scape on the animal, and by extension, the natural environment. If the ‘horse’ is an emblem of diminished ‘power’, Eliot’s later ‘sparrow’ can be seen to symbolise the concept of human and animalistic liberty, which is similarly restricted by the destructive setting: ‘And the light crept up between the shutters,/ And you heard the sparrows in the gutters’. The nouns ‘shutters’ and ‘gutters’ literally trap Eliot’s ‘sparrow’ on the page- and to do this with perfect rhyme suggests the sparrow will ever be overpowered by the claustrophobic city setting, even when shunned to the outskirts. That the traditional natural symbol of hope (‘light’) is characterised here as sinister and invasive through the verb ‘crept’, further underlines the discouraging idea that even natural ‘light’ is not able to illuminate or redeem Eliot’s ruined metropolis. Nonetheless, ‘light’ also enjoys more positive description throughout the poem, most notably in its first mention: ’And then the lighting of the lamps’, which might be read as injecting a glimmer of hope into the verse. Whilst the structure of the line as closing the first stanza might promise a future in which the ‘decay’ of the stanza is eclipsed by natural power, it must be noted that the ‘light’ here is manmade, thus holds no semblance to natural authority.
Perhaps Eliot is trying to make the point that whilst a hopeful future in which the cityscape is vanquished is an attainable one, this must be sought through human effort rather than any action of the natural world: the alliterated ‘l’ creates a sense of urgency and pace, thus encourages the audience to awake from their ‘dogmatic slumbers’ and take heed to save their landscape before it is too late. In this way, nature is portrayed as having the potential for extreme power, but only if humans are able to establish themselves in opposition to the increasing process of industrialisation, unlike Hardy’s poetry, in which nature is presented as an unstoppable force able to overcome human folly. A lethargic semantic field is used in the first stanza of ‘Preludes’ to describe nature in the city (‘winter…settles down’, ‘burnt-out ends’), to foreground a sense of tiredness and lack of action- almost as if the city has given up on itself. Alternatively, the catalogue of references to commonplace human activity in the first stanza from ‘burnt-out ends of smoky days’, to ‘a gusty shower wraps/ The grimy scraps’ implies that mankind can be held responsible for this natural decay. One critic deemed Eliot’s characters ‘a culture less, faithless mass of people’, which is unsurprising when considering that the ‘grimy scraps’ might refer to all that is left of human lives that fall like ‘withered leaves’, unable to exert authority over the industrialist society they have created, and therefore are unable to rejuvenate the power of the natural landscape. Indeed, Eliot’s frequent enjambments and use of free verse further this sense of disorganisation, conveying a sense of pessimism in which neither humans nor natural forces are able to exert or gain any power. To conclude, it is clear that the natural world, for Eliot, is shown as powerless to the actions of humans and also the limitations of industrialism which Eliot characterises as seeking to destroy any inkling of natural life within the city. Nonetheless, Eliot makes clear that mankind has the capacity to reformulate the power of nature through taking action to quell the destructive effects of 1910s capitalism, marking nature as having the potential to become a powerful force. Whilst Eliot’s ‘Preludes’ warns of the destructive influences humanity is able to have on the environment, Hardy’s ‘Afterwards’, in contrast, is a testament to the union and harmony between nature and the individual.
In ‘Afterwards’, the narrator imagines a future following his death in which the romantic beauty and power of the natural world remains intact- arguably conveying a sense of optimism lacking from Eliot’s ‘grimy’ and ‘broken’ landscape. This natural charm is set up from the poem’s first stanza, in which the rich lexical choices used to describe nature are linked through alliteration and internal rhyme to colour nature as a creative and vibrant force able to overcome the human limitations of mortality- a subject matter given little description despite it being the poem’s central theme: such evidence of this is the claim that ’the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings’, which, when juxtaposed with the sparse language used to describe the narrator after death (‘He is a man who used to notice such things’) makes nature seem all the more powerful due to its ability to replace lost human lives with new and more vibrant natural lives. The fluctuating descriptions between that of humanity and the environment throughout the poem mirror this cycle of natural life replacing and invigorating the lives of men, and yet, the poem ends, not on natural imagery, but with the imagined dialogue of the onlookers at the poets death: ‘He hears it not now, he used to notice such things?’. This might imply that it is not nature in itself that is a powerful force, but the human ability to notice and find beauty in nature, which seems likely considering Hardy wrote this to be read out at his funeral, thus would be more concerned with ensuring his imaginative ideas were met with praise by future audiences, rather than how nature is perceived in itself.
Alternatively, it could be argued that Hardy’s goal throughout the poem is not to prioritise his ideas about the natural world above the natural world itself, but to mark nature as a medium for carrying on his legacy and commemorating his intellect after death. Such interconnection between the narrator and nature is evident as the poet uses the metaphor of a ‘dewfall-hawk… crossing the shades to alight’ to symbolise the transcendence of the speaker’s soul into a metaphysical afterlife, whilst also departing from the tendency of the romantic poets to place nature on a pedestal far removed from human interaction in suggestions that the power of humanity and that of nature is interlinked. Indeed, this is also a reference to the classical underworld of the Greeks – the shades being ghosts that resided in Hades- which reinforces the power of nature as spanning back to an ancient past, whilst simultaneously being able to overcome death in the current day, unlike Eliot’s use of classical allusion in ‘Prufrock’- the closing sirens singing used to exaggerate his isolation from nature rather than his connection with it. Hardy wanted to be remembered here as a ‘lover of nature’, writes critic Allingham, a phrase suggesting a beautiful relationship between the pair which is developed through the idyllic imagery used to describe his post-humous landscape, as those commemorating his death ‘Watch the full-starred heavens that winter sees’. The image of a star-scape here might serve to memorialise and sensationalise the public perceptions of the speaker post-death- as people are able to look skywards to remind themselves that his ideas still hold significance – and in this way, nature is given full power to preserve memory and remind people of past feelings. Furthermore, the lexis ‘full-starred’ is just one example of the many compound adjectives littered throughout the poem used to present nature as ever-changing and able to adapt into countless different forms, creating an overall message of hope through implying that nature will continue to flourish despite the limitations of time. Overall, it cannot be denied that the natural world is indeed seen as a powerful force in Hardy’s verse, in its capacity to not only transcend the limitations of mortality itself, but also in its ability to commemorate and uphold the ideas of human beings after their death- allowing them to be faintly resurrected, for their loved ones, in natural surroundings. In this way, Hardy subverts Eliot’s message in ‘Preludes’ that human action is able to uphold and secure the power of nature, through suggesting that it is indeed the power of nature which can ossify the power of the human imagination after death.
It is clear that both Hardy and Eliot through their verse present the natural world as having the potential for extreme power. In ‘Preludes’, Eliot asserts that this power must be unlocked by human efforts. Yet nature in Hardy’s ‘Afterwards’ is given individual power in its ability to exert force over human perceptions of thought even after death – presenting an arguably more powerful portrayal of the natural world as nature prospers regardless of the limitations of human activity.
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