UNCG BIOLOGY 105
Major Concepts of Biology: Natural History
Men of science are supposed, except by other men of science, to be literal and exact, and unlike poets, in all their utterances.
These poems have been chosen for study in our class because each of them connects in some way with one of the scientific topics we will be discussing, whether it be geography (Jarrell’s “90 North”), geology (Cowper’s The Task and Tennyson’s In Memoriam), biological diversity (John Ray’s epitaph), adaptation and natural theology (Frost’s “Design”), seasonality (several selections), decomposition (Eberhart’s “The Groundhog”), Malthusian population growth (Dickinson’s “How many flowers fail in wood”), or environmental sustainability (Wither’s “When I behold the havocke and the spoyle”).
Randall Jarrell (1914–1965)
From “90 North” (1942):
At home, in my flannel gown, like a bear to its floe,
I clambered to bed; up the globe’s impossible sides
I sailed all night—till at last, with my black beard,
My furs and my dogs, I stood at the northern pole.
There in the childish night my companions lay frozen,
The stiff furs knocked at my starveling throat,
And I gave my great sigh; the flakes came huddling,
Were they really my end? In the darkness I turned to my rest.
—Here, the flag snaps in the glare and silence
Of the unbroken ice. I stand here,
The dogs bark, my beard is black, and I stare
At the North pole …
And now what? Why, go back.
Turn as I please, my step is to the south.
The world—my world spins on this final point
Of cold and wretchedness; all lines, all winds
End in this whirlpool I at last discover.
John Keats (1795–1821)
“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (1817):
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Deacon Janaziah (fl. 1800?)
“Ode on Science” (1798):
The morning sun shines from the east,
And spreads his glories to the west,
All nations with the beams are blest,
Where’er the radiant light appears.
So Science spreads her lucid ray
O’er land which long in darkness lay,
She visits fair Columbia,
And sets her sons among the stars.
Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)
“Answer, July” (ca. 1862):
Answer July –
Where is the Bee –
Where is the Blush –
Where is the Hay?
Ah, said July –
Where is the Seed –
Where is the Bud –
Where is the May –
Answer Thee – Me –
Nay – said the May –
Show me the Snow –
Show me the Bells –
Show me the Jay!
Quibbled the Jay –
Where be the Maize –
Where be the Haze –
Where be the Bur?
Here – said the Year –
William Cowper (1731–1800)
From The Task (1785):
Some write a narrative of wars, and feats
Of heroes little known; and call the rant
An history.… Some drill and bore
The solid earth, and from the strata there
Extract a register, by which we learn
That He who made it, and reveal’d its date
To Moses, was mistaken in its age.
Some, more acute, and more industrious still,
Contrive creation; travel nature up
To the sharp peak of her sublimest height,
And tell us whence the stars; why some are fix’d,
And planetary some; what gave them first
Rotation, from what fountain flow’d their light.
Great contest follows, and much learned dust
Involves the combatants; each claiming truth,
And truth disclaiming both. And thus they spend
The little wick of life’s poor shallow lamp,
In playing tricks with nature, giving laws
To distant worlds, and trifling in their own.
Robert Frost (1874–1963)
“Tree at My Window” (1928):
Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.
Vague dream-head lifted out of the ground,
And thing next most diffuse to cloud,
Not all your light tongues talking aloud
Could be profound.
But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.
That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.
Anonymous (“John Ray, Master of Arts”)
From the epitaph of John Ray (1627?–1705), translated from the original Latin (ca. 1705):
John Ray, Master of Arts.
Once Fellow of Trinity College in Cambridge.
A member of the Royal Society in London:
And to both of those learned bodies
An illustrious Ornament.
Hid in this narrow tomb, this marble span,
Lies all that death could snatch from this great man.
His body moulders in its native clay;
While o’er wide worlds his Works their beams display
As bright and everlasting as the day.
To those just fame ascribes immortal breath,
And in his Writings he outlives his death.
Of every Science every part he knew,
Read in all Arts divine and human too:
Like Solomon (and Solomon alone
We as a greater King of knowledge own)
Our modern Sage dark Nature’s Secrets read
From the tall Cedar to the hyssop’s bed:
From the unwieldiest Beast of land or deep,
To the least Insect that has power to creep.
Nor did his artful labours only shew
Those plants which on the earth’s wide surface grew,
But piercing ev’n her darkest entrails through,
All that was wise, all that was great he knew,
And Nature’s inmost gloom made clear to common view.
From foreign stores his learning bright supplies,
Exposing treasures hid from others’ eyes,
Loading his single mind to make his country wise.
William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878)
From “A Forest Hymn” (1825):
Father, thy hand
Hath reared these venerable columns, thou
Didst weave this verdant roof. Thou didst look down
Upon the naked earth, and, forthwith, rose
All these fair ranks of trees. They, in thy sun,
Budded, and shook their green leaves in thy breeze,
And shot towards heaven. The century-living crow,
Whose birth was in their tops, grew old and died
Among their branches, till, at last, they stood,
As now they stand, massy, and tall, and dark,
Fit shrine for humble worshipper to hold
Communion with his Maker. These dim vaults,
These winding aisles, of human pomp or pride
Report not. No fantastic carvings show
The boast of our vain race to change the form
Of thy fair works. But thou art here—thou fill’st
The solitude. Thou art in the soft winds
That run along the summit of these trees
In music; thou art in the cooler breath
That from the inmost darkness of the place
Comes, scarcely felt; the barky trunks, the ground,
The fresh moist ground, are all instinct with thee.
Here is continual worship;—Nature, here,
In the tranquillity that thou dost love,
Enjoys thy presence. Noiselessly, around,
From perch to perch, the solitary bird
Passes; and yon clear spring, that, midst its herbs,
Wells softly forth and wandering steeps the roots
Of half the mighty forest, tells no tale
Of all the good it does. Thou hast not left
Thyself without a witness, in these shades,
Of thy perfections. Grandeur, strength, and grace,
Are here to speak of thee. This mighty oak,—
By whose immovable stem I stand and seem
Almost annihilated—not a prince,
In all that proud old world beyond the deep,
E’er wore his crown as loftily as he
Wears the green coronal of leaves with which
Thy hand has graced him. Nestled at his root
Is beauty, such as blooms not in the glare
Of the broad sun. That delicate forest flower,
With scented breath and look so like a smile,
Seems, as it issues from the shapeless mould,
An emanation of the indwelling Life,
A visible token of the upholding Love,
That are the soul of this great universe.
My heart is awed within me when I think
Of the great miracle that still goes on,
In silence, round me—the perpetual work
Of thy creation, finished, yet renewed
Forever. Written on thy works I read
The lesson of thy own eternity.
Lo! all grow old and die—but see again,
How on the faltering footsteps of decay
Youth presses,—ever-gay and beautiful youth
In all its beautiful forms. These lofty trees
Wave not less proudly that their ancestors
Moulder beneath them. O, there is not lost
One of earth’s charms: upon her bosom yet,
After the flight of untold centuries,
The freshness of her far beginning lies
And yet shall lie. Life mocks the idle hate
Of his arch-enemy Death—yea, seats himself
Upon the tyrant’s throne—the sepulchre,
And of the triumphs of his ghastly foe
Makes his own nourishment. For he came forth
From thine own bosom, and shall have no end.
There have been holy men who hid themselves
Deep in the woody wilderness, and gave
Their lives to thought and prayer, till they outlived
The generation born with them, nor seemed
Less aged than the hoary trees and rocks
Around them;—and there have been holy men
Who deemed it were not well to pass life thus.
But let me often to these solitudes
Retire, and in thy presence reassure
My feeble virtue.…
Be it ours to meditate,
In these calm shades, thy milder majesty,
And to the beautiful order of thy works
Learn to conform the order of our lives.
Tom Lehrer (1929– )
“Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” (1959):
[To be played in class but not included here, just to preserve the suspense.]
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894)
“Summer Sun” (1885):
Great is the sun, and wide he goes
Through empty heaven without repose;
And in the blue and glowing days
More thick than rain he showers his rays.
Though closer still the blinds we pull
To keep the shady parlour cool,
Yet he will find a chink or two
To slip his golden fingers through.
The dusty attic, spider-clad,
He, through the keyhole, maketh glad;
And through the broken edge of tiles
Into the laddered hay-loft smiles.
Meantime his golden face around
He bares to all the garden ground,
And sheds a warm and glittering look
Among the ivy’s inmost nook.
Above the hills, along the blue,
Round the bright air with footing true,
To please the child, to paint the rose,
The gardener of the World, he goes.
John Keats (1795–1821)
“To Autumn” (1820):
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,
While barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Eberhart, Richard (1904–2005)
“The Groundhog” (1936):
In June, amid the golden fields,
I saw a groundhog lying dead.
Dead lay he; my senses shook,
And mind outshot our naked frailty.
There lowly in the vigorous summer
His form began its senseless change,
And made my senses waver dim
Seeing nature ferocious in him.
Inspecting close his maggots’ might
And seething cauldron of his being,
Half with loathing, half with a strange love,
I poked him with an angry stick.
The fever arose, became a flame
And Vigour circumscribed the skies,
Immense energy in the sun,
And through my frame a sunless trembling.
My stick had done nor good nor harm.
Then stood I silent in the day
Watching the object, as before;
And kept my reverence for knowledge
Trying for control, to be still,
To quell the passion of the blood;
Until I had bent down on my knees
Praying for joy in the sight of decay.
And so I left; and I returned
In Autumn strict of eye, to see
The sap gone out of the groundhog,
But the bony sodden hulk remained.
But the year had lost its meaning,
And in intellectual chains
I lost both love and loathing,
Mured up in the wall of wisdom.
Another summer took the fields again
Massive and burning, full of life,
But when I chanced upon the spot
There was only a little hair left,
And bones bleaching in the sunlight
Beautiful as architecture;
I watched them like a geometer,
And cut a walking stick from a birch.
It has been three years, now.
There is no sign of the groundhog.
I stood there in the whirling summer,
My hand capped a withered heart,
And thought of China and of Greece,
Of Alexander in his tent;
Of Montaigne in his tower,
Of Saint Theresa in her wild lament.
Robert Frost (1874–1963)
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth—
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.
Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)
“How many flowers fail in wood” (ca. 1862):
How many Flowers fail in Wood –
Or perish from the Hill –
Without the privilege to know
That they are Beautiful –
How many cast a nameless Pod
Upon the nearest Breeze –
Unconscious of the Scarlet Freight –
It bear to Other Eyes –
Alfred Tennyson (1809–1892)
From In Memoriam (1849):
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;
That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,
I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.
‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarpèd cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing: all shall go.
‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.’ And he, shall he,
Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—
Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?
No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match’d with him.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)
“To Science” (1829):
Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise?
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?
George Wither (1588–1667)
“When I behold the havocke and the spoyle” (1635):
When I behold the Havocke and the Spoyle,
Which (ev’n within the compasse of my Dayes)
Is made through every quarter of this Ile,
In Woods and Groves (which were this Kingdomes praise)
And, when I minde with how much greedinesse,
We seeke the present Gaine in every thing;
Not caring (so our Lust we may possesse)
What Dammage to Posterity we bring:
They doe, me-thinkes, as if they did foresee,
That, some of those, whom they have cause to hate,
Should come in Future-times, their Heires to be:
Or else, why should they such things perpetrate:
For, if they thinke their Children shall succeed;
Or, can believe, that they begot their Heires;
They could not, surely, doe so foule a Deed,
As to deface the Land, that should be theirs.
What our Forefathers planted, we destroy:
Nay, all Mens labours, living heretofore,
And all our owne, we lavishly employ
To serve our present Lusts; and, for no more.
But, let these carelesse Wasters learne to know,
That, as Vaine-Spoyle is open Injury;
So, Planting is a Debt, they truely owe,
And ought to pay to their Posterity.
Selfe-love, for none, but for it selfe, doth care;
And, onely, for the present, taketh paine:
But, Charity for others doth prepare;
And, joyes in that, which Future-Time shall gaine.
If, After-Ages may my Labours blesse;
I care not, much, how Litle I possesse.
© RJO 1995–2015