Poets and Places: Reading Landscapes in Poetry
Reading poetry requires a special kind of attention to the sounds and patterns of language, but it can also inspire thoughts beyond itself, either by reflecting abstract ideas and philosophies, or by evoking particular places and objects. One of these physical evocations often encountered in poetry is the association between a poet and a specific location or landscape, but the influences can also be more subtle, with the landscapes a poet has lived in shaping the way they write or determining the types of literary influences that have resonated in their own work. When we read an allusion to England's green and pleasant land in a poet's work, it tells us something about that writer's background, while also sparking our own prior associations with the phrase. Considering how places have shaped poetry can give us a new level of understanding.
In The Footsteps of Poets
Poetry can transport us to another world, but it can also show us our own world in a new light, by allowing us to see the places and landscapes around us through the eyes of the poet. This second vision of the world can be particularly striking when it is experienced alongside our own view of the same place in the physical world. Poetry that can be read in the landscape about which it was written can have a very special effect. Places can very easily become associated with the poets and writers who have written about them. The poetry society has gathered many examples of poems and poets who are associated with particular places in its Poetry Landmarks of Great Britain database, but once of the best known examples of a poet who is closely linked to the landscape is probably Wordsworth. Passing the ruins of Tintern Abbey in the Wye Valley, it is hard not to think of the lines written by Wordsworth, inspired by his return to the area after many years of absence. His Tintern Abbey poem is perhaps the most evocative depiction of a poet's relationship with a place, demonstrating that writing about journeys and specific places is not limited to prose.
The Landscapes of Poets
Poetry can also evoke a more generalised sense of a place, inspired by a particular part of the world where the poet has lived or travelled, rather than directing us to a specific spot in that landscape. The association of Wordsworth with the Lake District, or the Bronte sisters with the moors around Haworth are clear in the manner that these different landscapes shine through in their work, even when there is no specific mention of a particular place. The places that are written about by poets can become associated with particular thoughts and feelings. The pathetic fallacy, the idea that weather and landscape should reflect emotion, often appears in Romantic poetry and fiction, where storms strike when the poet's persona or the novelist's character is conflicted with anger and emotional turmoil. It is an effect that has become so familiar that reading about a particular type of landscape can often evoke a particular emotional reaction. The places and landscapes that a writer chooses can therefore contribute to the emotion of a poem, becoming the objective correlative for emotion, to use the term described by T.S. Eliot. A poet or writer who understands how to manipulate the associations that experienced readers will have developed with particular places and landscapes can use these to ensure that their own work triggers the right response. An example of this association between landscape and emotion is that writing about the grim and lonely marshland of the fens can evoke in the reader a sense of loneliness and sorrow.
A Landscape of Influence
Places and landscapes can have a significant influence on writers, but the worlds that are imagined in poetry don't have to be real places, available to pilgrims and travellers seeking to stand in the same places as their poetic heroes. The worlds that we read about in poetry often seem to be based in pure imagination, however much we as readers might like to link them with the landscapes that we know. It is also possible to see poetry as part of a separate literary landscape, populated by other texts rather than real places. The links between the works in this landscape of influence are not subject to the limitations of time and place, so that the world described in Eliot's The Waste Land is one that inspires associations with the legend of the Fisher King, a work distant in time that might be imagined as neighbouring Eliot's land in the literary landscape.