With the celebration of the summer solstice around us, it can be easy to forget the feeling of anticipation, waiting a year for summer’s return. This feeling of anticipation can gives us a moment to reflect upon what summer means to us. In ‘A Green Thought’ by Katherine Towers and ‘Dear Betula’ by Alistair Elliot, we have our attention brought towards the transient nature of summer.
In ‘Dear Betula’, we imagine two lovers separated, one as a tree and one a human, both freed from the burden of living without each other through death. The speaker laments “when I am dead / I’ll get up from my dirty bed” as if in a trance-like state. This declaration follows similar patterns to nature poetry from the past in which nature is positioned as an enigma or riddle humanity is desperately trying to understand. The tree becomes more than just a tree, but a beautiful creature with “delicate hair” waving in the “air” beckoning the speaker to be with them. The poem leans on familiar personification imagery of Dryads from Greek myth of humans turned to trees or tree-human hybrids. In a trickling stream of consciousness, the speaker cries for the inevitable oneness with nature through death. He longs to “make amends / After my little lifetime ends” which takes on an apologetic tone and a plea for forgiveness.
The rhyme throughout the poem emphasises the intertwined nature of human and earth “tree/me”, “dead/bed”, “hair/air” and praises its inevitability that two will always be joined. ‘Dear Betula’ reminds us that our relationship with nature is not parallel but so interwoven into our lives that much of it escapes our naked eye and goes unnoticed, until time catches up with us. The lover’s tree is continuously described as full of dance and motion, “trembling” as it sheds its leaves and inevitably dies. This tree is spectral and eventually they “cease…to be a tree… / And cross that boundary, to me” so that the two lovers’ bodies can join in death. In the end, their bodies will be indistinguishable, a harmonious melded pile of soil and leaves.
This poem is filled with ethereal melancholy in which we witness a person finally meeting their lover again. It prompts the reader to celebrate the summer while we have it.
Katherine Towers is an award-winning poet whose poem ‘A Green Thought’ can be found in the collection ‘The Remedies’, which was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize in 2016. As we’re forced to contend with longer, hotter summers, it is becoming more important for us to reassess our relationship with the glorious season of summer.
‘A Green Thought’ is a considerably darker and more brooding poem than ‘Dear Betula’. The atmosphere of the poem is grounded in realism, with an intense atmosphere of foreboding. Katherine describes a small hidden place, which she encourages the reader to immerse themselves in “where you may crouch and not be known” to anyone else. She conjures images of being engulfed in dark leafy vegetation which is a major departure from the overreliance on ‘sunny’ imagery often used for poems symbolic of summer solstice celebrations. Here, we’re made to focus on all the things the sun has touched and “see the warp and weft of root. / All the world is in these clutches” reminding the reader suddenly of their smallness in comparison to the green planet surrounding us.
To think of an “an evening in head-high / bracken with its smell of dark and medicine” brings us pungent olfactory imagery and a solitary image of a person forced to find their place and identity amongst the heavy vegetation. The earth is personified not as a loving figure, but as a silent dominating presence. The lack of rhyme in this poem helps the stream of consciousness sound like didactic speech.
Each tercet builds in urgency and like Alistair’s poem, Katherine encourages the reader to immerse themselves in nature, instead of seeing themselves as separate from it. Everywhere you are the speaker tells you that you can have a connection with the earth. The poem ends with the firm declaration that “There’s nowhere else to live”, suggesting that our relationship with the earth is immediate and vital. It can be common in this fast-paced, modern era to ‘other’ the nature that we depend on, but the poet encourages us to see our reflection in the vegetation that surrounds us. This meditation in the woods can be good for our souls.
Katherine contrasts the fern’s “blotched with spores you mustn’t breathe” with her encouragement to “Breathe in deep” and forget our preconceived notions about our green home. Her poem wisely sees that the mystical personification of nature, as seen in Alistair’s poem, is not the only way to honour nature this summer solstice. From the beginning of time, nature has been revealed a giver of medicine, an inspiration and guiding hand for humanity. It is only natural then that both poems, mystical and realistic, end in a sort of embrace, one physical and the other spiritual.
Katherine Tower’s poetry can be found in her highly-anticipated 2021 upcoming poetry anthology titled ‘Oak’. The late Alistair Elliot was a translator, poet and librarian from Britain whose work appeared in many journals such as the Oxford Poetry and the Paris Review. Both of their poems encourage us to not to take the product of the sun’s labours for granted and instead, see inspiration in the ferns, petals and flowers. So today, I encourage you to spare a green thought for the leaves and trees around you, the home underneath your feet.