Thomas Hardy's rural cottage in Dorset reflects his close connection with nature TWITTER/DRDAVIDWHITE

The admiration of nature is tightly woven into all aspects of the literary canon – green landscapes are praised, God’s creations lauded, and natural beauty celebrated. Yet underpinning these commemorations of nature is a latent fear of its loss. Three writers – the Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy, the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the Yorkshireman writer Ted Hughes - not only champion nature, but also pre-emptively mourn the loss of rurality in an almost visionary way. How is it that these Victorian-to-modern writers grapple with something that we as readers, writers, and consumers of art are still struggling to reconcile ourselves with today? I suppose there is a kind of inevitability, an inevitability that we will always treat nature poorly and, in our inability to evoke sweeping societal changes as individuals, we look to poetry and prose as our methods of preservation.

“The themes of The Mayor of Casterbridge are almost frighteningly applicable to our current fears...”

The canons created by these writers are enjoined by a sense of foreboding and a keenness to preserve a naturalistic image of Britain, as not an industrial powerhouse, but rather a haven for the rural spirit. Hardy situates his novels some decades before his present, perceptively leaving trails that lead towards the industrial revolution which characterised his own society. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, we see the generational conflict between Henchard and Farfrae mirror the changes in farming methods which mechanised agriculture in a way that subordinated manual labour forever. A mourning of man’s connection with the earth of the land, with the instinctual hand-to-mouth lifestyle, pervades the text.

Hardy is additionally astute in his depiction of technology-caused unemployment. His concern over the replacement of man by machine seems so pertinent to our current situation where artificial intelligence seems to threaten that of man. The themes of this novel are almost frighteningly applicable to our current fears, so much so that I wonder whether our future was one that was completely tangible to the Victorian writers’ anxieties during this period.

Colourised photograph of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit Priest writing in the 19th century. TWITTER/JORDAN_WELSHY

This literary fear over losing rurality is evidently timeless – and something that his contemporary (albeit yet undiscovered) poet Hopkins also detailed. Writing around the same time as Hardy, Hopkins shares his concerns over the destruction of nature. His poems often take a lamentable tone, whilst of course focusing on how man’s relationship with nature is a projection of his relationship with God. In poems such as ‘Binsey Poplars’, Hopkins critiques a form of proto-deforestation, conveying his alarm towards God’s creations being defaced.

The epigraph of this poem, ‘felled 1879’, is haunting; the poem acts as a gravestone for the trees and the image of a ‘sweet especial rural scene’ which the reader, whether contemporary or in our present, will never get to witness. There is certainly a desire to preserve in Hopkins’ poetry; his use of rhythm and metre is so strong that they ingrain themselves in our minds, never allowing us to forget the beauty of those trees. Yet there is a feeling of loss, a bittersweet feeling which Hopkins reminds us of in his claim that ‘after-comers cannot guess the beauty been’.

Ted Hughes performing his poetry at the Hay Festival, 1996.TWITTER/HAYFESTIVAL

As readers born in the last two centuries, it is certainly a painstaking process to rediscover and reclaim the ‘beauty been’. No poet tried harder to do this than Ted Hughes. His primary interests lay with attempting to reignite, within himself, the instincts of an animal. Time and time again, his poems focus on the brutality of nature – something which the Romantic poet Tennyson described as ‘red in tooth and claw’. ‘Hawk Roosting’, ‘Wind’, and ‘Crow’ all seek to express something that is intensely difficult to describe. In his harnessing of sound, language, and imaginings, Hughes is able to create almost elemental images which feel like their subjects. Feeling in poetry, in general, is extremely difficult to describe and define, but Hughes manages it in a way which is creative, effective, and captures the essence of nature itself.

As Hopkins achieves this in his rhythm, Hughes achieves it in essence, giving a voice to his subjects which is both poetic and undeniably instinctual, primal even. He writes with a passion and scrutiny which resembles Hardy, and echoes the wonder implicit in Hopkins’ poetry. Yet Hughes is not devoid of the same fear which colours the work of his predecessors; there is an additional feeling of loss, a loss of the rurality which he so obviously enjoyed in his childhood, and which influenced him greatly in his later life. In her fantastic biography, Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet, Elaine Feinstein highlights how Hughes’ fascination with nature stemmed from an early age.

“The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,Winds stampeding the fields under the window...” (Wind, Ted Hughes)

He certainly sustained a positive view of nature, yes, but moreover was acutely aware of its cruelty and indiscriminate nature. There are echoes of Hardy in many of Hughes’ poems, whether by intention or coincidence. The Return of the Native’s Egdon Heath is a cruel and exacting force, reminiscent of the landscapes of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and fully showcasing the true power of nature at its raw centre. In Hughes’ poem Wind, the landscape ‘flex[es] like the lens of a mad eye’, incorporating the insanity of nature that we hardly understand, and an intense desire to retain it despite its force.

Ultimately, there’s an overarching sense of loss which I feel these three writers are intrinsically connected by. A loss of rurality, and everything networked within. Not only the irresistible wonders of nature, but also its simplicity, its comfort, and the implicitly human instinct to protect and nurture which comes with maintaining one’s relationship with nature. When aspects of it are lost, destroyed, dismantled, or simply forgotten, we turn to the limitless medium of literature to conjure lost images and to feel somewhat at peace. Man’s relationship with nature is fragile, and by reading the works of these writers, we can become accustomed to this beautiful yet harrowing fragility.


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