Everything’s Dead but the Tree

Tuesday, June 3rd, 1986

[A lecture to freshmen on the last day of a year-long class in “Literature and the Arts in Western Culture” at Stanford University–June 3, l986]

Sisyphus’ setting, with its flaking rock and its hot barren landscape is the last of a long series of images of hostile wastelands we have been contemplating. Barren deserts, steamy jungles, blasted battlefields, rocky islands, polar ice floes, gothic swamps, wind-swept marshes, blackened cities make up the backdrop of much modern European literature–a setting appropriate to the period that brought us World War I and II and which may yet bring us nuclear winter. Most of these demonic landscapes are symbolic, representing as we have learned, the burnt-out quality of the modern: its loss of spiritual faith, loss of intellectual and moral clarity, loss of aesthetic pleasure, loss of belief in society, the family, the self.

But this symbolic imagery of physical desolation has a literal meaning as well, one that we have not encountered much in the works we discussed. Western culture, and probably world culture as well, has been involved since the beginning of the modern period not only in its own self- destruction, but in the destruction of the earth, the environment which has bred and nursed it. In “From a Plane,” a short poem included in your miscellany of poetry, Denise Levertov recognizes from the air “the great body…torn apart/ raked and raked by our claws” –treated by us like Lear and Gloucester by their ungrateful children. (more…)

Copy and Imitation

Saturday, April 28th, 2001

John Milton, Paradise Lost: 7: 309-338 [copied and imitated from Genesis 1-2]

Let th’ Earth
Put forth the verdant Grass, Herb yeilding Seed,
And Fruit Tree yeilding Fruit after her kind;
Whose Seed is in her self upon the Earth.
He scarce had said, when the bare Earth, till then
Desert and bare, unsightly, unadorn’d,
Brought forth the tender Grass, whose verdure clad
Her Universal Face with pleasant green,
Then Herbs of every leaf, that sudden flour’d
Op’ning thir various colours, and made gay
Her bosom smelling sweet: and these scarce blown,
Forth flourish’t thick the clustring Vine, forth crept
The swelling Gourd, up stood the cornie Reed
Embattell’d in her field: add the humble Shrub,
And Bush with frizl’d hair implicit: last
Rose as in Dance the stately Trees, and spred
Thir branches hung with copious Fruit; or gemm’d
Thir Blossoms: with high Woods the Hills were crownd,
With tufts the vallies & each fountain side,
With borders long the Rivers.

Steven Marx, “April the First”

The Spring god talked the green world into being.
She said to earth, “Push up the verdant grasses
And all the vegetation bearing seed
The fruit trees yielding their own distinct fruits
To hold and spread the seeds of progeny.”
And earth no sooner heard, still bleak and bare,
But that her crust burst forth with tender Grass
That softened to a face of smiling green,
And then with broad-leafed herbs that sudden bloomed
To dress her breast in luscious colored flowers
And fragrance sweet. And still more growth,
The lengthy vines emerged and soon grew thick
Swelling with squash and pumpkin. Ranks of grain
Sprang up in fields and shrubby chapparel
Sprouted impen’trable thickets. Climaxing
Above this growth, majestic trees rose
Reached out their overarching limbs adroop
With fruits and flowers, and crowned in groves
The hills, gave shade to springs riparian,
And bordered watercourses.