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The God in the Forest: Finding the Spiritual in Nature

In the Iliad, there is a passage where Zeus calls all the gods to an assembly on Mount Olympus. But it is not only the Olympians who come – along with them are all the streams, and the nymphs of the woods, the rivers and the meadows. The Homeric world is one in which nature itself is full of gods – tree spirits, water spirits, mountain spirits.

Later, towards the end of the nineteenth century, comparative anthropologists, particularly James Frazer, in his seminal work The Golden Bough, began to chart the separation of the god from nature. They argued (with an implicit and dangerous racial bias) that the animated world of more ‘primitive’ peoples, in which all aspects of nature had a soul or spirit, gradually gave way to the ‘civilised’ world of the West, in which God had been separated from his creation. Over time, the tree-spirit became separated from the tree, the river-spirit from the river, so that people no longer felt the need to appease the tree, or protect it. Instead, they could raze the forest, could change the course of the river, because now God was in the sky, or abstracted into heaven, or else didn’t exist at all.

Now, in the midst of spiralling ecological crisis, it is time to recover an animated world. I’m not advocating a return to religion, here, but rather a return to a view of the natural world as autonomous, ensouled, perhaps even sacred. Poets, of course, have always been experimenting with ways to recalibrate our relationship to nature, but recently this has taken on a new impetus. In Harriet Tarlo’s anthology The Ground Aslant, in Robert Minhinnick’s recent award-winning collection, Diary of the Last Man, or in Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s Swims, a sense of political urgency is informing the ways in which poets write about, and refigure their relationship to, the non-human world.

In my upcoming course for the Poetry School, we’ll be exploring all of these ways, and experimenting with new ones. We’ll be going outside, taking notes, returning to our writing with a close-attention, opening ourselves up to all the weirdness and wonder of nature; but we’ll also being thinking about the poem itself, exploring ways in which what we write might carry the political urgency of our ecological crisis.

Of course, a poet needn’t live in the Lake District or on Dartmoor to be surrounded by nature. In fact, that’s one of the problems for ecopoetry – that it’s seen as something middle class, privileged, disconnected from the urban landscapes most of us call home and from the other ways in which our lives are politicised. In Bertolt Brecht’s poem ‘To Posterity’, he exclaims ‘Ah, what an age it is / When to speak of trees is almost a crime / For it is a kind of silence about injustice!’ In this course, we’ll be seeking ways to fill that silence – to explore all the interlinking injustices of environmentalism, the ways in which destroying the natural world is connected with the myriad violences of our world. With that in mind, we’ll also be thinking about the ideas in Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem, or Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, where the fraught connections between people and nature are picked apart and challenged.

I’ll leave us with a passage from W.B. Yeats’s Per Amina Silentia Lunae. Here, Yeats is thinking about the mask, the ways in which artistry might give us a connection to something spiritual. Where he talks about the hero making changes to the mask, we’ll be thinking about how we might make changes to poetry, and how those changes might help us see the world around us afresh, how they might bring back our sense of the spiritual in nature. We’ll be writing poems and re-carving them, inviting the god back into the world, if only for a moment, to see how it might be changed.

I thought the hero found hanging upon some oak of Dodona an ancient mask, where perhaps there lingered something of Egypt, and that he changed it to his fancy, touching it a little here and there, gilding the eyebrows or putting a gilt line where the cheek-bone comes; that when at last he looked out of its eyes he knew another’s breath came and went within his breath upon the carvern lips, and that his eyes were upon the instant fixed upon a visionary world: how else could the god have come to us in the forest?


Awaken the mysterious, divine power of rocks, rivers, birds, trees and ourselves on Seán Hewitt’s new online course, The God in the Forest: Nature Mysticism. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.

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