”The city is not real to him”: Civilization, Animals, and Time in the Poetry of Loren Eiseley
Known primarily for his prose and essays on natural science, Loren Eiseley also wrote poetry, offering his readers yet another aspect of his reverence for nature. Scholars agree that time serves as a recurring and unifying theme throughout his work (Christensen; Franke; Schwartz). This focus on time, combined with his expertise in biological and environmental history, informs the unique manner in which Eiseley revertly sets the animal kingdom apart from the flawed human one.
Like many writers interested in nature, Eiseley employs personification to situate animals within his poetry, but he also elevates them beyond mere likeness to humans. In one of his earliest poems (first published in 1928), “Spiders,” the opening poem in his collection All the Night Wings, he writes:
Spiders are antiquarians—
fond of living among ghosts and haunted ruins,
The black jade pillars totter in the halls of Marduk;
stones fall from the archways,
at night grey sand
whines by the lampless windows.
The god lies shattered,
his green-jeweled eyes are gone;
the sockets are hacked and empty as a skull.
Upon his face a squat tarantula is creeping…
a bland yellow noon
smiles at a black tarantula
creeping on the skull of a god!
This stanza’s tongue-in-cheek punchline reminds the reader that animals are at once entities that interact with humanity and creatures that are liberated from obeying the laws of human civilization. The gall that Eiseley imputes to a spider who would desecrate a religious statue is comical in part thanks to Eiseley’s use of a defunct religion represented by a vandalized icon, but this detail deepens in meaning as the poem continues with examples of spiders’ indifference toward human culture.
Eiseley uses the repeated syntax to define spiders, in this stanza as antiquarians, but his underlying aim is to reveal how little humans understand about the laws of animals. By the final stanza, spiders have achieved a symbolic status that represents Eiseley’s view of nature’s longevity,
time is a spider,
the world is a fly
caught in the invisible, stranded web of space.
It sways and turns aimlessly
in the winds blowing up from the void.
Slowly it desiccates… crumbles…
the stars weave over it.
By the end of the poem, the world has ended as well. In this vision of the future, Eiseley figures the creature that stars in in his poem as a metaphysical force, first as “time” with the world in its web, a metaphor for the chronic and inevitable decay of the planet. The second elevation of spiders occurs when they appear as “stars weave over” the void where earth once hung. Though in reality the spiders would also be removed from their indifferent interactions with humanity due to the world’s end, Eiseley mythologizes the lowly spider by esteeming them with an immunity to the fate of civilization. Like the the spider scurrying over the ruined skull of an abandoned god, here the animal entity is indifferent to those pursuits that humans value.
A similar attitude shows up again in a later work, Eiseley’s sonnet, “Winter Visitant” (published in 1943). Unlike “Spiders,” this poem features a speaker who shortens the distance between humans and animals, in this case an owl the speaker spots on his chimney. The speaker watches the owl as a winter storm rages around them both,
He scans indifferently the falling flakes
That make his world; his hunger is not cloyed.
The city is not real to him at all,
He takes it for a perch upon the blast
After a meal of field mice, and will fall
Asleep a moment, judging it will last
Firm for an owl’s claw till the time he’ll flit
Up through the dark, and let snow cover it.
The owl is indifferent to the severity of the weather because he is motivated by his own hunger, and the purity of that visceral animal drive leads to the striking insight, “The city is not real to him at all”; it is instead merely a point of departure. Within the compact framework of the sonnet form, the owl transforms from a hungry predator into an entity reminiscent of the spiders who suture time and space over the absence of humanity. The owl is dignified with a capacity to believe or reject the city, which represents humanity. As in “Spiders,” Eiseley portrays humans as more short-lived, and short-sighted, than their animal counterparts. He constructs the end of the poem as one in which the reader is able to inhabit the owl’s perspective. As the owl flies away from the city, the city disappears from reality beneath the snow, left to be buried in the storm.
The ephemeral presence of humans to a bird in flight informs the beginning of “Against Cities” (published in 1930) where Eiseley’s speaker observes the abilities of a hawk:
I have envied the hawk’s breast
enduring the great heaven […]
The serenity of stars over chaos
is worthy remembrance
and the peace of an old planet
forgetting the troubled footsteps of men…
Here, Eiseley personifies the hawk as a being that can transcend realms of time and space, “enduring the great heaven” as a means of remembering “the peace of an old planet” unmarred by the presence of humanity. As demonstrated by these capabilities of the hawk, the word “endure” is shaped by both its literal and figurative meanings, in that the hawk acts as a witness to the industrialization that destroys its habitat but also functions as a symbol of the enduring spirit of nature. As with the owl in “Winter Visitant,” the capability of the animal operates as a nod to the values of the speaker who recognizes the impact humans make on nature. In other words, by portraying the existence of humans as a brief period in natural history, the speaker implicitly communicates the wish to undo the damage caused to the environment by humans. This is the sentiment with which Eiseley closes his poem, albeit more directly so than in the circumstantial ending of “Winter Visitant” or the ominous ending of “Spiders”:
But I have pondered and not understood
earth that endures spoiled cities
in preference to white deserts and the stars.
The speaker’s remorse and confusion that the “earth that endures spoiled cities” reminds the reader of the preceding emphasis on what the hawk “endures.” In turn, the speaker positions the cities as a punishment inflicted on the earth, giving the poem its title. Because this ending is more overtly polemical than those of the other two, it solidifies Eiseley’s inherently socio-political treatment of animals in dignifying them through personification while also drawing upon observed details from his own schooling as a naturalist.
Eiseley portrays time in a fraught dynamic between humanity’s ephemeral presence and the cyclical, regenerative aspect of nature. This latter feature demonstrates Eiseley’s enduring love of the natural world, a love that reflected his naturalist’s wealth of knowledge and expertise. In these portrayals, Eiseley’s judgments are coupled with optimism. Humanity is a presence that interrupts, but cannot disrupt. It damages, but cannot destroy. The owl absconds, the spiders weave the cosmos whole again over the void left by earth, and the hawk endures both heaven and humankind.
Christensen, Erleen J. “Loren Eiseley, Student of Time.” Prairie Schooner, Vol. 61,
No. 3, Fall 1987, pp. 28-37.
Eiseley, Loren. “Against Cities” The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley, University of Nebraska Press, 2002, 27.
–“Spiders.” All the Night Wings, Times Books, 1978, pp 3-4.
–“Winter Visitant.” All the Night Wings, Times Books, 1978, pp 74.
Franke, Robert G. “Loren Eiseley and the Transcendentalist Tradition.” Mosaic; Vol. 20, No. 3, 1987, pp. 15-22.
Schwartz, James M.“Loren Eiseley: The Scientist as Literary Artist.” The Georgia Review, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter 1977, pp. 853-871.