Symbol and Nature in Neihardt’s Lyric Poetry
By Daniel Clausen
John G. Neidhardt, like all the poets on this website, was attuned to the Great Plains place in which he lived. Unlike most of these poets though, his understanding of the place was not really a product of the 20th century. For example, William Kloefkorn’s appreciation of nature and the environment would have been influenced by modern ecology, the environmental movement, has a foundational sensibility that nature is something to cherish, admire, and seek to understand. Neihardt, however, was shaped in large part by 19th century sensibilities. Neihardt was born in the 1880s, long before most of our modern conveniences were commonplace. His favorite poets were Tennyson and Browning, Victorian Englishmen. And while science was certainly a very important part of his interests (he reviewed an astonishing number of scientific books, some of which are collected in Knowledge & Opinion), his relationship to place and nature was not what we are used to in nature or “eco-poetry” today.
For Neihardt, poetry was not the place for scientific notice of particular species. He did not try to build up a sense of a place through cataloging plants or mentioning precise endemic species, as Kloefkorn does with lespedeza. This is especially true in Neihardt’s lyric poetry, much of which was written before he was 30 years old. These lyrics often rely on the somewhat mysterious tool of symbols, but that does not make them any less focused on the particular time and place with which they are concerned. Of course for many readers of poetry, symbols often lead to frustration. We are told (by a well meaning teacher, most likely) that such-and-such an image in a poem “symbolizes” some other thing. A bird symbolizes the soul, or somesuch. The reader of poetry may then feel they are missing some “key”—like we see on a map—that would unlock the “secret meaning” of these symbol-infested poems. Undoubtedly, there are also poets who think this way and write poems which do require a key. But great poets and brave readers of poetry know that there is more to symbols than some sort of quasi-mathematical 1:1 equivalence between symbol and meaning. If we can move past this strict interpretation, symbols can open up poems toward universal experience, rather than shutting them up under lock and private key.
Neihardt’s poetry weaves together symbol upon symbol, and so it is important to have a better understanding. The mechanism of the symbol works not through equivalence, but evocation. It relies on its reader to have some experience in the world already, and on the physical basis that our language uses to layer literal and sensible meanings on more metaphorical and ineffable ones. For example, in his poem, “Lines in Late March,” Neihardt addresses a classic theme for poets in the northern hemisphere: the return of warmth and growth in spring. He sets the tone with a direct statement, even a bit of a challenge: “I whistle; why not?” Here already, we have what could be a “symbol.” But we don’t need any special key to unlock it; we already know about whistling. We whistle when we are happy and carefree, when the sky is clear and warm. We could perhaps argue that whistling “symbolizes” the happiness of spring, but we don’t really need to go that far. We just know that the poem starts out as a defense of happiness.
The next round of images are ones that recur throughout the short poem, and so are perhaps better qualified as symbols. We read about the green of the “maple-bud,” the “soft blue sky,” and the signing meadow-lark. Again, because we live on the Plains, we know these things. They aren’t unfamiliar, and most readers can picture the scene, if even our identification of maple trees or meadowlarks might not be as sharp as it could be. But if we look at how these images operate within the poem, we can even dig a little deeper. The poet here is relying on the shared world around him, not building it up for his reader detail by detail from the bottom. Yes, he does expect the reader to know what a “slough” is, but also to know something about the feeling that is really the topic of the poem. This brings us to the very subtle and complex way that symbol functions in the poem to create meaning on many levels at once.
The reason that symbols work is not in the images themselves, but in the interactions and relationships between the images, and between the images and the reader of the poem. So, in Neihardt’s poem, the title already gives us a time of year: late March. On the Great Plains, late March is a time of change; winter’s cold grip is finally loosening, and plants once again can carry on photosynthesis. The growing season begins. So “maple buds” and “green grass” are just two examples, and fairly broad and familiar ones, of what is going on. They are some of the first things that green up in the spring. But they are still points to focus our attention. The poet calls attention to these specific plants, and connects them with his whistling mood. It is because of the grass that he whistles. He has “caught” something from these plants, a mood of hope and possibility. By naming them, and asking about them, he makes the world of early spring show up more clearly. He re-presents it, makes it present to his readers again. But it was already there, and somehow it caused his mood. And now, by using these symbols of that mood and pairing them with his musings, he tries to call forth that same mood in the reader. The reader remembers what it is like to whistle in late march, and the familiar optimism of early spring on the plains. And the next time the reader of this poem experiences a late march, she might once more notice the maple buds, and the meadowlark, and be reminded of how she feels about hope, and wonder about how much darkness is always a part of life. The poem thus forms a link in a cycle between the reader’s prior experience of a place—a link that depends on the ability to imagine a time and location based on only a few typical nouns—and also shapes a reader’s future experience. And that is how symbols work. The connections (between grass in spring and cheerful whistling and hopeful determination) are always there already, but we are always finding them again with the help of poetry.
The symbols in Neihardt’s lyrics rely on this constantly flowing cycle of experience. It’s not that they need to be unlocked, but that they rely on our noticing the world around us. By building using our noticing as a foundation, Neihardt’s poems draw us toward one another and the place we share. Though it sometimes seems an old fashioned style, Neihardt’s poems are especially attuned to the “mysteries” of the human heart. This might be in part because the late nineteenth century was one time when many of the traditional stories were beginning to sound hollow when they claimed exclusive rights in interpreting the truth. Science was challenging many of the traditional understandings of religious accounts of creation. Psychology began to question how well people understood their own motives or actually knew what they wanted. The dark sides of capitalism’s progress and the racism and sexism of America’s history were more and more starkly visible. But there was still a hope and a faith that even if universal truths weren’t the property of any one group, they did underlie all the stories. Neihardt sought to uncover these truths and present them in his poetry. And unlike some of his contemporaries, poets who came to be known as Imagists, he was just as interested in myth and tradition as he was in science, technology, and “things.” He tried to represent what he thought had not changed over time, rather than focus on what was new and modern. Perhaps this is why his poems rely so much on symbol, and on myth.
Myths are often built on general symbols, and they often (some scholars say always) follow patterns called archetypes. The meaning of the seasons form one archetype. So, human reactions to the seasons were one place that Neihardt could discerned an underlying “spiritual truth.” Spring is always a season of optimism: it is the season of Lent and Easter (the subject of one of his best loved poems) when the Christian calendar celebrates return, redemption, and resurrection; it is the season of planting, the season of youth and planning and anticipation. This isn’t just “symbolic;” it’s a phenomenon that we all experience in the sun on our face and the green buds of maple trees and the return of meadowlarks and other migratory songbirds. (Neihardt’s hometown of Bancroft, NE is located just far enough north that Meadowlarks aren’t a yearround resident). It’s this insistence on these larger meanings that Vine Deloria Jr. called a “profound universal mysticism” (2).
So some scholars of literature might complain that Neihardt’s view of nature is only symbolic: that the trees aren’t there to be trees, but to be hope; that the meadowlark isn’t itself, but it’s voice. But that’s not quite fair. If we can see the whole picture the the poem is point toward, we can see actual spring and actual meadowlarks and actual human hearts. Symbols don’t merely stand for something—they are many things at once. And that’s an important part of the mystery of poetry that Neihardt so dearly loved.
I would like to thank Tim Anderson, Aubrey Streit Krug, and Pamela Gossin for their talks at the Center for Great Plains Symposium on “The Epic Neihardt,” held in February of 2016. Their research and presentations furnished me with many insights that shaped these essays in ways too fundamental to cite on an in-line basis.
Deloria, Vine Jr. ed. A Sender of Words: Essays in Memory of John G. Neihardt. Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 2005. Print.
Neihardt, John G. Lyric and Dramatic Poems. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1992.
—. Knowledge and Opinion: Essays and Literary Criticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002.