Environmental Poetry of Anjela Duval
Lenora A. Timm *
In his recent overview of North American environmental literature—The
Environmental Imagination (1995)—Thoreauvian scholar and literary critic
Lawrence Buell suggested four criteria by which to identify what he calls “ an
environmentally oriented work, ” which may be applied equally to prose or
poetry. In brief, these are:
1. The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device
but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in
2. The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate
3. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical
4. Some sense of the environment as a process rather than a constant or
a given is at least implicit in the text.
While the environment or, more commonly, “ nature, ” in some sense has
been a common theme in poetry and other literary creations since time
immemorial, many writers have found it difficult, or perhaps unimaginable, to
write about nature or the environment from anything but a homocentric
perspective. The “ green movement ” in Euro-American literature of recent
decades (notably since the 1970s) has self-consciously endeavored to be more
ecocentric in its themes and expressive genres. Indeed, environmental
literature has emerged as a distinct specialization for younger cohorts of
literary scholars, in both creative and critical dimensions, and there are both
acknowledged leaders and admired precursors within this branch of the literary
enterprise, eloquently discussed—for the American case—in Buell’s work, cited
As one familiar with the poetic œuvre of Anjela Duval (1905-1981), I
have long been struck with her love of nature and with environmental issues,
and in contemplating Buell’s defining characteristics of environmental writing,
I realized that by these criteria Duval clearly merits inclusion in any honor
roll of “ green poets, ” though I would guess that, given her life
circumstances on a relatively isolated farm in pays tregorrois, she had little
awareness of the environmental movement in literature that was gaining momentum
While Duvalian scholars have certainly been appreciative of this poet’s
sensitivity to nature, more attention has been paid to her as a nationalist
poet and as an inspiration for several generations of Breton activists who have
sought greater political and economic autonomy and a cultural/linguistic
renewal for Brittany. Only recently has she been characterized as an ecological
poet before her time.
I believe this is fundamentally correct, and her understanding of the
importance of preserving healthy ecosystems (though she did not employ such
language) is manifested in a number of her poems that, in an earlier work of
mine, I categorized as “ social criticism ”—which it was.
However, it has become even more evident in the most recent collection of
Duval’s poetry—much of it
previously unpublished—that eco-environmental themes were very prominent in
Duval’s thinking and ultimately in her poetic expression. She rightly deserves
a place among other 20 thc. writers who have modeled an environmental critique
in their poetry.
in Comparative Perspective
What I will do in this essay is to highlight the environmental and
nature dimensions of Duval’s poetry, drawing occasional parallels to three
prominent North American poets who are admired for their compelling handling of
ecological/environmental themes, and human-nature interactions—Robinson
Jeffers, Mary Oliver, and Wendell Berry.
Of course, Duval was also a “ nature poet ” in the more traditional
sense of one who paid attention to, and honored, nonhuman creatures, natural
forces, and landscapes, and some of her most exquisite poems in my opinion fall
under this rubric. Like the New England poet, Mary Oliver, Duval also had a
genius for “ bringing nature into focus through painted particulars, ” as one
critic has written of Oliver’s work.
The pertinence of this remark is evident in Oliver’s “ Goldenrod ”: “ on
roadsides,/ in fall fields,/ in rumpy bunches,/ saffron and orange and pale
gold,/ in little towers/ soft as mash,/ sneeze-bringers and seed-bearers,/ full
of bees and yellow beads and perfect flowerlets… ” Similarly, Duval’s “ An
Delioù Kentañ ” (“ First Leaves ”) offers a verbal water-color of the subtle
hues in early spring foliage to be discerned by the careful observer:
Sunday they were still gray
And their branches naked,
The row of poplar trees
So tall and so thin
On the edge of the meadow,
Contemplating their image,
In the dark water of the Leger.
—Today they’ve changed color.
They’re neither pink nor yellow,
Nor are they at all green,
It’s a subtle shade, known only
To the Great Painter…
Tender, delicate and fragile,
Like an idea germinating
in the mind of a child
In “ Dibreder ” (“ Carefree ”) Duval paints a “ rural tableau ” that
deftly depicts the lush countryside near her farm and also captures the subtle
but characteristic behavior of dairy cows at rest:
A border of flowering broom
A golden sea gently undulating
Carefree in the shade of an oak tree
Three cows stretched out on the grass
Ruminating greens and dreams
Now and again an ear is raised
like a fan
To flick away a fly
sucking rheum in the corner of their eyes.
Within the plant kingdom, trees reigned supreme for Duval. She knew, as
deeply rooted peoples do, all the plant species in her territory, but she
particularly delighted in writing about trees. She ends one poem that wonders
how she came to love trees so much from early childhood—“ When I caressed their
bark/ With my babyish hand./ When I glued my ear against them/ To listen to the
rustling of their leaves ”—with the speculation that “ Perhaps I was a tree/ at
the beginning of time… ”
In another poem, “ Er C’hoad ” (“ In the Forest ”) she revels in
reciting the “ magical names ” of the trees to be found there, which seem to
cast a sort of spell over her: “ White-oak. Forest-aspen/Maple. Hornbeam/
Black-alder. Willow. White Birch./ /My thousand mute friends. ”
affection for all creatures, animal or plant, certainly motivated many of her
poems, but this poet was also driven by a powerful sense of the destructive
forces of the technologies and global economic expansions of the 20thc., not
only in terms of their potential for devastation of traditional ways of human
life—including the rural existence she had known as a small farmer—but also for
their effect on wildlife and landscapes. Some of her environmental poetry is
anything but pastoral, manifesting instead a horror at the discontinuity she
saw unfolding between humans and nature, as people became increasingly detached
from their rural roots and traditions. In a tone akin to that of a number of
Robinson Jeffers’ poems, Duval not infrequently blasted away at the rottenness
of cities, viewed not only as pits of decadence but as destroyers of the
natural countryside. Jeffers, who lived in the mountains above the central
California coast was disgusted by the incursion of suburbs into once remote
countryside, along with the sprawl of cities. In “ Carmel Point ” he sighs,
The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupine walled with clean
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
In Part V of a longer poem, “ The Broken Balance ”, Jeffers mourns “
…the broken balance, the hopeless prostration of the/earth/Under men’s hands
and their minds,/The beautiful places killed like rabbits to make a city/The
spreading fungus, the slime-threads/And spores; my own coast’s obscene future…
Duval’s “ spreading fungus ” was Paris. For example, in the dissonant
closing lines of an otherwise nostalgic and pastoral poem, “ Lec’h Va C’havell”
(“My Cradle’s Place ”), this most famous of French cities is metaphorized as an
My cradle’s spot is my little kingdom
I was born one day
When the narcissus bloomed
I was born in the countryside
Born on a farm
On a property in my mother’s line
In Tregor in Brittany
Born in the springtime
At the time of down-filled nests
In the shelter of ivy and moss
At the time of foals and new lambs
Gamboling in the pasture
My pleasant green valley
Crossed by the black Leger
Bordered by the hills Runavin
Keravel Kerouel and Keriel.
in which echo so prettily
The tinkling bells of Tregrom’s tower…
And the heavy feet of the Black Horse
Crossing day and night
People from Brest to Paris
Paris-Sodom the voracious abyss
That only throws up its prey at the time of the potato
To regorge its vomit each year at the
“ Rentrée ”
It must be added here for readers not familiar with the history of
Brittany that for many Bretons Paris represents the seat of centralized
authority that has limited the region’s possibilities for economic
self-regulation and cultural development; and has also been the destination for
many generations of Breton émigrés seeking work, for want of opportunity in
their native region. This siphoning off of the younger cohorts of Bretons over
the years further contributed, historically, to the stagnation of the Breton
economy and of Brittany’s distinctive cultural and linguistic heritage.
For Duval, it was cities, too, that sent out the hordes of tourists who,
especially in the summertime, would overrun and disrupt her beautiful
countryside, showing little or no respect for its inhabitants, human and
nonhuman alike. Her poems “ Korriganed ” (“ Elves ”) and “ An Douristed ” (“
The Tourists ”) speak to this theme (portions of each poem follow):
A people of elves
A degenerate people
A genocidal people
Drowned in red wine
Drowned in French pom-pom
And in political slogans
A people resembling Elves
Playfully amusing themselves
In the abandoned heaths
Dancing among the megaliths
To the sound of the toads
To the mysterious music
Of the wind and the sea
The lament of the streams
The rustling of the woods
They make me laugh
—when they don’t infuriate me—
They are seeking, they say, tranquility
To rest from the noise of the cities.
Yet I no longer hear throughout the day
My winged companions
Nor deep in his crevice
My friend the cricket
In each corner of the village: a clamor
The racket of stinking cars
The din of transistor radios
Duval’s utter contempt for mindless tourists is transparent; yet she was
not (unlike Jeffers most of the time) convinced of the baseness of humanity.
Rather, as a devout Catholic, she believed in the possibility of redemption,
and used her poetic voice, in part, to encourage, or, more often, to admonish
others to pay attention to what was going on around them and to engage in more
positive interaction with the environment, just as she attempted in many of her
poems to rouse Bretons from their political apathy. Indeed, the two themes are
almost inextricably intertwined, for she understood the “ dismantling of
Brittany ” as an ecosystem to be, in large measure, the result of her
compatriots’ submissive assimilation to French culture and language.
The ecosystem she sees disappearing and in favor of which she writes so
passionately is one in which human beings are deeply embedded. Hers is not the
vision of a primal wilderness, but of a caring and knowledgeable interaction
between human and nonhuman on a beloved territory. That is, her ecological
vision is of a small farmer living in harmony with the denizens of a humanized
landscape. This is her ideal, but she sees it slipping away year by year as the
young leave Brittany, especially its rural sectors, as outsiders settle in, and
as construction of new roads and houses moves implacably forward. In a
particularly stirring poem published in the most recent anthology of her work,
Duval creates an unforgettable image of the destruction of one of the hallmarks
of the Breton landscape—its bocages,
embankments covered with a thick growth of trees, shrubs, and vines that
separate fields, that serve as habitat for dozens of animal species, and that
may self-regenerate indefinitely.
—“ A shiver runs
Down my thorny back
Stiffening on my head
My hair of tangled brambles
My last hour has sounded
All over my miseries of this World
The earth shakes. The trees tremble
But what do I see? It isn’t Ankou!
But a huge devil with claws
Coming to tear me apart, to behead me
The red Bulldozer with its giant step
To bury me in the ditch. ”
—“ Ah! may the steel of your claws be
With the pure blood of my roots;
Like the hand of an executioner
With the blood of a martyr!
While my soul will fly lightly
In the mantel of my dust:
A cloud carried by the breeze
High high above the hillside,
Toward… a Paradise:
Paradise of old bocages…
This theme recurs in her poems, for she understands, as she says in one
of them, that the bocages are important not only in Brittany, but serve as “
the framework of the Celtic Countries. ”
(Department of Linguistics, University of California, Davis)
Lawrence Buell, The Environmental
Imagination. Thoreau, Nature Writing and the Formation of American Culture
(Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap/Harvard University Press), pp. 7-8.
Buell’s work is but one of a large
and growing number of such studies of environmentally oriented writing.
However, l do not wish to imply that there was no environmental writing in
earlier decades and centuries-Buell demonstrates that there was. Still,
interest in ecological and environmental themes in the humanities has
accelerated in the past 30 years; and, as noted in the text, a distinctive
scholarly specialization in environmental literature has emerged, evident in
such anthologies as Being in the World: An Environmental Reader for Writers,
ed. Scott H. Slovic & Terrell F. Dixon (New York: Macmillan, 1993); in
Praise of Nature, ed. Stephanie Mills (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1990); and
in the monumental Encompassing Nature: A Sourcebook. Nature and Culture from
Ancient Times to the Modem World, ed. Robert M. Torrance (Washington, DC:
Ronan Le Coadic so characterizes her
in his essay about her life in Anjela Duval: Stourm a ran war bep tachenn
[Anjela Duval: I do Battle on Every Front] (Sant-Brieg: Mignoned Anjela, 1998),
Lenora A. Timm, A Modem Breton
Political Poet: Anjela Duval (Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990).
This is the collection cited in note
3. Le Coadic and others have done a great service in finding and compiling a
hundred additional poems; a number had been published years ago in now
hard-to-find Breton literary journals; but many had not been published and were
selected from archival materials that had been gathered on Duval after her
There are of course many other fine
poets who delve into this territory poetically, but these happen to be three
whom I enjoy reading and whose poetry strikes me as sometimes closely related
in theme and style to Duval’s environmental poetry.
John Elder, Imagining the Earth.
Poetry and the Vision of Nature (Athens: University of Georgia Press), p. 219.
Anjela Duval, Kan an Douar (Brest: Al
Liamm, 1982), p. 77. Translated in L. Timm, op. cit., p. 188. This
and all other translations of Duval’s poems into English are my own.
Anjela Duval, Kan an Douar (Brest:
Al Liamm, 1982), p. 107. Translated in L.Timm, op.cit., p. 160.
From “ Santad Bugel ” (‘A Child’s
Feeling’) in Anjela Duval, Traoñ an Dour (Brest : Al Liamm, 1982), p. 68. Translated
in L. Timm, op. cit., p. 62.
Anjela Duval, Kan an Douar (Brest: Al
Liamm, 1982), p. 122. Translated in L. Timm, op. cit., p. 168. The
tree names are arguably “ more magical ” in Breton: Derv-gwenn.
Koad-kren/Skav-gwrac’h. Fav-put/Evor. Aozilh. Bezv Gwenn.
Robinson Jeffers, Selected Poems,
p. 102. © 1963, 1965 by Donnan Jeffers and Garth
Jeffers (New York: Random House).
Robinson Jeffers, The Selected
Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, p. 260. © 1938 by Robinson Jeffers (New York:
Anjela Duval, Stourm a ran war bep
tachenn (Sant-Brieg: Mignoned Anjela, 1998), p. 129.
Anjela Duval, Traoñ an Dour (Brest:
Al Liamm, 1982), p. 114. Translated in L. Timm, op. cit., p.
238. The French word, “ Rentrée, ” at the poem’s end refers to the return each
September 1st of summer vacationers to Paris (and other cities).
Anjela Duval, Kan an Douar (Brest:
Al Liamm, 1982), p. 113. Translated in L.Timm, op.cit., p. 252.
The term is French, and is found in
more comprehensive English dictionaries; there is no suitable English
equivalent, though “ hedge ” is sometimes used as a less than fully adequate
Ankou is the traditional Breton
symbol of (impending) death, typically personified as a skeleton carrying a
scythe and travelling in a creaky, horse-drawn cart.
Anjela Duval, Stourm a ran war bep
tachenn (Sant-Brieg: Mignoned Anjela, 1998), p. 15.
This line is in her poem “
Dismantroù Breizh ” (“ The Dismantling of Brittany ”) in Traoñ an Dour (Brest:
Al Liamm, 1982), pp. 117-118. Translated in L.Timm, op.cit., p.250.