Lesson on 'Green Lane' by Stephanie Norgate and 'Flies and Nettles' by Fergus Allen
'Green Lane', by Stephanie Norgate, and 'Flies and Nettles', by Fergus Allen, are both powerful examples of what Terry Gifford refers to as the 'radical pastoral', a subgenre that explores the relationship between humanity and the natural world. Both envisage the reclamation of the land by the forces of nature, but do this in different ways: one benign, the other more sinister. This activity invites students to read for gist rather than carrying out a detailed exploration of poetic form, and also encourages students to use images to create a visual narrative to run alongside each poem. It would be ideally placed as part of an introduction to the genre of pastoral (for the AQA B English Literature specification).
- To explore how poets envisage the relationship between humans and the natural world.
- To create visualisations of the poems (through PowerPoint, collage or other artwork) as a way of expressing these relationships.
- To encourage group work.
- To understand some aspects of the radical pastoral.
Teaching sequence of activities
A choice of starters, depending on what you think would be most appropriate for your students. The stilling activity works particularly well if your students live in an area that has seen a lot of redevelopment and change during their lifetimes.
- Stilling activity: get students to close their eyes and imagine a place they know that used to be a green space (fields or gardens, or just undeveloped land) but has now been built on. They should use their senses to imagine what this place used to be like, and what it's like now. Share ideas: key words and phrases on board.
- As an alternative, you could use some 'before and after' images of green spaces that have been built on, or of contrasting photographs of rural and urban scenes. Again, students should try to describe the contrasts between these images, using sensory descriptions as much as possible.
- Then get students to imagine that the countryside has a voice: if it could talk, what would it say about the way it has changed? What does it feel it has lost and gained? What does it regret?
Listen once to the recording of Stephanie Norgate reading 'Green Lane'. Ask students to describe what kind of voice is narrating the poem (remind them to distinguish between the poem’s voice and Norgate's!)
Then project the text of the poem onto the whiteboard, and play the poem again. This time, students should look and listen for examples of first and second person pronouns, and words with connotations of violence (such as 'cut', 'pounded' and 'silenced'). Underline these on the board.
Ask students to consider what kind of relationship the lane has with the people it is addressing. Does this relationship change during the poem?
Next, project the text of 'Flies and Nettles' by Fergus Allen, and play the recording. Students, in groups, should consider the relationship between humans and nature in this poem, and explore the ways in which it contrasts with Norgate's vision of the green lane.
Students should then work in groups to produce a visualisation of each poem. This could be in the form of a slide show, or they could produce a collage or other artwork. They should aim to express a sense of the different relationships between humans and the environment that each poem conveys.
Norgate says that her poem 'seem[s] to offer a sort of reconciliation between man and nature'. How would the students sum up the relationship in Allen's poem? Ask them to explain how their visualisation expresses these relationships.
Norgate's poem aims to explore the identity of the south-east of England. Students could use this as the starting-point for an exploration of poetry that relates to the identity of another region, particularly their own.
The critic Lawrence Buell has stated that the environmental problems of the modern age mean that pastoral writing has taken on a new importance. He says that 'the wholly new conception of the precariousness of our relationships with nature is bound to bring forth new versions of pastoral', and highlights pastoral's capacity 'to assume oppositional forms'. To what extent can Norgate and Allen's poems be seen as representing these oppositional forms?
Compare with other poems in the Poetry Archive about humans and the environment such as 'Birmingham River' by Roy Fisher, 'The Climax of Factory Farming' by Les Murray and 'Pipistrelles' by Kathleen Jamie
The Commission for Rural Communities has produced two short films on the changing British countryside that are available online:
If you are studying the pastoral as a genre, the films and their accompanying transcripts (also available online) offer some useful and provocative insights into the political issues surrounding the contemporary British countryside.