Opposing Views on Nature and Humankind
For as long as human beings have been writing poetry, fiction, and philosophical or religious essays, they have addressed the conditions of the world around them. Some writings have tried to teach moral lessons through everything from didactic preaching to ribald comedy, and some have simply presented themselves as lamentations on hopeless situations and the downfall of man. Still other writings have celebrated the human condition, telling stories of great achievements, great romances, and great friendships. Of course, most writers prior to the nineteenth century were men, and much of the poetry and other writing that addressed one major phenomenon unique to humans in the animal kingdom—war—did so in terms of glory and grandeur. Themes centered on valor and victory, pride and strength, and nobility in dying for a cause. More recent writers have been wondering just what the “cause” is, and Sara Teasdale is one of them. That notion—coupled with the fact that she was a woman—makes “There Will Come Soft Rains” all the more intriguing and forceful in its portrayal of humankind’s bleak future.
The most powerful statement in this poem is Teasdale’s claim that neither animals nor plants “would mind . . . / If mankind perished utterly.” Many other futuristic poems and fictional accounts tell the story of a total destruction of life as a result of wars started by human beings—total in that the demise of man also means the demise of dogs and cats and elephants and geraniums and roses and so on. The rationale behind this dismal prediction is that domesticated animals have become dependent on human masters for survival and that wild animals and plants will die out because the aftermath of radiation or other bomb residue is sure to poison the air and water or block out the sun’s rays. Teasdale paints a different picture in “There Will Come Soft Rains.” She steps back from the conclusion that everything will perish in favor of the more cynical view that all living things other than humans will carry on as normal, not even noticing our absence.
When Ray Bradbury adopted the name of Teasdale’s poem for his short story about a thinking, talking, fully-automated house of the future (2026, to be exact), he also adopted the idea of man’s self-destruction through all-out war. Briefly, this tale is told from the house’s point of view— the reader is unaware in the beginning that the people who lived there are all dead because the house still rings bells to awaken them, calls out for them to get up, makes breakfast for them, and so forth. Not until Bradbury describes the eerie silhouettes of a man, woman, and two children imprinted on an outside wall of the house does the reader understand what has happened. The family was apparently caught off-guard by an attack that occurred in their small California town, and only the charred outlines of their bodies remain as evidence of their existence. The shadowy figures are still posed as the humans’ last moments on earth were spent— mowing grass, picking flowers, playing ball. The family dog, trapped inside the house with no one to feed him or free him, wanders aimlessly for several days before dying of starvation and madness. Eventually, the house catches fire when cleaning liquid spills across the kitchen stove, and it, too, “dies.”
Again, this scenario is a familiar one in futuristic writing. It foretells a complete loss of life in a nuclear war. Even if the thing lost is inhuman, such as the dog or the house in the Bradbury tale, it is all a part of the belief that humankind rules the earth and nothing can survive without us. It is interesting that the science fiction writer of the midtwentieth century took a poignantly different approach from the poet of the early-twentieth century who originated the title of both pieces—interesting and ironic. Because Teasdale’s animals and plants live happily on after man is gone, the reader is tempted to think that hers is...
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