A visionary world

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When Ovid’s Orpheus sits down in full sun and begins tuning his lyre in the Metamorphoses, trees of every kind move forward to create a shady grove where the poet can sing. The arboreal audience is carefully distinguished, from oaks, poplars, limes and beeches to vine-covered elms, palms, pines and finally a cypress. The sylvan gathering prompts a story of love and loss, of a boy turned tree, as well as Orpheus’s song.

Peter Dale and Brandon C. Yen’s new book, Versed in Living Nature: Wordsworth’s trees, has a similar effect, as different trees take turns in complementing the poet at the centre. Here we find not only the living yews of Borrowdale and the birches at Dove Cottage, but also the symbolic Royal Oaks, Liberty Trees and Trees of Corruption that sprang up in the graphic satire of the 1790s. Wordsworth’s Cambridge is blessed with both the great ash at St John’s College and Milton’s mulberry, while being blighted by elderly dons, “unscour’d, grotesque … trick’d out like aged trees”. Trees are at once essential to the shared, physical experience of humanity and enabling landmarks of the visionary world.

Wordsworth never thought of himself as a naturalist – it was Dorothy who longed for a book of Botany, and was delighted when William Withering’s Arrangement of British Plants arrived at Dove Cottage to help her identify the local flora. Her brother cherished her attentiveness to the natural world – the glint of a primrose’s first visible petals, the lilac colour of butterfly wings – but he had his eyes open, too, to details a stranger might see and notice not. The fells, fields, paths and graveyards around Grasmere held remnants of stories to be traced and turned into art.

Dale and Yen’s previous project, the beautifully illustrated Wordsworth’s Gardens and Flowers, opened the way to this similarly attractive study, in which a central chapter begins: “Wordsworth was a great gardener”. With the focus now on trees, those gardens are revisited for different reasons, with arboreal planting choices considered aesthetically, imaginatively, practically, politically. Wordsworth’s well-known fury over intrusive larch-planting in his Guide to the Lakes demands reconsideration in the light of his openness to non-native species at Rydal Mount. The mighty fern-leaved beech at the centre of the garden now suggests Wordsworth himself as a locally rooted power with global connections. He was happy to raise an Italian stone pine from seeds brought back by his friend George Beaumont and to introduce Himalayan rhododendrons and cedars. In this he was very much a man of his age.

This book is a mine of information about trees, their origins, the growth of their cultural meanings. It also brings unexpected details into focus, transforming familiar poems into something new. The aspen stumps in “Hart-Leap Well”, for example, emerge as figures of profound emptiness, anticipating some of the bleaker moments in Keats, Shelley, Hopkins and Edward Thomas, and, bleakest of all, Paul Nash’s blasted trees along the Menin Road.

Trees, as the authors remind us, are symbols of connection – working across time and space through memory, traditions, allusion and literary influence. Robert Burns’s holly wreath, bestowed by his native muse, Coila, in “The Vision”, drops its berries in Wordsworth’s imagination to grow in meaning, poems and soil. Wordsworth was given to planting holly berries for the sake of Burns in his neighbour’s gardens, including Mary Fletcher’s at Lancrigg. He gave them fruitful spots in Lyrical Ballads too.

The “havoc” wrought by axes in the woods around Rydal, meanwhile, which Dorothy noted with dismay, erupts in Wordsworth’s excoriating sonnet on “Degenerate Douglas”, the Duke of Queensberry, whose majestic Tweedside trees were felled from “despite of heart” and “love of havoc” – or so Wordsworth gathered from his fellow tree-lover Walter Scott. The period’s burgeoning arborphilia was intensified by widespread depradations. War and trade demanded ships, and ships demanded oaks. Trees were routinely felled in the name of “improvement”, whether by French Revolutionaries enraged by the corrupt tree of the ancien régime, Hanoverian authorities exacting punishment on Jacobite sympathisers or landowners following fashions in landscape gardening.

In Ireland the politics of planting were especially fraught, with tree-felling at times “a sign of native defiance”. The final chapter of Versed in Living Nature follows Wordsworth on his tour of Ireland in 1829, revealing a poet conflicted by opposition to Catholic practices – especially evident in the year of Catholic emancipation. So immersed in the landscape and oral history of rural Cumbria, so inspired by the trees of Scotland and Italy, Wordsworth here seems oddly deracinated. This book’s epilogue recalls a younger Wordsworth at the height of his powers, recalling his midnight trip across Ullswater in the boat stolen from the “Cavern of the Willow tree”, yet these final paragraphs cannot entirely restore the generally heartening mood.

Serious thoughts on the politics of tree-planting may be the best legacy of Peter Dale and Brandonm C. Yen’s splendid book. If Wordsworth’s tendency to present himself in a prophetic role has sometimes struck readers as embarrassing, his imaginative engagement with the character of individual trees and anxiety over Britain’s diminishing tree canopy make him a voice for our times and times to come.

Fiona Stafford is editing The Oxford History of English Literature: The Romantic period, 1785-1830. Her books include The Brief Life of Flowers, 2018, and The Long, Long Life of Trees, 2016

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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