Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The "Poetry of Trees" and Wordsworth's New Vision of Pastoral: An Unrecorded Letter

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The "Poetry of Trees" and Wordsworth's New Vision of Pastoral: An Unrecorded Letter

Article excerpt

As is well known, Wordsworth (like Dr. Johnson) was averse to cataloguing nature's charms; and yet from "An Evening Walk" onwards, the "dance" of "stately trees" (in Milton's phrase) held a special place in his imagination. Wordsworth loved trees as much for their individual characteristics as for their contribution to the harmony of nature. One thinks of the "dark sycamore" in "Tintern Abbey," which provides the recumbent poet with the repose necessary for his poetic journey of self-discovery; or Michael's oak, the "Clipping Tree," which affords domestic shelter and a focus for his pastoral life; or the ancient yew-trees of Lorton Vale and Borrowdale which seem to intimate in their twisted forms the ups and downs of the nation's story and the gloomy shades of the Underworld; or the ash tree in "Airey-Force Valley," with its "soft eye-music of slow-waving boughs," so soothing to the spirit of the onlooker. (1) The list is almost endless. There is hardly a native species that the poet does not mention, but these few examples are enough to bring out the role of trees in man's communion with nature and the spirit of nature which Wordsworth celebrates in all his poems.

The incomplete text of a letter of 1845 to James Grigor, which was discovered too late for inclusion in the new edition of The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, invites attention to yet another tree admired by the poet, the Highland fir or pine. Why do pine trees--whether singly or in groves--occupy a significant place in his poetry? And can his early reading and experience throw light on this problem? Extracts from Wordsworth's letter were quoted as "characteristic of his tastes and studies" at the end of the notice of the poet's funeral in the Inverness Courier for 9 May 1850, a newspaper edited by Robert Carruthers (1799-1878), the biographer of Pope and a not uncritical admirer of Wordsworth, who was known to Wordsworth's son-in-law, Edward Quillinan. (2) The letter forms a link betweeen Wordsworth's poetical treatment of trees and his more practical interest in landscape gardening which was demonstrated in the Winter Garden at Coleorton, designed for Sir George Beaumont in 1806, (3) and in his plans for his own grounds at Rydal Mount. (4) Both gardens survive to this day as evidence of his feeling for the aesthetics of landscape. Wordsworth's sonnet to Lady Beaumont on the completion of his task at Coleorton deserves to be better known, if only for his appreciation of what "murmuring pines" (Virgil's phrase, as we shall see) could add to the sounds and sights of nature:

 
      ... as Fancy wove 
   The dream, to time and nature's blended powers 
   I gave this paradise for winter hours, 
   A labyrinth, Lady! which your feet shall rove. 
   Yes! when the sun of life more feebly shines, 
   Becoming thoughts, I trust, of solemn gloom 
   Or of high gladness you shall hither bring; 
   And these perennial bowers and murmuring pines 
   Be gracious as the music and the bloom 
   And all the mighty ravishment of spring. (5) 

"Had not your brother far higher claims to the admiration of posterity," Lady Beaumont wrote to Dorothy Wordsworth in 1822 in praise of the Winter Garden, "this garden almost would be a monument of his taste for the picturesque." (6)

James Grigor (1811?-1848), of Norwich, Wordsworth's hitherto unrecorded correspondent, was a litle-known naturalist who died young, but not before he had published his handsome illustrated volume Eastern Arboretum, or Register of Remarkable Trees, Seats, Gardens, etc., in the County of Norfolk, 1841. (7) In his Preface he claimed to have devoted twenty years to "practical botanical pursuits," and to have "taken a craze for trees" (Eastern Arboretum, 5-6). As an admirer of Wordsworth, Grigor had evidently called on the poet at Rydal Mount, (8) or met him in the Lake District, since Wordsworth's letter was written to acknowledge a drawing of the Highland pine which Grigor had sent him, presumably as a result of their discussions, in order that the poet might compare it with trees of the same species at Rydal. …

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