Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

'To Wound an Oak': The Poetics of Tree-Felling at Nun Appleton

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

'To Wound an Oak': The Poetics of Tree-Felling at Nun Appleton

Article excerpt

But I, retiring from the flood,

Take sanctuary in the wood;

And, while it lasts, my self embark

In this yet green, yet growing ark1

Andrew Marvell's poem, 'Upon Appleton House, To My Lord Fairfax', which searchingly explores the civilised retirement from public life of the Commander-in-Chief of Parliamentarian forces from 1645 to 1650, Sir Thomas, 'Lord General' Fairfax (1612-71), has, like Marvell (1621-78) himself, received a considerable measure of critical attention in recent years. Unsurprisingly, considering the poem features no fewer than eighteen stanzas on Nun Appleton's wood, a good deal of this attention, by scholars such as Chris Fitter, Diane McColley, Nigel Smith and James Turner, has focused on its environmental concerns,2 which include the felling of oak trees on Fairfax's idyllic Yorkshire estate, memorably effected by woodpeckers figuring the New Model Army: 'Who could have thought the tallest oak / Should fall by such a feeble stroke!'. Marvell, though, was not the only man to pen verses on Nun Appleton in the seventeenth century. As well as a modest offering from Lord Fairfax himself, 'Upon the New-built House att Apleton',3 there is another poem from this period concerned not only with this identical Yorkshire retreat but also, intriguingly, with the same theme of oak-felling. This poem is 'The Vocal Oak', subtitled 'Upon Cutting Down the Woods at Nun-Appleton',4 by Brian Fairfax (1633-1711), Thomas's cousin. Published in 1849,5 the poem has not been entirely ignored by literary critics. Turner quotes eight lines from it, arguing that Fairfax conveys the countryside as 'an object of capital investment and conspicuous consumption', and both Fitter and Smith make brief reference to it, if solely in relation to Marvell.6 Nonetheless, 'The Vocal Oak' has hitherto failed to receive the sustained critical examination which its literary, ecological and political moment merits. Written in 1679, the year following Marvell's death, Fairfax's poem provides a vivid illustration of seventeenth-century poetically framed attitudes to the exploitation of the countryside in general, and to deforestation in particular.7 In addition to its treatment of tree-felling as an intrinsically significant and wholly deleterious environmental event, the poem also demonstrates the richly symbolic uses to which responses to such activity could be put, in a Restoration era when the posthumous reputation of Lord Fairfax, for whom Brian had acted as private secretary from 1661, was being placed under growing strain. Though in many ways a strikingly individual piece, rooted in both the personal and political preoccupations of its day, 'The Vocal Oak' also betrays revealing parallels with Marvell's earlier poem, shedding new light on the manuscript circulation and contemporary popularity of a work which, like most of Marvell's poetry, was published posthumously in 1681.8 The poem does not rival Marvell's in ecological, any more than in literary, importance; rather, it operates as a satellite, orbiting around and in some ways dependent on it, yet at the same time exhibiting its own singular characteristics. This article, then, provides the first detailed analysis of 'The Vocal Oak', a close reading in which contemporary configurations of politics, environment and intertextuality are triangulated.

Given the plethora of modern studies on seventeenth-century protoenvironmentalism, the wider context of a poem concerned, at least on one level, with deforestation needs little explanation. More than most other ecological anxieties, deforestation had been, and was still, a hotly-debated issue at the time of the poem's composition. Michael Williams gives the early modern British timber crisis an instructively European and Far Eastern context, suggesting that only Rome at its peak and northern China in the twelfth century match the scale of the problem experienced in Britain from the late sixteenth century onwards. Ken Hiltner has shown that early modern England experienced a host of environmental crises, including air pollution, acid rain, endangered species, wetland loss and, not least, deforestation. …

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