Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

Clare and the Splendid Sycamore

Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

Clare and the Splendid Sycamore

Article excerpt

In massy foliage & a sunny green

The splendid sycamore adorns the spring

Adding rich beauty to the varied scene

That natures breathing arts alone can bring

Hark how the insects hum around & sing

Like happy ariels hid from heedless view

& merry bees that feed with eager wing

On the broad leaves glazed oer with honey dew

The fairey sunshine gently flickers through

Upon the grass & buttercups below

& in its foliage winds their sports renew

Waving romantic shadows too & fro

That oer the mind in sweet disorder flings

A flitting dream of beauties fading things1

I like this poem for its unlikelihood. Where oaks and ashes, willows, pines and chestnuts have long been celebrated for their practical attributes and rich cultural associations, sycamores have more often been treated as Cinderella trees: tolerated, put to work, but often rather grudgingly. On the arboreal pecking order, the sycamore is a lowly species - the only tree to attract more than the briefest mention in Richard Mabey's wonderful book on Weeds.2 A glance at the Royal Horticultural Society website reveals a torrent of disgust over this common tree, with those big, sticky leaves that seem to get everywhere, those flying seeds that germinate so easily, and all that oozing, inexhaustible sap, which covers everything and makes the garden a magnet for every kind of insect. It is almost as if the presence of a sycamore means the end of horticultural civilisation.

This is no modern prejudice, sprung from neat, suburban gardens. In John Evelyn's classic book about trees, Sylva, published in 1664, and reprinted throughout the eighteenth century, suspicion of the sycamore was already taking root:

The Sycamor is much more in reputation for its shade then it deserves; for the Leaves, which fall early (like those of the Ash) turn to a Mucilage, and putrefie with the first moisture of the season; so as they contaminate and mar our Walks; and are therefore (by my consent) to be banish'd from all curious Gardens and Avenues.3

Evelyn went on to talk about the usefulness of the wood, but his language betrays a certain anxiety about this invasive tree and its false 'reputation'. Far from justifying inclusion in a stately garden, its large leaves drop too soon, creating sticky brown heaps of vegetation, infested with insects. Even for the tree-loving Evelyn, the sycamore was an agent of contamination and therefore a candidate for permanent exile. Sylva (or Silva, as it later became known) continued to reappear in new formats, including the magnificent sixth edition of 1776, enlarged with beautiful engravings of each arboreal species, and copious notes by Alexander Hunter, which brought Evelyn's advice up to date with the latest advances of the agrarian revolution. Although Hunter modified the original text, he left Evelyn's warnings about the sycamore intact, adding a thick mulch of new footnotes, which emphasised the 'Common' sycamore's habits of rapid propagation.4

John Clare was less troubled by commonness and quick-breeding. For him, the sycamore was a 'splendid' tree, its 'massy' foliage a glory of the spring. Clare's exuberant sonnet, first published in The Rural Muse in 1835, draws on fresh observation of a tree that was not merely overlooked, but deliberately excluded: a commoner banished from polite company. Undeterred, or perhaps provoked, by the conventions of the landed classes, Clare lavished praise on the humble sycamore, stressing its natural opulence. The splendid sycamore adorns the spring with 'rich beauty', making it more like a monarch of the woods than an unwelcome traveller. As so often, Clare was revealing the grandeur and the glory of the commonplace: what Wordsworth had called 'the splendour in the grass'.5 If the poem explicitly celebrates 'Nature's breathing arts alone', however, it does so through the skilful grafting of literary influences on to physical observation. …

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