Friday, February 29, 2008


American Gothic Forests

The day before yesterday was the birthday of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I am drawn to Longfellow for a couple of reasons. First, we are fellow countrymen, both natives of the Pine Tree State. Second, my contrarian bent leads me to champion those who were once popular but have now fallen out of favor.

Here is a sonnet by Longfellow,with the title My Cathedral:
Like two cathedral towers these stately pines
  Uplift their fretted summits tipped with cones;
  The arch beneath them is not built with stones,
  Not Art but Nature traced these lovely lines,
And carved this graceful arabesque of vines;
  No organ but the wind here sighs and moans,
  No sepulchre conceals a martyr's bones.
  No marble bishop on his tomb reclines.
Enter! the pavement, carpeted with leaves,
  Gives back a softened echo to thy tread!
  Listen! the choir is singing; all the birds,
In leafy galleries beneath the eaves,
  Are singing! listen, ere the sound be fled,
  And learn there may be worship with out words.
The comparison of a forest to a cathedral occurs often, and a couple of examples, also from 19th century American literature, will suffice to illustrate. The first comes from William Cullen Bryant, A Forest Hymn:
The groves were God's first temples. Ere man learned
To hew the shaft, and lay the architrave,
And spread the roof above them,—ere he framed
The lofty vault, to gather and roll back
The sound of anthems; in the darkling wood,
Amidst the cool and silence, he knelt down,
And offered to the Mightiest solemn thanks
And supplication. For his simple heart
Might not resist the sacred influences,
Which, from the stilly twilight of the place,
And from the gray old trunks that high in heaven
Mingled their mossy boughs, and from the sound
Of the invisible breath that swayed at once
All their green tops, stole over him, and bowed
His spirit with the thought of boundless power
And inaccessible majesty. Ah, why
Should we, in the world's riper years, neglect
God's ancient sanctuaries, and adore
Only among the crowd, and under roofs,
That our frail hands have raised?
The second example comes from Washington Irving, A Tour on the Prairies, chap. VII:
We were overshadowed by lofty trees, with straight smooth trunks, like stately columns; and as the glancing rays of the sun shone through the transparent leaves, tinted with the many-coloured hues of autumn, I was reminded of the effect of sunshine among the stained windows and clustering columns of a Gothic cathedral. Indeed, there is a grandeur and solemnity in some of our spacious forests of the West, that awakens in me the same feeling that I have experienced in those vast and venerable piles, and the sound of the wind sweeping through them supplies, occasionally, the deep breathings of the organ.
Sanford Robinson Gifford, Autumn, a Wood Path

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