Saturday, May 22, 2010


Antipathy to Larch Plantations

What follows (except the painting by Paul Sandby) is from one of Eric Thomson's always informative emails:

Antipathy to larch plantations was probably quite widespread, at least among those who made no money out of them. Cobbett in Rural Rides calls larches 'infernal', 'beggarly', and 'fit for [burning]'. Within Wordsworth's immediate circle there was another poet who wreaked poetic revenge on the tree. Given the near vagrancy of his later years in the Lake District, he must have been very well acquainted with Thomas King's plantations. Poems by Hartley Coleridge, with a memoir of his life by his brother, 2nd ed. (London: Edward Moxon, 1851) vol. ii p. 244:
The Larch Grove

Line above line the nursling larches planted,
    Still as they clomb with interspace more wide,
Let in and out the sunny beams that slanted,
    And shot and crankled down the mountain side.

The larches grew, and darker grew the shade;
    And sweeter aye the fragrance of the Spring;
Pink pencils all the spiky boughs arrayed,
    And small green needles called the birds to sing.

They grew apace as fast they could grow,
    As fain the tawny fell to deck and cover,
They haply thought to soothe the pensive woe,
    Or hide the joy stealthy tripping lover.

Ah, larches! that shall never be your lot;
    Nought shall you have to do with amorous weepers,
Nor shall ye prop the roof of cozy cot,
    But rumble out your days as railway sleepers.

An afterword about Drumlanrig. I've been reading Dorothy Wordsworth's Recollections of a Tour in Scotland in 1803 (a facsimile reprint of an edition of 1894 by David Douglas). Almost at the beginning of their excursion, after visiting Burns' grave they pass through the Drumlanrig estates (Friday, August 19th 'The situation [the surroundings of the mansion] would be noble if the woods had been left standing; but they have been cut down and the hills above and below the house are quite bare') and then a month later, on the return leg, they visit the Duke of Queensbury's other decaying Scottish pile, Neidpath Castle. Sunday September 18th '...but I need not describe the scene, for William has done it better than I could do in a sonnet he wrote the same day;...'
"Degenerate Douglas! Oh the unworthy Lord!
Whom mere despite of heart could so far please,
And love of havoc (for with such disease
Fame taxes him) that he could send forth word
To level with the dust a noble horde,
A brotherhood of venerable Trees,
Leaving an ancient Dome, and towers like these,
Beggared and outraged! Many hearts deplored
The fate of those old trees: and oft with pain
The traveller, at this day, will stop and gaze
On wrongs, which Nature scarcely seems to heed;
For sheltered places, bosoms, nooks and bays
And the pure mountains and the gentle Tweed,
And the green silent pastures, yet remain."
I looked up Scott's Journals (Canongate, ed. W.E.K. Anderson) for any mention of Neidpath and Drumlanrig and found that he (re)visited Drumlanrig on 24 August 1826 (p. 214):
'What visions does this magnificent old house bring back to me. The exterior is much improved since I first knew it. It was then in a state of dilapidation to which it had been abandoned by the celebrated Old Q., and was indeed scarce wind and water tight. Then the whole wood had been felled and the outraged castle stood in the midst of waste and desolation, excepting a few scattered old stumps not judged worth the cutting. Now the whole has been ten or twelve years since completely re-planted and the scattered Seniors look as graceful as fathers surrounded by their children.'
The next day he has a long walk through the new plantations. Plantations of what I wonder? Not larches at any rate.

Two months later, Scott visits the chateau of Beauvais, near Paris:
Sunday, 29 October (p. 255) '[A]lso woods, sometimes deep and extensive, at other times scattered in groves or single trees. Amidst these the oak seldom or never is found; England, lady of the ocean, seems to claim it exclusively as her own. Neither are there any quantity of firs. Poplars in abundance give a formal air to the landscape. The forests chiefly consist of beeches, with some birches, and the roads are bordered by elms cruelly cropped, pollarded, and switched. The demand for firewood occasions these mutilations. If I could waft by a wish the thinnings of Abbotsford here it would make a little fortune of itself. But then to switch and mutilate my trees!—not for a thousand francs. Ay, but sour grapes, quoth the fox.'
Always a kindly soul, Sir Walter.

Paul Sandby (1730-1809), Foresters in Windsor Great Park


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