Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Comminations and Maledictions

Boswell in his Life of Johnson insisted that "minute particulars are frequently characteristick, and always amusing, when they relate to a distinguished man." An amusing story related by Thomas De Quincey is especially revealing of Wordsworth’s love of the natural and wild, on the one hand, and his dislike of the artificial, on the other. De Quincey describes a visit which he and Wordsworth made to a Grasmere neighbor, Thomas King (1772-1831). See Thomas De Quincey, The Collected Writings, ed. David Masson, Vol. II = Autobiography and Literary Reminiscences (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1889), pp. 429-430 (paragraph divisions added by me):
Mr. K received us with civility and hospitality—checked, however, and embarrassed, by a very evident reserve. The reason of this was, partly, that he distrusted the feelings towards himself of two scholars; but more, perhaps, that he had something beyond this general jealousy for distrusting Wordsworth.

He had been a very extensive planter of larches, which were then recently introduced into the Lake country, and were, in every direction, displacing the native forest scenery, and dismally disfiguring this most lovely region; and this effect was necessarily in its worst excess during the infancy of the larch plantations; both because they took the formal arrangement of nursery grounds, until extensive thinnings, as well as storms, had begun to break this hideous stiffness in the lines and angles, and also because the larch is a mean tree, both in form and colouring (having a bright gosling glare in spring, a wet blanket hue in autumn) as long as it continues a young tree. Not until it has seen forty or fifty winters does it begin to toss its boughs about with a wild Alpine grace.

Wordsworth, for many years, had systematically abused the larches and the larch planters; and there went about the country a pleasant anecdote, in connexion with this well-known habit of his, which I have often heard repeated by the woodmen—viz. that, one day, when he believed himself to be quite alone—but was, in fact, surveyed coolly, during the whole process of his passions, by a reposing band of labourers in the shade, and at their noontide meal—Wordsworth, on finding a whole cluster of birch-trees grubbed up, and preparations making for the installation of larches in their place, was seen advancing to the spot with gathering wrath in his eyes; next he was heard pouring out an interrupted litany of comminations and maledictions; and, finally, as his eye rested upon the four or five larches which were already beginning to "dress the line" of the new battalion, he seized his own hat in a transport of fury, and launched it against the odious intruders.

Mr. K had, doubtless, heard of Wordsworth's frankness upon this theme, and knew himself to be, as respected Grasmere, the sole offender.
If travel back in time were possible, that's a scene I'd love to see–Wordworth cursing and throwing his hat at a row of larch trees newly planted where native birches had been cut down to make room for them. In the passage just quoted, De Quincey mentioned Wordsworth's habitual abuse of larches and larch planters. An example can be found in Wordsworth's Description of the Scenery of the Lakes in the North of England, 4th ed. (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1823), pp. 78-82. Here are some excerpts.

P. 78:
But this deformity, bad as it is, is not so obtrusive as the small patches and large tracts of larch-plantations that are over-running the hill-sides.
P. 80:
But a moment's thought will shew that, if ten thousand of this spiky tree, the larch, are stuck in at once upon the side of a hill, they can grow up into nothing but deformity; that, while they are suffered to stand, we shall look in vain for any of those appearances which are the chief sources of beauty in a natural wood.
P. 81:
In spring, the Larch becomes green long before the native trees; and its green is so peculiar and vivid, that, finding nothing to harmonise with it, wherever it comes forth a disagreeable spot is produced. In summer, when all other trees are in their pride, it is of a dingy, lifeless hue; in autumn, of a spiritless, unvaried yellow; and, in winter, it is still more lamentably distinguished from every other deciduous tree of the forest; for they seem only to sleep, but the Larch appears absolutely dead.
See also a November 7, 1805 letter from Dorothy Wordsworth to Lady Beaumont, in Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. E. de Selincourt, The Early Years, 1787-1805, rev. Chester L. Shaver (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), pp. 636 ff., in which she complains, "You may remember that I spoke of the white-washing of the church, and six years ago a trim Box was erected on a hill-side; it is surrounded with fir and Larch plantations, that look like a blotch or scar on the fair surface of the mountain." The editors of the letters identify this with Thomas King's house. Later in the same letter she laments:
Add to all that Sir Michael Fleming has been getting his woods appraised, and after Christmas the Ax is to be lifted against them, and not one tree left, so the whole eastern side of the Lake will be entirely naked, even to the very edge of the water!–but what could we expect from Sir Michael? who has been building a long high wall under the grand woods behind his house which cuts the hill in two by a straight line; and to make his doings visible to all men, he has whitewashed it, as white as snow. One who could do all this wants a sense which others have. To him there is no "Spirit in the Wood".
"Spirit in the Wood" is an allusion to the last line of Wordsworth’s poem Nutting.


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