Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Woodman, Spare That Tree

Edgar Allen Poe, Southern Literary Messenger 15 (April 1849) 219, discussing the poet George P. Morris (1802-1864):
"Woodman Spare that Tree" and "By the Lake where droops the Willow" are compositions of which any poet, living or dead, might justly be proud. By these, if by nothing else, Morris is immortal. It is quite impossible to put down such things by sneers. The affectation of contemning them is of no avail, unless to render manifest the envy of those who affect the contempt. As mere poems, there are several of Morris' compositions equal, if not superior, to either of those just mentioned, but as songs I much doubt whether these latter have ever been surpassed.
Poe is supposed to be a critic of acumen, but it is hard not to sneer at Morris' poem Woodman, Spare That Tree, which strikes me as a sorry piece of sentimental doggerel. Here is the text, from his collection The Deserted Bride; and Other Poems (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1838), pp. 39-40:
Woodman, spare that tree!
  Touch not a single bough!
In youth it shelter'd me,
  And I’ll protect it now.
’Twas my forefather’s hand
  That placed it near his cot;
There, woodman, let it stand,
  Thy axe shall harm it not!

That old familiar tree,
  Whose glory and renown
Are spread o’er land and sea,
  And wouldst thou hack it down?
Woodman, forbear thy stroke!
  Cut not its earth-bound ties;
Oh, spare that aged oak,
  Now towering to the skies!

When but an idle boy
  I sought its grateful shade;
In all their gushing joy
  Here too my sisters play'd.
My mother kissed me here;
  My father pressed my hand—
Forgive this foolish tear,
  But let that old oak stand!

My heart-strings round thee cling,
  Close as thy bark, old friend!
Here shall the wild-bird sing,
  And still thy branches bend.
Old tree! the storm still brave!
  And, woodman, leave the spot;
While I’ve a hand to save,
  Thy axe shall harm it not.
On the supposed circumstances surrounding the poem's composition, see Morris' letter to Henry Russell (February 1, 1837), id., pp. 169-170 (in one long paragraph, which I split up):
Riding out of town a few days since, in company with a friend, who was once the expectant heir of the largest estate in America, but over whose worldly prospects a blight has recently come, he invited me to turn down a little romantic woodland pass, not far from Bloomingdale.

"Your object?" inquired I.

"Merely to look once more at an old tree planted by my grandfather, near a cottage that was once my father's."

"The place is yours then?" said I.

"No, my poor mother sold it," and I observed a slight quiver of the lip, at the recollection of that circumstance.

"Dear mother!" resumed my companion, "we passed many happy, happy days, in that old cottage; but it is nothing to me now — father, mother, sisters, cottage — all are gone;" and a paleness overspread his fine countenance, and a moisture came to his eyes as he spoke.

After a moment's pause, he added, "Don't think me foolish. I don't know how it is, I never ride out but I turn down this lane to look at that old tree. I have a thousand recollections about it, and I always greet it as a familiar and well-remembered friend. In the by-gone summer-time it was a friend indeed. Under its branches I often listened to the good counsel of my parents and had such gambols with my sisters! Its leaves are all off now, so you won't see it to advantage, for it is a glorious old fellow in summer; but I like it full as well in winter time."

These words were scarcely uttered, when my companion cried out, "There it is!"

Near the tree stood an old man with his coat off, sharpening an axe. He was the occupant of the cottage. "What are you going to do?" asked my friend with great anxiety.

"What's that to you?" was the reply.

"You're not going to cut that tree down surely?"

"Yes, but I am though," said the woodman.

"What for," inquired my companion, almost choked with emotion.

"What for? Why, because I think proper to do so. What for? I like that! Well, I'll tell you what for. This tree makes my dwelling unhealthy; it stands too near the house; prevents the moisture from exhaling, and renders us liable to fever-and-ague."

"Who told you that!"

"Dr. Smith."

"Have you any other reason for wishing to cut it down?"

"Yes, I am getting old; the woods are a great way off, and this tree is of some value to me to burn."

He was soon convinced, however, that the story about the fever-and-ague was a mere fiction, for there never had been a case of that disease in the neighbourhood; and then was asked what the tree was worth for firewood?

"Why, when it is down, about ten dollars."

"Suppose I should give you that sum, would you let it stand?"


"You are sure of that?"


"Then give me a bond to that effect."

I drew it up; it was witnessed by his daughter; the money was paid, and we left the place with an assurance from the young girl, who looked as smiling and beautiful as a Hebe, that the tree should stand as long as she lived.

We returned to the road, and pursued our ride. These circumstances made a strong impression upon my mind, and furnished me with the materials for the song I send you.
Henry Russell set the poem to music. A performance by Derek B. Scott can be heard here.

Woodman, Spare That Tree has been much imitated and parodied. For a small selection, see Walter Hamilton, ed., Parodies of the Works of English and American Authors, vol. IV (London: Reeves & Turner, 1887), pp. 7-9. One of the more interesting imitations is by C[harles] T[imothy] B[rooks] (1813-1883), with the title Sir George Beaumont's Pine, in his Roman Rhymes: Being Winter Work for a Summer Fair (Cambridge: John Wilson and Son, 1869), pp. 40-42:
[All day long, from my eyrie on the Corso, that lone pine on Mount Mario was the object to which I turned with the greatest interest. One day, I heard it had a history, besides its natural history. Years ago, there had stood a group of them on that hill — special favorites of Sir George. Once, on returning to Rome from an absence in England, he found that the proprietor had cut down all but one, and that the workmen were preparing to fell that. He jumped into his carriage, drove over, bought and saved that one. I have imagined his feelings, in the following parody of our "Woodman, spare that tree!"]

Vandal, spare that Pine!
  Touch not a single bough!
This gold shall make it mine:
  No steel shall harm it now.
By Nature's hand 'twas set,
  To top this beauteous hill;
That hand preserves it yet,
And shall preserve it still!

That Pine hath been to me
  For years a steadfast friend;
And shall I tamely see
  Thy axe its glories end?
Bright Day would spend his gold
  To save that brave old tree!
Its price cannot be told:
  Rash leveller, let it be.

That old familiar tree,
  What rapture of delight
The vision woke in me,
  At morning and at night!
Reflecting morn's fresh beam,
  With mingled love and awe,
And tinged with evening's gleam,
  Its dusky form I saw.

In majesty and grace
  How long that tree hath stood,
With trees of noble race,
  Old monarchs of the wood!
Its brethren all are low,
  Felled by thy cruel hand!
Spare, madman, this last blow,
  And let the old Pine stand!

That glorious old stone-pine,
  Last gem in Mario's crown,
A king by right divine,
  And wouldst thou hack it down?
Dearer than Peter's dome
  To evening's golden sky,
Plume on the brow of Rome,
  It must not, shall not die!
Wordsworth wrote a sonnet on Beaumont's rescue of The Pine of Monte Mario at Rome. See my discussion here.

Robert Crumb (1943-), front page illustration
for the Mendocino Grapevine, no. 2 (Feb. 1973)


<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?