Thursday, June 23, 2011


Hereditary Feud with Trees

James Russell Lowell (1819-1891), letter to James T. Fields (1868):
My heart was almost broken yesterday by seeing nailed to my willow a board with these words on it, "These trees for sale." The wretch is going to peddle them for firewood! If I had the money, I would buy the piece of ground they stand on to save them—the dear friends of a lifetime. They would be a loss to the town. But what can one do? They belong to a man who values them by the cord. I wish Fenn had sketched them at least. One of them I hope will stand a few years yet in my poem—but he might just as well have outlasted me and my works, making his own green ode every summer.

Well, this is a free country!
Text in James Russell Lowell, Letters, ed. Charles Eliot Norton, Volume I (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893), pp. 397-399 (this excerpt on pp. 398-399). By “my poem” Lowell means Under the Willows. Here are lines 84-148 of the poem:
I care not how men trace their ancestry,
To ape or Adam: let them please their whim;    85
But I in June am midway to believe
A tree among my far progenitors,
Such sympathy is mine with all the race,
Such mutual recognition vaguely sweet
There is between us. Surely there are times    90
When they consent to own me of their kin,
And condescend to me, and call me cousin,
Murmuring faint lullabies of eldest time,
Forgotten, and yet dumbly felt with thrills
Moving the lips, though fruitless of all words.    95

And I have many a lifelong leafy friend,
Never estranged nor careful of my soul,
That knows I hate the axe, and welcomes me
Within his tent as if I were a bird,
Or other free companion of the earth,    100
Yet undegenerate to the shifts of men.

Among them one, an ancient willow, spreads
Eight balanced limbs, springing at once all round
His deep-ridged trunk with upward slant diverse,
In outline like enormous beaker, fit    105
For hand of Jotun, where mid snow and mist
He holds unwieldy revel. This tree, spared,
I know not by what grace,—for in the blood
Of our New World subduers lingers yet
Hereditary feud with trees, they being    110
(They and the red-man most) our fathers' foes,—
Is one of six, a willow Pleiades,
The seventh fallen, that lean along the brink
Where the steep upland dips into the marsh,
Their roots, like molten metal cooled in flowing,    115
Stiffened in coils and runnels down the bank.
The friend of all the winds, wide-armed he towers
And glints his steely aglets in the sun,
Or whitens fitfully with sudden bloom
Of leaves breeze-lifted, much as when a shoal    120
Of devious minnows wheel from where a pike
Lurks balanced 'neath the lily-pads, and whirl
A rood of silver bellies to the day.

Alas! no acorn from the British oak
'Neath which slim fairies tripping wrought those rings    125
Of greenest emerald, wherewith fireside life
Did with the invisible spirit of Nature wed,
Was ever planted here! No darnel fancy
Might choke one useful blade in Puritan fields;
With horn and hoof the good old Devil came,    130
The witch's broomstick was not contraband,
But all that superstition had of fair,
Or piety of native sweet, was doomed.
And if there be who nurse unholy faiths,
Fearing their god as if he were a wolf    135
That snuffed round every home and was not seen,
There should be some to watch and keep alive
All beautiful beliefs. And such was that,—
By solitary shepherd first surmised
Under Thessalian oaks, loved by some maid    140
Of royal stirp, that silent came and vanished,
As near her nest the hermit thrush, nor dared
Confess a mortal name,—that faith which gave
A Hamadryad to each tree; and I
Will hold it true that in this willow dwells    145
The open-handed spirit, frank and blithe,
Of ancient Hospitality, long since,
With ceremonious thrift, bowed out of doors.
Text of Under the Willows in James Russell Lowell, The Complete Poetical Works (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1896), pp. 286-291 (these lines pp. 287-288).


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