Sunday, July 29, 2012


Pulpit Trees

John Clare (1793-1864), Remembrances, lines 21-30:
When jumping time away on old cross berry way
And eating awes like sugar plumbs ere they had lost the may
And skipping like a leveret before the peep of day
On the rolly polly up and downs of pleasant swordy well
When in round oaks narrow lane as the south got black again    25
We sought the hollow ash that was shelter from the rain
With our pockets full of peas we had stolen from the grain
How delicious was the dinner time on such a showry day
O words are poor receipts for what time hath stole away
The ancient pulpit trees and the play    30
Id., lines 61-70:
By Langley bush I roam but the bush hath left its hill
On cowper green I stray tis a desert strange and chill
And the spreading lea close oak ere decay had penned its will
To the axe of the spoiler and self interest fell a prey
And cross berry way and old round oaks narrow lane    65
With its hollow trees like pulpits I shall never see again
Inclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors—though the brook is running still
It runs a sicker brook cold and chill    70
The Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. pulpit, lists many compounds, but not pulpit-tree (Clare, line 30; cf. line 66). Remembrances is a poem of Clare's Northborough period (1832-1837). So far as I can determine from Google Books, this is the earliest appearance of the compound, which next seems to appear in John Stoughton (1807-1897), Spiritual Heroes; or, Sketches of the Puritans, Their Character and Times (New York: M.W. Dodd, 1848), p. 310, discussing Francis Holcroft (1628/9?–1692):
Till within a few years, there also remained in the midst of the wood, serving as a shelter for the confessor in bonds, a fine old oak, known through all the neighborhood as the pulpit-tree. The manorial houses and manorial trees of Great Britain are among the most interesting of our national relics. They possess a mystic meaning, unlocked by traditionary associations, as by the key of a hierophant; and surely, among such objects, the old tree, now hewn down, and the manor house still standing at Eversden, deserve to be classed. There was once the Gospel Beech in the wolds of Gloucestershire; and there is still the Gospel Oak at Stonely, near Wolverhampton, "favorable," as Strutt says, "to thought and devotion—to the reveries of the philosopher on ages past, and the contemplation of the Christian on the ages to come." Holcroft's pulpit-tree may be added to these; and the thought of it, with its more distinct legend, and more hallowed associations, will possess, I doubt not, the mind of many a reader as the image of a sort of Christian Dodona, beneath whose branches there used to sound the voice of an oracle, more wise and true than Greece, in the olden time, had ever heard.
Enough other occurrences of pulpit-tree appear in Google Books to suggest that the compound should perhaps merit inclusion in the OED. A similar expression used by Stoughton (Gospel Oak) appears among the compounds of gospel in the OED (cf. gospel-tree, also listed among compounds of gospel).

Hat tip: Robert J. O'Hara.

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