Thursday, July 12, 2012


Verses Wrongly Attributed to Cowper

Mrs. Maxwell Y. Maxwell, "Some Old Hampstead Trees and Their Associations," The Antiquary 35 (1899) 267-275 (at 271-272):
It is not possible to enumerate the historic trees of Hampstead without remembering the elms which stand close to Erskine House, at the back of the old Spaniard's Inn, for they remain standing as the result of the special intercession of Cowper.

Lord Chancellor Erskine had a passion for gardening, and employed the well-earned leisure from his arduous legal and political life in planting and digging. One of his favourite jokes on being found by a friend while at work with his spade in his kitchen garden was: "Here I am, enjoying my otium cum dignitate," or, as he said, "diggin' a taity." But in addition to digging potatoes, he also delighted to chop and fell trees, and once marked nine ancient elms as the victims of his hatchet, not from gratuitous cruelty, but because they obstructed a view which might be had on clear days of Windsor Castle in the far West, filmy and blue as a dream.

Many interesting visitors, of whom Edmund Burke was perhaps the most frequent, found their way to Evergreen Hall, as the house was at that time named, owing to Lord Erskine's arbaceous [sic] display. The political dinners which he gave were renowned for their gaiety, in consequence of the host's lively spirits, keen wit, and excellent tales, many of which have been preserved, but I must forbear their relation. Sir Samuel Romilly said: "I dined there one day at what might be called a great Opposition dinner; nothing could be more innocent than the conversation; the topics were light and trifling, politics being hardly mentioned." The Duke of Norfolk was of the party, Lord Grenville, and Lord Holland, besides many more nobles and gentlemen.

The visitor, however, whose protest so happily affected the destiny of the elms was not a politician, but a poet, and to his mind the intention of the Lord Chancellor seemed barbarous. Standing under the doomed branches, doubtless the melancholy poet could hear the wind sighing sadly among the leaves as they whispered their eternal farewell. Pleading for the elms, Cowper declared that the Muses would be indignant at so serious an offence against Nature, and represents them taking the fate of the trees into their own hands:
"Erskine," they cried, "at our command
Disarms his sacrilegious hand:
While yonder castle towers sublime
These elms shall brave the threats of Time."
The lawyer yielded to the persuasions of the poet, and the lives of the trees were restored to them when at the eleventh hour they seemed to be lost. And now, though Lord Erskine has been buried seventy years in the parish churchyard, and Cowper has passed behind the "frowning providence," of which he wrote, to the world where God reveals His "smiling face," the trees still stand as before and bow to the passing breeze.
A fine story, and I especially like Erskine's pun on otium cum dignitate. But the intercession of Cowper, and especially the verses attributed to him, are doutbful. No such verses are extant among Cowper's works. The story, in this form, seems to appear first in George Rose Emerson, London: How the Great City Grew (London: Routledge, Warne, & Routledge, 1862), pp. 263-264.

We know, from several other sources, who really penned those lines. Leigh Hunt, for example, in The Literary Examiner (August 23, 1823), wrote about the Nine Elms:
Nearly opposite, on the other side of the road, are nine elms, under which it is recorded that Pope and Lord Mansfield used to sit. It must not be omitted, to the eternal honour of Mr. Coxe, poet and auctioneer, and also of Lord Mansfield's eminent successor, that the Noble Lord having an intention of cutting down these nine elms, Mr. Coxe made a becoming petition in the name of the Nine Muses, which it was impossible for an Erskine to resist. So the elms are where they used to be, with, I hope, a better seat under them.
Mr. Coxe is Edward Coxe, Esq., of Hampstead Heath, author of a poem with the title To Commemorate the Preservation of the Nine Elms, on Hampstead Heath, which appeared in his Miscellaneous Poetry (Bath: R. Cruttwell, 1805), pp. 31-33 (motto and notes omitted):
The Muses, since the birth of Time,
Have ever dwelt on heights sublime,
On Pindus now they gather'd flowers,
Now sported in Parnassian bowers;
And late, when Murray deign'd to rove
Beneath Caen-Wood's sequester'd grove,
They wander'd oft when all was still,
With him and Pope on Hampstead-Hill.
One eve, as they inhal'd the breeze,
They mark'd a little clump of trees,
And chose it for their fav'rite shrine;
The trees were Elms—the number, Nine.

That the sweet groupe might flourish fast,
Fierce Boreas checks his piercing blast:
Keen Eurus, as he sweeps the glade,
Skims lightly o'er their hallow'd shade;
Around them young Favonius flings
Fresh dew-drops from his balmy wings;
And Spring, to deck the lovely scene,
Crowns them each year with softer green:
While near the blest enchanting spot,
Heard faintly from a lowly cot,
In concert with the sylvan quire,
An humbler Bard thus strikes the lyre;
As their expanding leaves display
The fostering hand of gentle May.

"Shall then the Muse's nurslings feel
"The axe's unrelenting steel?
"Shall Erskine, who the Nine invokes,
"Raise 'gainst the Nine its impious strokes:
"Shall he the feather'd songsters daunt,
"And fright them from this sacred haunt?
"Who, owning all the pow'rs that dwell
"Within the voice's magic swell,
"Is bound by ev'ry tie to be
"The guardian of sweet Harmony!"

The poet's prayer, the plaintive strain,
Reach'd not the Muses' ear in vain:

'Erskine,' they cry'd, 'at our command,
'Disarms his sacrilegious hand!
'While yonder castle towers sublime,
'These Elms shall brave the threats of Time,
'And strong in our protection rise,
'In rival height, to meet the skies;
'Proud their rich foliage to adorn
'With the first rays that gild the morn!'

Mrs. Maxwell's "arbaceous" (not in the Oxford English Dictionary) suggests a conflation of arboreal and herbaceous. Other examples can be found.


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