Friday, April 13, 2007


Under the Greenwood Tree

Edwin Way Teale, North with the Spring (1951; rpt. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1957), pp. 266-267:
The birds of Monticello provide one of the outstanding memories of a naturalist's visit. The trees provide another. Here, rooted where Thomas Jefferson had planted them in the eighteenth century, stood ancient tulips, lindens, copper beeches, sugar maples, European larches. Here were noble trees, patriarchs that brought to mind Sir Thomas Browne's observation of long ago: "Generations pass while some trees stand and old families last not three oaks."

In beginning one of his Socratic dialogues, Plato wrote: "Scene: Under a plane tree ..."

Under a tree ... That phrase recurs frequently in the history of human thought. Thinkers as diverse and as far removed as Gautama beneath his Bo tree in the Far East and Ralph Waldo Emerson under a New England pine have been associated with trees. "He spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall." So the Book of Kings in the Bible describes King Solomon, whose wisdom was proverbial in his time.
Under a tree ... that phrase recurs frequently not just in the history of human thinking, but also in the history of human drinking. Horace (Ode 2.3.9-12) asks:
To what end do the tall pine and the white poplar delight with their branches to join their hospitable shade? Why does the fleeting water fret its quivering way along the winding stream?

Quo pinus ingens albaque populus
umbram hospitalem consociare amant
  ramis? Quid obliquo laborat
    lympha fugax trepidare rivo?
The answer to the questions "To what end" and "Why" do these pleasant surroundings exist, is obviously "For our enjoyment." Few pleasures can compare with drinking wine beneath a shade tree on soft grass beside a babbling brook. W.Y. Sellar, The Roman Poets of the Augustan Age: Horace and the Elegaic Poets (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899), p. 126, says that "In the older Greek poets wine and song were glorified as the restorers of life and spirit in trouble and danger," whereas "In the Latin poets wine is glorified rather as a bond of companionship, and as affording relief from the monotony of existence; and the enjoyment of it is more often associated with bright weather and the grace and freshness of trees and running water than with rain and tempest."

Here is a sampler of passages from ancient literature extolling the pleasures of lolling or drinking under the shade of a tree.

Plato, Phaedrus 230 b-c (tr. R. Hackforth):
Upon my word, a delightful resting place, with this tall, spreading plane, and a lovely shade from the high branches of the agnos. Now that it's in full flower, it will make the place ever so fragrant. And what a lovely stream under the plane tree, and how cool to the feet! Judging by the statuettes and images I should say it's consecrated to Achelous and some of the nymphs. And then too, isn't the freshness of the air most welcome and pleasant, and the shrill summery music of the cicada choir! And as crowning delight the grass, thick enough on a gentle slope to rest your head on most comfortably.
Horace, Ode 1.1.19-22:
There is one who doesn't scorn cups of old Massic wine, who doesn't scorn to steal a vacation from business hours, stretching his limbs out now beneath the green shrub, now by the gentle fountain-head of a holy stream.

est qui nec veteris pocula Massici
nec partem solido demere de die
spernit, nunc viridi membra sub arbuto
stratus nunc ad aquae lene caput sacrae.
Horace, Ode 2.7.17-20:
Therefore give to Jove the sacrificial feast you owe, and put your battle-wearied body beneath my laurel tree, and don't spare the bottles saved for you.

ergo obligatam redde Iovi dapem,
longaque fessum militia latus
depone sub lauru mea nec
parce cadis tibi destinatis.
Horace, Ode 2.11.13-17:
Why don't we lie beneath the tall plane tree or the pine tree just as we are, and crown our white hair with fragrant roses and anoint ourselves with Syrian perfume, and drink, while we may?

cur non sub alta vel platano vel hac
pinu iacentes sic temere et rosa
canos odorati capillos,
dum licet, Assyriaque nardo
potamus uncti?
Horace, Epode 2.23-28:
It is a pleasure to lie now beneath an old oak tree, now on the firm grass. In the meantime streams flow between their tall banks, birds twitter in the forest, and fountains plash with dripping waters, which invites soft sleep.

libet iacere modo sub antiqua ilice,
modo in tenaci gramine.
labuntur altis interim ripis aquae,
queruntur in silvis aves,
fontesque lymphis obstrepunt manantibus,
somnos quod invitet levis.

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