Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Mourning Over Trees

From a letter of John Clare to John Taylor (now lost, but quoted by Taylor in his edition of Clare's Village Minstrel, and Other Poems (1821)):
My two favourite elm trees at the back of the hut are condemned to die — it shocks me to relate it, but 'tis true. The savage who owns them thinks they have done their best, and now wants to make use of the benefits he can get from selling them. O was this country Egypt and was I but Caliph, the owner would lose his ears for his arrogant presumption ... yet this mourning over trees is all foolishness — they feel no pains — they are but wood, cut up or not. A second thought tells me I am a fool: were people all to feel as I do, the world could not be carried on, — a green would not be ploughed ... This is my indisposition, and you will laugh at it ...
Clare's "foolish mourning" impelled him to write one of his most powerful lyrics, The Fallen Elm, which his biographer Jonathan Bate called "at once elegy and protest poem":
Old Elm that murmured in our chimney top
The sweetest anthem autumn ever made
And into mellow whispering calms would drop
When showers fell on thy many colored shade
And when dark tempests mimic thunder made
While darkness came as it would strangle light
With the black tempest of a winter night
That rocked thee like a cradle in thy root
How did I love to hear the winds upbraid
Thy strength without while all within was mute
It seasoned comfort to our hearts desire
We felt thy kind protection like a friend
And edged our chairs up closer to the fire,
Enjoying comforts that was never penned

Old favourite tree thoust seen times changes lower
But change till now did never come to thee
For time beheld thee as his sacred dower
And nature claimed thee her domestic tree
Storms came and shook thee with a living power
Yet stedfast to thy home thy roots hath been
Summers of thirst parched round thy homely bower
Till earth grew iron—still thy leaves was green
The children sought thee in thy summer shade
And made their play house rings of sticks and stone
The mavis sang and felt himself alone
While in thy leaves his early nest was made
And I did feel his happiness mine own
Nought heeding that our friendship was betrayed

Friend not inanimate—tho stocks and stones
There are and many cloathed of flesh and bones
Thou ownd a language by which hearts are stirred
Deeper than by the attribute of words
Thine spoke a feeling known in every tongue
Language of pity and the force of wrong
What cant asumes what hypocrites may dare
Speaks home to truth and shows it what they are

I see a picture which thy fate displays
And learn a lesson from thy destiny
Self interest saw thee stand in freedoms ways
So thy old shadow must a tyrant be
Thoust heard the knave abusing those in power
Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free
Thoust sheltered hypocrites in many a shower
That when in power would never shelter thee
Thoust heard the knave supply his canting powers
With wrongs illusions when he wanted friends
That bawled for shelter when he lived in showers
And when clouds vanished made thy shade amends
With axe at root he felled thee to the ground
And barked of freedom—O I hate that sound

It grows the cant term of enslaving tools
To wrong another by the name of right
It grows a liscence with oer bearing fools
To cheat plain honesty by force of might
Thus came enclosure—ruin was its guide
But freedoms clapping hands enjoyed the sight
Tho comforts cottage soon was thrust aside
And workhouse prisons raised upon the scite
Een natures dwellings far away from men
The common heath became the spoilers prey
The rabbit had not where to make his den
And labours only cow was drove away
No matter—wrong was right and right was wrong
And freedoms brawl was sanction to the song

Such was thy ruin music making Elm
The rights of freedom was to injure thine
As thou wert served so would they overwhelm
In freedoms name the little that is mine
And there are knaves that brawl for better laws
And cant of tyranny in stronger powers
Who glut their vile unsatiated maws
And freedoms birthright from the weak devours
At about the same time when John Clare was lamenting the destruction of elm trees near his cottage, John Constable was painting his magnificent Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree:

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