Monday, June 15, 2009


The Fate of Old Trees

Thanks very much to David Norton for drawing my attention to William Wordsworth's sonnet Composed at Neidpath Castle, the Property of Lord Queensberry, 1803:
Degenerate Douglas! O the unworthy lord!
  Whom mere despite of heart could so far please
  And love of havoc (for with such disease
Fame taxes him) that he could send forth word
To level with the dust a noble horde,
  A brotherhood of venerable trees,
  Leaving an ancient dome, and towers like these,
Beggar'd and outraged!—Many hearts deplored
The fate of those old trees; and oft with pain
  The traveller at this day will stop and gaze
On wrongs, which Nature scarcely seems to heed:
  For shelter'd places, bosoms, nooks, and bays,
And the pure mountains, and the gentle Tweed,
And the green silent pastures, yet remain.
Dorothy Wordsworth's Journal dates the sonnet more precisely (September 18, 1803). See also John Robert Robinson, 'Old Q'. A Memoir of William Douglas, Fourth Duke of Queensberry (London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1895), pp. 207-212 (at 207-208):
As tenant for life, without impeachment for waste, and with an almost moral, if not legal, possibility of issue extinct (and similar English law sophistries for which, no doubt, the Scotch law provides, either express or implied), the Duke enjoyed a singularly favourable position. I therefore recite the means used by Queensberry to 'sweat' his estates in Scotland, to assist in piling up the magnificent fortune he left....Another procedure adopted by him was scarcely so unique as that just referred to; it was, indeed, but a mere conventional method by which impecunious noblemen and gentry 'raise the wind'—by denuding their estates of their timber. Queensberry did this with a vengeance, indeed, the wholesale stripping of his lands of centuries of growth was neither more nor less than greedy Vandalism. Burns, in his day, saw a part of this destruction done, both at Drumlanrig and Neidpath, and bewailed it in verse.
Burns' poem is Verses on the Destruction of the Woods near Drumlanrig:
As on the banks o' wandering Nith,
   Ae smiling simmer morn I stray'd,
And traced its bonie howes and haughs,
   Where linties sang and lammies play'd,
I sat me down upon a craig,
   And drank my fill o' fancy's dream,
When from the eddying deep below,
   Up rose the genius of the stream.

Dark, like the frowning rock, his brow,
   And troubled, like his wintry wave,
And deep, as sughs the boding wind
   Amang his caves, the sigh he gave -
"And come ye here, my son," he cried,
   "To wander in my birken shade?
To muse some favourite Scottish theme,
   Or sing some favourite Scottish maid?

"There was a time, it's nae lang syne,
   Ye might hae seen me in my pride,
When a' my banks sae bravely saw
   Their woody pictures in my tide;
When hanging beech and spreading elm
   Shaded my stream sae clear and cool:
And stately oaks their twisted arms
   Threw broad and dark across the pool;

"When, glinting thro' the trees, appear'd
   The wee white cot aboon the mill,
And peacefu' rose its ingle reek,
   That, slowly curling, clamb the hill.
But now the cot is bare and cauld,
   Its leafy bield for ever gane,
And scarce a stinted birk is left
   To shiver in the blast its lane."

"Alas!" quoth I, "what ruefu' chance
   Has twin'd ye o' your stately trees?
Has laid your rocky bosom bare -
   Has stripped the cleeding o' your braes?
Was it the bitter eastern blast,
   That scatters blight in early spring?
Or was't the wil'fire scorch'd their boughs,
   Or canker-worm wi' secret sting?"

"Nae eastlin blast," the sprite replied;
   "It blaws na here sae fierce and fell,
And on my dry and halesome banks
   Nae canker-worms get leave to dwell:
Man! cruel man!" the genius sighed -
   As through the cliffs he sank him down -
"The worm that gnaw'd my bonie trees,
   That reptile wears a ducal crown."

Related posts: Scandalous Misuse of the Globe; The Groves Are Down; Massacre; Executioners; Anagyrasian Spirit; Butchers of Our Poor Trees; Cruel Axes; Odi et Amo; Kentucky Chainsaw Massacre; Protection of Sacred Groves; Lex Luci Spoletina; Turullius and the Grove of Asclepius; Caesarian Section; Death of a Noble Pine; Two Yew Trees in Chilthorne, Somerset; The Fate of the Shrubbery at Weston; The Trees Are Down; Hornbeams; Sad Ravages in the Woods; Strokes of Havoc; Maltreatment of Trees; Arboricide; An Impious Lumberjack; Erysichthon in Ovid; Erysichthon in Callimachus; Vandalism.

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