Monday, April 05, 2010


A Culture Is No Better Than Its Woods

W.H. Auden, Bucolics, II: Woods (for Nicolas Nabokov):
Sylvan meant savage in those primal woods
Piero di Cosimo so loved to draw,
Where nudes, bears, lions, sows with women's heads,
Mounted and murdered and ate each other raw,
Nor thought the lightning-kindled bush to tame    5
But, flabbergasted, fled the useful flame.

Reduced to patches owned by hunting squires
Of villages with ovens and a stocks,
They whispered still of most unsocial fires,
Though Crown and Mitre warned their silly flocks    10
The pasture’s humdrum rhythms to approve
And to abhor the license of the grove.

Guilty intention still looks for a hotel
That wants no details and surrenders none;
A wood is that, and throws in charm as well,    15
And many a semi-innocent, undone,
Has blamed its nightingales who round the deed
Sang with such sweetness of a happy greed.

Those birds, of course, did nothing of the sort,
And, as for sylvan nature, if you take    20
A snapshot at a picnic, O how short
And lower-ordersy the Gang will look
By those vast lives that never took another
And are not scared of gods, ghosts, or stepmother.

Among these coffins of its by-and-by    25
The Public can (it cannot on a coast)
Bridle its skirt-and-bargain-chasing eye,
And where should an austere philologist
Relax but in the very world of shade
From which the matter of his field was made.    30

Old sounds re-educate an ear grown coarse,
As Pan’s green father suddenly raps out
A burst of undecipherable Morse,
And cuckoos mock in Welsh, and doves create
In rustic English over all they do    35
To rear their modern family of two.

Now here, now there, some loosened element,
A fruit in vigor or a dying leaf,
Utters its private idiom for descent,
And late man, listening through his latter grief,    40
Hears, close or far, the oldest of his joys,
Exactly as it was, the water noise.

A well-kempt forest begs Our Lady's grace;
Someone is not disgusted, or at least
Is laying bets upon the human race    45
Retaining enough decency to last;
The trees encountered on a country stroll
Reveal a lot about a country's soul.

A small grove massacred to the last ash,
An oak with heart-rot, give away the show:    50
This great society is going to smash;
They cannot fool us with how fast they go,
How much they cost each other and the gods.
A culture is no better than its woods.
1: English savage comes from Latin silvaticus, itself from silva = forest.

2-6: Probably a reference to Piero di Cosimo's Forest Fire, in the Ashmolean Museum:

I haven't yet seen Virginia M. Hyde, "The Pastoral Formula of W. H. Auden and Piero di Cosimo," Contemporary Literature 14.3 (Summer 1973) 332-346.

10: The "Crown and Mitre" are the civil and religious establishments, respectively.

28-30: What is the matter of the philologist's field? Words, especially the words found in old books. Perhaps beech trees provide the shade — a philologist would know that there is an etymological connection between books and beeches. See Donald Culross Peattie, A Natural History of North American Trees (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007), p. 162:
And on the beech was written, probably, the first page of European literature. For, it is said the earliest Sanskrit characters were carved on strips of beech bark; the custom of inscribing the temptingly smooth boles of Beeches came to Europe with the Indo-European people who entered the continent from Asia. Indeed, our word "book" comes from the Anglo-Saxon boc, meaning a letter or character, which in turn derives from the Anglo-Saxon beece, for Beech.
Or is Auden possibily alluding to the Latin adjectives umbraticus and umbratilis? Lewis and Short define umbraticus as "of or belonging to the shade, i.e. to retirement, seclusion, or leisure," and umbratiilis as "remaining in the shade, in retirement, or at home; private, retired, contemplative." The pursuit of philology requires retirement, seclusion, and leisure.

32: "Pan's green father" is Picus, father of Faunus (Faunus was identified with Pan). Circe transformed Picus into a woodpecker. See Vergil, Aeneid 7.187-191, Ovid, Metamorphoses 14.391-396, and Silius Italicus 8.439-442.

Related posts: Abraham, Cyriac, Barhadbshabba, and Sergius; Ronsard and the Forest of Gâtine; The Heavenly Beauty of Earthly Things; Apollo Karneios and the Cornel-Trees; Pitiful Destruction; Enemy of Orchards; Arboricide and Matricide; The Sacrilegious Axe; Arboricide on the Wayne Ranch; The Woods of Bachycraigh; Papadendrion; Papadendrion Again; A Bewilderment of Birds; Ancient Protests Against Deforestation; Illustrations of Erysichthon; Prayer and Sacrifice to Accompany Tree Cutting; A Spirit Protects the Trees; St. Martin and the Pine Tree; The Geismar Oak; Bregalad's Lament; Petition of a Poplar; Cactus Ed and Arboricide; Views from the Center of Highgate Wood; Artaxerxes and Arboricide; When the Last Tree Falls; The Hamadryads of George Lane; Sorbs and Medlars; So Foul a Deed; Like Another Erysichthon; The Fate of Old Trees; 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; Hornbeams; 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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