Patterns of Eternity


“Trees V: Spreading Branches,” 1979, by Henry Moore


The Tree


When William Wordsworth invoked “the ghostly language of the ancient earth” he spoke more, perhaps, than he knew. The mark or symbol of the hawthorn tree is to be found in the runic alphabet of the ancient British tribes, as if the landscape propelled them into speech. The worship of the forest, and of forest forms, characterised the piety of the Druids in whose rituals the spirits of the oak, the beech and the hawthorn are honoured. According to the texts of the classical historians the centre of the Druidical caste was to be found in Britain, from whose shores the practitioners of magic sailed to the European main-land. The forest worship of the northern and Germanic tribes, who were gradually to conquer Britain from the fifth to the seventh centuries, may derive from the Druids’ ministry. That is why Hippolyte Taine, the French critic and historian who in the 1860s completed a capacious history of English literature, hears the first music of England in the fine patter of rain on the oak trees.

The poetry of England is striated with the shade that the ancient trees cast, in a canopy of protection and seclusion. Thus John Lydgate, in the fifteenth-century “Complaint of the Black Knight,” remarks of where the charm of darkness and mystery descends upon the English landscape. In the nineteenth century Tennyson recalls how and in that tremulous dusk the trees themselves are images of peacefulness and protection.

Every braunche in other knet, And ful of grene leves set, That sonne myght there non discende

Enormous elm-tree boles did stoop and lean Upon the dusky brushwood underneath Their broad curved branches . . .

In the penultimate chapter of Jane Eyre, before her final awakening, the heroine passes through “the twilight of close ranked trees” like a “forest aisle.” “The Knight’s Tale” of Geoffrey Chaucer is set in Athens but the funeral pyre of Arcite there is adorned with the trees of England rather than those of ancient Greece—“ook, firre, birch, aspe, alder, holm, popler”—in a refrain which was in turn adopted by Spenser in the first book of The Fairie Queene where “the builder Oake,” “the Firre that weepeth still” and “the Birch for shaftes” are among “the trees so straight and hy.” For Spenser in the late sixteenth century the trees prompt mythical longings, as if their ancient guardians might still be summoned by the vatic tone of English epic. The hawthorn was the home of fairies, and the hazel offered protection against enchantment; the great oak itself descended into the other world. It is Milton’s “monumental Oke.” As a child William Blake saw angels inhabiting the trees of Peckham Rye; as a child, too, his disciple, Samuel Palmer, was entranced by the shadows of an elm tree cast by the moon upon an adjacent wall. Wordsworth stood beneath an ash tree in the moonlight and was vouchsafed visions

Of human Forms with superhuman Powers.

The same poet saw among yew trees “Time the Shadow,” and wrote other verses upon “The Haunted Tree.”

The magical talismans of Puck, in Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, are the leaves of the oak, the thorn and the ash which afford the children access to earlier times. As the Roman poet Lucan apostrophised the Druids of the English isle in the first century—“To you only is given knowledge or ignorance (whichever it be) of the gods and powers of heaven; your dwelling is in the lone heart of the forest.” In Piers the Plowman, composed in the fourteenth century, the divine edict of a later god ensures that “Beches and brode okes were blowen to the grounde.”

These sources fill with vigour and energy the legends of Robin Hood, hiding himself among the trees of Sherwood Forest; he may be descended from the English imp Robin Goodfellow, but he is more akin to the formidable figure of the Green Man. The fable may have begun in 1354 with the incarceration of a “Robin Hood” for the poaching of venison in the forest of Rockingham, but no local or secular origin can account for the power which this green figure among the trees has been granted.

By 1377 the “rymes of Robyn Hood” were as familiar as household tales, and as late as the sixteenth century the local festivals of the Thames and Severn Valleys, and of Devon, were still associated with plays of Robin Hood. It is not necessarily an old, or forgotten, piety. In Women in Love D. H. Lawrence’s twentieth-century characters Ursula and Birkin drive among “great old trees.” “ ‘Where are we?’ she whispered. ‘In Sherwood Forest.’ It was evident he knew the place.” He knew it spiritually, atavistically. “ ‘We will stay here,’ he said, ‘and put out the lights.’ ”

And then in the darkness they may have seen the Ash Tree of Existence, the Tree of Jesse and the Golden Bough. The Tree of Jesse was “the first design to be integrated in England to fill a large window.” 1 As part of the mournful decorations upon English tombstones, shields hang from trees. The palm-tree vault in Wells Chapter House, begun c. 1290, endures as a memorial of sacred stone beyond the depredations of rain and wind and frost. In the biblical narrative of the Cursor Mundi, composed in English in the early fourteenth century, there are holy trees which owe more to English folklore than to biblical tradition; a heavenly light shines upon them, and they have an innate virtue which wards off evil and heals sickness. In an old English carol Jesus talks to a tree while still in his mother’s womb, and images of the cross in English art are generally those of a lopped tree-trunk. In The Dream of the Rood, a meditation upon the Crucifixion of Christ, the tree speaks:

ic waes aheawen holtes on ende . . .

Rod waes ic araered . . .

eall ic waes mid blode bestemed

“I was cut down, roots on end . . .

I was raised up, as a rood . . .

I was all wet with blood.”

Some lines from this Anglo-Saxon tree poem were carved in runes upon the great Ruthwell Cross, one of the English stone crosses which create a sacred topography of the nation. The Ruthwell inscription can be dated to the late seventh century, while in its surviving state the poem is believed to derive from eighth-century Northumbria; yet still the stone speaks, and the tree sighs.

On the territorial charters of Anglo-Saxon kings a hawthorn tree is generally employed as a boundary marker; it becomes the root of time and space, as a measure of continuity and ownership. In The Child that Books Built Francis Spufford remarks that “there was a forest at the beginning of fiction, too. This one spread for ever.”The tree encloses a communal memory—“beyond the memory of anyone now living,” as the medieval rubric was later to express it—and from it derives that sense of place, of literal rootedness, which is one of the great themes of the English imagination.

So in The Mill on the Floss George Eliot describes a country town “which carries the traces of its long growth and history, like a millennial tree.” In “The Hollow Tree” John Clare, the nineteenth-century poet who laboured with the land, celebrates the “battered floor” of an anciently hollowed and hallowed ash:

But in our old tree-house rain as it might Not one drop fell although it rained all night

Constable claimed that he could see Gainsborough “in every hedge and hollow tree”; the remark expresses an identification with the offspring of the earth itself, that local genius or deity to which we are bound and towards which we ineluctably travel. Of Gainsborough’s landscapes, of trees and forests in profusion, Constable also wrote: “on looking at them we find tears in our eyes and know not what brought them.” Gainsborough himself remarked that there “was not a picturesque clump of trees, nor even a single tree of any beauty . . . that I did not treasure in my memory from earliest years.” And what of Constable’s own paintings? “The trees,” he wrote, “... seem to ask me to try and do something like them.” An enthusiast once created an enclosure in which were to be planted all the trees of Shakespeare’s plays.

The destruction of trees creates dismay and bewilderment among the English poets. When Clare’s favourite elm trees were condemned, he explained that “I have been several mornings to bid them farewell.” There is an English legend of a dying stag, sobbing when for the last time it enters its own familiar glade; this, too, is part of the genius loci. When Gerard Manley Hopkins watched an ash tree cut down, “there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of this world destroyed any more.” “Inscape” is of Anglo-Saxon derivation, from “sceap” meaning creation with a passing obeisance to “instaepe” or threshold. The ash represents a threshold of creation, for Hopkins in the nineteenth century no less than for the ancient priests of Britain. There is, here, a continuity. In sixteenth-century tapestry the antlers of stags resemble the trees upon a hill-side, as if all nature were animated by one aspiring spirit; fifteenth-century English mystics saw trees as men walking, a vision recalled by Tolkien in his legend of moving trees or Ents in The Lord of the Rings. “Ents” derives from the Old English word meaning “giants.” Tolkien also refers to them as the “shepherds of the trees,” thus reintroducing the shepherd as another figure beloved in the English imagination.

It was remarked of Thomas Hardy, in 1883, that he “is never more reverent, more exact, than when he is speaking of forest trees.” The tree represents life itself, and his characters are often identified by it. There is, for example, Gabriel Oak in Far from the Madding Crowd. In The Woodlanders, Hardy himself dwells upon the “runic obscurity” of the language of trees, yet “from the quality of the wind’s murmur through a bough” the local inhabitants could name its species. In Far from the Madding Crowd, humankind “learn how the trees on the right and the trees on the left wailed or chaunted to each other in the regular antiphonies of a cathedral choir.” It is not difficult to understand, therefore, how the trees of the ancient landscape became images of British liberty and of primitive Christianity itself.

When Tess of the D’Urbervilles remarked that the trees had “inquisitive eyes” she was exclaiming upon that same preternatural insight which the “Tree of Truth” possesses in nineteenth-century pantomimes; whenever a character told a lie, a large acorn fell upon his or her head. When Jane Eyre accepts Rochester’s fanatical passion, “little Adele came running in to tell me that the great horse-chestnut at the bottom of the garden had been struck by lightning.”

The folklore of England has many interesting ramifications. When in 1922 D. H. Lawrence wrote that “I would like to be a tree for a while,” he was expressing his need for deep and yet deeper absorption into the earth; it represents that descent into the layers of past time which is very like the journey into his own inner self where all unacknowledged fantasies and unknown powers lie hidden. That is why, in ancient poems, the woods are places of refuge and sanctuary. When Will Brangwen, in The Rainbow, carved two angels out of wood they “were like trees.” In Blake’s “A Vision of the Last Judgement,” Jehovah is “The I am of the Oaks of Albion.” So the tree grows through the literature of the English.

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