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My first recollection of entering Piddles Wood near Fiddleford in the mid-Sixties is of sinking into wet mud along the rutted uphill path and of the constant patter of raindrops on a dense flora of shrubs, ferns, creepers and moss. Enchanted by this ancient woodland of oak, ash and hazel, I became a regular visitor and soon discovered the remains of a campfire strewn with cider and methylated spirit bottles and a makeshift stove. A little higher uphill was the disused brick house that had been the home of a woodman in the Fifties and an orchard of apple and plum trees. The place seemed alive with living things and yet had an otherworldly nature due to the variation and nature of sounds and the prospect of encountering some stag, tramp or creature. I became aware of the way cuckoos and owls mimic human voices and of the extraordinary variety of butterflies and moths. This early experience of ancient woodland eventually led to poems and an interest in woods in social and literary history as well as what is now called biodiversity and ecology. Unlike my father and grandfather, I am not a carpenter although I do follow the happenings around my local woods and that filters into my poems.
Whenever I walk Piddles Wood now I recall the Dorset Elizabethan poet, George Turbeville’s Noble Art of Venerie or Hunting (1576). Turbeville (1540-1610) was from nearby Winterborne Whitchurch and belonged to the old Dorset family recalled by Thomas Hardy in his novel, Tess of the d’Ubervilles (1888). His book is a manual on the etiquette and language of all things connected to hunting. It is also a poetry book with a commendatory poem on the noble art by George Gascoigne, the Green Knight, and poems by Turbeville from the viewpoint of the huntsman and the various hunted animals. The book, dedicated to the Queen’s Master of Hart Hounds, is a work of translation from English, French, Latin, Italian and Dutch sources designed to offer the best guide to noble and gentlemen available and it became an immensely popular and important work in shaping hunting behaviour for several centuries. The virtues, nature and properties of stags, hounds and dogs are identified and the deer hunter is taught how to read behaviour and physical signs in animals. The book also features one of the first appearances in English of Raynard the Fox, the ballad popularised by John Masefield in his 1919 poem and a staple of BBC radio broadcasting during the twentieth century. Based on mainly anonymous late twelfth and thirteenth century French poets, Turbeville omits the bawdy and comic elements of the original. It is his book on hunting far more than his Epitaphes, Epigrams, Songs and Sonnets (1567) and translations of Ovid that give him importance in English social and literary history. For his guidebook and poems have their opposite in illegal hunting, or poaching, and in the history of those excluded from the noble art that sought access to the bounty of the wood. Poaching continues in 2008 and is a business for some and a form of economic survival for others. Increasingly well-organised at the top end of the business are those that organise stag hunts in Piddles Wood at £1,000 per gun and at the bottom end are joy-hunters that lack the income to do much more and people stealing kindling wood and timber. In between are warring factions of gypsies and gamekeepers that roam far and wide in acts of poaching and cruelty.
Hunting forests were subject to harsh Forest law, imposed by the Normans, with punishments of castration and mutilation. Indeed the word ‘forest’ was originally a judicial term meaning land that had been placed off limits by royal decree. By the twelfth century there were 66 Royal Forests and 70 private chases controlled by strict Forest law. Here the King and other nobles had the right to keep deer, wild boar and other prey. ‘Forest’ also carries within it a meaning of being outside the public domain and it is this meaning that poets have utilised. Forests and woods then are potentially where the world is turned upside down, as in Shakespeare’s As You Like It or A Midsummer’s Night Dream. It is a place of sexual discovery and assignation, danger and deceit, where pagan spirits can take over a man, such as Falstaff, as in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Things can be different and the pastoral can be disrupted to allow otherness to enter. Protest poems against Forest law date back to the Old English poem, ‘The Rhyme of William’ found in the Peterborough Chronicle (1087). (See Robert Pogue Harrison – Forests: The Shadow of Civilisation Chicago University Press 1992 page 76)
I would like to look at some forests as they appear in English poetry. This is a vast theme and I only intend these remarks as introductory and to dovetail into previous talks. From the seventeenth century the history of forests is one of progressive deforestation with attendant struggles over rights, access and poaching. Forest officers according to forest law that had been encoded since the twelfth century essentially kept royal forests fertile. As more land was turned over from the monarchy into chases and parks and eventual enclosure, the more non-landowners lost pasture and common rights and forest access.
Forest land became stripped of wood, turf, gorse and timber
as private owners unwilling to compensate commoners with rights of pasture, turf and wood took advantage of their new market freedom. New money and new types of landowners produced barren and disputed forests. This divide between public men with landed property and the new private competitive men unmotivated by public spirit is seen in Alexander Pope’s poem, Windsor Forest (1713). Here Windsor Forest signifies an older order of values, land and custom, domestic peace and harmony, as in line 42 ‘And peace and plenty tell, a STUART reigns.’ The poem celebrates a brief period of harmony between forest officials and foresters during Queen Anne’s reign. The Forest, continually shrinking in size throughout the eighteenth century, was divided into parkland owned by the Crown and private owners, enclosed arable and meadow land, thick coppices and smaller woods, moor land and marginal lands with squatters. It was still highly regulated and from 1716 the harmony was destroyed by new forest laws brought in by the Whig government leading to intense hostilities between poachers and forest officials between 1720 and 1723. (See E.P. Thompson – Whigs and Hunters Allen Lane 1975 pp 28-9) Pope, whose experience of growing up at Binfield on the western part of the forest underlay much of his pastoral poetry, celebrates the harmony of the forest economy with its balance between hunters and farmers. This is contrasted with the earlier tyranny of William III’s reign. A tyranny that returned as Walpole’s Government sided with the new moneyed interests against the foresters and passed the Black Act (1723) introducing the death penalty for breaking forest laws.
Eric Mottram’s Windsor Forest (Pig Press 1979) draws upon the Herne the Hunter legend first mentioned in The Merry Wives of Windsor and explores the historical and mythological origin of
a specific wood demon. The poem serves as a local study of power relations within the forest over time and of a self in conflict with authority. It employs an open-field approach with a kind of Victorian sub-horror imagery derived from W. Harrison Ainsworth’s historical romance, Windsor Castle (1844) and George Cruikshank’s illustrations, supported by references to British and Celtic deities and reminders that the legend is based in part, at least, upon historical relations and conditions from the fourteenth century onwards. The lines are heavily compacted with information and references to how belief in a wood demon is ingrained in English culture and linked to widespread popular beliefs. The forester / narrator is tested, as in the legend, by the offer of liberation into demonic power and example of Herne, which he tries to resist, ‘I may be in league with darkness / but I have no wish to aid him’ for his crimes. This implicit association between Herne and darkness recalls the Windsor Forest poachers blacking their faces to disguise their identity in their struggle with forest officials as sketched by E.P. Thompson in Whigs and Hunters. The wood demon is the product of repression and revenge. ‘I have known no human passion except hatred and revenge.’ The poem ends with the forester seeing demonic energy ‘more through deeds’ and ‘hunt horns’ calling ‘the allegiances’, which implies a dual demonic nature in both sides of the divide. The poem catches the slippery nature and energy of a wood demon through sudden narrative shifts, dense and arcane language that produces an unsettling effect. There is uncertainty over the range of possible meanings and inferences and their exact relationship to the narrative that requires further enquiry. For example, Herne is introduced as ‘wild spectral humanity’ and described thus:
deer skins around tawny gaunt limbs
he his a skull helmet antlered
phosphoric fire cut in links
rusted from his left arm chain
on his right wrist a horned owl
dilated taloned erect
red balled feathers angered
in full cauldrons the moons (page 1)
This appears to be a description of Cruikshank’s Herne illustrations. However, Mottram has added ‘phosphoric fire’, ‘red balled’ and ‘full cauldrons’. The ‘phosphoric fire’ could be a reference to Lucifer’s fall making the connection with the fallen Herne and also introducing some notion of transformation from hunter to spirit to Satan or another demonised figure. Note the use of ‘links’ indicating relations beyond the links on chain maille to preface this line of connection.
Windsor Forest is a complex poem that opens up a wide area of association. For example, it connects the dangers of the forest with forbidden and erotic love through the presence and quotation from Anne Boleyn’s lover, Sir Thomas Wyatt, who presumably employed Herne to regain Anne and ‘now follows druid fire’. Wyatt’s sonnet ‘Whoso list to hunt’, perhaps about Anne, acknowledges that he may hunt ‘an hind’ no more. Herne’s woodcraft is associated with Celtic deities and regeneration ‘on occasion he appeared as a monk in dark second skin’, Actaeon, the Greek hunter who changed into a stag, and Ogham script, the ‘three strikes’ used to name a tree. Gypsies, amongst those squatting on the forest’s margins, are also linked with Herne, through ‘skin’ in a passage where the hunter and trapped buck appear to find release. Mottram developed his Herne investigations into A Book of Herne (Arrowspire Press 1981), linking with Herne with the Green Man and widening his theme of a self in conflict with authority, desire and madness.
The Easter stag hunt that the poet John Clare witnessed in Epping Forest, north east of Greater London, in 1841 was an annual event from 1226 until 1858. His being was affected that Easter Monday by standing next to ‘a stout, tall, young woman, dressed in a darkish fox-red, cotton gown as a milkmaid or farm-servant.’ He was a poet that to use Merleau-Ponty’s phrase
breathes ‘authentic speech’. (See Maurice Merleau-Ponty – The Phenomenology of Perception Routledge 1996 Page 194) He is awake to the nuances of each living being in Epping Forest and they invest his poetry with clarity as he names and speaks for them. Clare’s poem ‘London versus Epping Forest’ has become a powerful statement for the green movement in that it calls for responsible stewardship of the forest and its inhabitants.
The brakes, like young stag’s horns, come up in Spring,
And hide the rabbit holes and fox’s den;
They crowd about the forest everywhere;
The ling and holly-bush, and wood of beach,
With room enough to walk and search for flowers;
Then look away and see the Kentish heights.
Nature is lofty in her better mood,
She leaves the world and greatness all behind;
Thus London, like a shrub among the hills,
Lies hid and lower than the bushes here.
I could not bear to see the tearing plough
Root up and steal the Forest from the poor,
But leave to freedom all she loves untamed,
The forest walk enjoyed and loved by all.
The forest’s greatness over London, that is a representation of commercial capital, is defined in terms of its measurement and ability to bestow freedom to all that exists within itself. This includes the poor whose freedoms are being eroded by the loss
of forest land. Clare asserts the right to roam and access to wood’s bounty for the poor at a time when enclosure reduced the Forest in size from 9,000 acres in 1793 to 7,000 acres in 1848. (See John Rodgers – The English Woodland Batsford 1941 page 34) His earlier poem ‘To A Fallen Elm’ proclaims the right to life for every living thing and by using an old tree evokes the full panoply of ancient statutes that won and protected the access and other rights denied by enclosure, saying ‘right was wrong and wrong was right’. Clare’s poem is quite distinct and more powerful than for example William Cowper’s acquiesence to loss in ‘The Poplar-field’ (1784) or Gerard Manley Hopkins’ lament for the loss of the Binsey poplars in 1879. For him the elm tree is as much a temporal as a spatial landmark and when a tree goes he is disorientated physically and mentally. Clare is Epping Forest’s most eloquent and radical defender in the tradition of the poetry of complaint.
Epping Forest itself has a long literary history that interweaves with the use of woods in poetry. (See William Addison – Epping Forest: Its Literary and Historical Associations Dent 1945) Elizabethan poets and courtiers, such as George Gascoigne, Thomas Lodge and Lady Mary Wroth (1587-1653), lived and wrote in the wood. Wroth was the first English woman to publish an original work of prose fiction, Urania (1621). This work within the Sidney-Spenser school has a supplement of 103 sonnets and songs, ‘Pamhilia to Amphilanthus’, was the first English sonnet sequence published by a woman. Lady Mary was a patron to poets, such as Ben Jonson, who dedicated The Alchemist (1610) to her and George Chapman. Johnson’s poem ‘To Sir Robert Wroth’ employs a different pastoral language to the Sidney-Spenser poets to place his subject.
Helen and Edward Thomas, whose first book was The Woodland Life (1897), settled at High Beech cottage from October 1915 until 1917, when Edward was stationed at Loughton Camp and studied Clare. (Addison – Epping Forest page 227) Thomas’ poetry has echoes of Clare’s especially in a poem like ‘Home’ with its suggestion of dwelling in a place where the birds and the narrator have one memory and the same relationship to the wood. It is one of Thomas’ poems of course that so inspired the young Robert Frost. The narrator hears the birds and sees the April mist and is at one with the environment. ‘Twas home; one nationality’. (See Edward Thomas – Collected Poems OUP 1981 page 59)
Clare hated the enclosure acts that sequestered land away from the peasantry and well knew the impact of enclosed commons, parks and woodland. William Cobbett in his Rural Rides (1830) questioned for what and for whom are the deer kept in the New Forest and why should any man be transported for catching Forest game when it is public property? The Commissioners of Woods and Forests farmed hay and planted saplings for the deer out of public money until the 1851 Deer Removal Act. Deer were never fully removed and the New Forest remains one of the largest unenclosed forest areas in England with unified Commons rights going back to a 1698 statute. Its complex ‘rights of common’ pre-exist Royal hunting law. In 2005 it became a National Park with the Forestry Commission retaining its powers to manage Crown land and the Verderers under the New Forest Acts. Protest issues around the Forest continue, as it is hard to make a living from such stringent laws in what is largely a wasteland. Of recent poems on the New Forest, Jeremy Hooker’s collaboration with the sculptor, Lee Grandjean, entitled Their Silence A Language (Enitharmon Press 1993), is more concerned with tree-images than the social and economic history and ecology of the Forest. Hooker uses the tree as a symbol with different usages and meaning as a means to achieve perception. It effectively links trees and woods with creativity but misses out on their impact upon community identity. His images are sparse and simple, employing some of the analogies between carving and use of poetic language suggested by Donald Davie in Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor (1965), but without penetrating far beyond a narrow range of awareness and perception. It is, though, original in being about the trees of one Forest. Sadly, though the book fails to negotiate the real relations of the Forest and centres on a limited imagism and basic mythology, as in ‘Druid Song’ (page 42):
Who keeps the vert and the venison?
Who calls the creatures into a circle?
The stag-headed one,
bearded with green leaves,
lies down with the tree that was windthrown
in its prime,
all the litter of the seasons.
These come again –
new wood, timber.
But Thor’s tree is down,
the groves of the oakmen are felled.
There is no leaf, no twig
that does not grow upon the tree of life.
Where is the tree that will rise
to lift up the image of its maker?
Clare’s response to Epping Forest can be interestingly compared to Andrew Marvell’s Upon Appleton House, To My Lord Fairfax (1651), a poem that features the private wood of Lord Fairfax. Here the first person narrator confers with the birds and trees and wants to be one with their lives and world (stanza 71);
considers how his mind is made safe by the wood and the manner of his contemplation (stanza 76) and longs to be enslaved by its protective brambles and briars, invoking an image of crucifixion as the key to a spiritual life (stanza 77) and ultimately the ordered world of Fairfax’s country house. (See Andrew Marvell – Selected Poems Carcanet 1988 pp.83-85)
Marvell’s wood is quite distinct from John Milton’s Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle 1634 (1645), which concerns a young woman, the Lady, who becomes lost in a wild wood (Haywood Forest) near Ludlow Castle, the home of Comus, a magician shepherd. Comus lives a life of sexual and sensual excess and attempts to seduce the Lady with ‘orient liquor’. With the help of her Christian brothers and the earth Goddess, Sabrina the Nymph, her virtue remains intact. However, Comus is not beaten and runs away to continue his ways. Milton breaks the conventions of both the masque and the pastoral by allowing Comus to survive. The wood is traditionally the scene of disruptive disorder conquered by the forces of virtue usually represented by the monarch. Milton’s ending is open and there is no recourse to any pastoral nostalgia. The idea of using the wood as a setting for evil is anti-pastoral and the work has a radical aspect that Blake recognised when he wrote that Milton was ‘of the Devil’s party’. John Kinsella’s recent version of Comus (Comus: A Dialogic Mask Arc 2008) has seized upon this and develops the anti-pastoral elements of the original and places it within a contemporary setting. Commissioned by the Cambridge University Marlowe Society to celebrate Milton’s 400th birthday, Kinsella’s Comus interacts with the original and brings out its environmental and sexual subtexts. His Comus is a genetic scientist who swallows Viagra and amphetamines. The Lady’s chastity as in the original concerns the temperate use of nature and self-control. Kinsella’s Comus is interfering with nature and is seriously out of control. Temperance in the original is the virtue that ethically preserves the wood and earth.
As in the original it is Sabrina the Nymph, who springs to the defence of the Lady at the Attendant Spirit’s request against the unethical scientist, and sings:
I hope to show
That where rushes and willows and osier grow
We can let things be,
No need for motor boats or cars,
Effluent pipes or phone towers,
Fertilisers that bring algae
To choke ducks and fish;
I am wary of the developer’s ambush,
Building to the water’s edge,
Let the stoats hunt and squirrels forage,
And so, farm hand, at your request
I am here. (page 64)
Here the Lady becomes an eco-warrior delineating and arguing
against Comus’s excessive tampering with and exploitation of nature. However, virtue is seen as an incomplete or pragmatic answer as the saving of wild place in the developed world is at the expense of another in the third world. The Attendant Spirit eulogises:
So don’t despair,
all this greenie poetry
won’t mean you’ll lose your luxuries.
Those of you who’d follow me,
remember the code word: LIBERTY…
virtue doesn’t mean you
can’t have your cake and eat it too. (page 68)
Kinsella thinks globally in his revitalisation of verse drama and draws attention to the need for local action. Reading Kinsella, I hear echoes of seventeenth century environmental concerns in our present situation, the problems of deforestation, air pollution, draining of wetlands (a concern of the Levellers), overbuilding, toxic mining, maltreatment of outcasts, gypsies and animals, destruction of habitats and dispossession of the poor, and the need to sing of the earth’s complaints and the need for wise and ethical cultivation. The wood is not merely a place of sanctuary, as in Marvell’s Upon Appleton House, and testing of conflicting virtues and vices but also of potential regeneration.