I have always liked to read the paper, and while many newspapers have perfectly good websites, I just can’t enjoy reading them online as much as I do rustling through paper pages. To that end, we subscribe to the Guardian Weekly, and although it reaches us a little late, it serves us well in thoroughly depressing us about the state of the world. If I am not feeling brave, I start from the back so that I can read the culture pages first and then work up to the misery in the front pages.
In a recent-ish issue, I came across an article by George Monbiot about the poet John Clare, born 13 July 1793. It inspired me to look up a poem that he mentioned, the Fallen Elm, which I thought I might share here. It looks long-winded, but do not be afraid of it — it whisks swiftly along as you read it.
The Fallen Elm
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 coloured 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 that kind protection like a friend
And edged our chairs up closer to the fire,
Enjoying comfort that was never penned.
Old favourite tree, thou’st seen time’s changes lower,
Though change till now did never injure thee;
For time beheld thee as her sacred dower
And nature claimed thee her domestic tree.
Storms came and shook thee many a weary hour,
Yet stedfast to thy home thy roots have been;
Summers of thirst parched round thy homely bower
Till earth grew iron – still thy leaves were green.
The children sought thee in thy summer shade
And made their playhouse rings of stick 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 – though stocks and stones
There are, and many formed of flesh and bones.
Thou owned a language by which hearts are stirred
Deeper than by a feeling clothed in word,
And speakest now what’s known of every tongue,
Language of pity and the force of wrong.
What cant assumes, what hypocrites will 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 freedom’s ways –
So thy old shadow must a tyrant be.
Thou’st heard the knave, abusing those in power,
Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free;
Thou’st sheltered hypocrites in many a shower,
That when in power would never shelter thee.
Thou’st heard the knave supply his canting powers
With wrong’s 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 the sound
Time hears its visions speak, – and age sublime
Hath made thee a disciple unto time.
– It grows the cant term of enslaving tools
To wrong another by the name of right;
Thus came enclosure – ruin was its guide,
But freedom’s cottage soon was thrust aside
And workhouse prisons raised upon the site.
Een nature’s dwellings far away from men,
The common heath, became the spoiler’s prey;
The rabbit had not where to make his den
And labour’s only cow was drove away.
No matter – wrong was right and right was wrong,
And freedom’s bawl was sanction to the song.
– Such was thy ruin, music-making elm;
The right of freedom was to injure thine:
As thou wert served, so would they overwhelm
In freedom’s name the little that is mine.
And there are knaves that brawl for better laws
And cant of tyranny in stronger power
Who glut their vile unsatiated maws
And freedom’s birthright from the weak devour.
In case you were wondering what environmentalism sounded like 200 years ago!
I found myself thinking of how loving a portrait of a tree it is and was reminded of an episode where I came face to face with a childhood book and was in for an unpleasant surprise.
A friend of mine in Istanbul, upon hearing I would be in NYC, asked me to bring back a copy of the Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. I remembered having read it as a child, so I was eager to see it again and went to pick it up first thing. Imagine my surprise when I read it and was overwhelmed by an unavoidable sense that it was entirely misogynistic. This boy just takes and takes from the tree and the tree just gives and gives and never calls the boy on what an utter cad he is being (in fact she is happy, the author tells us again and again) and it only ends when the boy is too tired to take any more from the tree and the tree has nothing to give anyway. I thought, what, is this what mothers are supposed to be? Is this the ideal woman? How could I have read this and just accepted it as a child — has it formed me somehow? I guess some books don’t stand up as well as Good Night Moon to being revisited (endlessly, in that case).
I bought the book and gave it to my friend without comment, because I thought why not let her form her own opinions of the book. And now that I have found this poem, I have decided to adopt it as my favored ode to a tree. There must be many more. If you have any favorites, won’t you let me know?
And with that, the boys and I went out for a walk to visit some of the neighborhood trees…