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Poet on Poet of the Week on Monday, 20 September 2021

William Cowper

Christopher Middleton

'Yardley Oak' is an unfinished poem, written in 1791, which first appeared in Hayley's edition of
1809: Cowper had died in April 1800. In the manuscript, lines 144-166 were deleted. I have not
found it in any anthology, though Cowper has 36 poems (against Pope's 42) on The Oxford Book of
Eighteenth Century Verse. In my mental tree-catalogue the poem stands beside Delacroix's 'Antin
oak' at Champrosay: 'Now that I see only the trunk (which I am almost touching) and the springing
of the great limbs . . . I am astounded at the grandeur of its details. In short, I feel it to
be great and even terrifying in its greatness' (Journal, 9 May, 1853).

Miltonic in its prosody and diction, the poem shows what a gift Cowper had for exact, animated
description. No less vivid, sensuous, and detailed is the opening of Book V in The Task ('The
Winter Morning Walk'). Even then, freighting every line with sublimity here need not deter a
reader today or make us forget how impish Cowper's strange intelligence could also be (for
example, 'The Colubriad', 41 lines about three kittens entranced by a snake, or 'To the Immortal
Memory of the Halibut on Which I Dined This Day').

'Yardley Oak' breaks off before Cowper's usual passion for sermonizing took hold. His successive
bouts of neurasthenia qualified him, no doubt, to discern in his tree a kindred figure. Yet he
does not impose his anguish on the tree: he has transposed it into a dominant vocal tone. His
insistently self-reflexive speech-act encircles the thing itself, presents it in the round,
imagining the acorn dropped by the jay, the oak's slow organic emergence, its times, its space,
and giving voice to its now ravaged and resistant mass. The 'egotistical sublime' monologue
secretes from the start a dialogue, for the expressions of the oak have infiltrated sound and
syntax. It was this creole, developing between the prodigious oak and the gnarled yet linear
prosody, the rugged yet subtle texture, that first alerted me to gestural features of the poem.
This might be, I thought, what they call methexis: A sensitive poetic sign, which circles,
penetrates, and voices its referent with Orphic inwit, can irradiate the hardest objects in the
world. Fragment though it is, the poem erupts at the close of the Enlightenment like a beacon
for Coleridge, for Keats, who must have known it, and for Gerard Manley Hopkins, who might have
done.


Yardley Oak

Survivor sole, and hardly such, of all
That once liv'd here, - thy brethren, at my birth
(Since which I number three-score winters past)
A shatter'd veteran, hollow-trunk'd perhaps,
As now, and with excoriate forks deform,
Relics of ages! Could a mind, imbued
With truth from Heaven, created thing adore,
I might with rev'rence kneel, and worship thee.
      It seems idolatry with some excuse,
When our fore-father Druids in their oaks
Imagin'd sanctity. The conscience, yet
Unpurified by an authentic act
Of amnesty, the meed of blood divine,
Lov'd not the light, but gloomy, into gloom
Of thickest shades, like Adam after taste
Of fruit proscrib'd, as to a refuge, fled.
      Thou west a bauble once; a cup and ball,
Which babes might play with; and the thievish jay
Seeking her food, with ease might have purloin'd
The auburn nut that held thee, swallowing down
Thy yet close-folded latitude of boughs,
And all thine embryo vastness, at a gulp.
But Fate thy growth decreed: autumnal rains
Beneath thy parent tree mellow'd the soil
Design'd thy cradle, and a skipping deer,
With pointed hoof dibbling the glebe, prepar'd
The soft receptacle, in which, secure,
Thy rudiments should sleep the winter through.
      So fancy dreams - Disprove it, if ye can,
Ye reas'ners broad awake, whose busy search
Of argument, employ'd too oft amiss,
Sifts half the pleasures of short life away!
      Thou fell'st mature; and in the loamy clod
Swelling with vegetative force instinct
Didst burst thine egg, as theirs the fabled Twins,
Now stars; two lobes, protruding, pair'd exact;
A leaf succeeded, and another leaf,
And, all the elements thy puny growth
Fost'ring propitious, thou becam'st a twig.
      Who liv'd when thou wast such? Oh! couldst thou speak,
As in Dodona once thy kindred trees
Oracular, I would not curious ask
The future, best unknown, but at thy mouth
Inquisitive, the less ambiguous past.
      By thee I might correct, erroneous oft,
The clock of history, facts and events
Timing more punctual, unrecorded-facts
Recov'ring, and misstated setting right -
Desp'rate attempt, till trees shall speak again!
      Time made thee what thou wast - king of the woods;
And Time hath made thee what thou art - a cave
For owls to roost in. Once thy spreading boughs
O'erhung the champaign; and the numerous flock
That graz'd it stood beneath that ample cope
Uncrowded, yet safe shelter'd from the storm.
No flock frequents thee now. Thou hast outliv'd
Thy popularity and art become
(Unless verse rescue thee awhile) a thing
Forgotten, as the foliage of thy youth.
      While thus through all the stages thou hast push'd
Of treeship - first a seedling hid in grass;
Then twig; then sapling; and, as century roll'd
Slow after century, a giant bulk
Of girth enormous, with moss-cushion'd root
Upheav'd above the soil, and sides emboss'd
With prominent wens globose - till at the last
The rottenness, which time is charg'd t' inflict
On other mighty ones, found also thee.
      What exhibitions various hath the world
Witness'd of mutability in all
That we account most durable below!
Change is the diet, on which all subsist,
Created changeable, and change at last
Destroys them. - Skies uncertain now the heat
Transmitting cloudless, and the solar beam
Now quenching in a boundless sea of clouds, -
Calm and alternate storm, moisture and drought,
Invigorate by turns the springs of life
In all that live, plant, animal, and man,
And in conclusion mar them. Nature's threads,
Fine passing thought, e'en in her coarsest works,
Delight in agitation, yet sustain
The force, that agitates not unimpair'd;
But, worn by frequent impulse, to the cause
Of their best tone their dissolution owe.
      Thought cannot spend itself, comparing still
The great and little of thy lot, thy growth
From almost nullity into a state
Of matchless grandeur, and declension thence,
Slow, into such magnificent decay.
Time was, when, settling on thy leaf, a fly
Could shake thee to the root - and time has been
When tempests could not. At thy firmest age
Thou hadst within thy bole solid contents,
That might have ribb'd the sides and plank'd the deck
Of some flagg'd admiral; and tortuous arms,
The ship-wright's darling treasure, didst present
To the four-quarter'd winds, robust and bold,
Warp'd into tough knee-timber, many a load!
But the axe spar'd thee. In those thriftier days
Oaks fell not, hewn by thousands, to supply
The bottomless demands of contest wag'd
For senatorial honours. Thus to Time
The task was left to whittle thee away
With his sly scythe; whose ever-nibbling edge,
Noiseless, an atom and an atom more,
Disjoining from the rest, has, unobserv'd,
Achiev'd a labour, which had, far and wide,
(By man perform'd) made all the forest ring.
      Embowell'd now and of thy ancient self
Possessing nought but the scoop'd rind, that seems
An huge throat calling to the clouds for drink,
Which it would give in rivulets to thy root,
Thou temptest none, but rather much forbid'st
The feller's toil, which thou couldst ill requite.
Yet is thy root sincere, sound as the rock,
A quarry of stout spurs, and knotted fangs,
Which, crook'd into a thousand whimsies, clasp
The stubborn soil, and hold thee still erect.
      So stands a kingdom, whose foundation yet
Fails not, in virtue and in wisdom laid,
Though all the superstructure, by the tooth
Pulveriz'd of venality, a shell
Stands now, and semblance only of itself!
      Thine arms have left thee. Winds have rent them off
Long since, and rovers of the forest wild
With bow and shaft have burnt them. Some have left
A splinter'd stump bleach'd to a snowy white;
And some memorial none where once they grew.
Yet life still lingers in thee, and puts forth
Proof not contemptible of what she can,
Even where death predominates. The spring
Finds thee not less alive to her sweet force
Than yonder upstarts of the neighb'ring wood,
So much thy juniors, who their birth receiv'd
Half a millennium since the date of thine.
      But since, although well qualified by age
To teach, no spirit dwells in thee, nor voice
May be expected from thee, seated here
On thy distorted root, with hearers none,
Or prompter, save the scene, I will perform
Myself the oracle, and will discourse
In my own ear such matter as I may.
Thou, like myself, hast stage by stage attain'd
Life's wintry bourn; thou, after many years,
I after few; but few or many prove
A span in retrospect; for I can touch
With my least finger's end my own decease
And with extended thumb my natal hour,
And hadst thou also skill in measurement
As I, the past would seem as short to thee.
Evil and few - said Jacob - at an age
Thrice mine, and few and evil, I may think
The Prediluvian race, whose buxom youth
Endured two centuries, accounted theirs.
'Shortliv'd as foliage is the race of man.
The wind shakes down the leaves, the budding grove
Soon teems with others, and in spring they grow.
So pass mankind. One generation meets
Its destin'd period, and a new succeeds.'
Such was the tender but undue complaint
Of the Mæonian in old time; for who
Would drawl out centuries in tedious strife
Severe with mental and corporeal ill
And would not rather choose a shorter race
To glory, a few decads here below?
      One man alone, the father of us all,
Drew not his life from woman; never gaz'd,
With mute unconsciousness of what he saw,
On all around him; learn'd not by degrees,
Nor owed articulation to his ear;
But, moulded by his Maker into man
At once, upstood intelligent, survey'd
All creatures, with precision understood
Their purport, uses, properties, assign'd
To each his name significant, and, fill'd
With love and wisdom, render'd back to Heaven
In praise harmonious the first air he drew.
He was excus'd the penalties of dull
Minority. No tutor charg'd his hand
With the thought-tracing quill, or task'd his mind
With problems; history, not wanted yet,
Lean'd on her elbow, watching Time, whose course,
Eventful, should supply her with a theme,
Taken from 'Poets on Poets'...
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