Friday, 31 October 2014

Literary Trees

It may seem an odd subject for a post, but it is more apposite than I realised when I began.  The seed of the idea (if you’ll forgive the botanical pun) came when I read about a tree that until recently stood in Oxford’s Botanical Gardens.  A black pine (botanical name pinus nigra), it was closely associated with the writer and First World War veteran J R R Tolkien.  Those who came on our "literary walk" following the Spring School earlier this year will recall that Tolkien at one time lived and worked in rooms in Merton Street, just a stone's throw from the Botanical Gardens and barely a hundred yards from the rooms Siegfried briefly rented in 1919.

According to our friend Dr Stuart Lee, Tolkien was fond of trees from childhood and hated to see them chopped down.  The specific tree in question is said to have inspired the character of Treebeard in Lord of the Rings, though Stuart is less certain about this, pointing out that "in fact the Ents have many sources."   The tree is believed to be over 200 years old, but scientists will not be able to confirm this until they have studied the trunk - for the tree has had to be felled because limbs were beginning to fall off and its days were numbered. Now the wood will be used for an "educational project", and the specialists at the Botanical Gardens will of course also propagate from it.

It was a complete coincidence that, the day after I read about the black pine, my attention was drawn to the existence of “the Hardy tree” in St Pancras Old Churchyard, London.  The Hardy in question is of course Sassoon’s friend Thomas Hardy, who worked in the area during his early career as an architect, during the mid-1860s. At the time, the churchyard was about to be invaded by the construction of new stations for the Midland Railway.  Hardy's supervisor, Arthur Blomfield, a bishop’s son, delegated to his junior the responsibility for relocating thousands of graves in order to accommodate the railway company without upsetting the local community.  This obliged Hardy to be present at the churchyard every evening to ensure that the exhumations were carried out in privacy and with sensitivity, and it was a task that seems to have distressed him.  

Many of the headstones were placed in a circular pattern around an ash tree (botanical name Fraxinus excelsior), which still stands in St Pancras Gardens.  It has been suggested that one of Hardy’s early poems, a blackly-humorous ditty entitled “The Levelled Churchyard”, was inspired by his experience of clearing the stones; the poem was, however, written later, when Hardy and his first wife Emma lived in Wimborne, where he became involved with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings because of work that was being done at the Minster.

"Blunden's Beech" at Heytesbury
Siegfried was fond of trees, as he was of all nature.  The third tree I thought I should bring into this post is “Blunden’s Beech”, the tree so nicknamed in honour of his friend Edmund Blunden.  Those who have been lucky enough to visit Heytesbury House will have noticed the tree or perhaps had it pointed out to them by Dennis Silk.  At Yalding, where Blunden grew up, a plaque has been installed with the text of Sassoon’s poem “Blunden’s Beech” engraved on it.  The poem was published in his 1940 collection Rhymed Ruminations.  In this poem, the tree stands in place of his absent friend.  Sitting at its base, Siegfried feels his companionship: “…and Edmund never guessed/How he was there with me…” 

Clearly there is no shortage of trees with literary connections, and I would just like to mention one more – one that many SSF members will know about but may not have seen, simply because, when we made our unforgettable visit to Boars Hill in September 2008, the summer had been too wet to allow us to walk up the muddy track that would have led us to it.  The following year, however, I managed to see it on another trip to Boars Hill, again led by the inimitable Philip Stewart, arborist extraordinaire, who subsequently succeeded in getting the view from the hill (immortalised by Matthew Arnold in his poem “Thyrsis”) officially protected by persuading the Oxford Preservation Trust to purchase the land.   This tree, described by Arnold as a “signal-elm”, has been the subject of intensive research by Philip, who deduced the location of the tree that had inspired the poem and finally established that it is actually an oak!  Siegfried, too, would have seen the tree many times when he was staying at Boars Hill, where he visited Robert Bridges, John Masefield and Robert Graves, but, despite his love for nature, he would probably not have been aware of its literary significance.
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