Wednesday, July 02, 2008

This Basswood Bower My Prison

I lived on the prairie when I started reading English poetry. "Trees" meant small cottonwoods, willows, or silver maples--fast-growing and short-lived, split open by ice storms and high winds. I was in graduate school before I saw a forest, and it was much later that I discovered what Coleridge meant by a "lime-tree bower." (Someday I'll tell you how I imagined "gem-set walls of jasper.")

There was a huge gap between the Romantic poets' natural world and my natural world. For me, "splendor in the grass" calls up big bluestem and buffalo grass, not "England's green and pleasant land." I love Wordsworth, but after visiting the sylvan Wye, I realize I probably don't understand him at all.

This big and fecund basswood tree always reminds me of the gap between my imagination and STC's. I first identified this tree by keying it out in New England, so in my head I call it Tilia. If I want to talk about it around here, I call it "basswood," but in the suburbs, where these trees come from labeled nursery stock, it's a "linden." It was in a graduate course in plant taxonomy that I learned this was Coleridge's "Lime-Tree." Until then, I'd imagined him near a hothouse under a potted plant in the Rubiaceae.

This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison
Addressed to Charles Lamb, of the India House, London
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm'd mine eyes to blindness! They, meanwhile,
Friends, whom I never more may meet again,
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge,
Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,
To that still roaring dell, of which I told ;
The roaring dell, o'erwooded, narrow, deep,
And only speckled by the mid-day sun ;
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock
Flings arching like a bridge ;--that branchless ash,
Unsunn'd and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves
Ne'er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,
Fann'd by the water-fall! and there my friends
Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds,
That all at once (a most fantastic sight!)
Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge
Of the blue clay-stone.

                        Now, my friends emerge
Beneath the wide wide Heaven--and view again
The many-steepled tract magnificent
Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea,
With some fair bark, perhaps, whose sails light up
The slip of smooth clear blue betwixt two Isles
Of purple shadow! Yes! they wander on
In gladness all ; but thou, methinks, most glad,
My gentle-hearted Charles! for thou hast pined
And hunger'd after Nature, many a year,
In the great City pent, winning thy way
With sad yet patient soul, through evil and pain
And strange calamity! Ah! slowly sink
Behind the western ridge, thou glorious Sun!
Shine in the slant beams of the sinking orb,
Ye purple heath-flowers! richlier burn, ye clouds!
Live in the yellow light, ye distant groves!
And kindle, thou blue Ocean! So my friend
Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,
Silent with swimming sense ; yea, gazing round
On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem
Less gross than bodily ; and of such hues
As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes
Spirits perceive his presence.
                               A delight
Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad
As I myself were there! Nor in this bower,
This little lime-tree bower, have I not mark'd
Much that has sooth'd me. Pale beneath the blaze
Hung the transparent foliage ; and I watch'd
Some broad and sunny leaf, and lov'd to see
The shadow of the leaf and stem above
Dappling its sunshine! And that walnut-tree
Was richly ting'd, and a deep radiance lay
Full on the ancient ivy, which usurps
Those fronting elms, and now, with blackest mass
Makes their dark branches gleam a lighter hue
Through the late twilight : and though now the bat
Wheels silent by, and not a swallow twitters,
Yet still the solitary humble-bee
Sings in the bean-flower! Henceforth I shall know
That Nature ne'er deserts the wise and pure ;
No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to Love and Beauty! and sometimes
'Tis well to be bereft of promis'd good,
That we may lift the soul, and contemplate
With lively joy the joys we cannot share.
My gentle-hearted Charles! when the last rook
Beat its straight path across the dusky air
Homewards, I blest it! deeming its black wing
(Now a dim speck, now vanishing in light)
Had cross'd the mighty Orb's dilated glory,
While thou stood'st gazing ; or, when all was still,
Flew creeking o'er thy head, and had a charm
For thee, my gentle-hearted Charles, to whom
No sound is dissonant which tells of Life.

This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison from The Samuel Taylor Coleridge Archive.


Harry said...

And of course the Wye Valley was probably rather different 200 years ago anyway. I wonder how many of the people who read the Romantics would know a skylark if they heard one, let alone a nightingale... does it matter? Perhaps not.

It's an interesting subject.

Rebecca Clayton said...

Birds or perhaps birdsongs are a more emotional topic than trees and flowers. People seem to react strongly to the birdsong of their childhoods. For me, it's Western Meadowlarks and Red-Winged Blackbirds, but for childhoods spent in North America's eastern deciduous forest, there's nothing like the Wood Thrush at dawn and dusk.

The meadowlark (in the oriole family) has a (to me) thrilling song, so it was a lucky substitute, although quite dissimilar. I had more trouble with the nightingale--the prairie's night singers are not melodious. Perhaps if I'd had Wood Thrushes or Mockingbirds (which sing at odd hours of the night, as well as all day long) in my experience, I'd have been more moved by those profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

Anonymous said...

Have to share this!!!! (Noticing the date of your post) Prior to his passing, my father requested that basswood trees be planted in the cemetery. He passed away early in the morning July 4, 2008. We had a family cookout that evening in a small park. Low and behold, a basswood tree right next to the shelterhouse. To that point, most of us kids (10 of us) did not know what a basswood looked like. A few days later, after lunch following his funeral service, we all gathered for pictures behind a community building in a spot we had never payed attention to. You guessed it!! More basswood trees!!