Popular Science Monthly/Volume 4/December 1873/Tennyson and Botany

First published as "Mr. Tennyson as a Botanist" in The Saint Paul's Magazine, October 1873, pp. 443-452.



WORDSWORTH, in the supplementary preface contained in the second volume of his works, asserts in the most emphatic way the deplorable ignorance of "the most obvious and important phenomena" of Nature which characterizes the poetical literature of the period intervening between the publication of the "Paradise Lost" and the "Seasons." It is to be feared that his opinion is, to a large extent, justified by the facts of the case. A very cursory examination of the productions of the poets who flourished during the seventy years referred to will suffice to show how little they were affected by the manifold beauty and grandeur of the visible universe everywhere around them. In this respect they contrast unfavorably, not only with their successors of the present century, which might have been expected, but with those of the two preceding centuries as well. The latter, whose works embrace a period dating back a hundred years from Milton, display, generally, a much more accurate acquaintance with the appearances and phenomena of the natural world, and spontaneousness in the expression of it, than the school of Dryden and Pope, who may be regarded as the most conspicuous examples of Wordsworth's strictures. Of Pope, particularly, it might almost be said that, from his writings, it could scarcely be inferred that there was much else in existence than courts, and fashion, and scandal—not much, at all events, that was worth caring for. He excelled in the representation of the modish life of the day—its fine ladies with their patches, its fine gentlemen with their periwigs, and its general artificiality. Of Nature in its endless continuity, and variety, and mysteriousness, which has stirred the hearts of men in every age, and kindled many smaller poets into enthusiasm, he knew and cared little, and the trim alleys and botanical distortions of Versailles, which he has characteristically described, may be taken as typical of his own inspiration on the matter. It may be worth while mentioning, as a pertinent illustration of these comments, that in his poem of "Windsor Forest," with the exception of a semi-patriotic allusion to the oak, in connection with ship-building, there is not a reference to a single forest-tree, not even to any of those famous historical oaks which abound in the locality. Nature and simplicity, in truth, had gone out of fashion, and were not much in vogue again till far on in the century.

Darwin, a mere poetaster compared with the genius of Twickenham, is a well-known instance of the opposite defect—of the absence of poetic fire rather than of a taste for the delights of the country. His "Botanic Garden" is a dreary, mechanical affair, several degrees worse and more unreadable than Cowley's "Plants," a century earlier. Both are constructed on an altogether erroneous principle. Science is science, and poetry is poetry; and while, as is well illustrated in "The Princess" and "In Memoriam," the scientific spirit may be distinctly present, yet any thing like a formal, didactic attempt at amalgamation is certain to prove a failure.

Although belonging to an earlier date than the sterile period referred to, George Herbert might also be quoted here as a case of poetic talent of a very genuine kind, yet unaccompanied by much perception of natural beauty or picturesqueness. He has sometimes been likened to Keble, a brother churchman and clergyman, but between the two, in their feeling and apprehension of the wonders of creation, the difference is singular and complete. Herbert's strong point was spiritual anatomy. His probing and exposure of the deceits and vanities of the human heart, and his setting forth of the dangers of the world to spirituality of mind, are at once quaint and incisive. But of any love or special knowledge of the physical world there is scarcely a trace.[1] Keble's poetry, on the other hand, quite as unworldly as that of the author of "The Temple," is redolent everywhere of the sights and sounds of Nature. The seasons with their endless changes, the motions of the heavenly bodies, the fragrance of the field, trees, rivers, mountains, and all material things, are assimilated, so to speak, into the very essence of his verse. That very world which to Herbert was only base and utterly indifferent, seemed to Keble, to use his own words, "ennobled and glorified," and awakened in his soul poetical emotions of the highest and purest kind.

It is unnecessary to enter into much detail in order to show how, much more truly than himself, Pope's predecessors, and especially those of the Elizabethan era, were entitled to the designation of poets of Nature. Shakespeare, Spenser, the two Fletchers, Milton, and many others, might be adduced in confirmation. With reference to botany, it is evident that the greatest of the tribe, in his universality of knowledge, flowing over into every region of human research, was well acquainted with the subject in its twofold aspect—trees and flowers. Many beautiful floral descriptions occur in the plays, and although the arboricultural allusions are less frequent, they are sufficiently numerous to justify the belief that his knowledge was both extensive and accurate. Perhaps the most important passage of the kind is where Cranmer, "dilating on a wind of prophecy," portrays, under the figure of a "mountain-cedar," the future glories of the reigns of Elizabeth and her successor.[2] Milton has many striking and appropriate images borrowed from trees. His artistic use of the pine as a simile for Satan's spear—

"to equal which the tallest pine,
Hewn on Norwegian hills to be the mast
Of some great ammiral, were but a wand"—

and the comparison of the rebel host to blasted pines, are fine examples of the poetical transmutation of botanical knowledge. Still finer is the exquisite description in "Lycidas" of the vernal flowers strewed on the hearse of his lamented friend. And, not to multiply quotations further, the vale of Vallombrosa has been immortalized forever by three lines in "Paradise Lost."[3]

In later poetry, not of the present century, Shenstone and Cowper were both genuine lovers of Nature, and their works abound with passages relating to rural pleasures and scenery. Cowper, indeed, might be styled par excellence the poet of the country. No one ever believed more thoroughly than himself in his own epigrammatic line—

"God made the country, and man made the town."

The revolution in the poetical taste of the time, afterward consummated by Wordsworth, was mainly initiated by the recluse of Olney. In Shenstone's poems, now, it is to be feared, little read, there are some verses bearing on the subject of this essay which have a curious resemblance to Mr. Tennyson's famous song, "Come into the garden, Maud." We quote eight lines to be found in the piece designated a "Pastoral Ballad, in Four Parts:"

"From the plains, from the woodlands and groves,
What strains of wild melody flow!
How the nightingales warble their loves
From thickets of roses that blow!

"Then the lily no longer is white;
Then the rose is deprived of its bloom;
Then the violets die with despite,
And the woodbines give up their perfume."

The ring and manner of this are very similar to Mr. Tennyson's composition, and, although the measure is a little different, these verses might be interpolated in the modern song without in the least impairing its harmony, or affecting its verisimilitude.

The most distinguished names in the list of the natural poets of the present century are undoubtedly Sir Walter Scott, Wordsworth, and Mr. Tennyson. Of the two former it may be said, in passing, that they have probably done more than anybody else to foster the modern idea of Nature, and the love of wild and picturesque scenery. Our business, however, is more particularly with Mr. Tennyson, and with the evidences of botanical knowledge to be found in his works, that part of botany, at least, relating to trees. These allusions, we apprehend, are more numerous, and show more insight, and acquaintance with the forms, and processes, and changes characteristic of the inhabitants of the forest, than those of any other modern author. His verse in this respect differs from other descriptive poetry chiefly in this, that his notices are not general appellations or similitudes applicable equally to any or all trees, but are specific, exact, and true only in the particular case. Thomson, for example, in the "Seasons," is, in general, curiously vague in his descriptions. He generalizes constantly, and presents his readers with broad effects sketched en masse, instead of individual details. Such phrases as "sylvan glades," "vocal groves," "umbrageous shades," and the like, frequently occur, doing duty in place of more minute representations. Mr. Tennyson, on the other hand (and Sir Walter and Wordsworth may also be included), pursues exactly the contrary method. His descriptions are, nearly always, pictures of particular places instead of fancy sketches, and the distinguishing features are given incidentally in the course of the narrative. Where, again, particular trees are referred to, it is almost invariably with a phrase or an epithet clinching the description as precisely as a paragraph from Evelyn or Loudon. And, as poetry, these casual, accidental bits of descriptive writing are infinitely more effective than any amount of versified disquisition, of the Darwin sort, on the processes of vegetation. Slight, too, though in many cases they are, they indicate a deep appreciation of the results and tendencies of modern science. In what remains of this paper it is proposed, a little in detail, to adduce evidence from Mr. Tennyson's poems in support of the views we have expressed. It will not be necessary to go over the whole field, and we shall therefore select a few of the more important trees, and see to what extent his notices of them are corroborative of these preliminary remarks.

The ash will be the first example, and the reference in the lines quoted below is to the proverbial lateness of this tree in developing its foliage. It forms part of the Prince's song in "The Princess:"

"Why lingereth she to clothe her heart with love,
Delaying as the tender ash delays
To clothe herself, when all the woods are green?"

This is a very striking comparison, happily expressed, and, besides serving its immediate purpose, corrects an erroneous notion, somewhat popular, that sometimes the ash and sometimes the oak is in leaf first. Then, again, in "The Gardener's Daughter," Juliet's eyes and hair are thus described:

"Love, unperceived,
Came, drew your pencil from you, made those eyes
Darker than darkest pansies, and that hair
More black than ash-buds in the front of March;"

a fact which all observers of the phenomena of the spring months will recognize as accurate.

The lime seems a special favorite of Mr. Tennyson, so lovingly and frequently does he use it for illustration. There is much imitative beauty in the well-known lines (also from "The Gardener's Daughter") which form the conclusion of the description of a cathedral city—possibly Peterborough:

"And all about the large lime-feathers low,
The lime a summer home of murmurous wings."

The giving out of branches close to the ground is a noticeable habit of the lime, as it is also, to some extent, of the elm, particularly in Devonshire. The mode of growth and the development of the branches are still further illustrated:

"Not thrice your branching limes have blown
Since I beheld young Laurence dead."

The epithet "branching" refers to another peculiarity—the number and intricacy of the branches in the centre of the tree. On this point Mr. Leo Grindon, a good authority, says: "So dense is the mass, that to climb a full-grown tree is nearly impossible." The frequent use of the lime for avenues and walks, a practice still more prevalent on the Continent, is very pictorially stated:

"and overhead,
The broad ambrosial aisles of lofty lime
Made noise with bees and breeze from end to end."

Its spring-time is photographed in "Maud" in a single sentence, thus:

"A million emeralds break from the ruby-budded lime."

Every student of botany will be able to verify the correctness of this line. The buds are peculiarly red, and the appearance of thousands of them bursting at once is precisely as the poet describes it. Elsewhere, the period immediately preceding the foliation of the tree is sketched with remarkable truthfulness:

"On such a time as goes before the leaf,
When all the wood stands in a mist of green,
And nothing perfect."

The Spanish chestnut, Castanea, is not one of Mr. Tennyson's trees; but there are frequent references to the horse-chestnut, Æsculus. The three chestnuts in "The Miller's Daughter" will be in the recollection of most readers of his poetry. The appearance of the buds just before emerging from their green covering, and the time of their development, are registered with minute accuracy:

"But, Alice, what an hour was that,
When, after roving in the woods
('Twas April then), I came and sat
Below the chestnuts, when their buds
Were glistening in the breezy blue!"

"Glistening" is the exact epithet here. The early foliation of the chestnut and elm we find in the exquisite fragment "Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere." The lines on the chestnut are very characteristic:

"In curves the yellowing river ran,
And drooping chestnut-buds began
To spread into the perfect fan,
Above the teeming ground."

This, with the similar remark on the elm, corresponds to the order of Nature, and is nowhere better or more beautifully exemplified than in Kensington Gardens every April.

So far as we have been able to discover, there is only a single line devoted to the birch. It is to be found in "Amphion," that singular reproduction, in sylvan form, of the mythological legend. It is interesting to notice, by-the-way, that, in the later editions, the verse in which the birch is mentioned is omitted, and another substituted. As a whole, the latter is doubtless the more musical of the two, but we are sorry to lose the apt and charming characterization of "the lady of the woods." For the curious in Tennysoniana we print both:

"The birch-tree swang her fragrant hair,
The bramble cast her berry,
The gin within the juniper
Began to make him merry."

"The linden broke her ranks and rent
The woodbine-wreaths that bind her,
And down the middle, buzz! she went
With all her bees behind her."

Of all the poets who have sung the praises of the birch, Coleridge, Keats, and, preeminently Sir Walter Scott, none of them has surpassed the initial line of the first stanza in condensed and subtile expressiveness. Scott's is somewhat similar, although not quite so good:

"Where weeps the birch with silver bark,
And long dishevelled hair."

"Dishevelled," implying disorders and entanglement, does not convey a correct idea of the foliage of the birch. "Swang her fragrant hair" is decidedly better.

The fullness and ripeness of the poet's knowledge of trees are amply illustrated in those passages of his poems relating to the poplar. This is a tree with which he has been familiar from early childhood, as we gather from the "Ode to Memory," where he fondly recalls—

"The seven elms, the poplars four,
That stand beside my father's door."

The famous poplar in "Mariana," which Mr. Read has reproduced in his fine picture of the "Moated Grange," now at South Kensington, is a prominent object in a very striking poem. The locality, it is scarcely necessary to say, is the fen country:

"About a stone-cast from the wall
A sluice with blackened waters slept,
And o'er it many, round and small,
The clustered marish-mosses crept.
Hard by a poplar shook alway,
All silver-green with gnarlèd bark;
For leagues no other tree did mark
The level waste, the rounding gray."

As an example of landscape-painting in words, there is nothing more perfect than this in modern literature. We are not aware if the doubt was ever suggested before, but we think it is at least questionable if Mr. Read is right in assuming the particular tree in his poem to be a Lombardy poplar. "Silver-green," a remarkable epithet, is more applicable to the abele, or white poplar, than to the fastigiate Lombardy species, and the sound of the trembling of the leaves is less noticeable in the latter than in most of the other poplars. In other poems this rustling noise is described as "lisping," "hissing," and like the sound of "falling showers," phrases all tolerably approximating to exactness. In "In Memoriam" there is a special reference to this white poplar whose silver-green foliage shows much more white than green in a gale of wind:

"With blasts that blow the poplar white,
And lash with storm the streaming pane."

The "quivering," "tremulous" aspen is also mentioned, but Mr. Tennyson is too good a botanist to fall into the popular error of supposing that it is the only tree which has fluttering leaves. Except the Ontario species and one or two others, nearly all the poplars have the same peculiarity, caused, it may not be superfluous to say, by the compression of the leaf-stalk. Very curious it is to notice in the upper branches, while a light wind is overhead, each particular leaf shaking on its own account, while the branch of which it is a part, and the tree itself, are perfectly motionless.

Of the beech the notices are scantier and less specific. Its peculiarly twisted roots, rich autumn tints, smooth bark, and unusual leafiness, are all described, however, more or less poetically. The following verse from "In Memoriam" has a certain pensive sweetness of its own:

"Unwatched, the garden bough shall sway,
The tender blossom flutter down,
Unloved that beech will gather brown,
This maple burn itself away."

The rich autumn tints of the foliage of the maple are here alluded to.

Cedars, cypresses, and yews, all members of the great coniferous family, are prominent objects in Mr. Tennyson's landscapes. In the eighteenth section of "Maud"—beginning,

"I have led her home, my love, my only friend"—

and which contains some passages full of solemn tenderness and beauty, and a splendor of language worthy of Shakespeare himself, occurs the oft-quoted apostrophe addressed to the cedar of Lebanon by Maud's somewhat distempered, though now happy lover:

"Oh, art thou sighing for Lebanon
In the long breeze that streams to thy delicious East,
Sighing for Lebanon,
Dark cedar.  . . . .


And over whom thy darkness must have spread
With such delight as theirs of old, thy great
Forefathers of the thornless garden, there
Shadowing the snow-limbed Eve from whom she came.
Here will I lie, while these long branches sway."

The yew, though usually regarded as the emblem of death—

"Cheerless, unsocial plant, that loves to dwell
Midst skulls and coffins, epitaphs and tombs"—

might, in its extreme tenacity and length of days, be a fitter representative of life and endurance. In the second chapter of "In Memoriam" the yew is described in the most masterly manner. These are two of the verses:

"Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the underlying dead,
Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapped about the bones."

"Oh, not for thee the glow, the bloom,
Who changest not in any gale,
Nor branding summer suns avail
To touch thy thousand years of gloom."

The locality, the hue, the prolonged life, and the general unchangeableness of appearance, are all here summarily noticed. The laureate seems, however, to share the popular dislike to this tree, a feeling which Gilpin, in his "Forest Scenery," ridicules as weakness. In "Amphion," yews are called "a dismal coterie;" in "Maud" a "black yew gloomed the stagnant air;" and, in "Love and Death," we have the portentous image of the angel of death walking all alone "beneath a yew."

Our limits forbid more than a mere enumerative mention of other well-known trees, whose memory Mr. Tennyson has rendered sweeter to all future generations of tree-lovers. "Immemorial elms," "perky larches and pines," "laburnums, dropping-wells of fire," elders, hollies, "the pillared dusk of sounding sycamores," "dry-tongued laurels," "slender acacias"—all these and many others are to be found within the four corners of his poems. One only remains, the oak—"sole king of forests all;" and, as Mr. Tennyson has celebrated the praises of the monarch of the woods at great length in the "Talking Oak," we shall add a few words on that charming composition by way of conclusion.

As is well known, the poem takes the form of a colloquy between an ancient oak, which formed a meeting-place for two lovers, and the young gentleman in the case. He comes to question the tree about his lady-love, who had visited the hallowed spot in his absence. And Landor himself, in his happiest vein, never conceived a more exquisite imaginary conversation. Here, in sportive phrase and bantering talk, is the whole philosophy of forest-life set forth with a poetic felicity, saucy humor, and scientific precision of language, each admirable of its kind. The poem is literally a love-idyl and botanic treatise combined, and never, surely, were lovers and science—January and May, might one say—so delightfully harmonized, conveying, too, to those who have eyes to see and hearts to understand, glimpses of a spiritual interpretation of Nature, undreamt of by Pope and his school. Thus pleasantly does the old oak of "Sumner Chace" discourse to Walter of Olivia's charms; and the reader will not fail to notice the skillful way in which the poet's practical acquaintance with trees is turned to account:

"I swear (and else may insects prick
Each leaf into a gall)
This girl, for whom your heart is sick,
Is three times worth them all;"

and then, with a warmth of praise unusual and almost improper in such a venerable inhabitant of the forest, he continues:

"Her kisses were so close and kind,
That, trust me on my word,
Hard wood I am, and wrinkled rind,
But yet my sap was stirred:

"And even into my inmost ring
A pleasure I discerned,
Like those blind motions of the spring,
That show the year is turned."

Farther on, the not ungrateful lover invokes all atmospheric and other good influences on his partner in the dialogue, who has proved so communicative a companion:

"O rock upon thy towery top
All throats that gurgle sweet!
All starry culmination drop
Balm-dews to bathe thy feet!

"Nor ever lightning char thy grain,
But, rolling as in sleep,
Low thunders bring the mellow rain,
That makes thee broad and deep!"

These, it will be admitted, are very melodious strains. Seldom has the imagery of the woods been used with more appropriateness and effect than in this poem, and its poetic excellence is rivaled by its accuracy. No one but an accomplished practical botanist could have written it. And throughout the poem, light and airy in tone as it is, there is distinctly perceptible the scientific element—the sense of the forces of Nature acting according to law, which, as we have already said, pervades like a subtle essence much of Mr. Tennyson's poetry. But enough has probably been said to justify the title of this article.—St. Paul's Magazine.

  1. One of his biographers has discovered a solitary verse, on the faith of which he complacently assumes that Herbert "was thoroughly alive to the sweet influences of Nature."
  2. Commentators affirm Ben Jonson to be the author of the lines referred to.
  3. "Till on the beach
    Of that inflamèd sea he stood, and called
    His legions, angel forms, who lay intranced,
    Thick as autumnal leaves that strew the brooks
    In Vallombrosa."