Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Walking Trees in an Early Modern Poem

I somehow found my way to William Basse’s Spenserian eclogue, ‘The Metamorphosis of the Walnut Tree of Borestall’. It involves a number of trees withdrawing their roots, stirring their stumps, and setting off across the south of England to be present at a final tribute to a fallen walnut tree at Boarstall House. Here’s a walnut tree at Thame setting off (each tree is rather reluctant to move, but the walnut is encouraged by the Muse herself playing her harp):

The Wallnut tree so ravish’d with the charmes
Proceeding from these mystique ayres of hers
That dive his darke foundation, spreads his armes,
His curled corpes and crisped shoulders stirs,
And teares his russet bootes and crooked spurres
Out of the dungeon of their earthly layre,
Into the lightsome freedome of the ayre.

gives us a history of Thame Park, with a separate web page on Basse’s patrons, the Wenham family.

Here, a chestnut tree and a filbert, having met the walnut tree, cross the Thames:

Then through the Towne that stands on flowing Thame,
And o’re his bridge, they did next morning goe,
The Wallnut leading way (who knew the same)
So early, that but few could see or know,
More then the Muse who would not leave them so
But with them went, out of the Fryth to call
The Hazle last; and then to Borestall all.

Finding the number gathered to commemorate their fallen friend deficient, the trees first of all debate whether an oak counts as a nut-bearing tree, and, rather swayed by the 300 year old raven who acts as their messenger, invite an oak from Rycote to join them. He too crosses the Thames at Ickford near Thame:

Tow’rds the brode mouth of roreing Thame, affrayd
When as the trembling bridge of Ickford swet
Under his pond’rous steps, and all that met
Or saw this huge & wond’rous pilgrim walke,
Through the vast country caus’d as vast a talke.

The following web pages show Rycote Chapel, and explain what became of the palace that once stood there:

And here is Boarstall Tower, where the trees meet to mourn:

The local historian’s website has a late 17th century engraving of the house that stood behind the imposing gatehouse which survives, and I have borrowed his Victorian re-cutting of the 17th century print, which he wants to keep copyright. It is too late to have the walnut tree, which must have fallen between 1646 and the elderly Basse’s effort to get his Pastorals published, brought to nothing by his death in 1653.

I can trace the notion of perambulating trees back to Mark 8:

22 And he cometh to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him. 23 And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. 24 And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking. 25 After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly.

There must be more in tree mythologies. But I can well imagine C S Lewis enjoying this poem, and transmitting the notion behind the ents of Lord of the Rings to his friend Tolkien.

Basse’s charming poem was obviously written to commemorate and condole the loss of a tree that must have provided the owners of Boarstall year after year of fresh or pickled walnuts. Once the trees have laboriously gathered, they decide they must have their fallen friend anatomized, to see what he died of: the raven, however, mishears, and (as the poem veers out of its gentle fantasy into reality) brings two sawyers, not two surgeons:

But they (now come) upon their scaffold layd
The naked cors, and thereunto applyed
Th’indented razour, and by mutuall ayd
Of eithers hands th’anatomy divide;
Wherein the mourning standers-by descryed
No blemishes of age, nor surfeit found,
But heart & all intestines fayre & sound.

‘The indented razor’ having revealed sound wood throughout, the fallen tree becomes his own commemoration, as some fine walnut wainscoting:

The freinds gave order to the men that wrought,
His body sound in Wainscot to dissect,
And then the Lady of the place besought
Therewith to trim some gallery select,
And cause his limbes with pictures to be dect
Of the Nut-trees, the Raven, and the Muse,
Who did their parts herein so freindly use.

Here’s a Google map: Rycote is just south of Shabbington, Thame a couple of miles east, and Boarstall north, a couple of miles west of Brill, two clicks upwards on this scale:,+Aylesbury,+Buckinghamshire,+UK&ll=51.727028,-1.058807&spn=0.085488,0.230713&z=12

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like copyfraud to me. Copyright can't possibly still exist in anything that was published in the 17th century.