I recently bought a copy of Gillian Tindall’s The Man Who Drew London: Wenceslaus Hollar in reality and imagination (2002). An odd book, a composite of a biography and a Tracey Chevalier style narrative. In many of Tindall’s fictionalised passages, she tries to give a voice to the women in Hollar’s life. I suppose that one could agree that women were an important subject for Hollar, and that he treats them with great sympathy, never pruriently (not even when illustrating Juvenal). The author must have been tempted to try to bring to life the women Hollar knew.
But I was most interested by her small illustration (on p.124) of the Hollow Tree on Hampstead Heath. It took me a while to find it, as it doesn’t seem to be in the apparently comprehensive (and undeniably excellent) University of Toronto Hollar Digital Collection:
I traced it finally in Robert Codrington’s single sheet (double-sided), The dimension of the hollow tree of Hampsted (1653). EEBO does us proud here, with a transcript of the text, the page images, and all the minor contributors to the publication indexed.
As we are having a meeting with a remarkable early modern tree, let’s have the statistics of the tree itself first. It was an elm tree: “The Bottom above ground in Compass is 28 foot; The Breadth of the door is 2 foot; The Compass of the turret on the Top is 34 foot; The Door in Height to go in is 6 foot 2 Inches; The Height to the Turret is 33 foot; The Lights into the Tree is 16; The Steps to go up is 42; The Seat above the Steps, Six may Sit on, and round about room for fourteen more. All the way you go up within the Hollow Tree.”
This isn’t as hyperbolic in size as Codrington’s verses make it sound. The ‘lights into the tree’ are the windows for the spiral staircase cut inside the trunk.
Codrington’s poem is charmingly of its time. It’s cast, largely, in a vein of high compliment to the tree, treated as a ‘wooden majesty’. From the top of this quasi-royal tree he looks to the forlorn royal palaces, now uninhabited. It’s loco-descriptive, as Codrington enjoys the view from the top in the manner of Denham, especially the section about the distant Thames, and it makes one remember Marvell:
‘Of the height and hollowness of the great Elm at Hampstead.’
What shall I call thee who so great and high,
Present’st thy self unto my wondring eye?
Thou Travellers 'fence, and guide, the Enterlude
O’th ranting storms, and giant of the wood!
How in thy summer’s robes doest thou appear,
The Sylvans’ joy, and honour of the year?
How the bold winds play with thy lofty locks!
How doest thou scorn, and makest them but thy mocks,
Deaf to their sighs, and whispers! Let me here
(So please thy Wooden Majesty) draw near
To thy first door, and looking up discry
Where Hall, where Parlor, how thy Chambers lie.
Essex’ Broad-Oak (which twenty miles we see
And more) is but a twig compar’d to thee;
So vast a compass doth thy might command,
That a whole Grove within thy self might stand,
And spread and flourish, and may fruitful add
To thee a growing progeny: which had
No doubt been so, but that thou thought’st not good
To leave out Men, to entertain a Wood.
Art here, and Order do in one engage
To make this Round complete, their Equipage
Extols thy greatness, in less room I find
With all his trusty Knights King Arthur din’d.
As yet more high upon the stairs I rise,
What are these windows which enrich mine eyes?
Happy you lights, whose air so pure and thin
The morning courts to let the Sun come in,
And drink it, to refresh his heavy head
Sick with the vapours of moist Thetis’ Bed;
For which (not staying) he with all his wealth,
Gilds this blest place, and thanks it for his health.
Now is my progress finish’d, to the height
Of all thy Turret I am come, and straight
Here on the world’s Redeemer think, when he
(Set on the Temple’s Pinnacle) did see
All Kingdoms of the earth at once, so stand
The Towns now subject to my eyes command,
Which to repeat the Muse forbears, for why?
The Towns would often give the verse the lye,
Whose names as Churlish as themselves are known,
And will endure no Numbers but their own.
Six neighbouring Counties do on tip-toe all
Gaze on thy mighty limbs, and seem to call
Unto thy patient Greatness, when to wait
To pay thee homage for thy nobler height,
But only Harrow on the Hill plays Rex,
And will have none more high in Middlesex.
And yonder the familiar Thames (the more
To grace thy prospect) rolls along the shore
Her Crystal treasures, and doth seem to me
Softly to murmur 'cause so far from thee.
See how the Ships in numerous array.
Dance on her waves, and their proud wings display
More white then Snow, as now the Thames did carry
A moving wood i’th’midst of January.
Not all Meander’s Swans, nor those on Po,
Join’d with her own, make half so fair a show:
Nor all the beauteous Ladies that have been
These twice three summers on thy Turrets seen.
But what amongst these various objects, what
Is that which so much takes my eyes? 'tis not
Thy leavy Antlers, nor thy shoulders, high,
Though one would brush, and th’other bore the sky;
Nor thy five hundred Arms by which we see
Briareus only was a type of thee,
Arms which vain winds doe twist in every storm
And fain would put them in akimbo form.
Tis not thy ample body, though it be
So full of pleasure, and humanity,
That as to the quick a Palace would be found,
So to the dead their Coffins, and surround
Their loose and crumbling dusts. Tis not thy feet,
To cover which so many Acres meet:
Tis not those stately structures where the Court
Had late their mansions, when our Kings would sport;
Of whom depriv’d they mourn, and desolate
Like Widows look on their forlorn estate.
Tis not smooth Richmond’s streams, nor Acton’s Mill,
Nor Windsor’s Castle, nor yet Shooters hill.
Nor groves nor plains which further off do stand,
Like Landskips portray’d by some happy hand:
But a swift view which most delightful shows,
And doth them all, and all at once enclose.
Codrington dates his poem 24th July 1653. Then there follows a set of distiches by four other visitors, who also date their poems to the same day. I just give the English version of each poem, but each one has a Latin version of itself (again, like Marvell sometimes does). English couplets, moralising and making religious reflections, mixed with Latinity takes us a bit closer to what was going on here among these early modern Hampstead intellectuals:
Upon Hampstead Elm.
Although the heart of this fair Tree be out,
Yet it doth spread its branches round about.
Upon Hampstead Elm.
As in this Tree we go through dark to light,
So Saints ascend through death to heaven bright.
Upon Hampstead Elm. Psalm 52. 13. 14.
God’s Tree and this do differ in one thing,
That shall not, this will cease fruit forth to bring.
In Ulmum Hampstedensem.
Here all may see this stately Elm to bear
An Apple strange, which it brings ev’ry year.
These writers scarcely experience the tree directly: what they see and do is related to their religious inner life. John Lee finds a symbol, Moses Browne is reminded of the cross, T.W. somehow finds an apple (an elm rarely fruits, and the fruit body is small and papery). We had at the start of the ascent a set of ‘Verses on the DOOR.’ These are part-Herrick, part Herbert – or rather, Herbert will be clearer at the top. So it’s a climb from a sinful world to a greater proximity to heaven (and divine scrutiny):
Civil people, you welcome be,
That come to view this Hollow Tree.
Debaucht Drunkard, Ranting Whore,
Come no such within this Door:
Wanton Boys and ranting Rigs,
Cut no Bowes, break no Sprigs.
‘Verses on the Top of the TREE in the TURRET.’
Now you are ascended up on high,
Think here upon Eternity.
Take heed what you do morn or ev’n,
The Son will see’t and tell’t in Heaven:
What ever you think, or speak, or say,
You answer must at Judgement-Day.
I think that the ‘verses on’ simply meant, as usual, ‘verses on the subject of’. But it is also possible that the poems provided might have been transcribed on placards for visitors like the lady visitors Codrington’s verses mention. This whole production was ‘Printed by E. Cotes for M. S. at the Blue Bible in Green Arbour, and are to be given or sold on the Hollow Tree at Hampsted.’ ‘M.S.’ was Michael Sparke, the bookseller. So the work was a promotional flyer, but one that has, as we might say, its own agenda too.
Now hollow trees, if you trace them through early modern literature, are places in which people hide (after the model of Aeneas in his flight from Troy), or hide letters (in romances), and they were where early ornithologists and poets like Carew thought cuckoos over-wintered. But a large tree could shelter a religious meeting. Hollow trees are mentioned being used this way in satire (because of the ludicrous cuckoo associations, I think), as in the title Some small and simple reasons delivered in a hollow-tree in Waltham Forrest in a lecture on the 33. of March last by Aminadab Blower a devout bellowsmender of Pimlico; shewing the causes in generall and particular wherefore thay doe, might, would, should, or ought, except against and quite refuse the liturgy or Book of Common-Prayer (1643).
Codrington has another set of verses, in a Procul, O procul este profane mode: we learn in them that this is ‘an elm that’s orthodox’:
‘The Elm it self, to some of the new Religion that would make a Preachment under his reverend shade.’
How numerous and extravagant are these
Thus buzz about me like a swarm of Bees?
Remove your station friends, I’m not so fickle,
To cast a shade for such a Conventicle:
You talk to me of Slaney, How, and Cox,
Why do you vex an Elm that’s Orthodox?
To sort with your complexions, I profess
There are no Elms in all my Diocese;
If only such are for your purpose, know,
You must as far as unto Bordeaux go.
‘How’ would be Samuel How, author of The sufficiencie of the spirits teaching, without humane-learning (1640 and eds.) - the title alone says enough. Now if it’s a surprise to see the old radical bookseller Michael Sparke mixed in with such men as Codrington busily praising orthodoxy, perhaps the connection is respect for learning. For besides orthodoxy in religion at this elm, there’s a lot of instruction going on. In the next verses, Michael Sparke himself, signing his piece as ‘Scintilla’, praises ‘Domino Auriga’ (the name means charioteer), who has delivered a cartload of books to this place. Sparke himself (who would die in December of 1653) lived in Hampstead, and here he seems to be proprietorial, writing about ‘my arbour’:
‘Amico meo fidelissimo Domino Auriga.’
Welcome most learned Waggoner, welcome to me,
That bring’st such loading, to this hollow Tree;
What is thy carriage? Learning, Virtue, Wit.
Here then unlade, this Elm for thee is fit.
This is the Tree, on which such fruit doth spring,
Which made the Muses dance, to laugh and sing:
Such carriage, thou hast brought to this my Arbour,
As never richer Ship came loaden into Harbour.
Twelve virtuous Plants, this exile tutor’d so
Upon this Tree, the like let England show.
Drive on see the youngest Branch so flourish,
That Air, and Hill, and Well, and School may cherish:
And when thy wheels do off thy Wagon go,
In spite of death, thy Plants will fairly grow;
And though by him thou wrapped art in Lead,
Yet Time in spight of Death thy seeds will spread.
Sparke also contributes ‘The Close’:
Blush England, blush, a shame it is to see
An Exile here, to teach civility,
More then some Natives, and for pious care
To train up youth, his pains he doth not spare;
For he on top of all (this Tree) above the shade,
His Scholars taught, where they such Verses made
As spread his honour, and do blaze the fame
Of Hampstead Schoole, I’ll trumpet up the same:
Johannes A Comenius thy Countryman so rare,
For Arts and Parts thou mayst with him compare.
Exile drive on thy Wagon, here take rest,
And all thy carriage be for ever blest.
I think we finally get some chance to understand the set up at the Hampstead Elm. Michael Spark was probably its owner or keeper. Codrington’s verses seem to say that the elm had been equipped with its winding interior stair and platform for six years by 1653. In the very near vicinity, an exiled scholar kept a school, perhaps in the buildings seen behind the tree in Hollar’s etching, which the unworldly and over-worked Hollar perhaps contributed to assist a fellow exile. I think the teacher must have been a follower of the educationalist Johannes Comenius. Comenius gets mentioned by Sparke: he had been in England at Samuel Hartlib’s invitation in 1641, some of his educational writings had been published in England by Sparke, and the Moravian scholar might have established Chelsea College as a Baconian research institute, a ‘universal college of the learned’. The same ideals seem to inform the teaching of this unknown subsequent exile: the tree itself might have been carpentered to meet imagery derived from Comenius, to symbolise an instructive ascent via a Baconian winding stair through darkness to illumination, a Comenian Via Lucis. If the platform on top of the Hampstead Elm was designed as an arboreal classroom, this would have been an idea Comenius would have warmly endorsed, for instruction was in his pedagogic theory always meant to be enjoyed.
And who wouldn’t? Thomas Pakenham, 8th Earl of Longford, a remarkable early modern tree for you!