What, still alive at twenty-two,
A clean, upstanding chap like you?
Sure, if your throat ’tis hard to slit,
Slit your girl’s, and swing for it.
Like enough, you won’t be glad,
When they come to hang you, lad:
But bacon’s not the only thing
That’s cured by hanging from a string.
So, when the spilt ink of the night
Spreads o’er the blotting-pad of light,
Lads whose job is still to do
Shall whet their knives, and think of you.
Papyrocentric Performativity Presents:
• Nor Severn Shore – The Poems of A.E. Housman, edited by Archie Burnett (Clarendon Press 1997) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)
• Knight and Clay – The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code and the Uncovering of a Lost Civilisation, Margalit Fox (Profile Books 2013)
• Goal God Guide – The Secret Footballer’s Guide to the Modern Game: Tips and Tactics from the Ultimate Insider, The Secret Footballer (Guardian Books 2014)
Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR
Poem XLIII of Housman’s More Poems (1936) runs like this:
I wake from dreams and turning
My vision on the height
I scan the beacons burning
About the fields of night.
Each in its steadfast station
Inflaming heaven they flare;
They sign with conflagration
The empty moors of air.
The signal-fires of warning
They blaze, but none regard;
And on through night to morning
The world runs ruinward. (MP, XLIII)
In his commentary on the poem, the Housman scholar Archie Burnett traces a parallel with these lines from Lucretius: …multosque per annos | sustenata ruet moles et machina mundi – “…and the mass and fabric of the world, upheld through many years, shall crash into ruins” (De Rerum Natura, V 95-6).
I like the phrase moles et machina mundi, “mass and fabric of the world”, but I didn’t understand the translation fully. I investigated and discovered that the Latin word machina, though taken from Doric Greek μαχανα, makhana, “mechanical device”,* developed an additional meaning of “frame” or “body”. So Latin has deus ex machina, “god from the machine”, with one meaning, and machina mundi, “fabric of the world”, with another.
This seems to make machina a good word to expand the motto of this bijou bloguette. At the moment, the motto is this:
• Mathematica (v) • Magistra (iij) • Mundi (ij) •
That means “Mathematics is Mistress of the World”. Now try this:
• Mathematica (v) • Machina (iij) • Mundi (ij) •
The syllabification doesn’t change, but now I assume that the central word is pleasingly ambiguous and the motto means variously “Mathematics is Mechanism of the World”, the “Fabric of the World”, the “Engine of the World”, the “Body of the World”, and so on.
In addition, all the letters of Machina are found in Mathematica and Mundi, so the words on left and right almost act as a matrix, generating what appears between them.
There are further possibilities, blending magistra and machina:
• Mathematica (v) • Machistra (iij) • Mundi (ij) •
• Mathematica (v) • Magina (iij) • Mundi (ij) •
*In Attic Greek, it’s μηχανη, mēkhanē, whence “mechanical”, etc.
Challenger chopped and changed. That is to say, in one important respect, Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Professor Challenger lacked continuity. His philosophical views weren’t consistent. At one time he espoused materialism, at another he opposed it. He espoused it in “The Land of Mist” (1927):
“Don’t tell me, Daddy, that you with all your complex brain and wonderful self are a thing with no more life hereafter than a broken clock!”
“Four buckets of water and a bagful of salts,” said Challenger as he smilingly detached his daughter’s grip. “That’s your daddy, my lass, and you may as well reconcile your mind to it.”
But earlier, in “The Poison Belt” (1913), he had opposed it:
“No, Summerlee, I will have none of your materialism, for I, at least, am too great a thing to end in mere physical constituents, a packet of salts and three bucketfuls of water. Here ― here” ― and he beat his great head with his huge, hairy fist ― “there is something which uses matter, but is not of it ― something which might destroy death, but which death can never destroy.”
That story was published just over a century ago, but Challenger’s boast has not been vindicated in the meantime. So far as science can see, matter rules mind, not vice versa. Conan Doyle thought the same as the earlier Challenger, but Conan Doyle’s rich and teeming brain seems to have ended in “mere physical constituents”. To all appearances, when the organization of his brain broke down, so did his consciousness. And that concluded the cycle described by A.E. Housman in “Poem XXXII” of A Shropshire Lad (1896):
From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I.
Now – for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart –
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.
Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
I take my endless way. (ASL, XXXII)
Continue reading This Mortal Doyle…
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are famous names today, but both might have died young in the First World War. If so, they would now be long forgotten. Generally speaking, novelists, essayists and scholars take time to mature and need time to create. Poets are different: they can create something of permanent value in a few minutes. This helps explain why nearly half the men chosen for this book did not reach their thirties:
• Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)
• Julian Grenfell (1888-1915)
• Charles Sorley (1895-1915)
• Patrick Shaw Stewart (1888-1917)
• Arthur Graeme West (1891-1917)
• Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918)
• Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
And none of them left substantial bodies of work. Indeed, “except for some schoolboy verse”, Patrick Shaw Stewart is known for only one poem, which “was found written on the back flyleaf of his copy of A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad after his death” (pg. 116). It begins like this:
I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die:
I ask and cannot answer,
If otherwise wish I.
(From I saw a man this morning)
Housman is here too, with Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries, which Kipling, also here, is said to have called “the finest poem of the First World War” (pg. 14). I don’t agree and I would prefer less Kipling and no Thomas Hardy. That would have left space for something I wish had been included: translations from French and German. The First World War was fought by speakers of Europe’s three major languages and this book makes me realize that I know nothing about war poetry in French and German.
It would be interesting to compare it with the poetry in English. Were traditional forms mingling with modernism in the same way? I assume so. Wilfred Owen looked back to Keats and the assonance of Anglo-Saxon verse:
Our brains ache, in the merciless iced winds that knive us…
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent…
Low, drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient…
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
But nothing happens. (Exposure)
David Jones (1895-1974) looked forward:
You can hear the silence of it:
You can hear the rat of no-man’s-land
weasel-out his patient workings,
scrut, scrut, sscrut,
harrow-out earthly, trowel his cunning paw;
redeem the time of our uncharity, to sap his own amphibi-
You can hear his carrying-parties rustle our corruptions
through the night-weeds – contest the choicest morsels in his
tiny conduits, bead-eyed feast on us; by a rule of his nature,
at night-feast on the broken of us. (In Parenthesis)
But is there Gerard Manley Hopkins in that? And in fact In Parenthesis was begun “in 1927 or 1928” and published in 1937. T.S. Eliot called it “a work of genius” (pg. 200). I’d prefer to disagree, but I can’t: you can feel the power in the extract given here. Isaac Rosenberg had a briefer life and left briefer work, but was someone else who could work magic with words:
A worm fed on the heart of Corinth,
Babylon and Rome.
Not Paris raped tall Helen,
But this incestuous worm
Who lured her vivid beauty
To his amorphous sleep.
England! famous as Helen
Is thy betrothal sung.
To him the shadowless,
More amorous than Solomon.
A beautiful poem about an ugly thing: death. A mysterious poem too. And a sardonic one. Rosenberg says much with little and I think he was a much better poet than the more famous Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. They survived the war and wrote more during it, which helps explain their greater fame. But the flawed poetry of Graves was sometimes appropriate to its ugly theme:
To-day I found in Mametz Wood
A certain cure for lust of blood:
Where, propped against a shattered trunk,
In a great mess of things unclean,
Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk
With clothes and face a sodden green,
Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired,
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.
A poem like that is a cure for romanticism, but that’s part of what makes Wilfred Owen a better and more interesting poet than Graves. Owen’s romanticism wasn’t cured: there’s conflict in his poems about conflict:
I saw his round mouth’s crimson deepen as it fell,
Like a sun, in his last deep hour;
Watched the magnificent recession of farewell,
Clouding, half gleam, half glower,
And a last splendour burn the heavens of his cheek.
And in his eyes
The cold stars lighting, very old and bleak,
In different skies.
But how good is Owen’s work? He was a Kurt Cobain of his day: good-looking, tormented and dying young. You can’t escape the knowledge of early death when you read the poetry of one or listen to the music of other. That interferes with objective appraisal. But the flaws in Owen’s poetry add to its power, increasing the sense of someone writing against time and struggling for greatness in a bad place. The First World War destroyed a lot of poets and perhaps helped destroy poetry too, raising questions about tradition that some answered with nihilism. As Owen asks in Futility:
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sun-beams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?
Some of the poets here were happy to go to war, but it wasn’t the Homeric adventure anticipated by Patrick Shaw Stewart. He learnt that high explosive is impersonal, bullets kill at great distance and machines don’t need rest. Poetry of the First World War is about a confrontation: between flesh and metal, brains and machinery. It’s an interesting anthology that deserves much more time than I have devoted to it. The notes aren’t intrusive, the biographies are brief but illuminating, and although Tim Kendall is a Professor of English Literature he has let his profession down by writing clear prose and eschewing jargon. He’s also included some “Music-Hall and Trench Songs” and they speak for the ordinary and sometimes illiterate soldier. The First World War may be the most important war in European history and this is a good introduction to some of the words it inspired.
A little-known Housman poem that should be better-known:
Breathe, my lute, beneath my fingers
One regretful breath,
One lament for life that lingers
Round the doors of death.
For the frost has killed the rose,
And our summer dies in snows,
And our morning once for all
Gathers to the evenfall.
Hush, my lute, return to sleeping,
Sing no songs again.
For the reaper stays his reaping
On the darkened plain;
And the day has drained its cup,
And the twilight cometh up;
Song and sorrow all that are
Slumber at the even-star.
You can stop reading now, if you want. Or can you? Are your decisions really your own, or are you and all other human beings merely spectators in the mind-arena, observing but neither influencing nor initiating what goes on there? Are all your apparent choices in your brain, but out of your hands, made by mechanisms beyond, or below, your conscious control?
In short, do you have free will? This is a big topic – one of the biggest. For me, the three most interesting things in the world are the Problem of Consciousness, the Problem of Existence and the Question of Free Will. I call consciousness and existence problems because I think they’re real. They’re actually there to be investigated and explained. I call free will a question because I don’t think it’s real. I don’t believe that human beings can choose freely or that any possible being, natural or supernatural, can do so. And I don’t believe we truly want free will: it’s an excuse for other things and something we gladly reject in certain circumstances.
Continue reading The Brain in Pain…
Poetry and Putridity: Interrogating Issues of Narrativistic Necrocentricity in A.E. Housman and Clark Ashton Smith
Thanatic fanatic. Say it. Savour it, if you’re that way inclined. I certainly am: I am obsessed with words. The sound of them, the shape of them, their history, meaning and flavours. If I were a Guardianista, I’d say I was “passionate about” words. But it’s partly because I’m obsessed with words that I’m not a Guardianista. The Guardian and its readers use them badly. I like people who use them well: A.E. Housman and Clark Ashton Smith, for example. AEH (1859-1936) was an English classicist, CAS (1893-1961) a Californian jack-of-all-trades. But they were both masters of the English language.
They were also thanatic fanatics: obsessed with death. But in different ways. You could say that Housman was more death-as-dying, Smith more death-as-decaying. Not that Smith didn’t deal in dying too: he wrote powerfully and disturbingly about our departure from life, not just about what happens to us beyond it. But Housman didn’t dabble in decomposition and decay. In A Shropshire Lad (1896), the death is fresh, not foetid: necks break, throats are slit, athletes die young, men muse on drowning, fiancées arrive at church in coffins, not coaches. Sometimes the effect, and affect, are ludicrous. Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes it’s hard to decide:
On moonlit heath and lonesome bank
The sheep beside me graze;
And yon the gallows used to clank
Fast by the four cross ways.
A careless shepherd once would keep
The flocks by moonlight there,*
And high amongst the glimmering sheep
The dead man stood on air.
They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
The whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
To men that die at morn.
There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad, if things went right,
Than most that sleep outside.
And naked to the hangman’s noose
The morning clocks will ring
A neck God made for other use
Than strangling in a string.
And sharp the link of life will snap,
And dead on air will stand
Heels that held up as straight a chap
As treads upon the land.
So here I’ll watch the night and wait
To see the morning shine,
When he will hear the stroke of eight
And not the stroke of nine;
And wish my friend as sound a sleep
As lads’ I did not know,
That shepherded the moonlit sheep
A hundred years ago.
*Hanging in chains was called keeping sheep by moonlight.
That poem mingles beauty and bathos as it contemplates death. Other poems have more or less of one or the other, but for Housman death is metaphor and metaphysics, not morbidity and mephitis. He uses it as a symbol of loss and despair and those are his real concerns. There is no literal death here:
’Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town
The golden broom should blow;
The hawthorn sprinkled up and down
Should charge the land with snow.
Spring will not wait the loiterer’s time
Who keeps so long away;
So others wear the broom and climb
The hedgerows heaped with may.
Oh tarnish late on Wenlock Edge,
Gold that I never see;
Lie long, high snowdrifts in the hedge
That will not shower on me.
That is an example of multum in parvo: “much in little”. Using simple words and simple metre, Housman creates great beauty and can conjure overwhelming emotion. He was one of the greatest classicists in history, an expert in the rich and complex literature of the ancient world, a profound scholar of Latin and Greek. But his poetry is remarkable for its lack of classical vocabulary. There is no Latin or Greek in the poem above and only two words of French. Clark Ashton Smith was quite different:
“Look well,” said the necromancer, “on the empire that was yours, but shall be yours no longer.” Then, with arms outstretched toward the sunset, he called aloud the twelve names that were perdition to utter, and after them the tremendous invocation: Gna padambis devompra thungis furidor avoragomon.
Instantly, it seemed that great ebon clouds of thunder beetled against the sun. Lining the horizon, the clouds took the form of colossal monsters with heads and members somewhat resembling those of stallions. Rearing terribly, they trod down the sun like an extinguished ember; and racing as if in some hippodrome of Titans, they rose higher and vaster, coming towards Ummaos. Deep, calamitous rumblings preceded them, and the earth shook visibly, till Zotulla saw that these were not immaterial clouds, but actual living forms that had come forth to tread the world in macrocosmic vastness. Throwing their shadows for many leagues before them, the coursers charged as if devil-ridden into Xylac, and their feet descended like falling mountain crags upon far oases and towns of the outer wastes.
Like a many-turreted storm they came, and it seemed that the world shrank gulfward, tilting beneath the weight. Still as a man enchanted into marble, Zotulla stood and beheld the ruining that was wrought on his empire. And closer drew the gigantic stallions, racing with inconceivable speed, and louder was the thundering of their footfalls, that now began to blot the green fields and fruited orchards lying for many miles to the west of Ummaos. And the shadow of the stallions climbed like an evil gloom of eclipse, till it covered Ummaos; and looking up, the emperor saw their eyes halfway between earth and zenith, like baleful suns that glare down from soaring cumuli.
“The Dark Eidolon” (1935).
Smith’s logomania could not be satisfied beyond the bounds of English, in Latin, Greek and French: he stepped outside history altogether and created his own languages to weave word-spells with. If you didn’t know CAS or AEH or their writing, who would seem more like the world-famous classicist? Based on what I have quoted so far, it would perhaps be Smith. But that is part of what is astonishing about his writing: he wasn’t merely a Beethoven of prose, creating gigantic melodies with rich and rolling words, he was a poorly educated Beethoven. Here is another contrast with his fellow thanatic fanatic. Housman was not poorly educated and was given a chance Smith never had: to attend and adorn one of the world’s greatest universities. The chance was dropped. Housman attended, but he didn’t adorn:
After showing himself, as an undergraduate [at Oxford], to be a brilliant – even arrogantly brilliant – student of Latin and Greek, apparently set for a lifetime of scholarship, he produced a performance in his final examination that astonished all who knew him. He handed in a series of blank, or nearly blank, papers and was failed outright. Retrieving the situation as best he could, he completed the requirements for a pass degree, got through the Civil Service examination, and secured a post at the Patent Office. (The Collected Poems of A.E. Housman, Wordsworth, 2005, Michael Irwin’s Introduction, pg. 8)
Housman would end his life, laden with honours, as a Professor of Latin at Cambridge, but that isn’t surprising. The fiasco at Oxford certainly was. Why did it happen? A nervous breakdown or failure to work, perhaps, because of his unrequited love for a fellow student: Moses Jackson, who was healthy, heterosexual, and had no time for classical scholarship. In later life, travelling to cities like Paris and Venice, Housman would indulge much more than his gastronomic and aesthetic appetites. But he seems to have believed that sex without love is like food without flavour. And he never ceased loving Jackson. When he completed volume one of his magnum opus, a definitive edition of the Roman poet Manilius (fl. 1st century A.D.), he dedicated it to Jackson in Latin, dubbing him harum litterarum contemptor, “a scorner of these writings”. That was in 1903, when Jackson was married and living in India. Jackson would later move to Canada, where he died of anaemia in 1923. His death was anticipated by this cri du cœur from Housman:
The half-moon westers low, my love,
And the wind brings up the rain;
And wide apart lie we, my love,
And seas between the twain.
I know not if it rains, my love,
In the land where you do lie;
And oh, so sound you sleep, my love,
You know no more than I.
But cri du cœur is not the mot juste: it is a very simple poem with only a single foreign word. That is, if “apart” can be called foreign, after centuries on the tongues and lips of English-speakers. Almost everything else has been there millennia and that is part of Housman’s word-magic. His poems are really about depth, not distance. One of the most famous says, in the same simple vocabulary, that far away is close at hand:
On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble;
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.
’Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
’Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.
Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.
There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
Death for Housman, as it was for Swinburne, is “a sleep”: when the body is ashes, the brain is troubled no more. Death does not necessarily sleep in Clark Ashton Smith:
Muntbauut, maspratha butu, [Mumbavut, lewd and evil spirit,]
Varvas runu, vha rancutu. [Wheresoever thou roamest, hear me.]
Incubus, my cousin, come,
Drawn from out the night you haunt,
From the hollow mist and murk
Where discarnate larvae lurk,
By the word of masterdom.
Hell will keep its covenant,
You shall have the long-lost thing
That you howl and hunger for.
Borne on sable, sightless wing,
Leave the void that you abhor,
Enter in this new-made grave,
You that would a body have:
Clothed with the dead man’s flesh,
Rising through the riven earth
In a jubilant rebirth,
Wend your ancient ways afresh,
By the mantra laid on you
Do the deed I bid you do.
Vora votha Thasaidona [By (or through) Thasaidon’s power]
Sorgha nagrakronitlhona. [Arise from the death-time-dominion.]
(After a pause)
Vachat pantari vora nagraban [The spell (or mantra) is finished by the necromancer.]
Kalguth: Za, mozadrim: vachama vongh razan. [Yes, master: the vongh (corpse animated by a demon) will do the rest. (These words are from Umlengha, an ancient language of Zothique, used by scholars and wizards.)]
(The turf heaves and divides, and the incubus-driven Lich of Galeor rises from the grave. The grime of interment is on its face, hands, and clothing. It shambles forward and presses close to the outer circle, in a menacing attitude. Natanasna raises the staff, and Kalguth the arthame, used to control rebellious sprits. The Lich shrinks back.)
The Lich (in a thick, unhuman voice): You have summoned me,
And I must minister
To your desire.
Natanasna: Heed closely these instructions:
By alleys palled and posterns long disused,
Well-hidden from the moon and from men’s eyes,
You shall find ingress to the palace. There,
Through stairways only known to mummied kings
And halls forgotten save by ghosts, you must
Seek out the chamber of the queen Somelis,
And woo her lover-wise till that be done
Which incubi and lovers burn to do.
That is from Smith’s The Dead Will Cuckold You (1951), “A Drama in Six Scenes”. It is also a drama with a sex-scene, by implication, at least. The re-animated corpse follows its instructions, seeks out the palace and enters the “chamber of the queen Somelis”, who addresses it thus as her husband, King Smaragd, beats on the locked door:
Poor Galeor, the grave has left you cold:
I’ll warm you in my bed and in my arms
For those short moments ere the falling sword
Shatter the fragile bolts of mystery
And open what’s beyond. (Op. cit., Scene IV)
I read the play daunted by its erudition, delighted by its epeolatry, and disturbed by its emetic extremity. Some of Smith’s work is about something other than death. This play is about nothing but death. Compare it with Smith’s short-story “The Isle of Torturers” (1933), which contains both poetry and putridity. It’s part richness, part retching. There is poetry like this:
Creaming with a winy foam, full of strange murmurous voices and vague tales of exotic things, the halcyon sea was about the voyagers now beneath the high-lifting summer sun. But the sea’s enchanted voices and its long languorous, immeasurable cradling could not soothe the sorrow of Fulbra; and in his heart a despair abided, black as the gem that was set in the red ring of Vemdeez.
Howbeit, he held the great helm of the ebon barge, and steered as straightly as he could by the sun toward Cyntrom. The amber sail was taut with the favoring wind; and the barge sped onward all that day, cleaving the amaranth waters with its dark prow that reared in the carven form of an ebony goddess. And when the night came with familiar austral stars, Fulbra was able to correct such errors as he had made in reckoning the course.
“The Isle of Torturers” (1933).
There is also putridity like this:
Anon the drowned and dripping corpses went away; and Fulbra was stripped by the Torturers and was laid supine on the palace floor, with iron rings that bound him closely to the flags at knee and wrist, at elbow and ankle. Then they brought in the disinterred body of a woman, nearly eaten, in which a myriad maggots swarmed on the uncovered bones and tatters of dark corruption; and this body they placed on the right hand of Fulbra. And also they fetched the carrion of a black goat that was newly touched with beginning decay; and they laid it down beside him on the left hand. Then, across Fulbra, from right to left, the hungry maggots crawled in a long and undulant wave…
In The Dead Will Cuckold You, the poetry never escapes the putridity. After reading it, you will understand why L. Sprague de Camp remarked this of Smith: “Nobody since Poe has so loved a well-rotted corpse” (Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: the Makers of Heroic Fantasy, Arkham House 1976, pg. 206). Nor has anyone since Poe so loved an ingenious torture: in Scene V of the play, King Smaragd threatens his guards with a “douche” of “boiling camel-stale”. There’s humour in Smith’s morbidity, but I think that he dwelt too long on unhealthy themes. It shows both in his stories and in his popularity: the Weird Tales Big Three, H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), Robert E. Howard (1906-36), and Clark Ashton Smith, are rather like the three stars in the belt of Orion. Lovecraft and Howard are bright Alnilam and Mintaka, Smith is dimmer Alnitak. His luxuriant lexicon explains part of this, but his necrocentric narratives must repel people too.
Housman wrote about death more delicately and distantly. His work doesn’t so much narrativize the necrotic as thematicize the thanatic. It talks about dying, not decaying, and it doesn’t relish the repellent as Smith’s work often did. This helps explain why Housman is a bigger name in English literature than Smith, though I don’t think he was a greater writer. Housman is a minor poet with a major name. I think he deserves it for the beauty and simplicity of his verse. He’s a word-magician who can conjure tears. Smith is a word-magician who can conjure titans. He did more with English and deserves some of Housman’s fame. With his poetry, he might have won it; with his putridity, he lost his chance.
The Pocket Guide to The Trees of Britain and Northern Europe, Alan Mitchell, illustrated by David More (1990)
Leafing through this book after I first bought it, I suddenly grabbed at it, because I thought one of the illustrations was real and that a leaf was about to slide off the page and drop to the floor. It was an easy mistake to make, because David More is a good artist. That isn’t surprising: good artists are often attracted to trees. I think it’s a mathemattraction. Trees are one of the clearest and commonest examples of natural fractals, or shapes that mirror themselves on smaller and smaller scales. In trees, trunks divide into branches into branchlets into twigs into twiglets, where the leaves, well distributed in space, wait to eat the sun.
When deciduous, or leaf-dropping, trees go hungry during the winter, this fractal structure is laid bare. And when you look at a bare tree, you’re looking at yourself, because humans are fractals too. Our torsos sprout arms sprout hands sprout fingers. Our veins become veinlets become capillaries. Ditto our lungs and nervous systems. We start big and get small, mirroring ourselves on smaller and smaller scales. Fractals make maximum and most efficient use of space and what’s found in me or thee is also found in a tree, both above and below ground. The roots of a tree are also fractals. But one big difference between trees and people is that trees are much freer to vary their general shape. Trees aren’t mirror-symmetrical like animals and that’s another thing that attracts human eyes and human artists. Each tree is unique, shaped by the chance of its seeding and setting, though each species has its characteristic silhouette. David More occasionally shows that bare winter silhouette, but usually draws the trees in full leaf, disposed to eat the sun. Trees can also be identified by their leaves alone and leaves too are fractals. The veins of a leaf divide and sub-divide, carrying the raw materials and the finished products of photosynthesis to and from the trunk and roots. Trees are giants that work on a microscopic scale, manufacturing themselves from photons and molecules of water and carbon dioxide.
We eat or sculpt what they manufacture, as Alan Mitchell describes in the text of this book:
The name “Walnut” comes from the Anglo-Saxon for “foreign nut” and was in use before the Norman Conquest, probably dating from Roman times. It may refer to the fruit rather than the tree but the Common Walnut, Juglans regia, has been grown in Britain for a very long time. The Romans associated their god Jupiter (Jove) with this tree, hence the Latin name juglans, “Jove’s acorn (glans) or nut”… The wood [of Black Walnut, Juglans nigra] is like that of Common Walnut and both are unsurpassed for use as gunstocks because, once seasoned and worked, neither moves at all and they withstand shock particularly well. They are also valued in furniture for their good colour and their ability to take a high polish. (entry for “Walnuts”, pg. 18)
That’s from the first and longer section, devoted to “Broadleaved Trees and Palms”; in the second section, “Conifers”, devoted to pines and their relatives, maths appears in a new form. Pine-cones embody the Fibonacci sequence, one of the most famous of all number sequences or series. Start with 1 and 1, then add the pair and go on adding pairs: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144… That’s the Fibonacci sequence, named after the Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci (c.1170-c.1245). And if you examine the two spirals created by the scales of a pine-cone, clockwise and counter-clockwise, you’ll find that there are, say, five spirals in one direction and eight in another, or eight and thirteen. The scales of a pineapple and petals of many flowers behave in a similar way. These patterns aren’t fractals like branches and leaves, but they’re also about distributing living matter efficiently through space. Mitchell doesn’t discuss any of this mathematics, but it’s there implicitly in the illustrations and underlies his text. Even the toxicity of the yew is ultimately mathematical, because the effect of toxins is determined by their chemical shape and its interaction with the chemicals in our bodies. Micro-geometry can be noxious. Or nourishing:
The Yews are a group of conifers, much more primitive than those which bear cones. Each berry-like fruit has a single large seed, partially enclosed in a succulent red aril which grows up around it. The seed is, like the foliage, very poisonous to people and many animals, but deer and rabbits eat the leaves without harm. Yew has extremely strong and durable wood [and the] Common Yew, Taxus baccata, is nearly immortal, resistant to almost every pest and disease of importance, and immune to stress from exposure, drought and cold. It is by a long way the longest-living tree we have and many in country churchyards are certainly much older than the churches, often thousands of years old. Since the yews pre-date the churches, the sites may have been holy sites and the yews sacred trees, possibly symbols of immortality, under which the Elders met. (entry for “Yews”, pg. 92)
This isn’t a big book, but there’s a lot to look at and read. I’d like a doubtful etymology to be true: some say “book” is related to “beech”, because beech-bark or beech-leaves were used for writing on. Bark is another way of identifying a tree and another aspect of their dendro-mathematics, in its texture, colours and patterns. But trees can please the ear as well as the eye: the dendrophile A.E. Housman (1859-1936) recorded how “…overhead the aspen heaves / Its rainy-sounding silver leaves” (A Shropshire Lad, XXVI). There’s maths there too. An Aspen sounds like rain in part because its many leaves, which tremble even in the lightest breeze, are acting like many rain-drops. That trembling is reflected in the tree’s scientific name: Populus tremula, “trembling poplar”. Housman, a Latin professor as well as an English poet, could have explained how tree-nouns in Latin are masculine in form: Alnus, Pinus, Ulmus; but feminine in gender: A. glutinosa, P. contorta, U. glabra (Common Alder, Lodgepole Pine, Wych-Elm). He also sums up why trees please in these simple and ancient words of English:
Give me a land of boughs in leaf,
A land of trees that stand;
Where trees are fallen, there is grief;
I love no leafless land.
Each year the patient hand of time
Plucks bare the oak, the ash, the lime,
And sharp against the Autumn sky
The subtle branches soothe the eye.
When Winter’s spell is fast on earth
The trees await the sun’s rebirth,
And pearled in frost, they stand and seem
Designed for beauty in a dream.
Then Spring revokes the spell and wills
The early leaves, the silver rills:
And symbol’d songs, more sweet than words,
Fill air with urgence of the birds.
Last, Summer’s lion roars his heat:
And pollen drifts and leaves compete
To drink the golden tide of light
Ere fall the sable drought of night.