Ancient Pedigrees, Old Trees and Numinous Rocks

Theodore Rousseau, The Great Oaks of Old Bas Breau
Theodore Rousseau, The Great Oaks of Old Bas Breau

In Edmund Burke’s attack on the “metaphysic rights” (152) of men that inspired the French Revolution, he urged Britons to look to their “breasts” rather than their “inventions” for the source of liberty. Burke deployed the language of sensibility to naturalize a political system organized around the idea of heredity. The argument goes that inheritance binds English citizens to their constitution with the instinctive force of a bond of kinship. But Burke has to admit that the awe-inspiring aspects of the state –its “pedigree and illustrating ancestors” (121)—are just so many “pleasing illusions” that make “power gentle, and obedience liberal” (171). Psychologically, however, Britons need these institutions because they have so thoroughly internalized the principles that they represent that those principles have become second nature. What keeps property and political representation in the hands of the few is what ties Britons to a shared past and future. Burke’s logic would be like Foucault’s if Foucault had wanted to celebrate the panopticon.

Burke’s real-world politics are beyond my purview here, though I will note that Mary Wollstonecraft attacks Burke on the grounds of insincerity and self-interest in her rational critique of the Reflections on the Revolution in France. What interests me about Burke’s rhetoric for the purposes of this blog post is his idea that ancient things—like bloodlines or the (supposedly ancient) English constitution—impress minds powerfully and consistently enough to form a stable foundation for social arrangements. This idea is broad and influential enough to make it seem sometimes like all of British Romantic literature was written as a kind of response to it. Here, I focus on those Romantic writers that queer Burke’s aristocratic idea of tradition by making natural objects like trees and rocks the sources of historical continuity. Poets like Cowper and Clare, S.T. Coleridge and Dorothy Wordsworth (surely there are many others!) revise Burke’s vision of tradition by substituting long-famed natures for the state’s “bearings and ensigns armorial…its gallery of portraits; its monumental inscriptions” (121). Cowper’s Yardley Oak, Clare’s Langley Bush and the “Bull Stone” that Dorothy Wordsworth and S.T. Coleridge come upon in the Scottish highlands will be the awe-inspiring natures explored here.

Robert Pollard, 'An East View of Yardley Oak, 1805'
Robert Pollard, ‘An East View of Yardley Oak, 1805’

William Cowper’s poem on “Yardley Oak” was published posthumously in the summer of 1791, less than a year after Burke published the Reflections. Cowper’s poem seems to crystallize an obsession with old trees that turns up everywhere from natural history writing to travel guides in the 1780s and 90s. In the “Natural History and antiquities of Selbourne,” (1778) the naturalist Gilbert White reveres an ancient yew tree. The yew’s location in the village churchyard makes it a cornerstone of the community. Its whole aspect “bespeaks it to be of great age: it seems to have seen several centuries, and is probably coeval with the church, and therefore may be deemed an antiquity.” Though White’s language of probability suppresses the yew’s affective force, it nonetheless evokes a not-fully knowable local history. What came first, White wonders: the church or the tree?

Blasted trees were essential to the truly picturesque view. Jane Austen’s heroine Elinor famously spoofs the picturesque formula in Sense and Sensibility by reminding her sister that “it is not everyone…who has your passion for dead leaves” (65). Cowper’s “Yardley Oak” teaches us is to see more profound depths in picturesque aesthetics: the beautifully decaying object in Cowper’s poem raises curiosity about the relation between natural objects and the origins of human institutions. The Yardley Oak contains but does not fully reveal the “unrecorded facts” (47) that it has stood witness to. So the poet-speaker imagines what it’s seen. The tree becomes an icon of the integration of nature and nurture: in a bucolic past, “the num’rous flock…stood beneath that ample cope” (53-54). Ultimately, the “embowell’d” oak impresses the mind with a temporal scale that far exceeds that of man-made institutions like the Royal Navy. Whether we read Cowper as writing with or against Burke, he gains a clear critical edge on urgent ecological and industrial problems by making the Yardley Oak, rather than, say, the body of the Queen, the sign of a nation. As a picturesque ruin, the Yardley Oak exists in a state between life and death—over the long course of its life it has grown “From almost nullity into a state / Of matchless grandeur” and is now fallen into “magnificent decay” (88-90). The visible marks of time that the tree bears invite the poet to contrast the minute rate of its decay with the exponentially speedier rate of man’s aggressive interference with nature. The Oak is old enough to have avoided destruction by the shipbuilding industry:

Thus to Time / The task was left to whittle thee away / With his sly scythe, whose ever-nibbling edge / Noiseless, an atom and an atom more / Disjoining from the rest, has unobserved / Achieved a labour, which had far and wide, / (By man performed) made all the forest ring” (103-109).

Evoking the difference between the silent violence of centuries and the noisiness of industrial destruction, Cowper gives a sorry picture of the vanity of imperial aspirations.

Three decades after Cowper attributed an untold history to the Yardley Oak, John Clare represented Langley Bush as the container of a little-known history of gypsies and swains. Langley Bush is a “curious thing” that catches the eye in part because it’s so old: its “mulldering trunk is nearly rotten thro” (17). But the white thorn’s “withering age” (12) makes it “sacred” to those who recognize its significance as a historical site. With characteristic attention to particulars, Clare represents the tree as integral to systems of justice and ideas of home in his native Helpston. For the swain, Langley Bush holds the memory of ‘Langley Court,’ an informal courtroom kept once a year under its branches. For gypsies, it is “reverenced” (9) as a long-favored campsite. Memorializing Langley Bush after it has been destroyed, Clare notes in his journal that it “had stood for more then a century full of fame the Gipseys Shepherds & Herd men all had their tales of its history & it will be long ere its memory is forgotten” (183). Underlying Clare’s elegy for this particular tree is a broader ecological lament: Clare regrets the actions of improvers who are re-shaping the landscape around him. In the more explicitly political poem “The Fallen Elm,” Clare condemns the lawmakers responsible for enclosure for destroying the intimate bond of reciprocity between a “domestic tree” and the beings that enjoy its comforts. Clare’s call to preserve the land shares with Burke’s call to support the landed classes a rhetorical appeal to instinctive human affections. It turns out that the language of sentiment can be co-opted for all kinds of purposes—this is one sure reason why rationalists like Wollstonecraft and Kant viewed the passions as unstable grounds for ethics.

Postcard from 1890 of the Bowder Stone in Cumbria
Postcard from 1890 of the Bowder Stone in Cumbria

In a prose travelogue that is more empirical than poetic in style, Dorothy Wordsworth reflects on the origins of a “huge single stone” that she and her brother alight upon at the base of a desolate valley in the Scottish highlands. In the spirit of inquiry and what seems like just plain fun, they attempt to measure its size. Dorothy recalls: “we constructed a rope of pocket-handkerchiefs, garters, plaids, coats, etc., and measured its height. It was so many times the length of William’s walking-stick, but, unfortunately, having lost the stick, we have lost the measure.” The height of the stone is not the only thing about it that the Wordsworths can’t quite know. They learn from a ferryman that “a preaching was held [beside the stone] once in three months by a certain minister.” The rock is totally exposed to the elements—it’s inconvenient to worship here–and this raises for Dorothy a series of unanswerable questions:

did there belong to it some inheritance of superstition from old times? It is impossible to look at the stone without asking, How came it hither? Had then that obscurity and unaccountableness, that mystery of power which is about it, any influence over the first persons who resorted hither for worship? Or have they now on those who continue to frequent it?

Dorothy pushes the connection between collective identities and ancient features in the landscape even further than Cowper and Clare by positioning what is locally known as “Bull Stone” at the very foundation of an enduring religious ritual. Alan Bewell has argued that Geology had an “enormous influence” on Romantic culture because it demonstrated that the history of the earth was “not the story of one nature that had come into being at a certain point in time, but of many natures that had been in existence at different times, of entire worlds created and destroyed” (32-33). Speculating that the rock had as much “mystery…about it” for those “first persons” who viewed it as for “those who continue to frequent it,” Dorothy suggests that the rock stands as a relic of inhuman lifecycles. This idea is further supported by Coleridge’s discovery of the myth associated with the rock: it “is called, I find, the Bull Stone…Two Bulls fighting said to have thrown down the Stone” (1474) he writes. As the site of religious ritual, the “Bull Stone” generates an aura of continuity with a primitive past: it may be this, Dorothy thinks, that keeps people in this remote and depopulated landscape coming back to refresh their impressions. For Walter Benjamin, the “aura” of a non-reproducible work of art is tied to a sense of distance: “where there is experience in the strict sense of the word, certain contents of the individual past combine with the material of the collective past.” I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that the “obscurity and unaccountableness” that Dorothy senses about the “Bull Stone” impresses upon local inhabitants just the sort of traditional wisdom that Walter Benjamin later supposed had been severed from experience by the rise of industrial capitalism.

Gustave_Doré, Scottish_Highlands
Gustave_Doré, Scottish_Highlands

Surely the examples I’ve called attention to here just graze the surface of Romantic thinking about tradition: I’ve said nothing, for instance, about Ann Radcliffe’s ruined abbeys or the “colossal wreck” (13) of Shelley’s Ozymondias. I group Cowper, Clare and Dorothy Wordsworth together because, while they share Burke’s assumption that humans need to feel a part of a collective history, they imply that the pressing threat to shared traditions lies not so much in the leveling principle as in an instrumental logic insensible to the value of the earth. The forms of nature will hold out secrets of the past for us to muse upon so long as we don’t destroy them.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter, Hannah Arendt, and Harry. Zohn. Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.

Burke, Edmund, and Conor Cruise O’Brien. Reflections on the Revolution in France. London, England; New York, N.Y., USA: Penguin Books, 1986.

Clare, John, Eric Robinson, David Powell, and John Clare. Major Works. Oxford: New York : Oxford University Press, 2004.

Clare, John, and Margaret Grainger. The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare. Oxford [Oxfordshire]; New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1983.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, and Kathleen Coburn. The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957.

Cowper, William, and Humphrey Sumner Milford. Poetical Works;. London: Oxford U.P., 1967.

Wordsworth, Dorothy, and Carol Kyros Walker. Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.