In this installment, Peter Larkin (b. New Forest, Hampshire, UK, 1946) reads “Yardley Oak” by William Cowper. Larkin is the author of two large poetry collections, Terrain Seed Scarcity (2001) and Leaves of Field (2006), as well as many smaller pamphlets. He ran Prest Roots Press from the late ’80s until three years ago. He works at Warwick University Library and has published a number of academic papers on the Romantic poets.
William Cowper, “Yardley Oak”
Survivor sole, and hardly such, of all
That once lived here, thy brethren, at my birth
(Since which I number threescore winters past,)
A shattered veteran, hollow-trunked perhaps
As now, and with excoriate forks deform,
Relicts of ages! Could a mind imbued
With truth from Heaven created thing adore,
I might with reverence kneel and worship thee.
It seems idolatry with some excuse
When our forefather druids in their oaks
Imagined sanctity. The conscience yet
Unpurified by an authentic act
Of amnesty, the meed of blood divine,
Loved not the light, but gloomy into gloom
Of thickest shades, like Adam after taste
Of fruit proscribed, as to a refuge, fled.
Thou wast a bauble once; a cup and ball,
Which babes might play with; and the thievish jay
Seeking her food, with ease might have purloined
The auburn nut that held thee, swallowing down
Thy yet close-folded latitude of boughs
And all thine embryo vastness, at a gulp.
But fate thy growth decreed. Autumnal rains
Beneath thy parent tree mellowed the soil
Designed thy cradle, and a skipping deer
With pointed hoof dibbling the glebe, prepared
The soft receptacle in which secure
Thy rudiments should sleep the winter through.
So Fancy dreams. Disprove it if you can
Ye reasoners broad awake, whose busy search
Of argument, employed too oft amiss,
Sifts half the pleasures of short life away.
Thou fell’st mature, and in the loamy clod
Swelling, with vegetative force instinct
Didst burst thine egg, as theirs the fabled twins
Now stars, two lobes protruding paired exact.
A leaf succeeded, and another leaf,
And all the elements thy puny growth
Fostering propitious, thou becamest a twig.
Who lived when thou wast such? Oh could’st thou speak
As in Dodona once thy kindred trees
Oracular, I would not curious ask
The future, best unknown, but at thy mouth
Inquisitive, the less ambiguous past.
By thee I might correct, erroneous oft,
The clock of history, facts and events
Timing more punctual, unrecorded facts
Recovering, and mis-stated setting right.
Desperate attempt till trees shall speak again!
Time made thee what thou wast, king of the woods.
And Time hath made thee what thou art, a cave
For owls to roost in. Once thy spreading boughs
O’erhung the champaign, and the numerous flock
That grazed it stood beneath that ample cope
Uncrowded, yet safe-sheltered from the storm.
No flock frequents thee now; thou hast outlived
Thy popularity, and art become
(Unless verse rescue thee awhile) a thing
Forgotten as the foliage of thy youth.
While thus through all the stages thou hast pushed
Of tree-ship, first a seedling hid in grass,
Then twig, then sapling, and, as century rolled
Slow after century, a giant bulk
Of girth enormous with moss-cushioned root
Upheaved above the soil, and sides embossed
With prominent wens globose, till at the last
The rottenness which Time is charged to inflict
On other mighty ones found also thee -
What exhibitions various hath the world
Witnessed of mutability in all
That we account most durable below!
Change is the diet on which all subsist
Created changeable, and change at last
Destroys them. Skies uncertain, now the heat
Transmitting cloudless, and the solar beam
Now quenching in a boundless sea of clouds,
Calm and alternate storm, moisture and drought,
Invigorate by turns the springs of life
In all that live, plant, animal, and man,
And in conclusion mar them. Nature’s threads,
Fine, passing thought, even in her coarsest works,
Delight in agitation, yet sustain
The force that agitates not unimpaired,
But worn by frequent impulse, to the cause
Of their best tone their dissolution owe.
Thought cannot spend itself comparing still
The great and little of thy lot, thy growth
From almost nullity into a state
Of matchless grandeur, and declension thence
Slow into such magnificent decay.
Time was, when settling on thy leaf a fly
Could shake thee to the root, and time has been
When tempests could not. At thy firmest age
Thou hadst within thy bole solid contents
That might have ribbed the sides or planked the deck
Of some flagged admiral, and tortuous arms,
The shipwright’s darling treasure, didst present
To the four-quartered winds, robust and bold,
Warped into tough knee-timber, many a load.
But the axe spared thee; in those thriftier days
Oaks fell not, hewn by thousands, to supply
The bottomless demands of contest waged
For senatorial honours. 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.
Embowelled now, and of thy ancient self
Possessing nought but the scooped rind that seems
An huge throat calling to the clouds for drink
Which it would give in riv’lets to thy root,
Thou temptest none, but rather much forbidd’st
The feller’s toil, which thou couldst ill requite.
Yet is thy root sincere, sound as the rock,
A quarry of stout spurs and knotted fangs
Which crook’d into a thousand whimsies, clasp
The stubborn soil, and hold thee still erect.
So stands a kingdom whose foundations yet
Fail not, in virtue and in wisdom laid,
Though all the superstructure by the tooth
Pulverised of venality, a shell
Stands now, and semblance only of itself.
Thine arms have left thee. Winds have rent them off
Long since, and rovers of the forest wild
With bow and shaft, have burnt them. Some have left
A splintered stump bleached to a snowy white,
And some memorial none where once they grew.
Yet life still lingers in thee, and puts forth
Proof not contemptible of what she can
Even where death predominates. The spring
Thee finds not less alive to her sweet force
Than yonder upstarts of the neighbour wood
So much their juniors, who their birth received
Half a millennium since the date of thine.
But since, although well-qualified by age
To teach, no spirit dwells in thee, nor voice
May be expected from thee, seated here
On thy distorted root, with hearers none
Or prompter save the scene, I will perform
Myself the oracle, and will discourse
In my own ear such matter as I may.
One man alone, the Father of us all,
Drew not his life from woman; never gazed
With mute unconsciousness of what he saw
On all around him; learned not by degrees,
Nor owed articulation to his ear;
But moulded by his maker into man
At once, upstood intelligent, surveyed
All creatures, with precision understood
Their purport, uses, properties, assign’d
To each his name significant, and, filled
With love and wisdom, rendered back to heaven
In praise harmonious the first air he drew.
He was excused the penalties of dull
Minority; no tutor charged his hand
With the thought-tracing quill, or tasked his mind
With problems. History, not wanted yet,
Leaned on her elbow, watching Time, whose course
Eventful should supply her with a theme….