Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Romanticism & Ecology

Wordsworth's "The Haunted Tree" and the Sexual Politics of Landscape

Tim Fulford, Nottingham Trent University

  1. In 1819 Wordsworth began to write a short poem that he published in 1820. He called it "The Haunted Tree." Unusual within his corpus in that it is fancifully mythological and playfully erotic, this poem is nevertheless an evocation of a particular oak-tree in the familiar landscape of Rydal Park, Grasmere.1 Wordsworth dwells upon the tree in a manner that links the poem to "The Thorn" and to the poems on the naming of places. The poem is part of a kind of arboreal sub-genre within Wordsworth's nature verse and continues the modification of the eighteenth-century Georgic he had previously made in "Yew-Trees" and The Excursion.

  2. Here is the text of the poem:

    Those silver clouds collected round the sun
    His mid-day warmth abate not, seeming less
    To overshade than multiply his beams
    By soft reflection—grateful to the sky,
    To rocks, fields, woods. Nor doth our human sense
    Ask, for its pleasure, screen or canopy
    More ample than the time-dismantled Oak
    Spreads o'er this tuft of heath, which now, attired
    In the whole fulness of its bloom, affords
    Couch beautiful as e'er for earthly use
    Was fashioned; whether by the hand of Art,
    That eastern Sultan, amid flowers enwrought
    On silken tissue, might diffuse his limbs
    In languor; or, by Nature, for repose
    Of panting Wood-nymph, wearied with the chase.
    O Lady! fairer in thy Poet's sight
    Than fairest spiritual creature of the groves,
    Approach;—and, thus invited, crown with rest
    The noon-tide hour: though truly some there are
    Whose footsteps superstitiously avoid
    This venerable Tree; for, when the wind
    Blows keenly, it sends forth a creaking sound
    (Above the general roar of woods and crags)
    Distinctly heard from far—a doleful note!
    As if (so Grecian shepherds would have deemed)
    The Hamadryad, pent within, bewailed
    Some bitter wrong. Nor it is unbelieved,
    By ruder fancy, that a troubled ghost
    Haunts the old trunk; lamenting deeds of which
    The flowery ground is conscious. But no wind
    Sweeps now along this elevated ridge;
    Not even a zephyr stirs;—the obnoxious Tree
    Is mute; and, in his silence, would look down,
    O lovely Wanderer of the trackless hills,
    On thy reclining form with more delight
    Than his coevals in the sheltered vale
    Seem to participate, the while they view
    Their own far-stretching arms and leafy heads
    Vividly pictured in some glassy pool,
    That, for a brief space, checks the hurrying stream!
    (Wordsworth 291)

    That "The Haunted Tree" has been unjustly neglected by critics is surprising, since it alludes to a number of poems that have been regarded as icons of high Romanticism—poems by Coleridge as well as by Wordsworth himself. It continues the debate about nature, the feminine, love and inspiration begun in "Dejection" and the "Immortality" ode. And it introduces into that debate quiet topical reference to some of the most fundamental social issues and fashionable literary trends of Regency Britain. In this essay I shall try to rectify critical neglect of the poem by examining it in detail, arguing that we need to read it—like much of Wordsworth's later poetry—as an intelligent and witty, if oblique, contribution to contemporary political and social debate, a contribution more and not less pertinent in its choice of a mythologized English nature as its setting.

  3. In the nineteen eighties, a number of critics suggested that Wordsworth's nature poetry is a flight from political issues into the sublime area of his own subjectivity—that it reveals a loss of faith in political and social argument. For Marjorie Levinson it is an "evasion," for Alan Liu a "denial," of history.2 The concept of "displacement"—originally Raymond Williams's but revived by David Simpson—is more subtle but still, I shall argue, not wholly adequate as a formulation of Wordsworth's poetic relationship with the political and social issues of the early nineteenth century since it presumes that landscape functions as a secondary stage on which issues that arose elsewhere can be depicted in controlled form (Simpson 15-20).

  4. Answering these charges that Wordsworthian nature was an "evasion" or "denial" of history, Jonathan Bate argued that the depiction of nature in The Prelude amounted to a "green politics" and a Romantic ecology of particular relevance at the present historical moment of advanced despoliation of the earth's most vital elements. Bate's intervention reminded us that nature was—and is—political. But as an answer to Levinson, Liu and Simpson, and even as a reading of Wordsworth per se, it was itself open to accusations of nostalgia and pastoralism, for it placed the Romantics at the start of a tradition of nature conservancy in Britain that many see as class-bound and politically conservative—a survival of the values of the country gentry and aristocracy by means of the institutionalized National Trust. Since the publication of Bate's Romantic Ecology, however, a number of scholars have presented a more historically detailed version of Wordsworth's involvement with and influence upon "green" politics, natural science and environmental movements (1-35). Michael Wiley has reconstructed the complex ways in which natural space was understood by early nineteenth-century geographers. He has suggested that Wordsworth's poetic organization of the prospect-view was shaped by surveyors who began to map the Lake District. Robin Jarvis, meanwhile, has restored to view the varied cultural and political significances of rural walking in the period. I myself have examined the ways in which nature-description advanced views about class and gender, and was understood to do so, as has Jacqueline Labbe (Fulford, "Landscape," and "Romanticism"). Most helpfully, the work of geographers Stephen Daniels and Charles Watkins has correlated the aesthetics of the picturesque with the practical management of nature on estate-farms. As a result, the landscape of Romantic-period Britain, and the views presented of that landscape, are better understood than before. What—if anything—it meant to be "green" in Wordsworth's Britain is a question we are now much better placed to answer.

  5. "The Haunted Tree" contains a vision of men and women living in harmony in an unspoilt nature. It is, to all appearances, a "green" poem, in Bate's sense, because it discovers social community in a landscape of peace. The ground is not raped, the soil not exploited—and neither are the people who live close to it. And this balance between humans and the natural environment that they have nurtured is explicitly opposed to other, exploitative, kinds of relationship both within human society and between humans and nature.

  6. But Wordsworth's "green politics" were not, pacé Bate, to do with equality, liberty or commonwealth. Not by 1819, anyway. "The Haunted Tree" may endorse an ecological balance, but it conceives that balance in terms of traditionalist and hierarchical eighteenth-century models—models that presume the continuing social and political inferiority of rural laborers and of women. Wordsworth's "green" England is a conservative and unequal place, a place in which order and continuity come before liberty and change. It is a place in which Edmund Burke's thought is deeply rooted.

  7. In Wordsworth's Britain ownership of land was still a fundamental political issue: the gentry's and nobility's possession of it was used to justify their domination of parliament, whilst laborers" (and women's) lack of it was used to explain their poverty and disenfranchizement. The politics of landscape, in other words, were parliamentary politics too. They were also sexual politics: for Burkeian traditionalists it was the duty of those given authority by landownership to shelter vulnerable women. "The Haunted Tree" updates the (sexual) politics of landscape found in Burke and in the eighteenth-century tradition in which political arguments were advanced by use of nature imagery—in particular by the iconographical use of trees. At the same time it intervenes in the debate (stimulated by Burke) about gender and sexual roles that reached fever pitch in 1819-20. That debate was fuelled by Byron's Orientalist poetry, in particular the newly published Don Juan, and by the attack upon him made by Wordsworth's friend the Poet Laureate Southey. The debate was accompanied by a political crisis, with revolution widely expected, when George IV caused Lord Liverpool's administration to have his wife, Caroline, "tried" before the House of Lords in an attempt to show that she was unfit, on the grounds of her sexual immorality, to become Queen.

  8. I begin by examining the use made of landscape-imagery in political argument. Both radical opponents and conservative defenders of Britain's unreformed constitution employed nature-imagery to render their arguments appealing. Trees figured prominently in that imagery after John Locke had used the oak to illustrate organic unity.3 Oaks' longevity, rootedness and strength made them suitable emblems for writers who portrayed an ancient constitution secured in the heritable property of land and capable of gradual change as a growth of English soil.4 Edmund Burke depicted Britain's form of government as tree-like, of ancient growth: it "moves on through the varied tenour of perpetual decay, fall, renovation and progression" in "the method of nature" ("Reflections" 120). The people were "great cattle reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak" (181). Burke was opposed by Thomas Paine and other radicals who employed the political iconography of the French Revolution, in which the Liberty tree was an emblem of the new growth possible once ancient injustices had been uprooted. Like an oak Burke's constitution was rooted in the land, time honored, slow to change and grow, protective of the subjects who sheltered beneath it. Wordsworth characterized Burke himself as a tree, acknowledging the power of his symbolic oak as an anti-revolutionary naturalization of conservative politics:

    I see him,—old, but vigorous in age,
    Stand like an oak whose stag-horn branches start
    Out of its leafy brow, the more to awe
    The younger brethren of the grove . . .
    While he forewarns, denounces, launches forth,
    Against all systems built on abstract rights,
    Keen ridicule; the majesty proclaims
    Of Institutes and Laws, hallowed by time;
    Declares the vital power of social ties
    Endeared by Custom; and with high disdain,
    Exploding upstart Theory, insists
    Upon the allegiance to which men are born.
    (The Prelude, VII.519-30)

    Wordsworth wrote this tribute when a political supporter of his patron, the Tory landowner and political magnate Lord Lowther.

  9. Landowners and conservative moralists exploited the political symbolism of trees in an attempt to show liberty to be more truly rooted in the British constitution than in the French Revolution. Uvedale Price, the Whig squire and theorist of the picturesque, put such ideas into practice. He designed his estate at Foxley as a display of paternalism. Cottagers were not cleared from his park but included within it, their rustic dwellings sheltered by the oak and ash woods which Price spent much of his time and income maintaining and planting. His tenants were visibly under his protection in a symbolic ordering of the real landscape which emphasized that order and liberty depended upon the mutual duties owed by rich and poor. Wordsworth corresponded with Price and visited Foxley, without entirely approving of the landscape park (William and Dorothy Wordsworth I: 506).

  10. Price's fellow theorist Richard Payne Knight, also a Herefordshire Whig squire, both planted oaks and poeticized about their political significance. He portrayed the oak tree as a symbol of a constitutional British monarch paternally sheltering lesser trees grouped around it: "Then Britain's genius to thy aid invoke / And spread around the rich, high-clustering oak: / King of the woods!" The cedar by contrast was shown to be "like some great eastern king", destroying everything in its shade, "Secure and shelter'd, every subject lies; / But, robb'd of moisture, sickens, droops, and dies" (V.61-63; V.111-20).

  11. Wordsworth's "The Haunted Tree" depicts the oak in a similar way. His tree is an image of the English gentry's authority, rooted, paternalist, like Burke's tree-like constitution. Like Knight, Wordsworth opposes his English tree to an Oriental monarch—to a Sultan—a standard figure of political and sexual despotism:

    Nor doth our human sense
    Ask, for its pleasure, screen or canopy
    More ample than the time-dismantled Oak
    Spreads o'er this tuft of heath, which now, attired
    In the whole fulness of its bloom, affords
    Couch beautiful as e'er for earthly use
    Was fashioned; whether by the hand of Art,
    That eastern Sultan, amid flowers enwrought
    On silken tissue, might diffuse his limbs
    In languor; or, by Nature, for repose
    Of panting Wood-nymph, wearied with the chase.
    (lines 1-15)

    The phrase "time-dismantled oak" alludes to Cowper's poem "Yardley Oak" in which the aged tree is made a symbol of Britain's ancient constitution, a constitution so deeply rooted in the past that, like the landed gentry on whose estates oaks grew, it should offer stability (III.77-83).5 Wordsworth had borrowed from Cowper's poem before, in "Yew-Trees" and The Excursion6: there as here Wordsworth's oaks, like Cowper's, are not just English trees but trees of Englishness—or rather icons of a conservative and anti-revolutionary identification of national unity with the landed gentry and the 1688 constitutional settlement. Similarly Southey, admirer of Burke and editor of Cowper, claimed the order of the nation to depend on men "whose names and families are older in the country than the old oaks upon their estates" (I.11-12).

  12. The politics of "The Haunted Tree" are more complex than are Southey's Tory polemics. Wordsworth examines, when Southey does not, the power relations implicit in the Burkeian model of authority. He shows these power relations to be constructed upon sexual oppositions. His oak is a sublime male sheltering a beautiful female, whose presence tempers and mollifies his masculine authority: it "affords / Couch beautiful" for the Lady of the poem. Burke had understood political authority in these terms: Caesar, in Burke's discussion of the sublime, had achieved political power by combining the awe-inspiring masculinity of the warrior with attractive feminine qualities ("Philosophical Enquiry" 111). The man of sublime authority had, furthermore, a duty to protect the vulnerable and weak (170-71). Wordsworth's poem sexualizes nature in similar terms: masculinity is awe-inspiring and sublime, femininity tender and beautiful. It places this gendering of power, adapted from Burke, against a potentially aggressive masculinity whose power is that of unsocialized self-assertion, threatening rape. Burkeian paternal masculinity, tempered by the feminine, confronts the Oriental Sultan, a figure of Eastern political and sexual despotism. The paternal authority that the Burkeian oak symbolizes is "dismantled" by age and tempered by the beautiful. It is protective rather than subordinative, traditional and rooted rather than aggressive and despotic.

  13. There was a political context for the poem, not immediately apparent today. In July 1819 the first two cantos of Byron's Don Juan were published. To Wordsworth their licentious wit and sexual theme were dangerously corrupting. In a letter of January 1820 he called Don Juan "that infamous publication" and referred to the "despicable quality of the powers requisite for [its] production," adding "I am persuaded that Don Juan will do more harm to the English character, than anything of our time; not so much as a Book;—But thousands who would be afraid to have it in that shape, will batten upon choice bits of it in the shape of Extracts." He bemoaned the fact that the close association of its editor with Byron had prevented the Quarterly Review from defending the threatened "English character": "every true-born Englishman will regard the pretension of the Review to the character of a faithful defender of the Institutions of the country, as hollow" (William and Dorothy Wordsworth II: 579).

  14. In Don Juan, as in the earlier Bride of Abydos, Byron was widely thought to have poeticized his own sexual history. He used Oriental figures to image himself as one who preferred sexual conquest to Wordsworthian solitude-in-nature: "By solitude I mean a Sultan's (not / A Hermit's), with a haram for a grot" ("Poetical Works," Don Juan I.87). He had also portrayed Orientalism as "the only poetical policy" guaranteed to achieve commercial success, as an undemanding literary trend ("Letters and Journals" II: 68):

    Oh that I had the art of easy writing
    What should be easy reading! could I scale
    Parnassus, where the Muses sit inditing
    Those pretty poems never known to fail,
    How quickly would I print (the world delighting)
    A Grecian, Syrian or Assyrian tale;
    And sell you, mix'd with western sentimentalism,
    Some samples of the finest Orientalism!
    ("Poetical Works," Beppo 51)

    Byron's Orientalist poetry portrayed English character and institutions as repressive and tame; similarly, the publication of his verses on his own failed marriage suggested that he saw poetry as a means of publicly declaring his own personal refusal to be bound by such restrictions. Wordsworth was disgusted by their publication as he was by Don Juan not only because their sexual theme threatened his conservative vision of character and society but because they corrupted poetry's rôle as the defender of true-born Englishness.

  15. The second canto of Don Juan contains an Orientalist erotic fantasy in which the young Juan, washed ashore on an island governed by a pirate, meets the pirate's daughter Haidée "the greatest heiress of the Eastern Isles" "and like a lovely tree" (II.128). Dressed by Haidée in Turkish clothes, Juan becomes the object of her desire and, when her father leaves the island on a voyage:

    Then came her freedom, for she had no mother,
    So that, her father being at sea, she was
    Free as a married woman, or such other
    Female, as where she likes may freely pass,
    Without even the encumbrance of a brother,
    The freest she that ever gazed on glass
    I speak of Christian lands in this comparison,
    Where wives, at least, are seldom kept in garrison.
    (II.175)

    Byron mixed cynical wit about the sexual codes and marital practices of Christian countries with a vision of Juan's and Haidée's sexual encounter as an erotic escape from all paternal and social authority, an escape in which Haidée was also able, as Christian wives were not, openly to admit and act upon her sexual desires:

    They feared no eyes nor ears on that lone beach;
    They felt no terrors from the night; they were
    All in all to each other; though their speech
    Was broken words, they thought a language there, —
    And all the burning tongues the Passions teach
    Found in one sigh the best interpreter
    Of Nature's oracle—first love,—that all
    Which Eve has left her daughters since her fall.
    (II.189)

    He also, in the first canto, attacked Wordsworth in person as "crazed beyond all hope" (I.205) and parodied his "unintelligible" nature poetry (I.90). And in the dedication verses, which were left unpublished (save as a broadside sold in the streets) Wordsworth was attacked along with Southey as a hireling of the aristocracy. Byron depicted Wordsworth as tedious and reactionary and the Laureate as sexually and poetically impotent, as a harem slave of George and his eunuch ministers—one who would "adore a sultan" and "obey / The intellectual eunuch Castlereagh" (Dedication 11). Southey's knowledge of this Orientalist satire on his poetic and political manhood was probably responsible for his 1821 attack upon Byron's "Satanic School" of poetry in the Preface to his funeral ode for George III, the "Vision of Judgement."

  16. Wordsworth, like his friend and fellow object of Byron's satire, felt the need to resist Byron's specific attacks and the general example of his Orientalist poetry. For both "Lake poets" Byron's popularity epitomized a worrying tendency in the nation to prefer sensual extravagance over obedience to proper (and usually paternal) authorities and to the poetry that defended them (including their own which continued to be far less popular than Byron's). In 1819 and 1820 this worrying tendency was more than usually evident in the very father of the nation, the monarch. The Prince Regent, who succeeded George III in 1820, had been notoriously extravagant, both sexually and financially, since 1795. In 1816 Wordsworth had declared that "the blame of unnecessary expenditure. . .rests with the Prince Regent" (William and Dorothy Wordsworth II: 334). In 1818 Wordsworth was worried that the Regent's request to Parliament for extra allowances for the other Princes would make it hard for the candidates of the Lowther family to be returned in the election.

  17. The Regent's extravagance seemed truly Oriental: he spent £155,000 on adding pagodas, minarets, onion-shaped domes and Indian columns to Brighton Pavilion. Thousands more were spent on interior decoration which made the place resemble a seraglio. Rather than display the paternal restraint of his father, the Prince accrued debts of £335,000 and entertained a succession of mistresses, whilst his estranged wife, Caroline, toured Europe, dressed in fashionable Oriental costumes, having numerous affairs. She returned to England in 1820, and Lord Liverpool's Tory Ministry, acting on the King's instigation, had her "tried" before the House of Lords, attempting to produce enough evidence of her sexual misdemeanors to enable it to deny her the title of "Queen" and the accompanying rights and privileges. The trial caused widespread fears of revolution and caused street protests—a crowd gathered outside the house of the Duke of York viewed Caroline as a victim of George's "Oriental" despotism, shouting "We like princes who show themselves; we don't like Grand Turks who shut themselves up in their seraglio."7 Radical and labouring-class protest was accompanied by opposition from middle-class women, who clearly understood that the affair had implications for the sexual politics of the nation: an address to the Queen from the "Ladies of Edinburgh," printed in The Times on 4th September, noted

    As your majesty has justly observed, the principles and doctrines now advanced by your accusers do not apply to your case alone, but, if made part of the law of this land, may hereafter be applied as a precedent by every careless and dissipated husband to rid himself of his wife, however good and innocent she may be; and to render his family, however, amiable, illegitimate; thereby destroying the sacred bond of matrimony, and rendering all domestic felicity very uncertain
    (qtd. in Smith 106).

    Cartoonists portrayed the threat George's actions posed to the family and to the principle of heredity by turning George's penchant for Oriental decoration against him: one depicted him as a Chinese potentate surrounded by his concubines (his mistresses Lady Hertford, Lady Conyngham and Mrs. Quentin)8. The affair discredited Lord Liverpool's ministry, who were shown to have prostituted parliament's independence rather than lose their places: they had bribed witnesses against Caroline. Wordsworth attended the last day of the trial in November, having expressed some of the sympathy for her that was widely felt in the country.

  18. In those contexts "The Haunted Tree" can be seen as an oblique answer to the Orientalist fashion, and the poetic, political and moral corruption which, for Wordsworth, that fashion manifested at the heart of Regency Britain. It revives and revises a rural rather than metropolitan, Burkeian rather than Byronic understanding of gender, sexuality and power. It attempts to govern desire by defining masculinity as a benevolent paternalism properly protecting women in particular and the land in general. It implicitly rejects Byron's depiction of the Lake poets as worshippers of the Sultan's eunuchs, whilst seeking to provide a more stable (and ostensibly native) model of masculine power than that provided by the "Sultans" George IV and Byron himself.

  19. Having outlined the political and aesthetic debates which "The Haunted Tree" addresses I turn now to a detailed close reading of the poem. In the opening lines the threats that characterize the sublime are evoked as possibilities, but are soon banished by the actual scene:

    Those silver clouds collected round the sun
    His mid-day warmth abate not, seeming less
    To overshade than multiply his beams
    By soft reflection—grateful to the sky,
    To rocks, fields, woods. Nor doth our human sense
    Ask, for its pleasure, screen or canopy
    More ample than the time-dismantled Oak
    Spreads o'er this tuft of heath, which now, attired
    In the whole fulness of its bloom, affords
    Couch beautiful as e'er for earthly use
    Was fashioned; whether by the hand of Art,
    That eastern Sultan, amid flowers enwrought
    On silken tissue, might diffuse his limbs
    In languor; or, by Nature, for repose
    Of panting Wood-nymph, wearied with the chase.
    (lines 1-15)

    The clouds multiply the sunbeams rather than overshade them, and even time's dismantling of the oak serves only to make it less powerful, more delightful in its provision of just shade enough for one. The "Couch beautiful" is rendered both exotic and erotic by the image of the Sultan diffusing "his limbs / In languor," an eroticism continued in the more "natural" (or rather Ovidian) image of the "panting Wood-nymph." Such eroticism is unusual for Wordsworth. And it is an eroticism based upon what Wordsworth claims to be the masculinity of English nature—and the nature of English masculinity—an oak-like strength that creates a safe sensual playground. It is contrasted with the predatory sexual violence upon which Greek nature is founded—Apollo's pursuit of Daphne caused her to be turned into a tree. And it is capable of lulling the figure of Oriental despotism (political and sexual), the Sultan (a figure to whom the King had been compared often enough in 1819-20). Here, for Wordsworth, the threat of unrestrained monarchical power is lulled by a soft and sensual feminine "heath," itself protected by the shading oak (a tree of English masculinity, traditional, restrained, protective for Burke, Cowper, and Wordsworth himself in The Prelude).

  20. The poem attacks the sexual politics of the Regent then, in that a Burkeian masculine sublime, an English sheltering tree defined against the possibly violent masculinity of Greek and Turk, makes a space for a feminine and erotic beautiful which can then flower under its protection. The beautiful both softens the tree's masculine authority (as Burke said the beautiful should soften the sublime ("Philosophical Enquiry" 111, 157)) and allows it an erotic satisfaction defined as looking. The feminine is still governed by and defined for the satisfaction of the masculine, but in an affectionate yet formal address: the narrator can offer the tree to the Lady as a place of peace and show himself doing so, subsuming troubling intimations in social generosity:

    O Lady! fairer in thy Poet's sight
    Than fairest spiritual creature of the groves,
    Approach;—and, thus invited, crown with rest
    The noon-tide hour: though truly some there are
    Whose footsteps superstitiously avoid
    This venerable Tree; for, when the wind
    Blows keenly, it sends forth a creaking sound
    (Above the general roar of woods and crags)
    Distinctly heard from far—a doleful note!
    As if (so Grecian shepherds would have deemed)
    The Hamadryad, pent within, bewailed
    Some bitter wrong. Nor it is unbelieved,
    By ruder fancy, that a troubled ghost
    Haunts the old trunk; lamenting deeds of which
    The flowery ground is conscious. But no wind
    Sweeps now along this elevated ridge;
    Not even a zephyr stirs;—the obnoxious Tree
    Is mute; and, in his silence, would look down,
    O lovely Wanderer of the trackless hills,
    On thy reclining form with more delight
    Than his coevals in the sheltered vale
    Seem to participate, the while they view
    Their own far-stretching arms and leafy heads
    Vividly pictured in some glassy pool,
    That, for a brief space, checks the hurrying stream!
    (lines 16-40)
  21. Yet those troubling intimations are present: the Burkeian tree is haunted by the temptations attendant upon the equation of sublimity, masculinity, and political authority. These are the temptations of masculine self-assertion—the violent rapes committed by Greek gods. But the rootedness of the tree allows these temptations to remain as ghosts, laid to rest or at least confined within the tree by the poet-narrator, like Sycorax by Prospero. Wordsworth raises and then confines the ghosts. He lays the demons of male power by aligning that power (including his own as a male poet) with the stable and safe ground of a known and little-changing English landscape/landscape of Englishness. He does so by a carefully self-cancelling syntax: the phrase "Nor is it unbelieved" establishes a disturbingly unattributed half-belief in ghosts which taints the beautiful—as is indicated by the lines "lamenting deeds of which / The flowery ground is conscious." Yet the phrase "no wind / Sweeps now along" then counters this. The repeated negative forms a positive, cancelling the dangerous negative forces of lament and thereby restoring the flowery ground for the Lady to approach. Or, to put it another way, the poem raises the possibility of the defloration of the ground (and of the Lady), only to allay fears by confidently asserting that such violence is absent for the moment. It is a spot (and a poetry) won back from sublime threat and from an intimation of the threatening violence of male desire, in favor of an erotic but also decorous beautiful. Desire will be expressed not as rape but by an entreaty to the Lady which seeks her confidence by preparing the (peaceful) ground. And desire will be satisfied by the voyeurism of the tree watching her "reclining form" and of the narrator imagining them both. Since the whole scene is imagined for the Lady it acts, at the same time, as a gift to her in which offers for a more direct and intimate relationship are encoded, an encoding which, if understood, might lead her actually to accept.

  22. The difficulty of containing the violence traditionally inherent in masculine authority is apparent in the word "obnoxious." Meaning principally "vulnerable to harm," "subject to authority," the word also meant, then though more commonly now, "harmful."9 The vulnerable "time-dismantled" tree remains haunted by intimations of harm and violence: it may be "mute" but a silent ambiguity remains. What also remain, although the poem works hard to contain them, are allusions to other poems. These trouble the serenity that the poem seeks. The ancient and lone tree on "this elevated ridge" and the "Wanderer of the trackless hills" recall the bleak and disturbing pairing in "The Thorn" of the tree and the lone woman in a landscape haunted by violent death. Working against such allusions, however, are others which show that disturbance can lead to a greater harmony: "it sends forth a creaking sound / (Above the general roar of woods and crags) / Distinctly heard from far—a doleful note" (lines 22-24) echoes Coleridge's "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," in which the senses "keep the heart / Awake to Love and Beauty" and the "last rook" "flew creeking o'er thy head, and had a charm / For thee, my gentle-hearted Charles, to whom / No sound is dissonant which tells of Life" (lines 63-4, 74-6). Further echoes, of Home at Grasmere's "sheltered vale" and of Coleridge's "Dejection: an Ode," in which solitary melancholy is overcome by appealing and dedicating the verse to a Lady, also help to incorporate disruptive intimations within a harmonious social community in nature. It is an allusive strategy designed to temper the visionary power of the solitary sublime, which Wordsworth had explored in 1802 in the "Immortality" ode in reaction and contradistinction to Coleridge's "Dejection", with "Dejection's" beautiful appeal to feminine sympathy.

  23. The last eight lines of the poem replace the troubling sounds of the tree with the loving look of a male unbending his solitary uprightness, as Burke had declared he should, because entranced and completed by the female that he shelters in her appealingly available beauty: "in his silence, would look down. . ." This scene complements, rather than rejects, Coleridge's less paternal and more desperate appeal to female sympathy in "Dejection." This scene is more delightful for the male tree than are—in the poem's very last lines—their own reflections for the "coeval" trees in the sheltered vale. Yet viewing those reflections is itself a powerful act, since it allows a momentary self-knowledge "vividly pictured" out of the flux of "the hurrying stream" of time and space:

    ...while they view
    Their own far-stretching arms and leafy heads
    Vividly pictured in some glassy pool,
    That, for a brief space, checks the hurrying stream!
    (lines 37-40)

    Powerful though it is, however, the privileged picture that these waterside trees together gain of themselves is potentially narcissistic (and Narcissus was changed into a waterside plant). It is less permanent than the reconciliation of sublime and beautiful, of male and female available to the poetic tree and Lady.

  24. The narrator lays his sole and potentially violent possession of masculine authority to rest in a sexualized nature, making of the object world a mythical place in which the sublime violence of rape and metamorphosis is replaced by a beautiful viewing. This viewing completes and delights the independent male and offers the female secure sensual pleasure (no apples to pluck). She is, of course, in a subordinate position as were all women and most men in the oak-like paternalist constitution that Burke and Wordsworth supported.

  25. The landscape of "The Haunted Tree" is not an evasion or denial of political and social issues. It is not a displacement of such issues into some secondary area of nature. On the contrary, it is a modification of an eighteenth-century tradition in which the landscape was treated as a testing ground for the moral and social health of the nation, as the place upon which proper authority could be measured. That tradition was itself founded on the fact that the politics of local landscapes were also national politics: it was the ownership of land which gave the nobility and gentry political power and which defined their duties in the state. The politics of nature in Regency Britain were not substitutes for some more fundamental level of politics but were vital in a nation in which reform of a parliament still dominated by the landed gentry was the most important issue. Burke, Cowper and Price had redefined and reasserted the authority of the gentry in their iconography of landscape. To this Wordsworth added an anti-Byronic anti-Regent redefinition of the sexual politics of the Burkeian sublime. In doing so he countered Orientalist fashions and the corruption they revealed in the contemporary aristocracy.

  26. "The Haunted Tree" achieves what I think it is appropriate to call a mythologization of nature. Like Greek myth it places issues of power and desire at the heart of the national landscape. In a critique of Greek myth, however, it founds English nature not on rape and metamorphosis, but sensual playfulness (including the playful language of the poem itself)—on a looking but not touching. This playfulness flourishes when the ghosts of male violence that haunt the scene have been confined within the oak of masculine self-restraining strength. Narrator and Lady, poet and reader can then meet in a land safe for loving play (or at least for voyeuristic looking). It is a poetic land in which one encounters the human as if it were natural and the natural as if it were human—a dreamy and langorous land of representation poised between self and other, subject and object, power and love, violence and peace, sight and sound. It is a land, Wordsworth suggests, in which poetry must make men live lest the solitary man, like a despotic ruler or usurping poet, hear in all things only his own violent desire, see only his own beloved self. It is a green land and, Wordsworth would have us believe, a pleasant one too. But within its greenness, within the ecological and social harmony it would teach us, is a paternalism that should give us pause. To love nature, Wordsworth shows, involves remaking it in our own image—an image in which traditional hierarchies and inequalities not only persist but are desired. Wordsworth's green England, by 1820 at least, is not Bate's but Burke's, not revolutionary but conservative, not red but blue.

Works Cited

Bate, Jonathan. Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition. London and New York: Routledge, 1991.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Ed. James T. Boulton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

---. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Ed. Conor Cruise O'Brien. London: Penguin, 1982.

Byron, George Gordon, Lord (1973-82). Letters and Journals of Lord Byron. Ed. Leslie Marchand, 12 vols. London: Murray, 1973-82.

---. The Complete Poetical Works. Ed. Jerome J. McGann. 7 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. E. H. Coleridge, 2 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1912.

Cowper, William. The Poems of William Cowper. 3 vols. Ed. John D. Baird and Charles Ryskamp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980-95.

Daniels, Stephen. "The Political Iconography of Woodland in Later Georgian England." The Iconography of Landscape. Ed. Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Daniels, Stephen and Charles Watkins, "Picturesque Landscaping." The Politics of the Picturesque. Ed. Stephen Copley and Peter Garside. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 13-41.

Fulford, Tim. "Cowper, Wordsworth, Clare: the Politics of Trees." The John Clare Society Journal 14 (1995): 47-59.

---. Landscape, Liberty and Authority: Poetry, Criticism and Politics from Thomson to Wordsworth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

---. Romanticism and Masculinity. Basingstoke and New York: Macmillan, 1999.

---. "Wordsworth, Cowper and the Language of Eighteenth-Century Politics." Early Romantics: Perspectives in British Poetry from Pope to Wordsworth. Ed. Thomas Woodman. Basingstoke and New York: Macmillan 1998. 117-33.

---. "Wordsworth's 'Yew-Trees': Politics, Ecology and Imagination." Romanticism 1 (1995): 272-88.

Jarvis, Robin. Romantic Writing and Pedestrian Travel. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997.

Knight, Richard Payne. The Landscape. 2nd ed. London, 1795.

Labbé, Jacqueline. Romantic Visualities. Basingstoke and New York: Macmillan, 1998.

Levinson, Marjorie. Wordsworth's Great Period Poems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Liu, Alan. Wordsworth: The Sense of History. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.

McGann, Jerome J. The Romantic Ideology. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1983.

Ruddick, William. "Liberty trees and loyal oaks: emblematic presences in some English poems of the French Revolutionary period." Reflections of Revolution: Images of Romanticism. Ed. Alison Yarrington and Kelvin Everest. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. London: Harper Collins, 1995.

Simpson, David. Wordsworth's Historical Imagination. New York and London: Methuen, 1987.

Smith, E. A. A Queen on Trial: The Affair of Queen Caroline. Stroud, Gloucs: Alan Sutton, 1993.

Southey, Robert. Essays, Moral and Political. 2 vols. London, 1832.

Wiley, Michael. Romantic Geography: Wordsworth and Anglo-European Space. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Wordsworth, William. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. 5 vols. Ed. E. de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940-49.

Wordsworth, William and Dorothy Wordsworth. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Middle Years, 1806-17. 2nd ed. Ed. E. de Selincourt, rev. Mary Moorman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Notes

1  Although the park is not named within the poem.

2  See Levinson, and see Liu; also McGann, p. 91.

3   The discussion appears in book II, chapter 27 of Locke (pp. 330-31).

4   This political tree-symbolism is discussed in Schama, pp. 53-74.

5  Wordsworth's line echoes lines 50-52, 103-4. See the discussion in Fulford (1995).

6  See Fulford (1995 [a]) and (1998).

7  Letter of 21 June 1820, from Princess Lieven to Prince Metternich, quoted in Smith, p. 40.

8  "The bill thrown out, but the pains and penalties inflicted" (15 November 1820), reproduced in Smith, p. 142.

9  The word appears in Paradise Lost, where its ambiguity reveals the fallen Satan's vulnerability and his harmfulness as he enters Eden ready to tempt Eve: "Who aspires must down as low / As high he soared, obnoxious first or last / To basest things" (IX, 169-71). Wordsworth's use of the word here makes his tree possibly Satanic, possibly one vulnerable to an occupation by the evil spirit of Satanic desire. But in the poem as a whole the temptation to know good and evil and the sexual fall that ensues is refused. There is no serpentine rape of Eve, no sublime pursuit of knowledge and power by the male narrator to its independent but bitter end.

About this Page

Author

Published @ RC

November 2001