The storms may batter them, but resilient trees inspire fairy tales, myths, horror stories and even philosophy. And hopefully, you
The most visible result of the high winds we celebrated in last month's challenge is the large number of uprooted, knocked down, and generally damaged trees lying around the place. We even lost Ireland's contender for European Tree of the Year, a 200-year-old giant grey poplar that stood in the grounds of Birr Castle, County Offaly. There's something about the sight of a prematurely-fallen tree that tugs on the heartstrings, perhaps because we've lived in such close interdependency with forests and orchards for so long. It's a sense of loss that drives Charlotte Mew's poem The Trees are Down.
Trees have been putting down roots in poetry for centuries – the great world tree Yggdrasil is planted right at the heart of the Icelandic Poetic Edda. This ash is the conduit between the nine worlds of Norse mythology, standing at the core of the old Scandinavian cosmology. As befits a tree, it is the source of life's vitality, feeding a host of animals without any apparent diminution of its own powers. The Scandinavian reverence for the forest may also be responsible for giving us the Christmas tree. Be that as it may, the Yuletide fir has a magic all its own, far removed from the dark world of Odin and Thor. EE Cummings' poem beginning "little tree" captures the sense of childhood wonder before the tree better than any other poem I know.
In Ireland, trees are often treated with a special reverence, thanks to folk traditions that associate them with the world of the fairies, a diminished version of the old, pagan Gods. These beliefs are frequently conflated with later Christian practices, so that the country is dotted with fairy or holy trees that nobody would consider felling for fear of possible supernatural consequences. In her poem The Fairy Tree, Temple Lane captures the essence of these folk traditions. A setting of the poem was one of the most popular songs in Irish tenor John McCormack's repertoire.
The turning of a human into a tree at the behest of some irate god or other is a common theme in classical mythology, with the story of how Daphne became a laurel being the most well-known example. Australian poet Richard James Allen adds an original twist to the tale in a poem called, quite simply, Tree.
In Renaissance England, the greenwood was a somewhat more benign environment, a sylvan utopia where life was good and peace reigned supreme. It's a recurring theme in Elizabethan poetry, but few captured it more succinctly than Shakespeare in As You Like it, a play set in the Forest of Arden and especially in the song Under the Greenwood Tree.
Well, our trees have certainly suffered enough "winter and rough weather" this year, but spring is here, more or less, and the first buds are showing on the branches of the survivors. As William Carlos Williams puts it, "the profound change/has come upon them". Trees are nothing if not resilient creatures and it takes more than a bit of a breeze to knock them off their stride.
Of all the poets who have written about trees, few lived with them as much as inveterate walker, climber and woodsman Kenneth Rexroth. Rexroth doesn't write about the forest so much as enter into specific individual trees and his oaks, plums, fir and redwoods are not just the furniture of his Toward an Organic Philosophy; they are the joists and beams that hold the edifice together and give it its unity.
And so, this month's challenge is to compose poems in honour of trees: mythical or real; magical or ordinary; forest, jungle or garden, it's all the same. Please share your arboreal odes here.