Tuesday, February 18, 2014


From an early age, I have thought of the oak as the exemplar of trees.  I'm not sure why.  I suspect it has something to do with childhood impressions of the shape of its leaf, smoldering piles of its fallen, raked-up leaves on autumn afternoons, and -- those wondrous things -- acorns.

But it may simply be a product of their size and substance: the oaks of my youth in Minnesota were majestic in height and breadth.  They were proverbial pillars of strength throughout the year.  And their lovely leaves and magical acorns added to their allure.  All accomplished without speaking a word.

Andrew McCallum, "Oak Trees in Sherwood Forest" (1877)

Spare the parent of acorns, good wood-cutter, spare!
     Let the time-honour'd Fir feel the weight of your stroke,
The many-stalk'd thorn, or Acanthus worn bare,
     Pine, Arbutus, Ilex -- but touch not the Oak!
Far hence be your axe, for our grandams have sung
How the Oaks are the mothers from whom we all sprung.

Zonas (translated by J. H. Merivale), in Henry Wellesley (editor), Anthologia Polyglotta: A Selection of Versions in Various Languages, Chiefly from The Greek Anthology (1849).

Here is a prose rendering of the epigram:

"Oh labourer!  Fear to cut down the mother of acorns; spare her!  Let the aged pine be destroyed, or the fir, or yonder paliurus, or the ilex, or the dry arbutus.  But let your axe be far from the oak-tree.  For our forefathers have told us that our first mothers were oaks."

Zonas (translated by Robert Bland), in Robert Bland (editor), Collections from The Greek Anthology (1813).

Stephen McKenna, "An English Oak Tree" (1981)

In the following poem, A. H. Bullen provides us with a chronological catalogue of the oak's legendary attributes -- together with reminders of humanity's less-than-noble relationship with the noble tree.

                                 The Oak

"Dodona's oaks were through the world renown'd."
Their riddling answers oft did men confound.

"Our Dryads were to mortals ever good."
Your Druid altars smoked with human blood.

"We saved your second Charles from dread mishap."
King David's son you caught in deadly trap.

"In oaken pulpit parsons preach'd and pray'd."
From oaken gibbet poor folk swung and sway'd.

"Rare banquets on oak-board were richly spread."
Oak-coffins were the revellers' last bed.

"Who carried Drake through strange uncharted seas?"
Be all your faults forgot, heroic trees!

A. H. Bullen, Weeping-Cross and Other Rimes (1921).

Martin Snape (1853-1930)
"The Oldest Oak in the Greenwood"

On a more encouraging note, we have this from Tennyson:

     The Oak

Live thy Life,
     Young and old,
Like yon oak,
Bright in spring,
     Living gold;

     Then; and then
     Gold again.

All his leaves
     Fallen at length,
Look, he stands,
Trunk and bough,
     Naked strength.

Alfred Tennyson, Demeter and Other Poems (1889).

"Bright in spring,/Living gold" brings to mind "Nature's first green is gold,/Her hardest hue to hold."  The two poems are variations on the same theme, aren't they?

I like the fact that, unlike a great deal of Tennyson's poetry, "The Oak" is not prolix, ponderous, or sonorous.  The poem's brevity and simplicity may reflect the fact that he wrote it in his eightieth year.  It is worth noting that Tennyson said of the poem that it could be described as "clean cut like a Greek epigram."  Hallam Tennyson, Alfred, Lord Tennyson: A Memoir, Volume II (1897), page 366.  I think that lines 6 through 8 are particularly nice:  a line consisting of "Then; and then" is quite striking in a poem of that period.

Gerald Dewsbury, "Sycamore and Oak" (1992)


Fred said...


I think Frost's poem has more of a sense of regret than Tennyson's poem.

Acornmoon said...

I share your love of oak trees. What beautiful artwork you have chosen too.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I agree with that. "So Eden sank to grief . . ." And so on. I see what you mean.

It's always good to hear from you. Thanks for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

acornmoon: yes, of course, that makes sense! Starting with the wonderful oak leaf and acorn and moon on the title page of your blog, for example. Lovely.

I'm pleased that you like the paintings -- different approaches, but all of them very nice, I think.

It's a pleasure to hear from you again. Thank you very much for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Stephen

First gnarled and brittle Corsican and then later Californian cork oaks have replaced as daily companions those robust English giants that sustained my rural childhood. It’s not just their relative size (I was perhaps also more easily over-towered at six than at sixty) but the dryness of their bark as I walk amongst them that makes their oxygen outbreath taste so different from that of their North European cousins.

So perhaps it’s an echo of imagined damp that gives my blood to tingle and reminds me of younger days when I read within Walt Whitman’s cluster of ‘Calamus Leaves’:

"I SAW in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it, and the moss hung down from the
Without any companion it grew there, uttering joyous
leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think
of myself;
But I wonder'd how it could utter joyous leaves,
standing alone there, without its friend, its
lover near—for I knew I could not;
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of
leaves upon it, and twined around it a little
And brought it away—and I have placed it in sight in
my room;
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of
Yet it remains to me a curious token—it makes me
think of manly love;
—For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there
in Louisiana, solitary, in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life, without a friend, a
lover, near,
I know very well I could not."

I especially enjoy reading this poem in its form as reproduced alongside the manuscript which reveals some of its many re-workings, in the Walt Whitman Archive .
It came to me as I read Whitman again this morning that, in his lifelong process of revision, he was both forever organically ‘weathering’ his poetry like the elements and also ‘growing’ them too. As you may know, the original name of these poems was ‘Live Oak, with Moss’ (the name touches me in its ‘still life’ simplicity). It changed into ‘Calamus Leaves’ and found a progressively larger home among ‘Leaves of Grass’. Over nearly forty years Whitman grew a slim volume of 12 poems into a collection of more than 400 poems. One example of ‘mighty oaks from little acorns grow’?

My post was seeded and grew out of reading your lovely blog this morning. Thank you again.

Emerald Window said...

Oaks are my trees. I grew up at the feet of my grandmother sitting under the oak trees while she told me stories about the oak spirits. I even married a man who's last name means green oak. Thank you for a beautiful post.

Stephen Pentz said...

Midi: thank you very much for the wonderful tie-in to Whitman -- all of which is new to me, my knowledge of Whitman being embarrassingly limited. I found the manuscripts that you linked to, and I agree that they are fascinating. And, of course, I most appreciate your sharing the poem, which fits perfectly.

I should have mentioned California oaks as well: my mother lives in the Central Coast area of California, and I have fond memories of walking in the hills among the oaks. As you say, they are of an entirely different character than the large Midwestern and English oaks: I mean in an emotional, not a scientific, sense.

Thank you again. And thank you as well for your kind words about the blog.

Stephen Pentz said...

Emerald Window: you are very welcome. It is my pleasure. And thank you for your thoughts about the role of oaks in your life. When it comes to oaks, I think that only good things can flow from them. (Despite what Bullen's poem may say!)

Thank you for visiting. I hope you'll return soon.