Writing poetry about the British countryside has long been an obsession and staple of English poetry. Well, I say ‘long’ obsession but in fact it goes no further back than the later eighteenth century and the beginnings of the industrial revolution.
The curiosity of Gilbert White, the admirable vicar of Selborne in Hampshire, whose observations became the first popular ‘natural history’ was matched by the celebratory passions of William Wordsworth and his ‘nature’ poems. Wordsworth wrote about violets, celandines and, famously, wild daffodils, but not simply for their local beauties. For him it was a way of putting forward ideas about the restorative powers of nature, in health terms, as well as putting the overlooked centre stage, an idea that linked to the radicalism of his friends.
What we focus on as poets is half the message. Wordsworth celebrated nature and the ‘natural’ in opposition to the growing ‘unnatural’ horrors of the (urban) industrial revolution as did Blake in London. This is one of the reasons for the critical hostility to his earlier work. In today’s terms he was a bit of a radical, an anti-capitalist though the pressures of family life soon changed his public stance.
So, writing about nature and flowers, in particular, is not a simple thing. In my last blog I quoted Jeremy Reed writing about tulips and said the poem represented a critique of the English upper-crust. I hope my reading’s accurate as it does require repeated reading to get to that conclusion.
I’ve been obsessed myself over the last few years with the wild orchids that grow in the meadows and worked-out quarries in these parts. Most of them were familiar to me only from illustrated floras as I’ve never lived in limestone territory before. But when one sees a group of early purple orchids scattered in a wood among wild garlic and bluebells it’s quite a sight.
So how does one go about writing of such natural wonders? There isn’t much by way of precedence. Edward Thomas mentions them in one of his sonnets and Michael Longley named a collection The Ghost Orchid, in 1995, though it contains just two short lyrics that capture glimpses of orchids including this touching image:
That wind into their spirals of white flowers
Cowrie shells for decorating your sandy hair?
As metaphor one is struggling with this, partly because of the unfamiliarity. They simply aren’t common any more, orchids I mean, not cowrie shells, as their habitats have been destroyed or built over. There’s not much point, it seems, to refer to wild plants that most people have only seen in botanical collections or books.
But, perhaps, that’s my point. We should not run away from writing about the endangered and unfamiliar when it’s our familiar. What’s close to home is often the most powerful thing we can write about whether it’s coltsfoot in the pavements, a mountain ash in a Welsh lane or a pyramidal orchid in a Shropshire meadow. SF 7.17
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