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Rings of ages, cleft not be  

08 April 2022

Our Lent series continues, drawn from a book of poems chosen and with commentary by Richard Harries

Peter Hogan/Alamy

A 100-year-old plane tree is felled for a temporary cycle lane in Chiswick, London, on 2 December 2021, despite an alleged lack of consultation

A 100-year-old plane tree is felled for a temporary cycle lane in Chiswick, London, on 2 December 2021, despite an alleged lack of consultation

The trees are down

— and he cried with a loud voice:
Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees —

They are cutting down the great plane-trees at the end of
       the gardens.
For days there has been the grate of the saw, the swish of
       the branches as they fall,
The crash of the trunks, the rustle of trodden leaves,
With the “Whoops” and the “Whoas”, the loud common
       talk, the loud common laughs of the men, above it all.

I remember one evening of a long past spring
Turning in at a gate, getting out of a cart, and finding a
      large dead rat in the mud of the drive.
I remember thinking: alive or dead, a rat was a god-
forsaken thing,
But at least, in May, that even a rat should be alive.

The week’s work here is as good as done. There is just one
On the roped bole, in the fine grey rain,
               Green and high
               And lonely against the sky.
                                    (Down now! — )
               And but for that,
               If an old dead rat
Did once, for a moment, unmake the spring, I might never
     have thought of him again.

It is not for a moment the spring is unmade to-day;
These were great trees, it was in them from root to stem:
When the men with the “Whoops” and the “Whoas” have
      carted the whole of the whispering loveliness away
Half the spring, for me, will have gone with them.

It is going now, and my heart has been struck with the
        hearts of the planes;
Half my life it has beat with these, in the sun, in the rains,
   In the March wind, the May breeze,
In the great gales that came over to them across the roofs
       from the great seas.
    There was only a quiet rain when they were dying;
    They must have heard the sparrows flying,
And the small creeping creatures in the earth where they
       were lying —
But I, all day, I heard an angel crying:
     “Hurt not the trees.”

Charlotte Mew (1869-1928)

CHARLOTTE MEW did not have an easy life. When her father died, the family was left with very little money. Three of her siblings died young, and two were committed to mental asylums. For this reason, she and her remaining sister vowed not to marry. Charlotte was a lesbian, but her approaches to other women were never reciprocated. When her sister died, she went into a deep depression and took her own life.

Mew’s life straddled very different periods, from high Victorian to modernist. In the early part of her life, she wrote articles and short stories, and only later did she turn to poetry. The quality of this was quickly recognised by people including Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf, who thought her the best female poet of the age. The critical estimate of her remains high, though she still deserves to be better known.

This poem, with its heartfelt anguish over nature, is very much one for our own time. Gerard Manley Hopkins had a similar anguish, expressed not only in such lines as “Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet” in “Inversnaid” but also in the poem he wrote about the felling of the poplar trees in Binsey.

Many of us feel that there is something very special about trees, and this is recognised in Revelation 7.3, which Charlotte Mew quotes as a heading to the poem. London’s plane trees, most of which were planted in the 18th and 19th centuries, remain one of the glories of the city. Mew contrasts the grandeur and stillness of the plane trees with the rough shouts of those cutting them down. It is just one sign of a wider anguish, the limited life of everything on earth. She remembers a dead rat she saw one spring. Even a rat, she thinks, deserves to be alive to enjoy the vitality of spring.

The felling of the planes has also spoiled her spring but, with the planes, it is not just one spring that has been spoiled. Those planes had been part of her life. St Paul wrote about this anguish of nature in Romans 8.18-24: “The whole created universe in all its parts groans”’ (REB). There, he expresses the hope that when the new creation, of which we are the first fruits, comes to its fulfilment, nature itself will be transformed: “The universe itself is to be freed from the shackles of mortality and is to enter upon the glorious liberty of the children of God” (v. 21, REB).

Meanwhile, we are now highly conscious of the preciousness of nature and the need to preserve it from human degradation, climate change, and the loss of biodiversity. Trees in the UK are not in a good state. One of our glories, the ash, has been totally devastated in just a few years by ash dieback. This follows the virtual end of the English elm several decades ago. The oak and the chestnut are also being blighted by disease. At the same time, we know that there is a desperate need to plant more trees to absorb some of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which has been contributing to global warming and climate change. With Charlotte Mew, echoing Revelation, we cry out, “Hurt not the trees.”

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford.

Hearing God in Poetry: Fifty poems for Lent and Easter by Richard Harries is published by SPCK at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.99); 978-0-281-08629-0.

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