What is the best poem about the British countryside?
The National Trust is seeking to find the nation's favourite poem about the great British countryside. Michael McCarthy introduces a selection of shortlisted verses
Tuesday 31 August 2010
Britishness as a cultural identity has become surrounded by doubts and misgivings in recent years, partly because in a multicultural society it has begun to seem exclusive (to some), and it has been aggressively appropriated by the far right. Yet it is clear, from many markers, that a sense of Britishness stubbornly persists in millions of people, and that a very prominent component of this is a feeling for the countryside.
The British feel for the countryside is particular. Here it is not regarded, as in other nations, as merely an alternative to, or escape from, the town (although that is part of it). The landscape is seen as special, even unique, in itself: ideally a small-scale, intimate and unthreatening mix of the farmed and the wild, which is pretty and charming rather than grandiose and magnificent. And this landscape brings in its train promises of an alternative life: for some people, simple closeness to the natural world; for others, that of self-sufficiency and the cultivation of the smallholding; and for not a few, let it be said, the chance of joining the rural squirearchy. (How strange, really, that a current emblem of rural life in Britain should be an exclusive oven, the Aga!)
But whatever the motivation, this aspiration for green fields and the village has deep roots: for centuries our countryside and its life have been venerated, not to say idealised, and it is in poetry that this has principally taken place. By the end of the 19th century "nature poetry" was a major theme in English literature, and it is from this tradition that the National Trust is seeking to find the nation's favourite poem about the British landscape. Their shortlist of 10, some of which we print here, is indeed pretty short, but you can find more than 100 more such poems in their anthology, Ode To The Countryside and vote for one of those if you wish.
I have to declare an interest and say that my favourite poem about the British countryside, "Adlestrop" by Edward Thomas, lies outside the shortlist and the anthology; but what we present here, and what is in the book, show a wide range of styles from the classical formality of Alexander Pope to the sprung rhythm of Gerald Manley Hopkins, all of which essentially propose the same thing: that the natural world and rural life in Britain have a special claim upon our souls.
The Quiet Life
Happy the man whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breath his native air
In his own ground.
Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.
Blest who can unconcern'dly find
Hours, days and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,
Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
Together mixt; sweet recreation;
And innocence, which most does please
Thus let me live, unseen, unknown,
Thus unlamented let me die,
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.
from: The Farmer's Boy
The clatt'ring Dairy-Maid immers'd in steam,
Singing and scrubbing midst her milk and cream,
Bawls out, "Go fetch the Cows!" - he hears no more;
For pigs, and ducks, and turkeys, throng the door,
And sitting hens, for constant war prepar'd;
A concert strange to that which late he heard.
Straight to the meadow then he whistling goes;
With well-known halloo calls his lazy Cows:
Down the rich pasture heedlessly they graze,
Or hear the summon with an idle gaze;
For well they know the cow-yard yields no more
Its tempting fragrance, nor its wintry store.
Reluctance marks their steps, sedate and slow;
The right of conquest all the law they know;
The strong press on, the weak by turns succeed,
And one superior always takes the lead;
Is ever foremost, wheresoe'er they stray;
Allow'd precedence, undisputed sway;
With jealous pride her station is maintain'd,
For many a broil that post of honour gain'd.
At home, the yard affords a grateful scene;
For Spring makes e'en a miry cow-yard clean.
Thence from its chalky bed behold convey'd
The rich manure that drenching Winter made,
Which pil'd near home, grows green with many a weed,
A promis'd nutriment for Autumn's seed.
Forth comes the Maid, and like the morning smiles;
The Mistress too, and follow'd close by Giles.
A friendly tripod forms their humble seat,
With pails bright scour'd, and delicately sweet.
Where shadowing elms obstruct the morning ray,
Begins the work, begins the simple lay;
The full-charg'd udder yields its willing streams,
While Mary sings some lover's amorous dreams.
On a Lane in Spring
A little lane - the brook runs close beside,
And spangles in the sunshine, while the fish glide swiftly by;
And hedges leafing with the green springtide;
From out their greenery the old birds fly,
And chirp and whistle in the morning sun;
The pilewort glitters 'neath the pale blue sky,
The little robin has its nest begun
The grass-green linnets round the bushes fly.
How mild the spring comes in! the daisy buds
Lift up their golden blossoms to the sky.
How lovely are the pingles in the woods!
Here a beetle runs - and there a fly
Rests on the arum leaf in bottle-green,
And all the spring in this sweet lane is seen.
Sweet Suffolke Owle
Sweet Suffolke Owle, so trimly dight,
With feathers like a Lady bright,
Thou sing'st alone, sitting, by night,
Te whit, te whoo,
Thy note that forth so freely roules,
With shrill command the Mouse controules,
And sings a dirge for dying soules,
Te whit, te whoo.
'I Watched a Blackbird'
I watched a blackbird on a budding sycamore
One Easter Day, when sap was stirring twigs to the core;
I saw his tongue, and crocus-coloured bill
Parting and closing as he turned his trill;
Then he flew down, seized on a stem of hay,
And upped to where his building scheme was under way,
As if so sure a nest were never shaped on spray.
The Lambs of Grasmere
The upland flocks grew starved and thinned:
Their shepherds scarce could feed the lambs
Whose milkless mothers butted them,
Or who were orphaned of their dams.
The lambs athirst for mother's milk
Filled all the place with piteous sounds:
Their mothers' bones made white for miles
The pastureless wet pasture grounds.
Day after day, night after night,
From lamb to lamb the shepherds went,
With teapots for the bleating mouths,
Instead of nature's nourishment.
The little shivering gaping things
Soon knew the step that brought them aid,
And fondled the protecting hand,
And rubbed it with a woolly head.
Then, as the days waxed on to weeks,
It was a pretty sight to see
These lambs with frisky heads and tails
Skipping and leaping on the lea,
Bleating in tender trustful tones,
Resting on rocky crag or mound,
And following the beloved feet
That once had sought for them and found.
These very shepherds of their flocks,
These loving lambs so meek to please,
Are worthy of recording words
And honour in their due degrees:
So I might live a hundred years,
And roam from strand to foreign strand,
Yet not forget this flooded spring
And scarce-saved lambs of Westmoreland.
The Herefordshire Landscape
from: Aurora Leigh
I dared to rest, or wander, - like a rest
Made sweeter for the step upon the grass, -
And view the ground's most gentle dimplement,
(As if God's finger touched but did not press
In making England!) such an up and down
Of verdure, - nothing too much up or down
A ripple of land; such little hills, the sky
Can stoop to tenderly and the wheatfields climb;
Such nooks of valleys, lined with orchises,
Fed full of noises by invisible streams;
And open pastures, where you scarcely tell
White daisies from white dew, - at intervals
The mythic oaks and elm-trees standing out
Self-poised upon their prodigy of shade, -
I thought my father's land was worthy too
Of being my Shakespeare's...
Then the thrushes sang,
And shook my pulses and the elms' new leaves...
I flattered all the beauteous country round,
As poets use; the skies, the clouds, the fields,
The happy violets hiding from the roads
The primroses run down to, carrying gold, -
The tangled hedgerows, where the cows push out
Impatient horns and tolerant churning mouths
'Twixt dripping ash-boughs, - hedgerows all alive
With birds and gnats and large white butterflies
Which look as if the May-flower had caught life
And palpitated forth upon the wind, -
Hills, vales, woods, netted in a silver mist,
Farm, granges, doubled up among the hills,
And cattle grazing in the watered vales,
And cottage-chimneys smoking from the woods,
And cottage-gardens smelling everywhere,
Confused with smell of orchards.
ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew -
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being so slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.
GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS
'An Ode to the Countryside' is published by the National Trust (£12.99). To order a copy for the special price of £11.69 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
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