Miles Kington: A jolly stroll through autumnal woodland

'I wandered lonely as a cloud.' Wordsworth was wrong. Clouds, like sheep, have a herd mentality
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The Independent Online

GOOD news, children! It's time to learn about nature again! Yes, we're going on another ramble with Uncle Geoffrey and his two young kinsfolk, nephew Robert and niece Susan, to see if there's anything to see in the country in the depths of November.

"The great thing about autumn," said Uncle Geoffrey, as the three of them walked down the woodland track, "is watching the leaves turn those wonderful golden orange colours. Unfortunately, it hasn't happened this year. The weather has been so mild that the leaves have stayed green on the tree until they fall."

He looked up into a large ash tree on which all the leaves had indeed stayed green, and from which, as he watched, several large ones floated down, making a pattering sound when they hit the ground. He tried to catch one. He failed abysmally.

"They're falling because there was a hard frost last night," said Robert. "After a very cold night the leaves are always ready to drop, and if you get a windy day the next day, the leaves whirl and eddy like ... like ... like the flags of a defeated army."

"The flags of a defeated army?" said Uncle Geoffrey. "That's very poetic, young Robert."

"Whereas today," said Robert, "here is no wind and the leaves are falling silently and singly off the trees like..."

He looked for a simile in vain.

"Like lingerie from a lap dancer," said Susan.

"Susan!" said Uncle Geoffrey. "What an awful thing to say!"

"It certainly is," said Robert. "I've never seen a lap dancer, but I have seen underwear falling, and it does not float all over the place like a leaf - it drops like a dead weight."

"But that's the whole point about poetry," said Susan. "Poetry doesn't have to be accurate - it only has to sound accurate. You thought that Robert's little image of the flags of a defeated army was poetic, and so it was, but it was also totally misleading. A defeated army leaves its flags on the field of battle. They do not flutter. They lie trampled in the mud."

"Fair enough," said Robert. "Then to what, leaving aside lingerie, would you compare the leaves falling silently out of a motionless tree?"

"To the discarded promises of a discredited government," said Susan.

"Nice idea," said Robert, "but not poetic."

"I've already explained," said Susan. "Poetry is not accurate. It says in lilting style things which are plainly nonsense."

"Give me an example if you can, young Susan," said Uncle Geoffrey, offended to hear poetry spoken of thus.

"Certainly, old Uncle," said Susan promptly. "'I wandered lonely as a cloud.' Wordsworth was wrong. Clouds are not lonely. They always go round in flocks. Clouds have a herd mentality, like sheep. 'I wandered lonely as a cloud' makes about as much sense as 'I wandered lonely as a sheep.'"

"I'll tell you another poetic lie," said Robert. "And that is 'A thing of beauty is a joy for ever'. Sorry, John Keats, but a thing of beauty is very quickly replaced by the next thing of beauty."

"How about 'God's in his heaven, all's well with the world'?" said Susan.

"You don't believe that?" said Uncle Geoffrey.

"Have you seen the world?" said Susan. "It's a botched job, Uncle Geoffrey. No wonder God's in his heaven. He daren't come down here and look us in the eye."

They walked on a little way, the children looking keenly about them, Uncle Geoffrey praying they would not all be struck dead by a thunderbolt for impiety.

"'Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks in Vallombrosa,'" said Robert. "So said Milton. And where is bloody Vallombrosa, may I inquire? He didn't tell us that."

Uncle Geoffrey, who actually knew where Vallombrosa was, opened his mouth to show off, but at that moment he was hit on the head by a falling twig, and, thinking it really was a thunderbolt hitting the wrong target, fainted. When he came around, he had forgotten all about poetry and allowed himself to be led home docilely.