8. Art, Science, Religion, and Cavendish’s Poem on an Ancient Oak

Print 1650 - 1660, by Willem van Bemmel
Print 1650 – 1660, by Willem van Bemmel

Margaret Cavendish lived in Antwerp during the 1650s just around the corner from the Duarte family.  Its members were musicians as well as collectors of and dealers in art. Cavendish, who was good friends with them, would have had plenty of opportunity to view their collection and their ever-changing stock of oil paintings.  In addition to paintings, there were prints, often made as copies of important artworks.  It was becoming fashionable to buy prints, and Cavendish’s friend John Evelyn collected large numbers of such easily transportable items.  It is said that other Englishmen followed his lead.

“Of an Oak in a Grove,” first published by Cavendish in Poems and Fancies (1653), both shows Cavendish’s visual arts orientation and allows her to meditate on the ways in which trees are understood from the viewpoints of natural philosophy (i.e., science)  and religion.  She begins her poem by self-consciously painting a picture in words, while alluding to scientific approaches to  the study of light.

Through spreading boughs, their quivering light broke in
Much like to Glass, or Chrystal shiver’d thin
Those pieces small on a green Carpet strew’d.
So in this wood, the light all broken shew’d.
But this disturbed light the Grove did grace,
As sadness doth a faire and beauteous face.

I have had no success in finding Cavendish’s “quivering light” in practical guides to painting, such as the two by Henry Peacham (the artist) and John Evelyn’s An Idea of the Perfection of Painting (a translation of a book by Roland Freart).  I will continue to look, but I have a hunch that Cavendish’s interest in what we moderns would recognize as “dappled shade” was prompted in part by her knowledge of scientific experiments being conducted with prisms to break or “shiver” white light into its constituent colors.  Not long after her poem was published, Isaac Newton used prisms both to break white light into a spectrum and to put it back together again — to return it to white light.  I think that this sort of experimentation was very much on Cavendish’s mind.  At the same time, she finds a wonderful way to describe the sort of “quivering light” apparent in Willem van Bemmel’s print, above and to the right.

Bolsover copper beach and pump house
Memorable copper beech at Bolsover Castle

Cavendish gives a Pagan spin to the poem, saying that people asked for help from the tree, which was sacred to Jove. They gave thanks by hanging offerings from its limbs.  Cavendish probably refers to actual religious practice, but I do not know the locus classicus if there is one.  Or, perhaps, the ancient tradition that she has in mind might be derived from folklore rather than Latin or Greek literature, as with a handkerchief tree in Cyprus.  Some trees do seem to be more memorable than others and one is a huge copper beech at Bosover Castle, pictured above. That tree, I imagine, postdates the era of Cavendish, but it certainly is in keeping with her interests.

Melencolia I (B. 74; M., HOLL. 75) *engraving *24 x 18.8 cm *1514
Print: Albrecht Durer’s Melancholia

Cavendish shifts her poem into the direction of whimsy when she describes the oak as being covered with moss which she says is an arboreal dandruff.   Some later readers, like the Romantic essayist Charles Lamb, loved Cavendish’s whimsy but others have found it off-putting.  It does stand in counterpoint to the poem’s serious and sombre ending in which Jove is given credit for including old age as a part of life as it is normally lived.  The print by van Bemmel may be understood to partake of melancholy as the tree in it is old and apparently moss covered.   The sombre mood of the ending of Cavendish’s poem was suggested at the beginning in the “sadness” of the “faire and beauteous face.”

I wonder if Cavendish thought about the connection that might be made to the print of Albrecht Durer’s “Melancholy” (pictured above, right), where the figure of Melancholy is surrounded by scientific paraphernalia.  The rainbow in the background makes a nice connection with the splitting of light into a spectrum of colors.

In any event, Cavendish liked to write poems about trees and about oaks in particular.  Her poem about a man who has a dialogue with the oak tree that he is in the process of chopping down is certainly whimsical but with a surprise at the end.  Man, the man with the hatchet says says, strives to better himself.

And [man] never can be satisfied, until
He, like a God, doth in Perfection dwell.
If you [the tree], as Man, desire like Gods to bee,
I’le spare your Life, and not cut downe your Tree.

Here we have Cavendish hinting at her beliefs regarding souls and all living things.  Pythagoras would not eat beans because he believed beans have souls.  Cavendish’s man with a hatchet, seems to spare the oak because of views about the soul that are similar.

Dying tree image 1653
Man with Hatchet and Tree, 1653

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