9. Margaret Cavendish and John Evelyn on the Beech, the Birch, the Aspen, and the Poplar

Bolsover copper beach and pump house
The Copper Beech at Bolsover Castle

I return to the image of the Bolsover Castle copper beech from post 8 because Margaret Cavendish had some nice things to say about beeches, a sort of tree that was not always noticed.  Edmund Spenser provides a catalogue of trees near the beginning of Book I of The Faerie Queene (1590) but he does not list the beech.  John Evelyn does not write about the beech in his diary, though he often admires oaks.  Evelyn does look at the beech in Sylva (1664) but feels that the tree is “vulgar.”  Cavendish, however, liked its smooth bark and noted that the tree grows “large and tall.”  It is the huge circumference and enormous height of the Bolsover copper beech, together with its reddish leaves, that make the tree so impressive to visitors at the English Heritage property these days.  It does not hurt that the tree nicely fills, but does not overfill, the space where it stands.

One might wonder what Evelyn had in mind when he wrote the word “vulgar,” so I looked for other instances of where he used it in Sylva and found that the opposite of “vulgar” is “noble.”   Evelyn does not mean that beech is without its uses or its place in the world, but Evelyn’s views about various sorts of value are often quite different from ours today.  It seems that is vulgar for him is natural and uncultivated, in a word “common.”  Cultivated is good and nature often can do with some improvement.  That said, there was a practical side to Evelyn, who gave more thought to the oak because the oak was essential to shipbuilding.

Cavendish miniature wikicommons
Margaret Cavendish

I am not quite sure how much Cavendish agrees with Evelyn and how much she takes a different approach, but I am sure that she relied more on direct observation of what she saw around her than on her reading of the Classics.  Evelyn was steeped in Roman and Greek literature, but this is by no means to say that Evelyn failed to carefully observe nature.  He has a good eye for what is beautiful as unimproved by foresters and gardeners.  He visited Tunbridge Wells in September of 1661 and records his impressions in his diary as follows.

Walking about the solitudes, I greatly admired the extravagant turnings, insinuations, and growth of certain birch trees among the rocks.

It is unlikely that Evelyn is referring to the handiwork of a gardener who has carefully arranged the birches.  Rather it appears that the trees themselves “insinuate” among the rocks.

Given the fact that Cavendish was a woman who liked to write poetry about science (including medicine), her descriptions of trees are likely to be different from the practical advice and classical reference of Evelyn.  A case in point involves the aspen.  I am not quite sure how the aspen differs from the poplar or if the terms were interchangeable — at least for the writers of the 17th century.   In any event, Cavendish is  most interested the motion of the aspen’s leaves.  In “Hunting of a Stag” (Poems and Fancies, 1653), she writes as follows.

Small aspen stalk, which shakes like agues cold,
That from perpetual motion never hold.

The aspen leaves are always in movement because the slender stem that holds the leaf, the “small aspen stalk,” twists easily in the wind.  An ague was a fever, so Cavendish adds in a medical metaphor and then alludes to the scientific problem of perpetual motion.  “Hold” here probably means “stops.”  Evelyn’s approach in Sylva as might be expected is more academic.

The aspen only (which is that kind of libyca or white poplar, bearing a smaller, and more tremulous leaf, (by the French call’d la tremble or quaker) . . . .  Pliny would have short trunchions couched two foot in the ground (but first two days dried) at one foot and half distance, and then moulded over.

John Evelyn wiki commons
John Evelyn

Evelyn, by the way, send a gift copy of Sylva to Cavendish, who responded with a thank-you note that still exists.  He probably knew her poetry and they certainly met in London in 1667.  I would not claim, however, that either one responded to the other in print.

It is interesting that Cavendish includes the sap of the poplar in funeral arrangements explained in the poem “The Description of Violence in Love.”

Then constant lovers, mourners be. When [we are] dead,
They’l strew our graves, which is our marriage bed:
Upon our hearse a weeping poplar set,
Whose moistening drops our death’s dried cheeks may wet.
Two cypress garlands at our head shall stand,
That were made up by some fair virgin’s hand.
And on our cold pale corps such flowers strow,
As hang their heads for grief and downward grow.
Then shall they lay us deep in quiet grave,
Wherein our bones long rest and peace may have.
Let no friends marble tombs erect upon
Our graves, but set young myrtle trees thereon.
Those may in time a shady grove become,
Fit for sad lovers walks, whose thoughts are dumb.

One wonders if there is any precedent for a funeral in which sap from poplars drops onto the faces of the deceased.  This is not a custom, literary or actual, I have encountered heretofore.  If there is a suggestion that the lovers return to nature by having no tomb to mark the location of their remains, that suggestion is equivocal, in that they become the unseen centerpiece of a grove that is planted rather than one that pre-existed.   That mixed message is probably in line with Cavendish on nature more generally.

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