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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Number 125: George Pope Morris "Woodman, Spare That Tree!"

The Oak

Woodman, spare that tree!

Touch not a single bough!

In youth it sheltered me,

And I'll protect it now.

'Twas my forefather's hand

That placed it near his cot;

There, woodman, let it stand,

Thy axe shall harm it not.

That old familiar tree,

Whose glory and renown

Are spread o'er land and sea--

And wouldst thou hew it down?

Woodman, forebear thy stroke!

Cut not its earth-bound ties;

Oh, spare that aged oak,

Now towering to the skies!

When but an idle boy,

I sought its grateful shade;

In all their gushing joy

Here, too, my sisters played.

My mother kissed me here;

My father pressed my hand--

Forgive this foolish tear,

But let that old oak stand.

My heart-strings round thee cling,

Close as thy bark, old friend!

Here shall the wild-bird sing,

And still thy branches bend.

Old tree! the storm still brave!

And, woodman, leave the spot;

While I've a hand to save,

thy axe shall harm it not.

Hap Notes: Just thought I'd show a bit of what American poetry was like around the same time period with Keats and Shelley and Byron et. al. This poem by George Pope Morris (1802-1864) was published in 1837 (a good 15 years after the deaths of the three English Romantic poets) and it sort of shows you why, in spite of American poetry's dear thoughts, English teachers taught all that British poetry for so many years. Morris was 35 when he wrote this poem – Keats was about 24 when he wrote yesterday's "Grecian Urn."

Now, this poem of Morris was almost immediately turned into a song, as many of his poems were. Here's the first one if you'd like to hear it:
Here's a hipper version from the inimitable Phil Harris:
In fact, no less than Edgar Allen Poe pronounced Morris one of the great song writers/poets of America. Some consider this the first "environmental protest song" but I think that's gilding the lily a bit, don't you? Morris' poem was originally titled "The Oak."

Morris was not primarily a poet, although he wrote a good lot of it. He was an editor and publisher. He founded the New York Evening Mirror with Nathan Parker Willis and the Mirror first published Poe's "The Raven". (Willis, a famed travel writer, was a friend to both Poe and Longfellow.) In fact the paper published lots of poetry and criticism and was successful at it.

In 1846 Morris and Willis left the Mirror to start the Home Journal magazine. The Home Journal reviewed a lot of poetry also, including women poets, and reviewed Thoreau's Walden and Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance. The Home Journal, by the by, eventually turned into Town and Country magazine in 1846. It is the oldest continually published general interest magazine in the United States- you can find it on the news stand today. (Breaking off briefly to say that if you were reading Town and Country and eating a roll of Necco Wafers you would be doing what folks did in 1860, sorta.)

Morris says he based this poem on an actual incident that happened with a friend of his. While they were traveling around together, his friend noticed that a man was going to chop down a tree that had been outside of his old home (and was now owned by the "woodsman") and the friend begged the man not to chop down the tree. In the end, the "woodsman" was given $10 to let it stand in perpetuity (which sort of strikes me as more of a story of a man who needed the money and was selling fire wood (which is why he was cutting down the tree) and a guy who actually had $10- a lot of money in 1846. However, this does not diminish the nobility of the sentiment and a tree is a noble creature.)

This is another of the poems my mother and grandfather could recite on cue. I'll bet someone older in your family knows of it, also. Just as an aside, oaks can grow to be huge. There's one in Nottinghamshire, England that's estimated to be at least 800 years old – Robin Hood was supposedly sheltered by it.

You can find and entire book of Morris' work here:

Here's a little extra Morris poem bonus:

The Miniature

William was holding in his hand
The likeness of his wife!
Fresh, as if touched by fairy wand,
With beauty, grace, and life.
He almost thought it spoke:--he gazed
Upon the bauble still,
Absorbed, delighted, and amazed,
To view the artist's skill.

"This picture is yourself, dear Jane--
'Tis drawn to nature true:
I've kissed it o'er and o'er again,
It is much like you."
"And has it kissed you back, my dear?"
"Why--no--my love," said he.
"Then, William, it is very clear
'Tis not at all LIKE ME!"

-- George Pope Morris

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