Two Poets as Trees: George Herbert and R. S. Thomas

treesIt’s Labor Day weekend in the United States, which means that the trees where I live will soon stop singing anthems at dawn and dusk.

The leaves that concealed the singers will color, then drop to the grass, where machines will suck them up, shred them, and haul them off to the compost heap.

And the singers will migrate . . . .

Which is what Canada geese have been doing for the past few weeks – V-shaped flights honking their way across the sky during my evening walks.

Meanwhile, my thoughts have migrated towards two poets, George Herbert and R. S. Thomas, who shared the fantasy of being a tree that birds would come to and make a home in.

Herbert, in his poem titled “Affliction (1),” tells God about the life that God has allowed him to live – a life of academic achievement, public acclaim, even royal approbation, then of ill health and seeming uselessness. Drawing near to the conclusion of his autobiographical summary, Herbert says:

Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
None of my books will show:
I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree;
For sure I then should grow
To fruit or shade: at least some bird would trust
Her household to me, and I should be just.

“I’m no longer good for anything else,” Herbert seems to be saying, “so perhaps I can be of use as a tree that will be a home for birds, where they can raise their children without being afraid of at least one human being.”

R.S. Thomas’s me-as-tree mood differs memorably from Herbert’s:

Summer is here.
Once more the house has its
Spray of martins, Proust’s fountain
Of small birds, whose light shadows
Come and go in the sunshine
Of the lawn as thoughts do
In the mind. Watching them fly
Is my business, not as a man vowed
To science, who counts their returns
To the rafters, or sifts their droppings
For facts, recording the wave-length
Of their screaming; my method is so
To have them about myself
Through the hours of this brief
Season and to fill with their
Movement, that it is I they build
In and bring up their young
To return to after the bitter
Migrations, knowing the site
Inviolate through its outward changes.

Can anyone tell me where in Proust’s writings to find his fountain of small birds?


Poems quoted in this post:

“Now I am here” – “Affliction (1),” George Herbert, The Complete English Works (1995), 46.

“Summer is here” – “The Place,” Not That He Brought Flowers [1968], 45.


2 thoughts on “Two Poets as Trees: George Herbert and R. S. Thomas

    • There’s always the possibility, Rick, that Herbert was looking for a word to rhyme with “trust”. But I think he was too committed to ‘truth’ in his life and poetry to do that. So I suggest that he was saying that he would treat his tenants in a just way; that he’d be a good landlord. I hope you . . . and other readers . . . will add your thoughts. One of the great things about poems is that there is no Court of Last Resort to declare what they mean.

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