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This article is taken from PN Review 177, Volume 34 Number 1, September - October 2007.

Souls, Ghosts, Angels, and 'Things Not Human': John Burnside, Alice Oswald and Kathleen Jamie John Lucas

We are guests of experience, Pasternak remarked. And, he might have added, we are not especially well house-trained. We trample where we will, leave our imprint wherever we go and, after centuries of thoughtless inattention, have come close to wrecking the place. Wordsworth was among the first to complain at this behaviour. Hence, 'Nutting', about a remembered act of what he calls 'merciless ravage', when as a boy he went out to gather hazel nuts, took far more than he needed, and as a result left 'the shady nook/Of hazels, and the green and mossy bower,/Deformed and sullied, [which] patiently gave up/Their quiet being'. But then - further result - 'Ere from the mutilated bower I turned/Exulting, rich beyond the wealth of kings,/I felt a sense of pain when I beheld/The silent trees, and saw the intruding sky'. You could write a long essay - beginning with Cowper and taking in not merely Wordsworth but Clare, Hopkins, Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney and Charles Tomlinson - about how English poets have used the felling of trees as both fact and metaphor of the abuse of nature's hospitality. Here, I want merely to note that Wordsworth's use of the word 'being' has to be taken in conjunction with the poem's closing line, 'there is a spirit in the woods', as not merely testimony to his anthropomorphism but as at the very least something to be set against those aggressive human energies released by the lure of material acquisition ('Exultant, rich beyond ...


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