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Ivy League Shakespeare: thoughts on Shakespeare and Marvell while clearing ivy and hacking at brambles.

Last autumn Sarah and I bought an acre of eccentrically shaped piece of land at the bottom of our garden. It has an orchard at one end and pasture at the other, but had been abandoned for thirty years, the orchard overgrown with ash trees and thick with ivy and the pasture dense with brambles.

Almost ever since, I have been stripping ivy from fruit trees, stacking logs, clearing brash, hacking at brambles and planting a hedge. I wasn’t alone. On Boxing Day we spent nearly five hours as a family clambering in branches to cut them free of ivy (Ellen pictured). The work carried on long after Christmas, with lines from Shakespeare running through my otherwise empty mind – particularly Titania’s words to Bottom from Act 4 Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream,

Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms.
Fairies be gone, and be all ways away.
So doth the woodbine, the sweet honeysuckle
Gently entwist; the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.

Her speech is wonderfully sinuous and sensual, in part because the sounds ‘ee’ and ‘wh’are repeated throughout, featuring seventeen times in five lines. Both are soft and lingering, their repetition seeming to wrap and wind around the text. A similar repetition of ‘en’ in the last two lines also gives a sense of the words binding themselves round the speech as the ivy does the ‘barky fingers of the elm.’

It’s a great last line; ‘enrings’ is a reminder of the bands exchanged in the marriage service (with all the symbolism of fingers slipping into rings). Shakespeare explicitly identifies the ivy as ‘female’ while the tree is implied as male. Partly this is because of the phallic nature of its fingers, but also implicitly because the flow of polysyllables which slip from one line to the next ends with the monosyllable ‘elm’ – and in the world of Eng. Lit. monosyllables tend to be regarded as hard and masculine while polysyllables are generally seen as soft and feminine.

On the subject of monosyllables, ‘bark’ is a short, rough, punchy word. It begins with a bullish ‘b’, has a harsh sounding ‘ar’ in the middle and ends with an abrupt ‘k’. Yet Shakespeare softens it with the addition of a ‘y’, deftly turning a noun into an excellently expressive adjective and coining a new word along the way. Good old Shakespeare.

Shakespeare needed a tree with a single syllabled name to finish with five iambs to the line (though he wasn’t always fussy; line three isn’t in strict iambic pentameter form, with a dangling half foot) but why choose the elm to be enringed rather than the oak, or ash, or box, or yew or any other tree with a monosyllabic name? Probably because of its immense height and majesty. Elms typically grew to 30m and given this enormous stature, would have been seen as a ‘masculine’ tree. (Oaks tend to be shorter at15-25m, commonly growing wider as they age rather than gaining height. There is one up the valley from us that is said to be over 1200 years old with a circumference of 12.9m).

Sadly, Dutch Elm Disease killed off 20 million elms in the 1960s and 70s and comparatively few mature trees survive. We have one on our new patch of land, but as it grows to maturity it will die. This crueller aspect of the natural world is evident in the other lines I contemplated as I cut away at the ivy. These were Prospero’s words to Miranda, when describing his brother Antonio’s treachery. For while Prospero retired to his library, ‘a dukedom large enough’, his usurper acquired more and more power until,

he was
The ivy which had hid my princely trunk,
And sucked my verdure out on’t.

The ivy here is seen as parasitic, smothering and deadly. Yet the two passages together suggest the plant’s dual nature. On the one hand its thick foliage offers cover for nesting birds and its berries food for them to eat – and to the Celts its evergreen leaves were a symbol of continuing life in the depth of winter. On the other, its dense canopy starves the host tree of life, often choking it to death, while its heavy weight frequently causes branches to snap off in strong winter winds.

The same duality is true of brambles since its sharp thorns provide excellent shelter from predators for ground nesting birds and other small creatures while its berries are a source of food in late summer and early autumn. It’s also good for protecting princesses who have inadvertently pricked their finger on a spinning wheel and fallen asleep for a hundred years. Apart from that, it’s just a bloody nuisance, especially when tangling over half an acre of ancient pasture.

While slashing away at the brambles, I have been thinking less about Shakespeare and more of Andrew Marvell’s Mower poems. True, his mower uses a scythe rather than a sickle, but I am still wielding a piece of sharpened metal and feel a sort of kinship. As it happens, we found a scythe lodged in one of the ash trees that had been felled. It had presumably been left in the crook of the tree more than seventy years before. Over time, the flesh of the tree had grown around the blade and carried it high above the ground, the tool’s wooden handle long since rotted away.

Marvell’s nature poems seem to lack Shakespeare’s intimate understanding of the natural world, his chronology sometimes dubious. His mower, Damon, finds the ‘dew distils/Before her darling Daffadils’ though why he should be out mowing in the early spring isn’t made clear, since the grass would only have been cut for hay in the summer, in preparation for the winter ahead. If cutting in late June or early July, it’s equally unclear why the daffodils might be in flower so late. He also finds,
While, going home, the Ev’ning sweet
In cowslip-water bathes my feet.

We have cowslips in the garden, but as yet I haven’t worked out how to wash my feet in their water. Perhaps I’m taking it all too literally.

Andrew Marvell was born in East Yorkshire, where David Hockney now lives and works. He was a parliamentarian during the Civil War and later became MP for Hull. He’s probably best known for the poem To His Coy Mistress, but is also remembered for two haunting lines that close this verse from a longer poem, The Garden,

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find ;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas ;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

It’s the final couplet that has remained with me as I hack away at the brambles. For a poet rather too given to nymphs and fauns and bathing feet in cowslips, ‘annihilating’ is an interesting choice of verb. He doesn’t merely retreat from the world or banish it, he obliterates it totally. It is smashed and devastated. At five syllables, ‘annihilating’ has its own rhythmic vitality and is in obvious contrast to the single syllabled words that follow. These are plain and spare, as if stating simple truth. I suspect it is the regular rhythm of the couplet as a whole that partly appeals as I lay waste to the vegetation, the metre in time with the swing of the sickle.

After the violence of the penultimate line, the last is quiet and understated. A ‘green thought’ has a wonderfully serene and synaesthesic quality. It’s hard to define quite what Marvell means by a ‘green thought in a green shade’ but it’s mysterious and beautiful and pondering it passes the hours.


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