‘An eminently beautiful Object is Fern’: The Romantics and the Victorian Fern Craze

Page 1

By Sarah Whittingham
Of all the many passions and crazes in nineteenth-century gardening and natural history, none was as long lasting or as wide reaching as fern fever, when the plant held a popular fascination for much of society.

But this enthralment with the frond came out of nowhere; before the 1830s there was virtually no interest in collecting or cultivating native ferns. Even in the late eighteenth century, botanical or cultural references to the plant – such as when the poet William Cowper wrote of ‘the common overgrown with fern’ in The Task in 1785 – nearly always signified just one particular species: bracken (Pteridium aquilinum). That is, apart from among the Romantic poets.

Cowper’s innovative poem, with its focus on man, religion and nature, was a key influence on Coleridge. ‘This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison’, composed in the garden of his Nether Stowey neighbour Tom Poole in 1797, displays Coleridge’s burgeoning belief in the morally improving power of a love of nature. And in his initial – and in my opinion, more beautiful – version of the poem (in a letter to Robert Southey, 17 July 1797) he wrote:

‘. . .They, meantime,
My friends, whom I may never meet again,
On springy heath, along the hilltop edge,
Wander delighted, and look down, perchance,
On that same rifted dell, where many an ash
Twists its wild limbs beside the ferny rock,
Whose plumy ferns forever nod and drip
Sprayed by the waterfall. . . .’

Adding in a note: ‘The ferns that grow in moist places, grow five or six together and form a complete “Prince of Wales feather”—i.e. plumy.’ This sounds like the ostrich or shuttlecock fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), but that was only introduced into cultivation in Britain in 1760, and has been known in the wild only since about 1834. Coleridge was therefore most likely describing the lady fern. But in the version of the poem published in 1834, in The Poetical Works of S T Coleridge, the relevant passage reads:

‘And there my friends
Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds,
That all at once (a most fantastic sight!)
Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge
Of the blue clay-stone,’

This time Coleridge adds that the fern he is referring to is the Asplenium scolopendrium or hart’s tongue. And the description ‘long lank weeds’ fits this fern better than the lady fern.
Soon after moving to Greta Hall in the Lakes, in July 1800, Coleridge observed in one of his notebooks: ‘An eminently beautiful Object is Fern, on a hill side, scattered thick but growing single – and all shaking themselves in the wind –’. He also wrote to Samuel Purkis: ‘I hear his [his son Hartley’s] voice at this moment distinctly; he is below in the garden, shouting to some foxgloves and fern, which he has transplanted, and telling them what he will do for them if they grow like good boys!’

During her first spring in Grasmere Dorothy Wordsworth also made a garden around Dove Cottage by transplanting specimens that she found during walks in the local woods and on the fells. As well as common flowering plants, these included mosses, lichens and – almost certainly – ferns, making Dorothy one of the earliest people in the country to collect and cultivate native ferns.
Another was the Romantic poet John Clare, who started collecting ferns in the 1820s. Poetry, botanising and gardening were Clare’s greatest loves, and in his journals he records digging up ferns in the wild and planting them in his garden in Northamptonshire.

‘Oh! That we had a book of botany’, Dorothy wrote in her journal on 16 May 1800, and in August of that year William ordered William Withering’s An Arrangement of British Plants According to the Latest Improvements of the Linnaean System and an Introduction to the Study of Botany. Withering had added a volume devoted to non-flowering plants in the second edition of 1792.

Dorothy frequently consulted Withering’s, and wrote comments against the text. And it is from its pages that Coleridge derived his knowledge of the hart’s tongue fern. However, in October 1803 he wrote: ‘O surely I might make a noble Poem of all my Youth – nay of all my Life – – One section on plants & flowers, my passion for them, always deadened by their learned names. [my italics] – Yet ever to note those that have & may hereafter affect me –‘. For Clare too, Linnaeus’ taxonomy of plants was a ‘dark system.’

Wordsworth disseminated his views on the Lake District, and man’s part in protecting and enhancing it, in his Guide Through the District of the Lakes, first published as an introduction to a set of prints in 1810, and as a separate volume in 1822. In this book he wrote of bracken – ‘beds of luxuriant fern’ and ‘the brilliant and various colours of the fern’ – as adding to the attractions of the scenery.

But, more specifically, he also described ‘the intermixture of several species of small fern’ combining with mosses, lichens and ivies, their forms and colours providing ‘a source of inexhaustible admiration’ in the winter. And relates how the old walls lining lanes could be ‘almost wholly concealed by a rich facing of stone-fern.’ This is the rustyback fern, which likes to grow in lime mortar. Coleridge observed late in 1803: ‘The common Fern fades into an Orange / the Stone Fern into a rich Brown’.

In his poem Point Rash Judgment from Poems on the Naming of Places published in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800), Wordsworth also wrote of Osmunda regalis or the royal fern, which grows by the rock-pool at Dove Cottage and in Dora’s Field below Rydal Mount:

‘Many such there are,
Fair Ferns and Flowers, and chiefly that tall Fern
So stately, of the Queen Osmunda named;
Plant lovelier, in its own retired abode,
On Grasmere’s beach, than Naiad by the side
Of Grecian brook, or Lady of the Mere,
Sole-sitting by the shores of old romance.’

It appears that Dora Wordsworth followed in her father and aunt’s footsteps (in more ways than one) as in 1838 she remembered how, whilst visiting Tintern Abbey, she climbed up to ‘. . . the topmost of its walls round which I ran like a cat & gathered some fern . . .’ At the time of her visit Dora was staying with her mother’s younger brother, Thomas Hutchinson. His daughter – Sarah – was William Wordsworth’s god-daughter as well as his niece.

In 1841 William presented Sarah with an album in which to collect pressed plants. She filled it with mosses, and about twenty different ferns. In 1850 she recorded in her journal how she went in search of ferns by the waterfalls and in the woods above Rydal, and was ‘fortunate in finding some beauties.’ By this time the fern craze had taken firm hold of the nation – Charles Kingsley was to christen it Pteridomania just five years later – and the species were being rigorously classified and categorised with ‘learned names’. But its roots were in the Romantic Movement.

Dr Sarah Whittingham FSA is a writer and lecturer who specialises in the social history, architecture, and gardens of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 2012 Frances Lincoln published her book Fern Fever: The Story of Pteridomania, which has been described as the definitive work on the subject. Sarah has lectured widely on the fern craze, including giving the Bindman Talk, ‘Fern Fever in the Fells’, at the Wordsworth Trust on 9 June 2012. As well as writing articles on Pteridomania for many publications, she has appeared on various BBC radio and television programmes talking about it, most recently BBC 2’s Coast in July.

Sarah Whittingham

www.sarahwhittingham.co.uk

15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

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14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

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04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More
17.05.2018

The Byron effect

by Miranda Seymour Any study of the lives of Lord Byron’s wife and daughter points towards one inescapable conclusion: the enduring power of Byron’s personality. Annabella Milbanke married Byron in January 1815. Ada, born towards the end of their first turbulent year as a married couple, was only a few weeks old when Lady Byron […]

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01.05.2018

Spring shoots and green peas: the Wordsworths and their kitchen garden

by Gareth Evans Following six months of settled living with his sister Dorothy, one May morning William Wordsworth left Dove Cottage with his brother John to walk through Yorkshire.  Separated from her brothers in early childhood only to be permanently reunited as adults, an understandably emotional Dorothy found ways of coping with what was clearly […]

Read More
16.04.2018

The Gravestone of John Keats: Romancing the Stone

by Ian Reynolds   John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five on February 23rd, 1821 and is buried at the Cemitero Acattolico—the so-called Protestant Cemetery in Rome (1). Two years later, in the early spring of 1823 his gravestone with epitaph was finally laid at his burial site. (2) Much has been documented about Keats’s […]

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07.04.2018

The winners of the 2018 Wordsworth birthday poem competition

We had another wonderful set of entries this year, on the subject of ‘The child is father of the man’.  We’d like to thank Fiona Sampson, the poet and acclaimed author of The Girl who Wrote Frankenstein, for being this year’s judge, and for very kindly donating two copies of her book to the winner […]

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The microscopic eye of John Clare

Page 1

By Sue Edney
John Clare liked to get his head down in the grass – ‘close to nature’ in every way. In his poem Clock a Clay, Clare takes a ladybird’s eye-view, hiding in cowslip heads or ‘peeps’, ‘[w]hile grassy forests quake surprise’. His sightline makes the ‘buzzing fly’ a monster, the dew drops on the grass as big as ‘fishes eyes’, the wind and rain strong enough to force the little creature to grass level. But no matter:

“In the cowslips peeps I lye
In rain and dew still warm and dry”

Shakespeare’s Ariel in The Tempest had already discovered the potential of cowslips, and Clare might have heard Ariel’s song in his head at Northampton Asylum where he wrote this poem. His little insect hides for safety, however, while the ‘sprite’ is singing of his coming freedom:

“Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.”

The ladybird has no intention of risking her security with such abandon.

Clare contains the entire world, magnified, in a cowslip, and in doing so demonstrates the similar situations of insects and humans, especially the poor labourer, with not much more than grass and mud making up his cottage, in thatch and ‘puddled’ walls. Perhaps the ladybird is better off; she has flowers for her bed and dew to drink.

His acute sense of danger coupled to his hyper-realised vision creates a miniature asylum where Clare might find greater solace than in the place he called a prison, no matter how kind his ‘jailers’. Nature gathers to support as well as threaten.

Clare uses the magnifying glass of water drops to illuminate the grass tips, shown huge in the ‘pearl’, like the black pupil of a fish-eye. The microscope had long provided close observation of tiny things by the time Clare was writing, although there was still some discussion about the merits of expanded vision. Robert Hooke, in his astonishing Micrographia (1665) had spoken his mind about the benefits of close examination:

“The truth is, the Science of Nature has been already too long made only a work of the Brain and the Fancy:
It is now high time that it should return to the plainness and soundness of Observations on material and obvious things.”

This was a directive to ‘see into the life of things’, as Wordsworth was to encourage. Yet, in 1712, Joseph Addison perceived the dangers of distortion when faced with extremities.

“Our reason can pursue a particle of matter through an infinite variety of divisions; but the fancy soon loses sight of it, and feels in itself a kind of chasm, that wants to be filled with matter of a more sensible bulk.”

Both Hooke and Addison seem concerned with ‘things’ substantial; ‘material’, ‘obvious’, ‘matter of a more sensible [as in perceptible] bulk’; but neither of them – in these passages at any rate – attempt to define the thing itself. A flea is a thing; so is a mountain – so too, for Wordsworth and Clare, the experience of either. Close observation helps us experience the ‘thingness’ of life, which certainly led both poets to a deep appreciation of our relationship to things.

Wordsworth called ‘the bodily eye’ ‘the most despotic of our senses’, ambivalent about the power of things to disturb, aware, in his youth, of how blinkered one’s sight can become, even by beauty.

“What wonder, then, if, to a mind so far
Perverted, even the visible Universe
Fell under the dominion of a taste
Less spiritual, with microscopic view
Was scanned, as I had scanned the moral world?”   [The Prelude Bk. 12, 88-92]

He notes his own failings as those of Clare’s man of taste whose ‘heart oerflows with swarms of thought / To that great being who raised life from nought’, yet ‘arts strong impulse mars the truth of taste’.

Wordsworth seems painfully aware of Addison’s ‘chasm’ but mostly because, unlike Clare, he can no longer see for looking.

In the poem quoted, Shadows of Taste, Clare notes the poetic gatherings of nature in his everyday world; birds and flowers have taste, but you need to understand their ironic mimicking of human perception.

“The yellowhammer like a tasteful guest
Neath picturesque green molehills makes a nest
Where oft the shepherd with unlearned ken
Finds strange eggs scribbled as with ink and pen
He looks with wonder on the learned marks
And calls them in his memory writing larks” (ll. 9-14)

This crafty poem – in every sense – has a gentle dig at just about everyone; here Clare touches on his own predilection for nest-raiding, and his sense of wonder – and humour – at nature’s apparent collusion with human responses. And Clare insists on looking. Richard Cronin in New Approaches to Clare noted how most ‘Romantic’ bird poems are about the ones you can’t see, only hear: cuckoos, nightingales and skylarks. Clare, though, will struggle through the undergrowth to see the nightingale, even though his presence renders her silent. The shepherd examines the eggs with unlearned knowledge – exactly that insight that Clare sees as a prerequisite for ‘natural’ poetry. There is sight and there is insight; in his description of the eggs that humans ‘know’ but cannot ‘read’ Clare pinpoints his own relationship with writing things down. His ‘nest’ poems are among the finest observations of ‘material and obvious things’ and also determined exercises in reciprocity. No more the raider, yet perhaps he was aware of a different kind of betrayal in trying to make birds real for his audience. And yet Clare can excel in what Hooke found suspect in natural science; the work of ‘fancy’, the poet’s eye. In The Yellowhammer’s Nest, Clare returns to the ‘pen-scribbled’ eggs:

“Five eggs pen-scribbled oer with ink their shells
Resembling writing scrawls which fancy reads
As natures poesy and pastoral spells”

The ‘writing larks’ were a common farmland sight; their song – ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese’ – a familiar sound. Peter Thompson, writing online for the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, comments on their decline and on his own discovery of the nests ‘hidden away in tangled bramble and grass in the bottom of a hedge … I instantly realised as I looked down on the four creamy coloured eggs with random scrawled lines all over them, why the local keeper called these birds “scribbling larks”’.

“The weedy forage crops are no longer needed and overwintering stubbles are weed free, as modern herbicides have done their job so well. Life is tough for the modern day yellowhammer.”
Life was tough for Clare’s bird as well: ‘For snakes are known with chill and deadly coil / To watch such nests and seize the helpless young’ (ll. 25-6). Clare weaves discovery and danger together in his nest poems, the ‘cowboy’ coming across the nest on his way to ‘dewberry’ gathering, the risks of harm for the bird and the man, by water and by land. As far as Clare is concerned there is no reason why you can’t blend Keats with country-lore, Parnassus and Castalia with mole-hills and horse-hair. Fancy need not preclude observation, and a close reading of the scribbled eggs reveals their magic power, in another link both to Keats and to Clare’s own folklore, as John Goodridge points out in John Clare and Community.

“The natural world seemingly writes poetry as he does. And to make quite sure the reader is properly beguiled by this idea, it is explained in terms of bewitchment: the writings on the eggshell are fancied as pastoral ‘spells’.”

But this witchery also hints at Clare’s own fears of discovery and betrayal, and leads us to Eden’s serpent. While science might dictate our necessary understanding of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’, of which Tennyson was to complain at a later date, Clare sees something deeper in the devastation of a raided nest, or frightened ladybird, whether by snakes or by clumsy or devious humans.

“And like as though the plague became a guest
Leaving a houseless-home, a ruined nest
And mournful hath the little warbler sung
When such like woes hath rent its little breast.” (ll. 27-30)

I would imagine that Hooke might think this truly fanciful, except that Hooke’s own descriptions lead him into the wonder of nature, not observation alone. Here, we come back to the ethics of observation. Being in the present moment is a joy and a pain, as Clare and Wordsworth both experienced. Wordsworth attempted transcendence in his observation:

“While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.” [Tintern Abbey, ll. 48-50]

In a way, Clare was too honest an observer. The houseless-home is terrifying. It was a real threat for those living on the edge of subsistence, human and non-human alike.

The ladybird’s name – ‘Clock a Clay’ – alludes to the idea that you can tell the time by her in much the same way as a dandelion-clock, as she sits on your hand while you count the hours before she flies away. There has always been a close story-telling link between the little beetle and her human observers, urging her away to save her house from fire and return her children to safety. Did this tale also inform Clare’s vision? No fire for him, either; she will be safe if it’s the last thing … ‘watching for the time of day’ (l. 24). Time for what; to be free, or to get on with everyday life? Is this the Last Trump?

In Clock a Clay, again Clare combines close observation with fancy and folk-lore, but this time his imagination no longer needs to please anyone but himself, reduced to the asylum but free, did he but know it, to write whatever he chose. His late sonnet The Yellowhammer is more optimistic: Clare sees a bright, confident bird, convinced his dwelling-place is right.

“The yellow hammer trailing grass will come
To fix a place and choose an early home
With yellow breast and head of solid gold.” (The Yellowhammer, ll. 12-14)

Solid gold – some magic there! Surely ‘trailing clouds of glory’ to match!

Sue Edney

Sue Edney returned to academic life after raising a family and 25 years as a self-employed therapist, completing a PhD at Bath Spa University on John Clare, William Barnes and cottage gardens. She teaches English at Bath Spa University at undergraduate and postgraduate level, and also at Bristol University as a tutor for the part-time continuing education programme at degree level. Sue participates widely in conferences and has published several papers and essays in journals and essay collections on 19th-century dialect writing and connections to place. She is at present completing a monograph on dialect, landscape and identity with particular reference to Clare and Barnes.

15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More
17.05.2018

The Byron effect

by Miranda Seymour Any study of the lives of Lord Byron’s wife and daughter points towards one inescapable conclusion: the enduring power of Byron’s personality. Annabella Milbanke married Byron in January 1815. Ada, born towards the end of their first turbulent year as a married couple, was only a few weeks old when Lady Byron […]

Read More
01.05.2018

Spring shoots and green peas: the Wordsworths and their kitchen garden

by Gareth Evans Following six months of settled living with his sister Dorothy, one May morning William Wordsworth left Dove Cottage with his brother John to walk through Yorkshire.  Separated from her brothers in early childhood only to be permanently reunited as adults, an understandably emotional Dorothy found ways of coping with what was clearly […]

Read More
16.04.2018

The Gravestone of John Keats: Romancing the Stone

by Ian Reynolds   John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five on February 23rd, 1821 and is buried at the Cemitero Acattolico—the so-called Protestant Cemetery in Rome (1). Two years later, in the early spring of 1823 his gravestone with epitaph was finally laid at his burial site. (2) Much has been documented about Keats’s […]

Read More
07.04.2018

The winners of the 2018 Wordsworth birthday poem competition

We had another wonderful set of entries this year, on the subject of ‘The child is father of the man’.  We’d like to thank Fiona Sampson, the poet and acclaimed author of The Girl who Wrote Frankenstein, for being this year’s judge, and for very kindly donating two copies of her book to the winner […]

Read More