Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The uses of wood

The heart is warmed by a good list; at an elemental level, the ability to index gives us control. Look at Adam and Eve's naming or Robinson Crusoe's inventory of stores. A while back we added an index to the blog and that got us thinking about why lists were so enjoyable in a poem; handled right (that goes without saying).

A list that I enjoy is one in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene; it is in Canto One of the poem scene-setting and it is a list of tree wood and its various uses. Wow! This part of the poem was written in 1590. Its audience the leisured of Elizabeth 1st's court in England, a time when people had hours to read poetry, and Spenser, a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh had a place at that court - but even so, a list of wood. Spenser was thinking of Virgil no doubt and the Eclogues, the mediaeval shepherd's calendars which explain what agricultural jobs need to be done and when.


But the list is fantastic, it is a detailed list and begins "Much can they praise the trees so straight and high!" and so we discovers elms can be used to prop up vines, the yew springy and pliable is "obedient to the bender's will" and at this time it was used to make long-bows (still a vital part of the English arsenal). And the sallow or willow wood for the mill perhaps to make the turnery, tool handles or to lie underwater as it was also used as plaited basket-work in fish-traps.


And then it is over, 14 lines, a sonnet's length of information in this vast poem. Take a look and do some research and I defy you not to want to write a poem about one of the details that you discover.

 Much can they prayse the trees so straight and hy,
    The sayling Pine, the Cedar proud and tall,
    The vine-prop Elme, the Poplar neuer dry,
    The builder Oake, sole king of forrests all,
The Aspine good for staues, the Cypresse funerall.



The Laurell, meed of mightie Conquerours
    And Poets sage, the Firre that weepeth still,
    The Willow worne of forlorne Paramours,
    The Eugh obedient to the benders will,
    The Birch for shaftes, the Sallow for the mill,
    The Mirrhe sweete bleeding in the bitter wound,
    The warlike Beech, the Ash for nothing ill,
    The fruitfull Oliue, and the Platane round,
The caruer Holme, the Maple seeldom inward sound.



Led with delight, they thus beguile the way,
    Vntill the blustring storme is ouerblowne;



And of course, Spenser was a bit of a geek himself. He invented the Spenserian stanza which he uses in The Faerie Queene. The stanza's main rhythm is iambic pentameter with a final line in iambic hexameter. This latter has six feet or stresses,and can be known as an Alexandrine. The rhyme scheme is ababbcbcc.

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