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Versed in Living Nature: Wordsworth’s Trees

In the preface of Versed in Living Nature, Peter Dale and Brandon Chao-Chi Yen describe the contents: “We visit many of Wordsworth’s trees and explore their meanings and implications, personal, physical, cultural, religious, historical and political.” To their great credit, they do all of that in 320 pages.
The index under “trees” lists 58 varieties, with multiple pages for many, especially the oak and yew. Each tree is located in William Wordsworth’s poems. (It helps to have a little knowledge of the poems, but it’s not necessary).
The trees are also connected to the poet’s activities, his schooling, his years in the Lake District of England, his travels. Special attention goes to the people in his life, chief among them Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy. Dale and Yen quote her often, reinforcing her importance to his poetry.
Among others they meet, the novelist Sir Walter Scott appears almost as a side note during a visit to Scotland. The book is quite a literary Who’s Who of the British literary scene.
Adding to the breadth of the book are references to Dale and Yen’s visits to Wordsworth sites. In commenting on a scene with four yews in “A Tradition of Darley Dale, Derbyshire,” for instance, they note that only three survive today, and they are hard to find.
Very helpful are the contexts in which all these trees are placed. Some are political (e.g., the Napoleonic war), some economic (the Highland Clearances), some literary (the controversy over the Ossian poems).
Wordsworth was also a gardener. At Dove Cottage he “began to learn about gardens not as a gentleman dilettante but as someone who would supply cabbages for the kitchen” (p. 132). He learned enough to gain a reputation as a garden guru, someone sought for advice on horticultural matters.
Building on all the above, the authors develop Wordsworth’s ideas and how his trees connect to his understanding of Nature as both physical and transcendent. It’s a very impressive accomplishment.
Reviewed by Priscilla Grundy in the Leaflet, Volume 10, Issue 5, May 2023