Nige gives us Auden’s poetic tribute to two great literary naturalists…
Two books I had on the go a little while ago were Richard Mabey’s biography of Gilbert White and a selection from Thoreau’s Journals. This latter is the Dover Thrift edition, which somehow winnows the 14 mighty volumes of published diaries down to a meagre 55 pages (the jacket is still proudly labelled ‘Unabridged’ nonetheless).
As regular readers of Patrick Kurp’s incomparable blog will know, Thoreau’s Journals are full of good things – indeed, they even exist in blog form themselves. Gilbert White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne is rather less readable than Thoreau. I read it years ago, and have experienced no urgent desire to reread it in its entirety. It’s one of those books that is perhaps more revered than actually read, more important for what it stands for – or seems to stand for – than for what is between its covers.
White’s life and work have been mythologised almost from the time of publication, with White as the simple soul, the artless child of nature, his quiet life emblematic of a very English idyll of village life. Mabey, of course, dismisses the myth and sets about remaking White, literally, from the ground up – from the remarkably complex and diverse, and remarkably unchanged, terroir (only the French word will do) of Selborne. His biography is the work of a naturalist writing about a fellow naturalist, and is the better for it. Here is a poet writing about White and Thoreau together – W H Auden‘s relaxed, conversational Posthumous Letter to Gilbert White.
It’s rather sad we can only meet people
whose dates overlap with ours, a real shame that
you and Thoreau (we know that he read you)
never shook hands. He was, we hear, a rabid
Anti-Clerical and quick-tempered, you the
quietest of curates, yet I think he might well have
found in you the Ideal Friend he wrote of
with such gusto, but never ran into.
Stationaries, both of you, but keen walkers,
chaste by nature and, it would seem, immune to
the beck of worldly power, kin spirits,
who found all creatures amusive, even
the tortoise in spite of its joyless stupors,
aspected the vagrant moods of the Weather,
from the modest conduct of fogs to
the coarse belch of thunder or the rainbow’s
federal arch, what fun you’d have had surveying
two rival landscapes and their migrants, noting
the pitches owls hoot on, comparing
the echo-response of dactyls and spondees.
Selfishly, I, too, would have plumbed to know you:
I could have learned so much. I’m apt to fancy
myself as a lover of Nature,
but have no right to, really. How many
birds and plants can I spot? At most two dozen.
You might, though, have found such an ignoramus
a pesky bore. Time spared you that: I
have, though, thank God, the right to re-read you.