The secret nests of the poets

Continuing his tree house theme, Jonathan Law peeks into the arboreal dens of two great poets…

To an averagely imaginative child, a tree house surely offers a unique combination of delights. Like other outdoor dens, it is a liminal space where the wild consorts oddly with the domestic and the homely is made thrillingly strange. It is a place to experiment with adult roles – to play house or soldiers or doctors and nurses – while safe from adult eyes and judgements. And unlike other dens and hidey-holes, the tree house is poised marvellously between heaven and earth – an anomalous, arboreal realm where you can root in leaves and moss and bark while also walking on air like Jack in his beanstalk or Jim in the crow’s-nest. Boss of your own branch office, king of the bouncy castle, you have something later life will rarely top – a hiding place that is also a look-out, an airy throne where you can sway above it all at the hub of it all, invisible but all-seeing, the careless god of a green wavering heaven.

To an averagely sensitive adult, a tree house will probably mean all of this with the added element of nostalgia – a feeling toward the secret places of our own childhood, our own Strawberry Fields (“no one I think is in my tree”) or refuge under the ivy. According to point of view, the urge to shrug off adult burdens and escape into the tree tops may seem either liberating or pathetic. There’s that Ian McEwan novel I haven’t read in which a Tory MP cracks up and reverts to a Just William, short-trousers-and-catapult way of life in a tree house. One thinks of Boris, but I don’t suppose we are meant to admire the example. More poignantly and ambiguously, there is Calvino’s Baron in the Trees and the mad Sweeney of Irish legend, both of whom cast off earthbound duties for a life roaming among the treetops.

As the man who has done most to interpret the Sweeney story to modern readers, it is no surprise to find that Seamus Heaney is a great fellow for the tree houses. Bosky childhood dens are recalled with ardour in his short memoir Mossbawn:

All children want to crouch in their secret nests. I loved the fork of a beech tree at the head of our lane, the close thicket of a boxwood hedge in the front of the house, the soft, collapsing pile of hay in a back corner of the byre; but especially I spent time in the throat of an old willow tree at the end of the farmyard. It was a hollow tree, with gnarled, spreading roots, a soft, perishing bark and a pithy inside. Its mouth was like the fat and solid opening in a horse’s collar, and, once you squeezed in through it, you were at the heart of a different life, looking out on the familiar yard as if it were suddenly behind a pane of strangeness. Above your head, the living tree flourished and breathed, you shouldered the slightly vibrant bole, and if you put your forehead to the rough pith you felt the whole lithe and whispering crown of willow moving in the sky above you. In that tight cleft, you sensed the embrace of light and branches, you were a little Atlas shouldering it all, a little Cerunnos pivoting a world of antlers.


Readers of Heaney’s poetry may well feel they know these trees. That willow turns up in the early poem ‘Oracle’, where the child stowed in the hollow trunk becomes its ‘listening familiar’ and in turn discovers a voice:

small mouth and ear
in a woody cleft,
lobe and larynx
of the mossy places.

 This short, oddly charged piece seems to describe a kind of initiation, in which by some spooky means the young Heaney is singled out for poetry. The title alludes to the oracle at Dodona, where the god spoke in the rustling of leaves.

A different sort of awakening comes in the poem called simply In the Beech. If Heaney’s willow is a place to get in at ground level, to hunker down and ruminate, his beech tree is an observatory or vantage point. In the poem, the boy in the high boughs looks out on a dangerous adult world of work and armies and war, finding “a strangeness and a comfort” in the smooth beech trunk and its tangling frills of ivy. “A lookout posted and forgotten”, he knows that his “thick-tapped, soft-fledged, airy listening post” is also a “boundary tree” and inescapably a “tree of knowledge”.

Heaney has a third tree-house poem in the untitled sonnet often known as ‘The Boortree’, a calling to mind of his childhood den in the rank shade of an elder: “Its berries a swart caviar of shot, / A buoyant spawn, a light bruised out of purple”.

Soft corrugations in the boortree’s trunk,
Its green young shoots, its rods like freckled solder:
It was our bower as children, a greenish, dank
And snapping memory as I get older.
And elderberry I have learned to call it.

Here the dialect name for the tree – related to modern English ‘bower’ – is itself a kind of refuge, a pungent den of memories. The ‘touching of tongues’ that goes on in this boor or bower is not just sexual play but the friction between a homely vernacular speech and the standard English of that other, adult world:

Boortree is bower tree, where I played ‘touching tongues’
And felt another’s texture quick on mine.
So, etymologist of roots and graftings,
I fall back to my tree-house and would crouch
Where small buds shoot and flourish in the hush.



And what could it mean to an adult, to climb into the children’s tree house, and look for a kind of rest? One answer is provided by the Scottish poet, Kathleen Jamie, in the title poem of her quietly fine collection The Tree House. Of an evening, the poet hoists herself into the branches of the apple-tree and takes in the view:

I was unseeable. A bletted fruit
hung through tangled branches
just out of reach. Over house roofs:
sullen hills, the firth drained
down to sandbanks …

The invisibility longed for here seems quite specific: an escape from the routines of motherhood and adult domesticity (‘bletted’, significantly, is an old word denoting that imperceptible moment at which ripe fruit becomes overripe):

I lay to sleep,
beside me neither man
nor child, but a lichened branch
wound through the wooden chamber,
pulling it close; a complicity
like our own, when arm in arm
on the city street, we bemoan
our families, our difficult
chthonic anchorage
in the apple-sweetened earth,
without whom we might have lived
the long-ebb of our mid-decades
alone in sheds and attic rooms,
awake in the moonlight souterrains
of our own minds; without whom
we might have lived a hundred other lives,
like taxis strangers hail and hire,
that turn abruptly on the gleaming setts
and head for elsewhere.


The tree house brings on a yearning not for childhood, but for the dens of young adulthood – those lonely “sheds and attic rooms”, with their sense of unchecked freedom and boundless possibility.

The poem ends in a soft nest of paradoxes. First comes the thought that our solid, settled lives may be more provisional than they seem, having the patched up, “knocked together” quality of a child’s tree house. To settle down is always to settle for something, with all that that implies. And yet, once made, our rickety, gimcrack choices have a taste of inevitability. Even if we were to hail and take one of these magical, fleeting taxis, with its promise of a life quite elsewhere, would it not after all bring us to the same place, or to one very like it? There is perhaps only here, this loved, ordinary place where blossoming and growth are not in the end to be separated from what we know of death:

where we’re best played out
in gardens of dockens
and lady’s mantle, kids’ bikes
stranded on the grass;
where we’ve knocked together
of planks and packing chests
a dwelling of sorts; a gall
we’ve asked the tree to carry
of its own dead, and every spring
to drape in leaf and blossom, like a pall.

You can read the complete poem here.

Next week: JL concludes this series in a hedge-on-stilts in Suffolk.

Jonathan Law is a writer and editor of reference books at Market House Books.
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About Author Profile: Jonathan Law

Jonathan Law grew up in Westonzoyland, Somerset. He gained a degree in English from Oxford University and has subsequently followed a career in reference publishing. His books as editor or co-editor include European Culture: A Contemporary Companion (Cassell, 1993), The Cassell Companion to Cinema (1997), The Macmillan Dictionary of Contemporary Phrase and Fable (2002) , Perfect Readings for Weddings (Random House, 2007) and The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (2011). Since 2009 he has been a director of Market House Books Ltd. As well as being a regular contributor to The Dabbler, he has also written for the literary quarterly Slightly Foxed. His book The Whartons of Winchendon is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions. Jonathan lives in Buckinghamshire with his wife and three children.

2 thoughts on “The secret nests of the poets

  1. Gaw
    June 16, 2012 at 10:53

    Thanks JL – marvellous. Some very enjoyable poetry there including what strikes me as an absolutely extraordinary line: “Where small buds shoot and flourish in the hush.”

  2. Brit
    June 17, 2012 at 17:25

    I haven’t read any of Heaney’s prose, but judging from that excerpt I definitely need to correct the omission.

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