Wednesday 21 April 2010

Linden, Line, Lime

It's the time of year when the lime trees - like Browning's elms a couple of weeks ago - are 'in tiny leaf'. The tender young leaves - a delicate bright green, translucent in sunlight - look good enough to eat (and are, in a bittersweeet salady way). Nabokov always refers to the tree (in English) as the linden, which is correct and a more beautiful word, but seems somehow affected in a native Anglophone. In English, linden became line, then the misleading lime. The Dorset poet William Barnes - of whom I mean to write one day - favoured linden, and his Linden Lea was beautifully set to music by Vaughan Williams. Lime was good enough for Coleridge in one of his finest poems, written when the poet was obliged to stay behind while Lamb, the Wordsworths and Mrs C went off to explore the Quantocks. Mrs C had, as Colerdige explained to Southey, 'accidentally emptied a skillet of boiling milk on my foot, which confined me the whole time of C. Lamb's stay'. Was it an accident? Let's hope so. Anyway, his pain was our gain:

This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison

Addressed to Charles Lamb, of the India House, London

Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm’d mine eyes to blindness! They, meanwhile,
Friends, whom I never more may meet again,
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge,
Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,
To that still roaring dell, of which I told;
The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep,
And only speckled by the mid-day sun;
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock
Flings arching like a bridge;—that branchless ash,
Unsunn’d and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves
Ne’er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,
Fann’d by the water-fall! 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.
Now, my friends emerge
Beneath the wide wide Heaven—and view again
The many-steepled tract magnificent
Of hilly fields and meadows, and the sea,
With some fair bark, perhaps, whose sails light up
The slip of smooth clear blue betwixt two Isles
Of purple shadow! Yes! they wander on
In gladness all; but thou, methinks, most glad,
My gentle-hearted Charles! for thou hast pined
And hunger’d after Nature, many a year,
In the great City pent, winning thy way
With sad yet patient soul, through evil and pain
And strange calamity! Ah! slowly sink
Behind the western ridge, thou glorious Sun!
Shine in the slant beams of the sinking orb,
Ye purple heath-flowers! richlier burn, ye clouds!
Live in the yellow light, ye distant groves!
And kindle, thou blue Ocean! So my friend
Struck with deep joy may stand, as I have stood,
Silent with swimming sense; yea, gazing round
On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem
Less gross than bodily; and of such hues
As veil the Almighty Spirit, when yet he makes
Spirits perceive his presence.
A delight
Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad
As I myself were there! Nor in this bower,
This little lime-tree bower, have I not mark’d
Much that has sooth’d me. Pale beneath the blaze
Hung the transparent foliage; and I watch’d
Some broad and sunny leaf, and lov’d to see
The shadow of the leaf and stem above
Dappling its sunshine! And that walnut-tree
Was richly ting’d, and a deep radiance lay
Full on the ancient ivy, which usurps
Those fronting elms, and now, with blackest mass
Makes their dark branches gleam a lighter hue
Through the late twilight: and though now the bat
Wheels silent by, and not a swallow twitters,
Yet still the solitary humble-bee
Sings in the bean-flower! Henceforth I shall know
That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure;
No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to Love and Beauty! and sometimes
’Tis well to be bereft of promis’d good,
That we may lift the soul, and contemplate
With lively joy the joys we cannot share.
My gentle-hearted Charles! when the last rook
Beat its straight path along the dusky air
Homewards, I blest it! deeming its black wing
(Now a dim speck, now vanishing in light)
Had cross’d the mighty Orb’s dilated glory,
While thou stood’st gazing; or, when all was still,
Flew creeking o’er thy head, and had a charm
For thee, my gentle-hearted Charles, to whom
No sound is dissonant which tells of Life.

Phew! Coleridge was seldom better, and never more genially humane - it must have been the influence of Lamb.
As it happens, in the churchyard mentioned in my last post, there is a row of three huge and magnificent limes to the north of the church. A line, you might say, of lines.


  1. 'Unter den Linden' in Berlin must be one of the best bits of any city in the world. (if one can avoid thinking of ranks of goose-stepping soldiers, that is.)

  2. An old German friend was born two weeks after me, in an apartment on the Unter den Linden, unfortunately that was July 1942. His mother later took in Russian lodgers.
    Our limes are still hiding from the cold.