Thursday, 24 June 2010

'who found all creatures amusive...'

Two books I have on the go at the moment are Richard Mabey's biography of Gilbert White (as mentioned here) 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 - 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.


  1. Thanks for the good word, Nige. I'm pleased to see you're reading Thoreau's journals and curious to learn what you'll make of them. He is in some ways the quintessential American, even today. An English reader's reaction will be interesting. You'll enjoy the nature observations, I'm certain.

    About Gilbert White: He's a writer I wanted to enjoy far more than I actually did. I've read his book twice, separated by twenty years or more,and have dipped into it briefly now and then. I knew a Joyce scholar who adored him. The failing, I trust, is mine.

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  3. It won't truly have success, I suppose this way.