Unwatch’d, the garden bough shall sway,
The tender blossom flutter down,
Unloved, that beech will gather brown,
This maple burn itself away;
Unloved, the sun-flower, shining fair,
Ray round with flames her disk of seed,
And many a rose-carnation feed
With summer spice the humming air;
Unloved, by many a sandy bar,
The brook shall babble down the plain,
At noon or when the lesser wain
Is twisting round the polar star;
Uncared for, gird the windy grove,
And flood the haunts of hern and crake;
Or into silver arrows break
The sailing moon in creek and cove;
Till from the garden and the wild
A fresh association blow,
And year by year the landscape grow
Familiar to the stranger’s child;
As year by year the labourer tills
His wonted glebe, or lops the glades;
And year by year our memory fades
From all the circle of the hills.
Perhaps Tennyson was unable to conceive a love of landscape other than human; the multitudinous activities of insect, fish, amphibian, bird and mammal which use and mould an ecosystem are deemed by him incapable of love, although they continue before, during, and after any human possession.
His sadness, however, as he and his family prepared to move from the rectory which they had inhabited throughout Tennyson’s childhood and youth, is full of a loving perception of its environs. Nature continues in all its aspects, reminding him of what he has been given by this landscape, and what he will miss. Another human love will take the place of his.
The labourer by contrast may spend a lifetime in the same landscape providing part of its enduring life which includes the lopping of tree branches which have been around too long. This detail leads into the acceptance of his family’s irrelevance to the house, garden and landscape they leave behind. The tone is affectionate and regretful unlike A E Housman’s “Tell me not here it needs not saying /what tune the enchantress plays/ in aftermaths of soft September,” which ends:
For Nature, heartless witless Nature/ will neither see nor know/ what stranger’s feet may mount the meadow/ and trespass there and go/ nor ask amid the dews of morning/ if they be mine, or no.
Tennyson famously characterised Nature as ‘red in tooth and claw,’ but the Nature he knows well, the natural world partly formed by human intervention, is known by him in its gracious particulars.
As I began to ascend a hill track loved by my late daughter, my ears caught the sound of an investigatory mewing, as a buzzard soared above the pine plantation to my right, maybe the same bird she had pointed out to me only a year or two before. I mewed back, and it called again, and suddenly its partner was with it, checking if this invasion was any threat to their brood in the nest. After another circle above me, they concluded that I was just another irrelevant human, and left.
But when I sat in a rock for a drink and a bite of chocolate, almost immediately I was joined by a raven, who sat, black and shining on a nearby rock in the hope that I would leave enough crumb to make his/her attention worthwhile. It understood that in the savage environment of the Grampian mountains no chance of sustenance however small should be ignored. It had already survived the prolonged sub-zero temperatures of winter. Its clan will continue to tend this assemblage of rock long after this occasional invader is dust.