Tennyson's Poems

The Talking Oak

First published in 1842, and republished in all subsequent editions with only two slight alterations: in line 113 a mere variant in spelling, and in line 185, where in place of the present reading the editions between 1842 and 1848 read, "For, ah! the Dryad-days were brief".

Tennyson told Mr. Aubrey de Vere that the poem was an experiment meant to test the degree in which it is in the power of poetry to humanise external nature. Tennyson might have remembered that Ovid had made the same experiment nearly two thousand years ago, while Goethe had immediately anticipated him in his charming 'Der Junggesett und der Muehlbach'. There was certainly no novelty in such an attempt. The poem is in parts charmingly written, but the oak is certainly "garrulously given," and comes perilously near to tediousness.

Once more the gate behind me falls;

Once more before my face

I see the moulder'd Abbey-walls,

That stand within the chace.

Beyond the lodge the city lies,

Beneath its drift of smoke;

And ah! with what delighted eyes

I turn to yonder oak.

For when my passion first began,

Ere that, which in me burn'd,

The love, that makes me thrice a man,

Could hope itself return'd;

To yonder oak within the field

I spoke without restraint,

And with a larger faith appeal'd

Than Papist unto Saint.

For oft I talk'd with him apart,

And told him of my choice,

Until he plagiarised a heart,

And answer'd with a voice.

Tho' what he whisper'd, under Heaven

None else could understand;

I found him garrulously given,

A babbler in the land.

But since I heard him make reply

Is many a weary hour;

'Twere well to question him, and try

If yet he keeps the power.

Hail, hidden to the knees in fern,

Broad Oak of Sumner-chace,

Whose topmost branches can discern

The roofs of Sumner-place!

Say thou, whereon I carved her name,

If ever maid or spouse,

As fair as my Olivia, came

To rest beneath thy boughs.--

"O Walter, I have shelter'd here

Whatever maiden grace

The good old Summers, year by year,

Made ripe in Sumner-chace:

"Old Summers, when the monk was fat,

And, issuing shorn and sleek,

Would twist his girdle tight, and pat

The girls upon the cheek.

"Ere yet, in scorn of Peter's-pence,

And number'd bead, and shrift,

Bluff Harry broke into the spence, [1]

And turn'd the cowls adrift:

"And I have seen some score of those

Fresh faces, that would thrive

When his man-minded offset rose

To chase the deer at five;

"And all that from the town would stroll,

Till that wild wind made work

In which the gloomy brewer's soul

Went by me, like a stork:

"The slight she-slips of loyal blood,

And others, passing praise,

Strait-laced, but all too full in bud

For puritanic stays: [2]

"And I have shadow'd many a group

Of beauties, that were born

In teacup-times of hood and hoop,

Or while the patch was worn;

"And, leg and arm with love-knots gay,

About me leap'd and laugh'd

The Modish Cupid of the day,

And shrill'd his tinsel shaft.

"I swear (and else may insects prick

Each leaf into a gall)

This girl, for whom your heart is sick,

Is three times worth them all;

"For those and theirs, by Nature's law,

Have faded long ago;

But in these latter springs I saw

Your own Olivia blow,

"From when she gamboll'd on the greens,

A baby-germ, to when

The maiden blossoms of her teens

Could number five from ten.

"I swear, by leaf, and wind, and rain

(And hear me with thine ears),

That, tho' I circle in the grain

Five hundred rings of years--

"Yet, since I first could cast a shade,

Did never creature pass

So slightly, musically made,

So light upon the grass:

"For as to fairies, that will flit

To make the greensward fresh,

I hold them exquisitely knit,

But far too spare of flesh."

Oh, hide thy knotted knees in fern,

And overlook the chace;

And from thy topmost branch discern

The roofs of Sumner-place.

But thou, whereon I carved her name,

That oft hast heard my vows,

Declare when last Olivia came

To sport beneath thy boughs.

"O yesterday, you know, the fair

Was holden at the town;

Her father left his good arm-chair,

And rode his hunter down.

"And with him Albert came on his.

I look'd at him with joy:

As cowslip unto oxlip is,

So seems she to the boy.

"An hour had past--and, sitting straight

Within the low-wheel'd chaise,

Her mother trundled to the gate

Behind the dappled grays.

"But, as for her, she stay'd [3] at home,

And on the roof she went,

And down the way you use to come,

She look'd with discontent.

"She left the novel half-uncut

Upon the rosewood shelf;

She left the new piano shut:

She could not please herself.

"Then ran she, gamesome as the colt,

And livelier than a lark

She sent her voice thro' all the holt

Before her, and the park.

"A light wind chased her on the wing,

And in the chase grew wild,

As close as might be would he cling

About the darling child:

"But light as any wind that blows

So fleetly did she stir,

The flower she touch'd on dipt and rose,

And turn'd to look at her.

"And here she came, and round me play'd,

And sang to me the whole

Of those three stanzas that you made

About my 'giant bole';

"And in a fit of frolic mirth

She strove to span my waist:

Alas, I was so broad of girth,

I could not be embraced.

"I wish'd myself the fair young beech

That here beside me stands,

That round me, clasping each in each,

She might have lock'd her hands.

"Yet seem'd the pressure thrice as sweet

As woodbine's fragile hold,

Or when I feel about my feet

The berried briony fold."

O muffle round thy knees with fern,

And shadow Sumner-chace!

Long may thy topmost branch discern

The roofs of Sumner-place!

But tell me, did she read the name

I carved with many vows

When last with throbbing heart I came

To rest beneath thy boughs?

"O yes, she wander'd round and round

These knotted knees of mine,

And found, and kiss'd the name she found,

And sweetly murmur'd thine.

"A teardrop trembled from its source,

And down my surface crept.

My sense of touch is something coarse,

But I believe she wept.

"Then flush'd her cheek with rosy light,

She glanced across the plain;

But not a creature was in sight:

She kiss'd me once again.

"Her kisses were so close and kind,

That, trust me on my word,

Hard wood I am, and wrinkled rind,

But yet my sap was stirr'd:

"And even into my inmost ring

A pleasure I discern'd

Like those blind motions of the Spring,

That show the year is turn'd.

"Thrice-happy he that may caress

The ringlet's waving balm

The cushions of whose touch may press

The maiden's tender palm.

"I, rooted here among the groves,

But languidly adjust

My vapid vegetable loves [4]

With anthers and with dust:

"For, ah! my friend, the days were brief [5]

Whereof the poets talk,

When that, which breathes within the leaf,

Could slip its bark and walk.

"But could I, as in times foregone,

From spray, and branch, and stem,

Have suck'd and gather'd into one

The life that spreads in them,

"She had not found me so remiss;

But lightly issuing thro',

I would have paid her kiss for kiss

With usury thereto."

O flourish high, with leafy towers,

And overlook the lea,

Pursue thy loves among the bowers,

But leave thou mine to me.

O flourish, hidden deep in fern,

Old oak, I love thee well;

A thousand thanks for what I learn

And what remains to tell.

"'Tis little more: the day was warm;

At last, tired out with play,

She sank her head upon her arm,

And at my feet she lay.

"Her eyelids dropp'd their silken eaves.

I breathed upon her eyes

Thro' all the summer of my leaves

A welcome mix'd with sighs.

"I took the swarming sound of life--

The music from the town--

The murmurs of the drum and fife

And lull'd them in my own.

"Sometimes I let a sunbeam slip,

To light her shaded eye;

A second flutter'd round her lip

Like a golden butterfly;

"A third would glimmer on her neck

To make the necklace shine;

Another slid, a sunny fleck,

From head to ancle fine.

"Then close and dark my arms I spread,

And shadow'd all her rest--

Dropt dews upon her golden head,

An acorn in her breast.

"But in a pet she started up,

And pluck'd it out, and drew

My little oakling from the cup,

And flung him in the dew.

"And yet it was a graceful gift--

I felt a pang within

As when I see the woodman lift

His axe to slay my kin.

"I shook him down because he was

The finest on the tree.

He lies beside thee on the grass.

O kiss him once for me.

"O kiss him twice and thrice for me,

That have no lips to kiss,

For never yet was oak on lea

Shall grow so fair as this."

Step deeper yet in herb and fern,

Look further thro' the chace,

Spread upward till thy boughs discern

The front of Sumner-place.

This fruit of thine by Love is blest,

That but a moment lay

Where fairer fruit of Love may rest

Some happy future day.

I kiss it twice, I kiss it thrice,

The warmth it thence shall win

To riper life may magnetise

The baby-oak within.

But thou, while kingdoms overset,

Or lapse from hand to hand,

Thy leaf shall never fail, nor yet

Thine acorn in the land.

May never saw dismember thee,

Nor wielded axe disjoint,

That art the fairest-spoken tree

From here to Lizard-point.

O rock upon thy towery top

All throats that gurgle sweet!

All starry culmination drop

Balm-dews to bathe thy feet!

All grass of silky feather grow--

And while he sinks or swells

The full south-breeze around thee blow

The sound of minster bells.

The fat earth feed thy branchy root,

That under deeply strikes!

The northern morning o'er thee shoot

High up, in silver spikes!

Nor ever lightning char thy grain,

But, rolling as in sleep,

Low thunders bring the mellow rain,

That makes thee broad and deep!

And hear me swear a solemn oath,

That only by thy side

Will I to Olive plight my troth,

And gain her for my bride.

And when my marriage morn may fall,

She, Dryad-like, shall wear

Alternate leaf and acorn-ball

In wreath about her hair.

And I will work in prose and rhyme,

And praise thee more in both

Than bard has honour'd beech or lime,

Or that Thessalian growth, [6]

In which the swarthy ringdove sat,

And mystic sentence spoke;

And more than England honours that,

Thy famous brother-oak,

Wherein the younger Charles abode

Till all the paths were dim,

And far below the Roundhead rode,

And humm'd a surly hymn.

[Footnote 1: Spence is a larder and buttery. In the 'Promptorium] Parverum it is defined as "cellarium promptuarium".

[Footnote 2: Cf. Burns' "godly laces," 'To the Unco Righteous'.]

[Footnote 3: All editions previous to 1853 have 'staid'.]

[Footnote 4: The phrase is Marvell's. 'Cf. To his Coy Mistress' (a] favourite poem of Tennyson's), "my vegetable loves should grow".

[Footnote 5: 1842 to 1850. "For, ah! the Dryad-days were brief.]

[Footnote 6: A reference to the oracular oaks of Dodona which was, of] course, in Epirus, but the Ancients believed, no doubt erroneously, that there was another Dodona in Thessaly. See the article "Dodona" in Smith's 'Dict. of Greek and Roman Geography'.