A note in the margin of 'Windsor-Forest'

Thy forests, Windsor! and thy green retreats
At once the Monarch's and the Muse's seats

Never again would Pope address a forest or woodland. The first 290 lines were, he tells us, written when the poet was 16, in 1704, at the same time as his rather suffocating pastorals, those last English gasps of that form. Johnson considered "local poetry" to be that which describes a particular place without really lifting off from that one landscape, and he praised some poets in his Lives for their mastery of this form (including Denham, whose 'Cooper's Hill' Pope specifically invokes by name in this poem); the first 290 lines of 'Windsor-Forest' might fit Johnson's local denomination - none of Pope's other poems would. So it's a work where the reader considers a possible future development which never occurred, as she might also see a rather different possible line of writing to come in 'Eloisa to Abelard'. But Pope became a Wit, and a great success, and only these early pieces remain for the idle reader to speculate on.

The rest of 'Windsor-Forest' was completed in 1712, to celebrate the "sacred peace" of the Treaty of Utrecht, and the leaves soon give stronger, clearer geopolitical shadings. In the cold December of 1712, Pope wrote in a letter, "I am endeavouring to raise up around about me a painted scene of woods and forests in verdure and beauty, trees springing, fields flowering, Nature laughing. I am wandering thro' Bowers and Grottos in conceit, and while my trembling body is cowering o'er a fire, my mind is expatiating in open sunshine."

But back to the sixteen year old's poem. The Pope family had moved out from London's Lombard Street when his father took early retirement from his linen business as anti-Catholic legislation contrived to drive papists from the capital. They settled, after Hammersmith, in Binfield, surrounded by Windsor Forest. The boy Pope was furnished with this English, green symbolic and, buffering the anti-Catholic times, securing foliage all around. The forest gave vital will:

Here hills and vales, the woodland and the plain,
Here earth and water seem to strive again
Not Chaos-like together crush'd and bruis'd,
But, as the world, harmoniously confus'd

The last line here seems to solve the later (and some think telling) puzzle as to how Pope could change his description of Nature in the Essay on Man from a "mighty maze, and all without a plan" to a "mighty maze but not without a plan", when told his poem was too negative. He probably did believe both, but "harmoniously confus'd" put it more succinctly.

Imagination gilds the world but does not change it, Pope later asserted. 'Windsor-Forest' begins by asserting very little; at its least stylized, this heroic couplet:

Here waving groves a chequer'd scene display,
And part admit, and part exclude the day;

To break a butterfly on a wheel: The first line presents the named thing, "waving groves", which are then styled as "chequer'd" before that conceit is broken apart by the additional clauses which literalize the thought in a drawn out second line, "part admit, and part exclude the day", which paints in 3D - unnamed, light is admitted here (bright patches) and excluded there (shade), but the reader can see both in a way in which she wouldn't if the line was reduced to a word such as "dappled". Of course, the whole of the second line may have been thought up just to pad out the first to complete the couplet, so the next couplet could bring a nymph into it. But in this tiny, one-line invention, Pope produces an effect of a kind he would always gild by at least one more layer later on, such as in this description of pine trees and Clerks nodding off to sleep in book II of the Dunciad:

Soft creeping, words on words, the sense compose,
At ev'ry line they stretch, they yawn, they doze.
As to soft gales top-heavy pines bow low
Their heads, and lift them as they cease to blow:
Thus oft they rear, and oft the head decline,
As breathe, or pause, by fits, the airs divine.

(ii 388-394)

Edmund Hardy

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