I have long wanted to write about John Lewis-Stempel. You can meet him rhapsodising about the English countryside, as shown by its fields and pastures or striding across the battlefields of the First World War. Either way, he is, to my mind at least, a prose-poet.
Meadowlands, which is where I first encountered his writing, is sub-titled The Private Life of an English Field. In a notebook which spans the twelve months of the year, he carries us into a field, an ancient meadow and watches what happens; who stumbles past – badger, hedgehog, fox, partridge and who flies above him, feathered or invertebrate, day and night. It is all rather marvellous and strange, especially if you have never actually done it yourself.
The intense scrutiny is rewarding, we learn through this detailed account a great deal about this one patch of soil, earth, humus and our connection to it as humans (the similarity is not accidental). For Lewis-Stempel does not stop at using words for things, he explains where they come from and their relationship to us and to all linguistic development.
His more recent book, The Running Hare, A Secret Life of Farmland is a threnody to a fast vanishing landscape. He has noted, haven’t we all, that in the neon-green fields of modern day farming, the treeless, hedgeless prairies of brilliantly coloured, nitrogen-fed, insecticide-drenched wheat, there is no life. No birds, no insects, no mammals, nothing but produce can be seen.
To see whether it is possible to revive the landscape before it is too late, he secures a short tenancy on a small holding, three fields and a copse. He is only permitted to plough one field and that for only one year.
We follow that plough. Using the oldest possible methods of ploughing, sewing and reaping with a non-GM wheat seed and some wildflower seeds he records the arrival of birds, bees and insects, mammals and all things natural.
This might sound like watching paint dry, but truly it is not. The language alone is enough to make your mouth tingle, it all grows in your mind. This whole book is filled with poetry, his prose-poem which is the body of the work and poems from other naturalists: John Clare, William Langland, Edward Thomas and some of the naturalist-parsons of the eighteenth century – Gilbert White and others.
The naturalist-parson is a dying breed, along with much of the wild life that they so faithfully recorded. How can a parson with nine parishes, and an injunction to run them as if they were a business, share the intimacy with the flowers and trees of his acreage, when nine parishes might run from Bruton through Shepton Malet, Eversleigh and all points beyond. Gilbert White was only concerned with Selborne in Hampshire and his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne is a classic of its kind.
The Running Hare is also an angrier book, dedicated to the vanishing wildlife of England – the brown hare, the corncrake, the poppy, and the partridge (grey and red-legged); all of them and a whole list more of butterflies, plants and other wild life that is fast becoming endangered.
In the same vein, but from a different angle Housman Country, Into the Heart of England looks at the life of the poet who wrote A Shropshire Lad, through the pictures painted in the poem, one of the most famous poems in the English language and through the other medium that it has inspired, largely music but also paintings.
Peter Parker has not set out just to tell the life of AE Housman, though clearly the life tells itself if you follow the poems carefully and read them with attention. This book is more about the landscape that inspired the poet, which like John Lewis-Stempel in the West Country. Housman did not live in Shropshire, that county was the vision that he had from the hills where he grew up; he lived in Hampstead, London. Lewis-Stempel’s county is Herefordshire.
A Shropshire Lad was an influential poem, many poets read it and were inspired by it. It paints a picture of England that is worth more than a hundred paintings, and it was no accident that early editions of the poem were deliberately cheap and of a size that would fit into the pocket. Those pockets, many of them, belonged to soldiers of the First World War, poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen. But not just them, many and many of the ordinary soldiers had copies, and many of them knew the whole series off by heart. These exquisitely beautiful wood-engravings are by Agnes Miller Parker who was an engraver-illustrator, her works are used in this book to illustrate the vanished world of AE Housman.