Notes for Ronald Johnson's
The Book of the Green Man

Thoreau writes in his Diary for March 16th, 1851: "When I looked into Purchas's Pilgrims, it affected me like looking into an impassable swamp, ten feet deep with sphagnum, where the monarchs of the forest, covered with mosses and stretched along the ground, were making haste to become peat. Those old books suggested a certain fertility, an Ohio soil, as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in. I heard the bellowing of bullfrogs and the hum of mosquitoes reverberating through the thick embossed covers when I had closed the book. Decayed literature makes the richest of all soils."

Notes are an encumbrance to poetry, usually, but at the same time I lust after books with a certain 'Ohio soil', a rich silt of bibliography, books which lead to other books. Thus I would hope that these notes will not burden the poetry, but indicate where I, too, have heard the bullfrogs and out of what earths I have tried to cultivate new growth.

Epigraph: Lewis Spence, in The Minor Traditions of British Mythology, quotes from Machyn's Diary (commenting on a procession at a Lord Mayor's Day, London, Oct. 29th, 1553): "Then cam four grett wodyn [wild men] with grett clubes all in grene, and with skwybes [squibs] borning . . . with gret berds and ryd here and four targets a-pon their bake."

Sponsa Solis: a common Latin name for chicory in the fifteenth century.


epigraph: William Wordsworth, The Prelude.

'huge forms': The Prelude, also: ". . .In my thoughts, There was a darkness, call it solitude/ Or blank desertion, no familiar shapes/ Of hourly objects, images of trees;/ Of sea or sky, no colours of green field;/ But huge and mighty Forms." Also: "The earth. . . work like a sea."

'dim mirrors', etc.: Dorothy Wordsworth, Journals.

'skiey/ influences': William Wordsworth quotes this in A Guide Through the District of the Lakes. . .

'wheel' of mountains: Wordsworth uses the image of a wheel to describe the mountains of the Lake District in his Guide.

'as if/ the Sun shined. . .': Friedrich Martens, An Account of Several Late Voyages and Discoveries.

'dew/ doth perch': The dew "doth pearche unto the grasse" . . . Richard Surflet, Maison Rustique, or The Countrie Farme.

'being/ striken one...': Lyly, Euphues. "The bones of the Lyon, which lying still and moved begin to rot, but being striken one against another break out like fire, and wax greene."

ivy, thunder, oak: The Ivy-Thunder-Oak complex is described in Alexander Porteous' Forest Folklore, Mythology, and Romance.


epigraph: Francis Kilvert, Diaries

'rise and put...': Robert Herrick, Corinna's going a-Maying

'the rustling. . .presence there': Alexander Porteous, Forest Folklore. . .

'as thes day. . .green bones': Harlein MSS 5900.

'I have listened. . .loud cuckoo': Kenneth Jackson quotes this poem in the Welsh section of Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry.

'Wild Wales': Taliesin, Destiny of the Britons: "Their Lord they shall praise,/ Their language they shall keep,/ Their land they shall lose/ Except Wild Wales."

Tintern: We have forgotten, now, the original inspiration of Tintern Abbey. For a description of its appearance in the eighteenth century one should read Thomas Whately, Observations on Modern Gardening.

'Those grey/ old men of Moccas. . .on end': Francis Kilvert, Diaries.

'bright shootes': Henry Vaughan, The Retreat.

'I am a walking fire. . .': Edith Sitwell, The Song of the Cold.

'I find I incorporate. . .': Walt Whitman, Song of Myself.

'vacant interlunar cave': An interesting example of the power of memory (as well as prose) to improve on poetry is Thomas Gray's recollection of Milton's lines from Samson Agonistes: "The Sun to me is dark/ And silent as the Moon,/ When she deserts the night/ Hid in her vacant interlunar cave." Gray wrote in his Journal while he was visiting the Lakes: "Wished for the Moon, but she was dark to me & silent, hid in her vacant interlunar cave."

'I thought. . .the lime': Francis Kilvert, Diaries.

'With what floures. . .": Henry Vaughan, The Morning-watch.

'Living bowers': Vaughan again, from The Timber.

Hafod: Hafod, now completely destroyed, can be read about at its height in George Cumberland's From an Attempt to Describe Hafod, and is also the subject of Elisabeth Inglis-Jones' recent book, Peacocks in Paradise.

'& immediately . . . proclaim him': Giraldus Cambrensis, Itinerary Through Wales.

Lothlórien, mallorn: No work on England and mythology is complete, I reckon, without some mention of J.R.R. Tolkien's Book of the Rings, the most magical imaginative work of the twentieth century.

'each grain of . . . afar': This is a reconstruction of Blake's poem To Thomas Butts.


epigraphs: Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne.

'Salitter': Jakob Boehme, The Signature of All Things: "View this world diligently and consider what manner of sprouts, and branches grow out of the Salitter of the earth, from trees, plants, herbs, roots, flowers, oil, wine, corn, and whatever else there is that thy heart can find out; all is a type of the heavenly pomp."

'Little more. . . plumes': John Ruskin, Athena in the Earth.

'looking in the vegetable glass of Nature': William Blake, Milton.

'summer hasn't come . . .': A folk saying.

'Today I saw . . . poplars': Francis Kilvert, Diaries.

'My light. . .': This is quoted from Constable in John Constable's Clouds by Kurt Badt (tr. Stanley Godman).

'some living thing . . .the place': W.P. Frith in Further Reminiscences quotes Constabel as saying "I always sit till I see some living thing; because if such appears, it is sure to be appropriate to the place."

[horse anecdote]: George Stubbs, 1724-1800, Catalogue of an Exhibition, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 1951.

[quotations in 8, Natural Productions . . .]: Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne.

'Southwell Minster': Southwell Minster is described in Nicholas Pevsner's The Leaves of Southwell. The information about plants in this section comes from Geoffrey Grigson's An Englishman's Flora (though one should read all of Grigson; his book are seminal and essential).

[10, Exhibit from Frederik Ruysch's Anatomical Museum]: This description of Frederik Ruysch's Anatomical Museum comes from Ruthven Todd's Tracks in the Snow.

'Unless the humming . . . of a gnat': Henry David Thoreau, Journals.

'For MATTER . . . thro musical pipes': Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno.

'attenuates . . .the quince': James Hervey, Meditations and Contemplations.

'musical in ocular harmony': Smart again - Jubilate Agno.

'Within and out . . . columbine': This is an anonymous song culled from Edith Sitwell's Book of Flowers.


epigraph: Samuel Palmer, letter to John Linnell, from Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer, by A.H. Palmer.

'The clouds. . . pastures': Isaac Barrow, Sermons on the Creed.

'vegetable gold': "The wall-flowers . . . rise in vegetable gold" . . . John Langhorne, The Fables of Flora.

'Thoughts on RISING . . . Shoreham': Samuel Palmer, a letter quoted in A.H. Palmer's Life and Letters. . .

'Excess more abundantly excessive': Also a letter quoted from above.

'from a leaf . . . planet': A.H. Palmer, himself, from the Life and Letters . . .

'cherub-turtles': Christopher Smart, Hymns.

'Shining Ones': "For in this land the Shining Ones commonly Walked" - John Bunyon, The Pilgrim's Progress.

'Most Glittering, Most Rich, Most Strange': I remember this being quoted from Gustave Moreau in Time magazine, but have been unable to trace the quotation.

'The white Owls': I must thank Miss Barbara Jones for taking me to this grottoesque folly. It is also fully described in her book Follies & Grottoes.

'Pope's grotto': This description of Pope's grotto is arranged, as apparently was, in a style which could only be termed Formal Willy-Nilly, and comes from Pope's gardener, J. Serle—A Plan of Mr. Pope's Garden.

[colors]: These optical phenomena are explained fully in M. Minnaert's Light and Color in the Open Air, a book more useful for poets than painters these days.

'The ancient trees': These trees grow in George Macdonald's Phantasies.

'Hercynian': Pliny - "In the Hercynian forests of Germany we have heard there are strange birds whose feathers shine like fire in the night."

'vine said to entangle': Hutchinson's Popular Botany, by A.E. Knight and Edward Step, has a section devoted to phosphorescence and luminescence in plants. Among other things they mention "Cipo, a South American Vine, said to be so highly luminous, that, when injured, it seems to bleed streams of living fire. Large animals have been noticed standing among its crushed and broken tendrils, dripping with the gleaming fluid, and surrounded by a seeming network of fire."

'Of Certaine White Nights. . .': In a letter to John Linnell quoted by A.H. Palmer in Life and Letters . . . Samuel Palmer, in speaking of "the Night of Michelangelo," writes "If the Night could get up and walk . . . "

'did marvellously supple the ground': Samuel Purchas, Purchas his Pilgrimage.

'We also came upon one tree . . .': "So we went through the aspens at the base of the Cliffs, their round leaves reflecting the lingering twilight on the one side, the waxing moonlight on the other." Thoreau, Journals.

[section 4, first blocks]: William Stukeley's description of his Stonehenge "Ortchard" comes from a letter written by him to Samuel Gale quoted in Family Memoirs of the Rev. William Stukeley.

[section 4, second blocks]: Anecdotes, by the Rev. Joseph Spence.

[section 4, third blocks]: Alexander Pope, Guardian, No. 173, 1713.

'Unless the eye . . . of the sun': "Unless the eye contained the substance of the sun how could we ever look on the light?" Goethe, Zahme Xenein.

'The Apple-Tree . . . ': Euripides, Hippolytus (tr. Gilbert Murray).

Paradisi in Sole . . . : This is the punning title of a book by Thomas Parkinson (Park-in-sun).

'Paradys Erthely': Chaucer, The Romaunt of the Rose.

[section 6, beginning]: This is adapted from M. Minnaert's Light and Color in the Open Air.

THE WHITE CLOUD: The title of a picture by Samuel Palmer - its capitalization is an imitation of the way he wrote titles to paintings in his letters.

Tortula ruralis: Geoffrey Grigson's An English Farmhouse and its Neighborhood describes these bright clumps of moss that Palmer painted so exquisitely.

'a country where there is no night': see epigraph to the Autumn section.


"The Green Man" of the title is not a poetic metaphor, merely, but is still to be seen in England. It is not uncommon for pubs or inns to be called by his name, a hold-over from times when he was a current legend and was deeply associated with Robin Hood, and the Green Knight in Gawain and the Green Knight. But he is most often to be found, today, as the face with sad, heavy-lidded eyes occupying the corbel of an arch in churches. There, he has branches growing out of either side of the mouth, or is bearded in leaves with more foliage springing from the forehead, or is garlanded.

As King of the May, or Jack-in-the-Green, he has a persistent history that can be traced back to May Day celebrations throughout Northern and Central Europe. Geoffrey Grigson writes that traditionally "on May Day in the village plays and ceremonies he was sacrificed dying for all the death of the plants in winter." In former times he was also marched in the London Lord Mayor's Day Parade enclosed in a wooden framework on which leaves were clustered and from which came explosions of fireworks. Chimney sweeps paraded beneath the same pyramidal frameworks on May Day until the nineteenth century. One imagines them coming like small boxwood topiary, crackling and sparkling through the streets.

Lewis Spence adds a less typical, later variant: "I have seen him at South Queensferry, on the southern shores of the Firth of Forth, where he is know as the 'Burry Man', a boy on whose clothes large numbers of burrs or seed-cases have been so closely sewn that he presents the appearance of a moving mass of vegetation."

He is also seen, of course, in the guise of Arcimboldo's "portraits" of the seasons or as the fanciful Seventeenth Century Gardener pictured in herbals and gardening books in a finery of flowers and of vegetables. Or, the reverse side of a coin, as the Mandrake - a plant forming itself in the shape of man. The hand that seems to sprout leaves at its wrist and is used in this book is a pseudo-mandrake - actually a radish. Its nineteenth century engraver, copying a seventeenth century painting of this miraculous radish, was, perhaps, both over-credulous and over- exuberant. Not only are there illusionistic finger joints, but a thumb-nail as well. The World of Wonders, No. 3, also mentions "another radish, exactly resembling a human hand, in the possession of Mr. Bisset, secretary to the museum at Birmingham, in 1802. He declared in his letter that the fingers were quite perfect, and that a large sum had been offered for it and refused."

- Ronald Johnson

Go to The Book of the Green Man Contents Page

Go to Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry

Copyright © 1967 by Ronald Johnson
First Published by W.W. Norton
Reproduced here by permission of the Literary Estate of Ronald Johnson, 2001

Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry