The Book of the Green Man
by Ronald Johnson
Part 2: Spring


            April 12, 1875

            The morning had become grey and overcast, but. . . as we glided
        up the valley, sweeping round bend after bend we saw new prospects
        and beauties still unfolding and opening before us, distant azure
        mountains, green sunny bursts and dark blue wooded hollows of the
        nearer hills with gentle dips and dimpling swells on the hillsides
        softly bosoming. Then suddenly came a vivid flash, dazzling with a
        blaze of diamond sparks thrown off as if by a firework, on the
        stream suddenly caught and tangled amongst broken rocks, swept
        roaring in a sheet of white foam through the narrowing channel, or
        with a stately and gracious bend the river broadened, peaceful and
        calm, to a majestic reach, long and silver shining, veiled here
        and there by a fringing, overhanging woods and broken by the larch
        spires dawning a thickening green.

            Francis Kilvert


`Rise, and put on your foliage'.

Come, as the Green Knight to Gawain at the beginning
of the new year. . .

out of his oaken crevice:
lhude sing cuccu!

Move with a spring & vegetable swiftness,
seed-case & burr & tremulous grasses, a grove. . .vocal in the wind. . .

(`the rustling of the leaves and
the songs of birds denoting his presence there')


(`at thes day we in ye
sign call them Green Men, covered with green bones')


(`I have listened to the cuckoo in the ivy-tree,
I have listened to the note of the birds

in the crest of the rustling oak,
loud cuckoo')


Rise as the sun: antlered. . .
bearded with greenery. . .the leaf-vein pulsing

in your throat. Budded all over with small flame, & motley
with birds in your hair & arms. Rise,

& put on your foliage!


April 8th

We began today
to trace the course
of the Wye

into `Wild
Wales', Chepstow to Plynlimmon. . .

limestone bed & cliff. . .

forest & grassy source.

And as I write this, tonight, at St. Briavels
. . .a castle squat as a toad, with a moat full of primroses. . .

I invoke the Wye itself
to cut these pages: its Celtic loops & interlacements,

its continuities that lead the view

onward, & back

to Kilvert. . .Vaughan.

The echoes of its slow rush ever to be
listened for
in Watershed. . .

Greensward & Sheep. . .

O wind your waters through my song, green Wye.

We first saw the river,
tidal at the Severn, an indefinite

in morning haze.
Its castle, an extension of the cliff,

an eyrie of
rock, dissolved in the muted,



From there up Wyndcliffe, wooded with huge oaks, where the eyes
soar, like birds buoyed up in air:

from the oak-tops. . .coral & willow with first leaf
& tassle. . .to clusters of mistletoe

& rookeries, down to gnarled boles slanting against wind
& covered with growths

of ivy, to the carpet of wood-anemone (wood-
anemones, Flowers-Of-The-Wind),

out, over the Wye turning through valleys of
mists, 800 feet below.

Lambs bleating, an `exaltation'
of larks.

A steady, hushed flow.

Then descended

fields bounded with hedge,

each bud & thorn
pendant with

to Tintern. . .

not one tufted column, no wall
a mass of moving foliage. Only. . .the Window.

Its seven delicate shafts
the frame for a more ephemeral world
than glass:

the passing clouds,
the passing, voluminous, green clouds. . .

in hilly


Then, leaving the river, over the hill, to St. Briavels.

The wind off

& the spiraling out of sight

of larks in flight.

O wind your waters through these songs, & mine. . .

river Wye,

green Wye.


April 12th

Two days of mossy mists,
soft & clinging. The river, a single grey thread
to be followed through other greys.

Quiet brown blurs
of Hereford cattle, shadowy

Only the harsh clamor of rooks penetrates.

Though once, a dead sheep floated downstream, every curl,
of its coat, distinct as the bubble

in a house-of-spittle.
Its head like a withered apple.

Today, the Black


are a smoke

you could put your hand through

& celandines reflect

the light back like mirrors.

We stopped at Moccas, where Kilvert wrote:

`Those grey
old men of Moccas. . .

those grey, gnarled, low-browed, knock-kneed,
bowed, bent, huge, strange,
long-armed, deformed, hunch-backed, misshapen oak men. . .

that stand with both feet in the grave,
yet seeing out,

with such tales to tell,
as when they whisper to each other,

the silver
birches weep, poplars
& aspens shiver

& long ears of the hares
& rabbits stand

on end'.

And a sparkling snow. . .from somewhere. . .through sunshine. . .


in clear air.

The Moccas church of
tufa. North Door carved with a Beast eating

the Tree of Life, & the South, with Beast seen devouring a man

who holds the Tree of Life, the branches of which
form a cross.

And close by, Bredwardine, where Kilvert lies buried.

Where from his grave, `bright


daffodil, primrose, snow-drop, white violet.



`I am a walking fire, I am all leaves'.

`I find I incorporate gneiss, coal, long-threaded moss,
fruit, grains, esculent roots.
And am stucco'd with quadrupeds & birds all over'.

I find I advance with
sidereal motions
. . .my eyes containing substance

of the sun,
my ears built of beaks & feathers. . .

I ascend with saps

& flower in season

& eddy with tides.

With every moon,
I come from the darkness into incandescence.

My tongue assumes the apple's flesh
& my skin, the infinite spheres of the thistle's prickle. And as I

the wind has its billow. . .& all the grasses. . .

in a combing, mazy movement.


April 13th

Here, the river swept great
along wide valleys.

We left our footprints

green, behind,
as we followed the straight bright dew-path, meadow banks gleaming.

Clouds moved down the valley. . .their shadows
a river of huge dapples. . .their glowing masses opening above
as we came,

a white, enveloping progression.

Mid-day, whole
clouds lowered

& one leaned into wind to walk. . .
a brisk,
wet fog blowing. . .

through by evening the sun set westward
in our eyes

among slow cumulus that shafted bands of yellow

& remained black spaces
neither earth,
nor air,

suspended in that `vacant interlunar cave'

where all the stars

revolved, wheeled, glittered.



`I thought I saw an angel in an azure robe
coming towards me across the lawn,

but it was only the blue sky through the feathering branches
of the lime'.


April 15th, Easter Sunday

We walked in rain
to Llansantffread

. . .Vaughan buried at St. Bridgit
(the Saint of Light,

born at sunrise on the first day of spring) on
the Usk (as Vaughan,

the Swan of). Inside, a font of yellow


white iris

& freesia the color of ivory.

`. . . With what floures
And shoots of glory, my Soul breaks'. `Living bowers'.

Silex Scintillans these mountains. . .

the Black & Brecon Beacons

. . .a deep but dazzling darkness. Beckoning. . .


to white cloud,

& swan, & clod.


one river running. . .


April 18th

For two days it has rained
& the Wye has been
swollen & brown.

But today it is both clear
& warm & suddenly, everywhere, all things
are green.

The river, narrowed to a stream,
is a current of long mosses. The trees are fleshed out
with leaf.

There is a constant burbling of curlews.
Crwee, crwee: thick, Welsh consonants, blending with the shallows
of the Wye on rock.

Lambs kick up their heels,
as the bracken unfurls. And as we walk onward, the high, round
hills come with us all the way. . .

rising into the distance. . .each one more blue than
the other. . .out to the long slope
of Plynlimmon. To the sea. O run slowly, Wye, & evergreen,

& never end. . .


Landscapes & Mandrakes

Then came, like the Celtic Blodeuwedd,

who was made of blossoms of oak

& broom & meadow-sweet,

a green man out of Wales. . .of more than flowers:
as if all Hafod

rose up again, & came in strides of vistas into England.
And Hafod, that most
sublime of gardens, gone into earth

these hundred years.

And with those lost romantic
promontories, prospects, vapors & auroras,

& losing themselves in irregularities,
was the half-legendary Wales of Giraldus, where a man could command

the birds to sing: `& immediately the birds,
beating the water with their wings, began to cry aloud

& proclaim him'.

And farther back in time,
the lineaments clearly discerned of
Lothlórien -

of the mallorn trees. . .& shades

of the Blesséd Isles.

And immediately the birds, beating the water
with their wings,

began to cry

aloud & proclaim him:

`each grain of

sand, every stone on the land,

each rock & each hill, each fountain & rill,

each herb & each tree, mountain, hill,

earth & sea, are men seen


& near. . .


April 19th

Cuckoo. . .cuckoo. . .cuckoo. . .

I had been listening for the first cuckoo, Delius' cuckoo. . .

but the sound is softer, more penetrant. `Calling

about the hills', Kilvert says. Yes,

it is that. An echo. . .:

this green source, this welling-forth in ever-widening circles,

this `spring'.


Go to Part 3: Summer | 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

"Nightingale," by Basil King, the painting that appears with this poem,
comes from a series based on Green Man lore. Copyright © 1996 by Basil King.

Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry