The Book of the Green Man
by Ronald Johnson
Part 3: Summer


    As the morning advanced the sun became bright and warm, cloudless, calm, serene. About nine an appearance very unusual began to demand our attention - a shower of cobwebs falling from very elevated regions, & continuing, without any interruption, till the close of the day...

    There is a natural occurrence to be met with upon the highest part of our down in hot summer days, and that is a loud audible humming of bees in the air, though not one insect is to be seen...

    In a district so diversified as this, so full of hollow vales and hanging woods, it is no wonder that echoes should abound. Many we have discovered that return a tunable ring of bells, or the melody of birds; but we were still at a loss for a polysyllabical, articulate echo, till a young gentleman, who had parted from his company in a summer walk, and was calling after them, stumbled upon a very curious one in a spot where it might least be expected...

    We procured a cuckoo, and cutting open the breastbone and exposing the intestines to sight, found the crop lying as mentioned above. This stomach was large and round, and stuffed hard, like a pincushion, with food, which upon nice examination, we found to consist of various insects, such as small scarabs, spiders, and dragon-flies; the last of which, as they were just emerging out of the aurelia state, we have seen cuckoos catching on the wing. Among this farrago also were to be seen maggots, and many seeds, which belonged either to gooseberries, currants, cranberries, or some such fruit...

    All nature is so full, that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined...

    Gilbert White

Upon First Opening a Cuckoo

I saw the sweet-briar & bon-fire & strawberry wire now

relaxed into intricate thicket.

It was as if seen in strong sunlight, flat

& tapestried, all edge & definition. Here, an airy bone shaped

like a plowshare, there, vibratory membranes within a space

from which the song must come: a syrinx (hollow

pipes of reeds) now silent

in return to the 'Salliter' of earth.

Little more than

a drift of air, brought

into form by plumes.
Mulch to stone.

Yeast of the clouds.


What the Earth Told Me

No surface is allowed to be bare,

& nothing to stand still. A man could forever study a pebble

& at last see dilations & expansions of the hills -

to pull the most slender stalk, is to jostle the stars,

& between the bearded grass

& man 'looking in the vegetable glass

of Nature', is a network of roots & suckers

fine as hairs.

I threw a stone upon a pond

& it bounded the surface, its circles interlacing

& radiating out to the most ephemeral edge.

Flint & Mica, Lichened Limestone, Shale & Sarcens, Sandstone, Soil.

I   saw  the  wind   moving   on   a   meadow

&  the  meadows   moving  under  wind

lifting,    &   settling    &    accumulating.

Flint    &    Mica,    Lichened  Limestone,

Shale     &    Sarcens,    Sandstone,    Soil.


What the Air Told Me

It is breathed into Orpheus' lyre & as rocks & trees & beasts

is divided there. Its original strain

precedes the sound, by as much as echoes follow after:

the quivering of 'cow-quake', a 'loud audible

humming of bees on the down', stresses within the sustaining earth,

clouds of fleece & mare's tail.

I saw with single eye, the facet of the fly -

the infinitesimal mechanics & all the metallic sheens

of a blue-bottle. In a land where the sun grows fat on cloud

& summer hasn't come

till your foot can cover twenty daisies,

she came to the dark, open beak

& laid a myriad of eggs. And in two day's time the dead

bird's body simulated life: maggots in eye-socket &

under feather, in a subtle movement.

The White & the Glistening.


What the Leaf Told Me

Today I saw the word written on the poplar leaves.

It was 'dazzle'. The dazzle of the poplars.

As a leaf startles out

from an undifferentiated mass of foliage,

so the word did form a leaf

A Mirage Of The Delicate Polyglot

inventing itself as cipher. But this, in shifts & gyrations,

grew in brightness, so bright

the massy poplars soon outshone the sun

'My light - my dews - my breezes -my bloom'. Reflections

In A Wren's Eye.


De Vegetabilibus

For there are splendors of flowers called DAY'S EYES in every field.

For one cannot walk but to walk upon sun.

For the sun has also a stem, on which it turns.

For the tree forms sun into leaves, & its branches & saps

are solid & liquid states of sun.

For the sun has many seasons, & all of them summer.

For the carrot & bee both bless with sun,

the carrot beneath the earth & the bee with its dusts & honies.

For the sun has stippled the pear & polished the apple.


De Animalibus

For there are owls in the air & moles in the earth

& THEY ALSO have eyes.

For there are shapes of air which are OWL

& shapes of earth which are MOLE,

& the mole brings air to the earth & the owl, earth into air.

For the turtle's back is another firmament & dappled like the cloud.

For there are birds who nest on the earth

& are feathered in its form.

For the rook & the worm are only one cycle out of many.

for man rejoices with rook & worm

& owl & mole & turtle,

& they are only one cycle out of many.


Turner, Constable & Stubbs

To see, Turner had himself lashed to the ship's mast

& Constable sat still in the fields

till something came - a bird - some living thing appropriate to

the place'. He noted the wind's direction, pile

of clouds, the time of day. Stubbs

fixed an iron bar to the ceiling of his room, with hooks

of various sizes & lengths, in order to suspend the body of a horse.

The horse remained for six or seven weeks

'until no longer endurable'.

The form of muscles, blood vessels & nerves was retained

by tallow injections—Stubbs methodically

cutting to the skeleton, making full length drawings

& studies of the ear & nose.

'He was possessed of great physical

strength, being able,

it is said, to carry a dead horse on his back

to a dissecting room,

at the top of a narrow flight of stairs'.

The work was finished in eighteen months.


Natural Productions, Occurrences & Antiquities

'August is by much the most mute month', yet,

the air may be so strongly electric

that bells may ring & sparks be discharged in their clappers:

'put a bird in motion, et vera incessu patuit-'

To distinguish a bird by its 'air', to 'hear'

the buoyant owls - woodpeckers rising & falling in curves

-the perpendicularity of skylarks

Gilbert White quotes from the Latin: He preferred

the sounds of birds to those of men. The music of men left his mind

disturbed by engaging his attention

with its rise & fall, while the warbling

of birds left no such hold

'to tease my imagination & recur irresistibly

at seasons -'

All day the cobweb fell silently

in the air, till whole

baskets-full lay round about, & still

more descending.


The Leaves of Southwell

Maple & hawthorn & oak. Crow-foot & cinquefoil
(Aubrey's Midsummer Silver?).

Vine & ivy & hops. Rose, bryony (a Mandrake), geranium, mulberry,
wormwood. Fig, bittersweet & blackthorn.

It is an assemblage (a community?) including its dragons with
crisply carved acorns.

Two hounds devour a hare. A bird seizes a grape with its
beak. Both green men & the winged

fruit of maple are in hierarchy of accuracy - the ribbed & the delicate
ascending to the general. But here, a throat

come aleaf, there a branch held aloft.
And a kind of greening speech comes from those mouths

all but winged - each leaf
cleft & articulate. Southwell, of the leaves

of limestone: trefoil, quartrefoil, cinquefoil (as foil means
leaf): a 'burnisht corall' & geranium

brain: cranesbill, crow-foot: blackthorn & whitethorn,
quickthorn, Jack-in-the-green:

a man cleft, as Mandrakes, the 'man-shaped
dragon', Mandragora.


Exhibit from Frederik Ruysch's Anatomical Museum

A skeleton balances an injected spermatic plexus
in one hand & a coil of viscera
in the other. Minatory assortments

of calculi of all sizes
occupy the foreground. In the rear, a
variety of injected vessels, backed by an inflated & injected

tunica vaginalis,
combine to form a grotesque & arboreal
perspective. Another skeleton,

in extremis, is grasping a skeleton
of that emblem of insect mortality, the mayfly, & a third
is performing

a composition 'expressing the sorrows of mankind'
on a violin, symbolized
by bundles of arteries & a fragment

of necrotic femur.
Bones are arranged to represent
a cemetery - wrists are adorned with organic & injected

frills - & human, comparative
& pathological exhibits
are mingled, as the exigencies of space required.


'Unless the Humming of a Gnat is as the Music of the Spheres

& the music of the spheres is as the humming

of a gnat -' A spectre came, transparent-winged,

out of the interstices of light,

& shadow went up like smoke & everywhere

the hills were as clouds over valleys of water, rippling

& reverberating.

And before him the sands of the beach swarmed as insects, close-knit

in electrical flight

'For MATTER is the dust of the Earth,

every atom of which is the life.

For the flames of fire may be blown thro musical pipes'.

And everywhere the hills were as clouds over

valleys of water, rippling

& reverberating.


What the Light Told Me

It is now a circle, now a spiral or wheel.

It merges with the eye, with a wing of a sickle-shaped horn.

It takes on the form of beasts - a dragon, fish or bird.

As an orb, at summer solstice,
it balances on the altar-stone at Stonehenge -

& as beam, expands, elongates, twists & 'attenuates
itself into leafen gold
as a covering for the quince'.

With arc & parabolic
& serpent-oblique -'musical in ocular
harmony'. Expanding, elongating, twisting
& attenuating.

An encompassing eye.
Within and out, round as a ball -
With hither and thither, as straight as a line.

Slight as a fox-whisker,
spiraled, twined - rayed as chicory-flower.

Within and out, round as a ball -
With hither and thither, as straight as a line.
With lily, germander
And sops-in-wine. With sweet-briar and
Bon-fire and strawberry wire
And columbine.


Go to Part 4: Autumn | 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

"Horatio," 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