The Book of the Green Man
by Ronald Johnson
Part 1: Winter


                            . . . Visionary power
        Attends the motions of the viewless winds,
        Embodied in the mystery of words:
        There, darkness makes abode, and all the host
        Of shadowy things work endless changes.

                                             William Wordsworth


Tchink, Tchink. Tsee!
Then low,
continuous warbles

pure as a Thrush.
A maze
of sound!

The Rothay, deliquescent
in these airs

& the sinuous yews.

There is a blinding
darkness, here,

in Grasmere Churchyard

with the movement
of yews, blackbirds & River Rothay

as it has
a hundred years

past Wordsworth's grave-side
- Wordsworth

who could not see

'huge forms', Presences & earth 'working

like a sea'.

It was Dorothy
who lies

at his side,
who brought home

lichen & cushions of
who saw

these Lakes
in all their weathers -

'dim mirrors',
'bright slate'

- the sheens like herrings
& spear-shaped

of polished steel.

For William
there was only

wind off
the Lakes -

that, that had no
boundary, but entered

into his pores

to animate some inner country
of deep, clear Lakes.

of his mind's eye.

As I sit in this darkness,
the Rothay hissing

like its geese

& the night
forming itself

into shapes of yew

& blackbird songs,

I wish
for this earth, beneath,
to move, to issue some dark, meditated

syllable perhaps -

something more
than this inarticulate

& seething.

But this soil, once
Wordsworth, lies
in silence.

I wish
to make something circular,
seasonal, out

of this 'wheel' of
- some

flowering thing in its
cycle - an image of our footsteps

planted in homage

over each ridge

& valley.

But having come
to Grasmere,

from where the Lakes radiate
like spokes,

I see only the descent

to this darkness -

the rest

- the steaming breath of sheep,

high, upon the fells:

the view
from Great Tongue

to Silver How -

a cone of light, thickening
to greys
down its slopes

- & down
by a ghyll lined with
rowan. Red-berry

- waterfall.
A rising mist to meet us.

Down, to
the quickly darkness

The burning blues
of Dove Cottage
garden -

the spectral
October flowers
of night

- hydrangea,

This soil, once
Wordsworth. . .

let us give stems to
the flowers!

Substance to this
fog: some

subtle, yet enduring mold,

a snare

for bird-song,

night, & rivers flowing.

Let us catch
the labyrinthine wind,
in words -

syllable, following
on syllable,

somewhere in these airs, these

sinuous yews

- Gentian, Great Tongue, Westmorland,

out of this soil, once
Wordsworth. . .

Tsee! Tsee!
Then low,

continuous warbles,
as a Thrush.


I slept
& dreamed
the encircling Mountains

moved toward me in
my sleep.

To the horizon,
the grass
was a deep indigo:

waving & sparkling with hidden

The edges
of the Mountains moved slowly,

against the stars,
& there were

sounds as of great doors

as their bases bit

into earth.

I lay
on the sublime motions
of the grasses

& saw stars
descend like snow,

through snow-white brightness

of the skies -

'as if
the Sun shined

for the Snow is reflected
by the Air

just as Fire by Night


And as the grass grew higher,
I entered into
its Maze -

as of a field of infinite
hoar-frosts melting

& shapes reforming in

of beasts & curious


I traced

the convolutions of

turf, laid out by men,

& made new windings with the mole

through undisturbed


I entered the architecture of

bees - the gold of

their mossed bodies

linked in warmth.

I followed

the patterns of waters

within earth,

& saw the whorls of buried


I followed the mottled lizard into

scrolls of leaves

& traced the plover to its


And came, at last, to pastures

where the spiders

had built

on every bush -

that intricate webbing

to which the 'dew

doth perch'.

And on webs, more


than these, & of even more

complexity -

the interweavings

of man with earth: warp & woof with

the stuff of Mountains -

I retraced my steps around

the Lakes:



Derwent, Crummock, Buttermere,

Ennerdale, Wastwater,

Conniston, Esthwaite,

Windermere to Elterwater, Rydal, & finally

in a circle back

to Wordsworth & Grasmere.

And this, where I began, was the center
of the Maze:

where the blackbird still sang - its song more

into the night, than any
words -
with the boundless

ceaseless turnings &

& 'motions

of the viewless


The Oak of the Maze


Lion's shin, oak-limb, tomb:
all acquire
a hundred years'

a winter's pelt - bones

that 'being
striken one against

break out
like fire

& wax greene'.

Mistletoe. Its seeds
within birds -

out of the quickening gut,
it clings to oak.

An aerial


Ivy. Springs out
of earth,
to cover it

with dark, shining leaves.

It is the mythic coat
of an oak -

made of a shining
& dark-
leaved thunder,

& the owls

of its hollows.

There are connections in these

- between an earth, sentient with moles,
& the owl's
radiant eyes -

fine as a web drawn
by spiders,

close as the grain of oak'

from earth, to mistletoe, ivy & lichen, to owl's-
wing, to thunder, to lightning, to earth - & back.

There are many ways

to look at an oak, & one, with its
own eyes:

the blunt, burning push
of acorns

in an earth full

of movements, slight rustlings, as a passage of night-birds,

& bones

that 'being striken one against another

break out like fire

& wax greene'.

Go to Part 2: Spring | Go to The Book of the Gren Man Contents Page

Got 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

"Francis," 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