Updated: May 17, 2021
The green elm with the one great bough of gold
Lets leaves into the grass slip, one by one,
The short hill grass, the mushrooms small milk-white
Harebell and scabious and tormentil,
That blackberry and gorse, in dew and sun,
Bow down to; and the wind travels too light
To shake the fallen birch leaves from the fern;
The gossamers wander at their own will.
At heavier steps than birds' the squirrels scold.
The rich scene has grown fresh again and new
As Spring and to the touch is not more cool
Than it is warm to the gaze: and now I might
As happy be as earth is beautiful,
Were I some other or with earth could turn
In alternation of violet and rose,
Harebell and snowdrop, at their season due,
And gorse that has no time not to be gay.
But if this be not happiness, - who knows?
Some day I shall think this a happy day,
And this mood by the name of melancholy
Shall no more blackened and obscured be.
ET wrote October in mid-October 1915, his first poem for nearly three months. He had joined the Artists Rifles in the summer and started his military training at the end of September at High Beach camp in Epping Forest. During these early days he expressed in letters to friends his unhappiness as he felt isolated among his new comrades and was finding it difficult to come to terms with army discipline, poor food and living conditions. As he wrote to Robert Frost he was feeling “dismal....for no intelligible reason....But perhaps it is the autumn & the crowd & the discomfort & the solitude”.
The feeling might have been exacerbated by a bad knee - he describes himself to Eleanor Farjeon in a letter of 17th October as “lame with an injured knee.” In a later letter to Gordon Bottomley he writes “Once when I had a bad knee I got 20 lines written & felt just as I used to, which is more than I dare do as a rule.” (6th November 1915). October is 21 lines and the only poem he wrote during his time at High Beach - he asked Eleanor to type it out in a letter to her. But without the injured knee he may well not have written October as he says to EF in another letter “but (I) don’t expect to write till I am disabled again” presumably because of the intense schedule of military training.
Despite his mood he was surrounded by the wonders of Epping Forest , which he was getting to know for the first time. He grew to love it and it became an important influence on his poetry in the next year. As he wrote to Frost in early October. “We have just had 2 beautiful sunny days & the oaks & beeches of the Forest don’t look autumnal yet”. Writing to Eleanor at the same time he writes. “....the country is beautiful, and for a week the weather was perfect.”
The poem is based on his direct observations of Epping Forest during this period, which gives the poem an immediacy (as with The Glory written five months before), and also reflecting the freshness of the landscape as it enters a second Spring. Like many other of his poems ET shows his intense awareness of the seasons and how seasons merge and interchange sometimes in moments during a day, at other times much more prolonged as here. Though taken from direct observation it also reflects his enduring love of this season. In field note book 64 written two years before while at Selsfield House, near East Grinstead, ET, reflecting on a similar early Autumn day, had written in effusive mood "Extraordinary satisfaction.....Autumn seems stationery within this lovely weather, an end reached, that is more calmly enjoyable than restless changing Spring & summer too splendid to last, whereas this seems to be what autumn led to & we aim - consciously refus(ing) to consider Winter as an end."
October is one of a number of poems in which he describes how his mood gets in the way of his complete appreciation of what he is experiencing. And it is also with its emphasis on seasonality a poem that highlights the absence, almost the alienation, of man - in particular ET - from this cycle.
The WW1 camp for the Artists Rifles at High Beach was originally based at the King's Oak pub, but by the the summer of 1915 there was an encampment around Riggs Retreat on Wellington Hill where ET was quartered. He was later billeted at Suntrap, an old
convalescent home for children and TB patients, a mile or so further south of King's Oak. All around lay the glades, hollows, mounds and streams of the Forest where he walked in his free time, though he was very restricted in the early days of his training which was all consuming (and not helped by his bad knee).
The flowers he mentions in October - scabious, harebell and tormentil - were a reminder of that month in the chalk Downs and hangers he had left behind in Hampshire, where they proliferate, which may have accentuated his sense of dislocation. I’m not sure how common these flowers were in Epping Forest then. Now they are rare - though gorse continues to flourish, flowering at all seasons - and the squirrels can be seen at every turn. The flowers he mentions in the second verse - violet, rose, harebell and snowdrop - cover the whole year being in season respectively in spring, summer, autumn and winter. And the colours of the flowers and other vegetation cover the whole spectrum.
He writes in another letter to Eleanor who seems to have remarked about the rhyming scheme of the poem “I expect you’re right about the rhymes, most of them. The original version was in blank verse, but quite different.”
In this letter he teases her about her knowledge of flowers “Hasn’t Bronwen (his elder daughter) taught you tormentil, the tiny yellow flower in short hill grass, a flat buttercup or avens with rather separate petals? Tormentilla it is. The accent is on the 2nd syllable which doesn’t (as I see it) affect the merit of the line whatever it may be; I mean doesn’t tell against it.”
He then wonders “I suppose the influence of High Beach and the Artists ought to be clearer.” It’s an interesting remark from a poet who makes very little direct mention in any of his poetry to his soldiering and camp life. When he starts to write poetry again at the new camp he is posted to at Hare Hall, Romford he has set aside any inclination to reference them directly.
By the time he has finished his first stint at High Beech he has become reconciled to the task and finds he gets on well with his fellow soldiers - as he writes in reflection to Gordon Bottomley in early November after returning to London before being sent to Romford “ I found I could get on with people I had nothing in common with & almost felt fond of them.... The weather was mostly fine & there was a great deal to enjoy & what I couldn’t enjoy I am glad to have been through.” The melancholic mood has passed as he predicted and his memory had begun to interpret anew.
A walk in Epping Forest
The joy of walking through Epping Forest is that you can walk unconfined as ET must have done in his occasional free time. Around the margins one can encounters sections of private land, but otherwise the forest continues, only interrupted by a few busy roads whose noise creates a wider borderland for the walker to navigate round.
A walk is best done as a wander round the big trees - beech, oak and hornbeam in particular that dominate the landscape. Though there are few far reaching views, the Forest has a sense of space under the beeches and hornbeams. Many of them have been pollarded centuries ago and have developed their own completely individual character. Under their canopy there is a lack of underwood and an absence of thrusting competitors. So there are ever-enticing vistas - into dappled glades where the sculpted trunks of a tree stand comfortable and aloof with further glades glimpsed or screened by holly, a brown leaf-strewn stream meandering through bog and under alders and willows then between stately beeches and hornbeams, a sudden patch of bright green grass or a tree with blazing autumnal leaves, then up to more open savannah-like country on rising ground with a few oaks, many small birch, and gorse, bracken and bramble. ET well describes in the poem the irritating habit of bramble and gorse catching the lower legs as one walks along the paths they invade especially in late summer and autumn.
A walk could start at the King's Oak pub in High Beach, the original base for the Artists Rifles. The huts were over the road. To the west is the open common of the Pillow Mounds with its views down to Waltham Abbey. Was this the short hill grass ET mentions? Sadly the
elm has long since gone but birch proliferates. The Pillow Mounds were probably warrens specially constructed for breeding rabbits to eat in the 16th century - though excavation of flints and pottery shards suggest a more ancient usage.
The location of Riggs retreat can be found down Wellington Hill on the left. It was originally a place for the purveyance of non-alcoholic refreshments, one of a number established by
John Riggs and his family in the 1870s and 1880s. ET knew it as having been a Sunday School for the Church of the Holy Innocents. It has long since disappeared but the forest on the opposite side of the road must still be much as ET knew it, and its attractions are clear.
As ET would have done you can wander among the trees, sometimes thicker, sometimes more spacious. On an autumn day gossamers - cobwebs floating in the air - wander and squirrels scamper along and up and down. At different moments of the day the forest can change outlook, mood and season. It has a shape shifting quality - coming from a different direction the same spot can appear unrecognisable.
The wander through the trees can be brought to a conclusion by continuing to head to the right and then up hill in a south easterly direction to end up back at the Pillow mounds, preferably avoiding a walk back along the road.
The walk can be extended south of Kings Oak. You follow the Centenary Walk path past Paul's Nursery, on the right of which is the site of the cottage where ET and his family settled briefly in the autumn of 1916 after leaving Steep (which inspired Out in the Dark, one of his last poems). Following the pathway SW you cross over a road, and the path takes you down to a Field Study Centre, site of the old Fairmead lunatic asylum where the poet John Clare had been a patient. Suntrap was later built on the site as a hospital, originally a convalescent home for children, but in World War 1 seems to have been turned over to the Artists Rifles. It was the new address ET gave Eleanor Farjeon in an October letter so he probably moved here from the camp at Rigg's Retreat and after he had written October.
Striking South East from Suntrap we reach Whitehouse Plain - here the forest is more open with bigger green spaces though views beyond the Forest are still only glimpsed. Even where it opens up there is still the feeling that each part of the forest is separate and unconnected which can make it difficult to put the different parts together when recollecting. You can then return, follow the path north to Hill Wood and the Cross Roads, turn left and keep left until you reach the Church of Holy Innocents where the Artists Rifles would have worshipped on a Sunday, and then right along the road back to the King's Oak. You can extend the walk further south after Whitehouse Plain to explore the south-western side of the Forest - which is more open with longer vistas - across North Long Hills and the Green Ride to Connaught Water and back by Palmer's Bridge and up Fairmead Road past Fairmead pond. Or you can enjoy just wandering as ET did when he could.
Further walks around and to Epping Forest will appear in blogs for other poems, including Out in the Dark. Meanwhile here are some coordinates for this walk and links to other walks in Epping Forest:
The King's Oak Pub, Paul's Nursery Road, High Beach, Essex IG10 4AE
High Beach village Grid reference TQ 4048 9796
Suntrap Forest Education Centre, Church Road, Waltham Abbey, Loughton IG10 4AJ
Whitehouse Plain Grid Reference TQ 4031 9669
OS Explorer map 174 Epping Forest & Lee Valley
The City of London corporation manages Epping Forest and has a good list of walks to be enjoyed:
There are also numerous walk suggestions on the internet - though as suggested the best way to explore Epping Forest is to follow your nose!