Oak and Ash and Thorn author Peter Fiennes discusses the poems that inspired his new book:

 

3. 'Through the Wood' by Eliza Keary

 

I found this poem (and indeed the poet, Eliza Keary) in Owen Sheers’ wonderful anthology, ‘A Poet’s Guide to Britain’. It says something profound about woods, that they are places that are often separate from our ordinary lives – and things can happen among the trees that are outside the usual bounds of human experience. They are, as Louis Macneice says, a ‘kingdom free from time and sky.’ They let us dream of other ways of living.

 

There’s no denying that we are also scared of woods. There’s always, at the very least, a flicker of a moment when we pause on the edge of a wood and gather ourselves before we pass from the light to the dark. It may be a primal reflex, dating back to the times when the woods held predators, but I think it also comes down to a question of ownership. Most of us no longer feel at ease in the forest.

 

Eliza Keary’s exquisite poem shows that moment when we step from ‘a world in sunshine’ into the close, green company of trees, where ‘the intertwined light branches threw / Sweet shade on the rough ground.’ The poet walks in with ‘Nellie’, unafraid, hand in hand – Nellie is her friend, perhaps a child, maybe a lover – and the wood is silent and safe. No bird sings. There is something ancient in the air, and:

 

‘Heaven is full of love,

I thought, over and over,

And said to my heart, “Hush!

You are happy, certainly.”’

 

There is love in the woods, as well as fear, and this poem is brimming with its sacred mystery, the ‘presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts’, as Wordsworth once wrote.

 

 The friends reach the far end of the wood, and they step back into the ordinary world. At least, we think they do. Everything is now changed – and there is death in the air: ‘a wide, dark flood’. It’s a poem you can read many times, and reach for many different meanings (I attached these final lines to my chapter about climate chaos), but in the end it keeps its mysteries in the way all the best poetry does.

 

‘Outside,

A world in sunshine;

She with her hand in mine:

Such a wide, dark flood;

I died in it, where I stood –

By the side of Nellie.’

 

  Peter Fiennes is the author of To War with God, a  moving account of  his grandfather’s service in the First  World War. As a publisher  for Time Out, he  has  published their city guides, as well as books  about  Britain’s countryside and seaside. He lives in  Wandsworth,  south-west London.

  Oak and Ash and Thorn is availbale now.