At the back of the house where I lived as a child was the Field, and beyond the Field was the Wood. I can see now that it was neither a very big wood nor a very wild one, but everything seems bigger and wilder when you are a child, and since I was brought up in the carefree days of the nineteen-fifties when mothers really didn’t care where you were for most of the day as long as you weren’t indoors getting under their feet, an awful lot of my free time from the age of six or so was spent wandering its groves and dells, sometimes in company but often alone. It was a place that for me combined fear and romance in equal measure: to step into it seemed to be to enter another, older time, and when at the age of twelve I came across this poem in John Buchan’s ‘The Moon Endureth’ (having first been attracted to that book by a remarkable short story ‘The Lemnian’), I felt I knew exactly what Jehan the hunter was talking about. It may seem a very old-fashioned sort of poem now, but somehow it still brings back to me (as does Kipling’s ‘The Way Through The Woods’), the magical experience of entering the Wood as a child, late on a summer evening with twilight already gathering under the trees.
I will walk warily in the wise woods on the fringes of eventide,
For the covert is full of noises and the stir of nameless things.
I have seen in the dusk of the beeches the shapes of the lords that ride,
And down in the marish hollow I have heard the lady who sings.
And once in an April gloaming I met a maid on the sward,
All marble-white and gleaming and tender and wild of eye; –
I, Jehan the hunter, who speak am a grown man, middling hard,
But I dreamt a month of the maid, and wept I knew not why.
Down by the edge of the firs, in a coppice of heath and vine,
Is an old moss-grown altar, shaded by briar and bloom,
Denys, the priest, hath told me ’twas the lord Apollo’s shrine
In the days ere Christ came down from God to the Virgin’s womb.
I never go past but I doff my cap and avert my eyes –
(Were Denys to catch me I trow I’d do penance for half a year) –
For once I saw a flame there and the smoke of a sacrifice,
And a voice spake out of the thicket that froze my soul with fear.
Wherefore to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,
Mary the Blessed Mother, and the kindly Saints as well,
I will give glory and praise, and them I cherish the most,
For they have the keys of Heaven, and save the soul from Hell.
But likewise I will spare for the Lord Apollo a grace,
And a bow for the lady Venus – as a friend but not as a thrall.
‘Tis true they are out of Heaven, but some day they may win the place;
For gods are kittle cattle, and a wise man honours them all.