Sheepleas

around the headstone
of one who died at twenty:
wind-puffed primroses


This haiku of mine, published in Presence 56, resulted from a trip a couple of late-Februarys ago to Sheepleas, a nature reserve maintained by Surrey Wildlife Trust between West Horsley and East Horsley. The easiest access to Sheepleas is via the track beside St Mary’s church, the history of which reflects many of the most significant events in English history from Norman until Victorian times. Its graveyard is rather beautiful, as even my photo (from a subsequent, early-February visit) below shows.

Much has been written about haiku as a concept and how it is practised in English – and whether, indeed, what we know of as haiku in English can really be called haiku at all, given the cultural freight attached to the original Japanese form, which itself emerged from another form. That debate has often centred on whether or not a sound-unit in Japanese is equivalent to a syllable in English and, according to the two extreme views, that the 5–7–5 ‘syllabic’ count in Japanese should either be strictly followed or strictly avoided. Personally, I’ve always been happy to let content determine syllable count in my own ‘haiku’, rather than being insistent on a particular count. That said, I’ve often found 4–6–4 and 4–5–5 to be forms into which the sound properties of English words can be naturally expressed. In the haiku above, though, the words which I formed in my head and then wrote in my notebook on a chilly Saturday morning emerged, without any conscious thought, as 5–7–5.

In his magnum opus Flora Britannica (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996), Richard Mabey, the doyen of British nature writing who’s just turned 80, reminds us that the word ‘primrose’ derives from ‘prima rosa’, i.e. that it – Primula vulgaris – is the first flower of spring. As he does with many different flowers in the book, Mabey documents the folklore and customs surrounding the primrose, much of which comes from submissions made by amateur botanists and flower-enthusiasts. He also cites the following:

A more formal celebration is Primrose Day on 19 April, when primrose flowers are placed on Disraeli’s statue in front of Westminster Abbey (and also on his grave at Hughenden in Buckinghamshire). They were the politician’s favourite flower, and Queen Victoria regularly sent him bunches from Windsor and Osborne. After his death, the botanist George Birdwood suggested inaugurating a ‘Primrose Day’ and the custom has been kept up ever since.

Such different times!

In my poem, I went for ‘first thought, best thought’ in describing the impact of the wind on the flowers. Sometimes, one can over-complicate a haiku by thinking too much about whether an adjective (or a verb) is the best fit. In this instance, it was definitely a case of following Roy Walker’s advice. But in one of those nice incidences of synchronicity (or deeply-buried unconscious association), a beautifully illustrated book, Shakespeare’s Flowers by Jessica Kerr (Longman, 1969), which I bought in Warwick on a visit there with John Barlow about 10 years ago, has jogged my memory of a famous quotation from Act 1, Scene iii of Hamlet: ‘Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine, / Himself the primrose path of dalliance / treads.’ Despite having studied Hamlet in depth several times in days gone by, I can’t claim that the allusion in my poem was deliberate. Pleasingly, the book lists several other mentions of the primrose in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, including the Porter’s line in Act 2, Scene iii of Macbeth, about ‘the primrose / way to the everlasting bon-fire.’ In The Two Noble Kinsmen, listed as a joint work between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, the primrose is described as ‘first-born child of Ver / Merry spring-time’s harbinger.’

In early spring, another member of the primrose family grows abundantly at Sheepleas: the cowslip, Primula veris, to the extent that a large field in the reserve is known by the lovely name of Cowslip Meadow.

7 thoughts on “Sheepleas”

  1. What Nell said. And this is Lizzie, btw….I need to change my WordPress handle….

    Primrose is one of those words where you almost can’t improve the meaning, but I love ‘wind-puffed’.

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