Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
The Trees in the City
By Leigh Hunt (17841859)
From The Town
AS a link of a very pleasing description between old times and new not unconnected with what we have been speaking of, we shall conclude our introduction by observing, that there is scarcely a street in the city of London, perhaps not one, nor many out of the pale of it, from some part of which the passenger may not discern a tree. Most persons to whom this has been mentioned have doubted the accuracy of our information, nor do we profess hitherto to have ascertained it; though, since we heard the assertion, we have made a point of endeavouring to do so whenever we could, and have not been disappointed. The mention of the circumstance generally creates a laughing astonishment, and a cry of impossible! Two persons, who successively heard of it the other day, not only thought it incredible as a general fact, but doubted whether half a dozen streets could be found with a twig in them; and they triumphantly instanced Cheapside, as a place in which it was out of the question. Yet in Cheapside is an actual, visible, and even ostentatiously visible tree, to all who have eyes to look about them. It stands at the corner of Wood Street, and occupies the space of a house. There was a solitary one the other day in St. Pauls Churchyard, which has now got a multitude of young companions. A little child was shown us a few years back, who was said never to have beheld a tree but that single one in St. Pauls Churchyard. Whenever a tree was mentioned, she thought it was that and no other. She had no conception even of the remote tree in Cheapside! This appears incredible; but there would seem to be no bounds, either to imagination or to the want of it. We were told the other day on good authority, of a man who had resided six-and-thirty years in the square of St. Peters at Rome, and then for the first time went inside the Cathedral.
In the body of our work will be found notices of other trees and green spots, that surprise the observer in the thick of the noise and smoke. Many of them are in churchyards. Others have disappeared during the progress of building. Many courts and passages are named from trees that once stood in them, as Vine and Elm Court, Fig-tree Court, Green-arbour Court, etc. It is not surprising that garden-houses as they were called, should have formerly abounded in Holborn, in Bunhill Row, and other (at that time) suburban places. We notice the fact, in order to observe how fond the poets were of occupying houses of this description. Milton seems to have made a point of having one. The only London residence of Chapman which is known, was in Old Street Road; doubtless at that time a rural suburb. Beaumont and Fletchers house, on the Surrey side of the Thames (for they lived as well as wrote together), most probably had a garden; and Drydens house in Gerard Street looked into the garden of the mansion built by the Earls of Leicester. A tree, or even a flower, put in a window in the streets of a great city (and the London citizens, to their credit, are fond of flowers), affects the eye something in the same way as the hand-organs, which bring unexpected music to the ear. They refresh the commonplaces of life, shed a harmony through the busy discord, and appeal to those first sources of emotion, which are associated with the remembrance of all that is young and innocent. They seem also to present to us a portion of the tranquillity we think we are labouring for, and the desire of which is felt as an earnest that we shall realise it somewhere, either in this world or in the next. Above all, they render us more cheerful for the performance of present duties; and the smallest seed of this kind, dropt into the heart of man, is worth more, and may terminate in better fruits, than anybody but a great poet could tell us.