This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison

This poem was written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge during 1797, and recalls an occasion when he was obliged by injury to remain in his garden while his friends made an excursion into the country. In the third stanza, his mood lifts, and he notices: “A delight/ Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad/ As I myself were there! Nor in this bower, / This little lime-tree bower, have I not mark’d / Much that has sooth’d me.”

In France and Switzerland, limes are a symbol of liberty, and the trees were planted to commemorate different battles. Lime blossom can be used to make tilleul, a soothing tea which is a remedy for headache. Lime wood does not warp and is still used today to make sounding boards and piano keys. The acknowledged master of English lime wood carving, and the man who introduced the material to this country as a versatile alternative to native oak, is Grinling Gibbons.

Gibbons was born to English parents in Rotterdam in 1648, and came to England about 1667. His early work has affinities with the lime wood sculptural tradition of Southern Germany. Jonathan Jones observes: “This Baroque artist shared with (Bernini) an ability to breathe life into still material.”. Michelangelo, in his time, believed the sculptor was a tool of God, not creating but simply revealing the powerful figures already contained in the marble. His habitual working practice is referred to as “non-finito”, and is emblematic of the struggle of man to free the spirit from matter.

John Gillespie Magee Jr, a young Spitfire pilot, sent his parents a few months before he met his death in the air the text of “High Flight”. In his sonnet he says: “Hov’ring there,/ I’ve chased the shouting wind along and flung/ My eager craft through footless halls of air”.

Horace Walpole wrote: “There is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave to wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers.”. In 1769, Walpole greeted some distinguished French, Spanish and Portuguese visitors at the gate of his villa at Strawberry Hill wearing a cravat carved from lime wood by Gibbons.

If before mid-September you visit Fairfax House in York, as I did yesterday, you can see the cravat, which is carved in imitation of Venetian needlepoint lace. The magnificent Georgian town house is showing it as part of its exhibition, “The Genius of Grinling Gibbons “.

As Prospero reminds Ariel in Shakespeare’s “Tempest”, “…….It was mine Art,/ When I arriv’d and heard thee, that made gape/ The pine, and let thee out.”

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