Trees feature in many myths and folk tales, in poetry and in our dreams. They offer us images of endurance, longevity, beauty, strength and integrity. They suggest through their grandeur, something beyond our conceiving, a world tree with roots reaching into an undifferentiated past, and branches growing into a boundless heaven. In Christian exegesis from early times, it was suggested that the cross of the Crucifixion was, either literally or metaphorically, made from the wood of the tree of life. This is referred to in George Herbert’s extraordinary but perhaps not entirely successful poem, The Sacrifice. The poem emphasises Christ’s utter solitude, and to me at any rate, the doctrine of the Atonement as a personal responsibility, not only for Christ but for those who follow him. Here are two stanzas from the much longer poem.
Oh, all you who pass by, behold and see; Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree; The tree of life to all, but only me: Was ever grief like mine? Lo, here I hang, charged with a world of sin, The greater world of the two; for that came in By words, but this by sorrow I must win: Was ever grief like mine?
Another reflection on The World Tree and a poem by Rilke will be the subject of the next post.