Needwood Forest – The axeman cometh…

Cottage in Needwood Forest (Joseph Wright)

Found a few years ago in a job lot is this manuscript copy of a poem which ranks among the most famous ‘local’ poems in the English language. Needwood Forest was published privately in Lichfield in 1776 by one Francis Noel Mundy, a Derbyshire squire alarmed by plans to cut down and enclose much of the large Staffordshire forest he had known since his childhood.

To head a campaign against these plans he composed a long poem in couplets, influenced by Milton and Spenser,  that celebrated its delights. Anxious to enlist the support of the great and good, Mundy allowed the manuscript to be circulated among a local coterie, some of whom made copies. Anna Seward, the ‘ Swan of Lichfield’ and Dr Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, and also of Lichfield, a celebrated physician, inventor, and author of another long scientific poem, The Botanic Garden,  were among those who saw the poem in manuscript and contributed lines to it.

The main problem with my manuscript copy is that whoever created it could not be described as literary in any meaningful way. If we compare it to the published text we find blatant errors of transcription that make no sense. Words are misspelled and misread. In a few instances the order of words is changed. On one occasion a whole line of verse is omitted .Even if we accept that the manuscript was probably one of a series of copies ( ie a copy of a copy ), which would excuse  the change of word order, there is no explanation as to why someone of literary bent should blindly write obvious nonsense, such as ‘ of as’ for ‘afar’. And surely anyone rereading what they had written would easily detect a missing line that spoiled the rhyming scheme, or a spelling error that stood out.

It’s a puzzle. What we do know from a comparison of their handwriting—and indeed the gross errors would surely have ruled them out anyway—is that the culprit was neither Anna Seward nor Erasmus Darwin. But it could have been someone—perhaps an amateur poet or concerned environmentalist-- whose education was just sufficient for them to have recognised a few Classical allusions, yet was not good enough to have furnished them with basic critical skills.

Incidentally, Mundy’s campaign ultimately failed. In 1803 an Act of Parliament was passed allowing commissioners to enclose the land in preparation for deforestation. Even Mundy’s sequel, The Fall of Needwood Forest (1808) did not halt the vandalism and by 1811 the enclosed lands had been parcelled up. Today, only a paltry 490 acres of forest remain, but thankfully most of this is open to the public. [RMH]

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