Cyder: ‘these empty Thoughts / Of Apples’

In early modern England Virgil’s Georgics influenced many writers, including Spenser and Milton. But the title of first pure English georgic – the first original poem in English to directly imitate the Georgics as a generic model – has to go to Cyder, by John Philips. So it seems appropriate to choose Cyder for the subject of my first proper blog post!

Reading Cyder with the appropriate accompaniment

John Philips was born in 1676 in Oxfordshire, the son of a clergyman. Cyder was published in 1708, just a year before the author’s death. Philips is buried in Hereford Cathedral, and a monument to him was erected in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey in 1710: an oval portrait framed by a laurel bush and an apple tree.

NPG 1763; John Philips by Unknown artist
John Philips, by Unknown artist, oil on canvas, circa 1700. National Portrait Gallery, London

In Book I of Cyder, Philips gives advice on how to grow the best apples – which kind of soil is best, the importance of pruning, how to guard your trees from greedy pigs (with a ‘furious Mastiff’). Book II teaches its reader how to turn those apples into delicious cider – the kind of weather that foretells a good harvest, which horse to set to work turning the mill-wheel, how long different varieties of cider must be stored, and how not to get too drunk on the fruits of your labours. Along the way, Philips finds moments to wax lyrical on the beautiful Herefordshire countryside and its noble families.

When at the end of Book I Philips turns his thoughts (briefly) to God, he considers that his poem is just a lot of ‘empty Thoughts / Of Apples’. But these thoughts of apples are full of meaning.

For one thing, there’s the undercurrent of political discourse running through the poem. I have a particular fondness for Cyder because I took my first degree at Christ Church, Oxford, and Cyder is a Christ Church poem through and through. Not only did Philips study there, but so did most of the contemporary figures who get a mention in his poem. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Christ Church was THE breeding-ground for Royalist Tories (some might say it hasn’t quite shaken off this reputation). After all, the college had acted as Charles I’s palace and parliament building during the Civil War. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688, the Royalist feeling of Christ Church was channelled into Jacobitism, the pro-House-of-Stuart movement to restore James II and his heirs to the throne. In the words of Pat Rogers, ‘Cyder operates on one level as a covert directory of prominent [Jacobite] sympathizers in the county [of Herefordshire].’ (The Life and Times of Thomas, Lord Coningsby (2011), p.211.)

What does this have to do with apples and cider? The drink itself came with Royalist connotations. Cider was really popularised in England as a fine beverage – a patriotic equivalent to French wine – and not just a drink for labourers and clowns, by Viscount Scudamore (1601-1671). Scudamore developed the Redstreak apple at his Herefordshire estate, Holme Lacy.

…Yet let her to the Red-streak yield, that once
Was of the Sylvan Kind, unciviliz’d,
Of no Regard, ‘till Scudamore’s skilful Hand
Improv’d her, and by courtly Discipline
Taught her the savage Nature to forget[.]

Scudamore was a Royalist (though not a particularly effective one). After the Battle of Worcester, when Charles II fled into Herefordshire, the king was said to have drowned his sorrows in Scudamore cider. (Rogers, p.208.)

As Rogers acknowledges, the political is just ‘one level’ at which Cyder operates, in the same way that Virgil’s Georgics are only partly about the Roman civil wars. These are also nature poems, in which nature does not function solely as an extended metaphorical vehicle. It seems to me that georgics are partly about the impossibility of twisting nature into a political, theological, or moral conceit. Georgic nature is too real, too visceral, and too unwieldy.

I don’t think that the passages of natural description in Cyder achieve the heights of sensuous immediacy that some later georgics would reach. But there are moments when we feel as though Philips isn’t just in his study, thinking about politics, but is out there touching the trees, getting up close to the knots and whorls of their trunks. Here he instructs his reader in grafting the branch of one type of tree onto another (a passage with a direct precursor in Virgil):

Let Art correct thy Breed: from Parent Bough
A Cyon meetly sever; after, force
A way into the Crabstock’s close-wrought Grain
By Wedges, and within the living Wound
Enclose the Foster Twig; nor over-nice
Refuse with thy own Hands around to spread
The binding Clay[.]

Not only does Philips demonstrate an impressive technical knowledge of the crafts of apple-growing and cider-making, but he writes about the fruit and the trees with astonishing tenderness and affection (despite the violence of the grafting scene). This is testified in the very opening line:

WHAT Soil the Apple loves, what Care is due
To Orchats, timeliest when to press the Fruits,
Thy Gift, Pomona, in Miltonian Verse
Adventrous I presume to sing[.]

In Cyder, apples, trees and orchards are repeatedly personified: apples ‘love’ particular soils, ‘The Orchat loves to wave / With Winter-Winds’, ‘Orchats smile’, and ‘The tender Apples’ are ‘from their Parents rent / By stormy Shocks’. Anticipating Erasmus Darwin’s The Loves of the Plants, Philips also describes at length which plants get on well with others:

The Prudent will observe, what Passions reign
In various Plants (for not to Man alone,
But all the wide Creation, Nature gave
Love, and Aversion): Everlasting Hate
The Vine to Ivy bears, nor less abhors
The Coleworts Rankness; but, with amorous Twine,
Clasps the tall Elm: The Pæstan Rose unfolds
Her Bud, more lovely, near the fetid Leek[.]

Today many environmentalists and ethical philosophers are wary of anthropomorphising the natural world. But reading Cyder, it becomes clear that personification could – and perhaps still can – be a useful tool in fostering considerate attitudes towards nature. It may be sentimental to imagine apples as babies torn from their parent trees, but it does invest the apples and the trees with life and agency independent from their role in human agriculture. It invites the reader to consider the ethics of how trees are treated and cultivated, not just the economics. It may not be ideal to have to do so in anthropomorphic terms, but perhaps sometimes the ends justify the means. And one of Cyder’s ends is to persuade its readers to ‘shew Compassion to thy Plants’.


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