James Uden

Conserving the Classical Past: Elizabeth Carter, ‘On his Design of Cutting Down a Shady Walk’ (1745)

In a letter of May 14, 1739, Elizabeth Carter describes a trip from London to Windsor with the writer, Thomas Birch, and some other male friends. Early in the journey, through the ‘contrary Influence of some more potent planet’, the group spontaneously desired to change their course, and they rode off towards Oxford instead. At Stokenchurch in Oxfordshire, while her ‘prosaic’ male companions were ‘plodding along the beaten Road’, Carter suddenly broke away. Inspired by the beauty of her surroundings, she began to climb the hill at Stokenchurch on her own, ‘a poetical Excursion into a Wood on the Top of the Hill’. As Carter describes it, she was transported by the sublimity of the surroundings. The men waited impatiently below her, ‘absolutely deaf’ to her ‘fine descriptions of treading upon Hyacinths & Violets & conversing with the Genius of the Wood’. Surprised by Carter’s intrepid spirit and by the difficulty of the climb, some of the men joked that Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology, must have helped her up. Others, she says, gave her the Greek epithet aerobates (‘air-walker’), which they ‘maliciously translated’ as ‘like a witch upon a Broomstick’. As the most famous female classicist of the eighteenth century, Carter could easily have translated the word herself. She recounts the anecdote in a private letter to a friend, but the incident may well have stood out for her because of its symbolic associations. In her writing, she often associates the freedom to pursue intellectual pleasures with upward movement, climbing or flight. The stereotypical vision of the learned woman as a witch represents education as a dark power that she ought not to have; and, indeed, Carter herself elsewhere described intellectual activity as a seductive sort of ‘conjuring’ or witchcraft. Yet the pervasive classical elements in this anecdote – the ‘Genius of the wood’, Pegasus, aerobates – are a reminder that it was precisely Carter’s classical learning that allowed her to deviate, at least partially, from the ‘beaten Road’ of society’s expectations, and cultivate erudition on her own.[1]

Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806) was one of the best known of the Bluestockings, a circle of women who came to cultural prominence in the mid-eighteenth century for their learning and their intimate friendships with one another. She was taught Latin, Greek, and Hebrew by her father as a child, and as an adult followed a strict reading routine, waking between four and five in the morning and warding off sleep through snuff, tea, coffee, and wet towels bound around her head.[2] She rejected marriage from all suitors. Instead, she dedicated herself to scholarly pursuits, gaining her greatest fame and her financial independence with the publication of All the Works of Epictetus (1758), the first complete English translation of the lectures of the Stoic philosopher of the second century CE. Her poems, which were mostly written for private circulation but were later anthologized in various forms, return again and again to particular themes. Carter describes the brilliance of other women’s achievements; she evokes the solemn melancholy of the night and the tomb, in the manner of contemporary graveyard poetry; and she celebrates the soaring power of the mind, its transcendence of the limitations of the physical body. Scholars have been drawn to some of these poems, especially a poetic dialogue between body and mind, in which the two are described as ‘plagues to each other’, like ‘husband and wife’.[3] But a less well-studied poem, ‘To ¾ . On his Design of Cutting Down a Shady Walk’, demonstrates Carter’s favorite motifs with equal vividness. This text, a plea to save a grove of trees, is also an ode to the ability of the nature to inspire thought and ideas, and a striking revision of typical celebrations of male genius.

While the poem is ostensibly addressed to the owner of the trees, originally it formed part of a private communication between Carter and other women in her circle. In August 1745, she was staying at the home of Dr. Walwyn, prebendary of Canterbury, in order to be close to her friend, Elizabeth Hall. In a letter to her fellow Bluestocking, Catherine Talbot (1721-1770), Carter says that Dr. Walwyn planned to cut down some trees on his property that formed ‘a very pretty romantic gloom’, because they were preventing the ripening of his fruit. Upset about the loss of the trees, Carter wrote the poem to please Miss Hall, she says, and then enclosed it in her letter to Talbot; only three years afterwards was it published for a wider audience.[4] In a posthumous reprinting of the poem, a note was added to say that the grove was, in fact, cut down. But there is no evidence that Carter ever thought it proper – or possible – to prevent her host from cutting down his trees. Rather, the poem is an act of communication between these three women, an ode to the imaginative potential of the grove and to the intangible value of intellectual labor.[5] Here is the text in full:

In plaintive Notes, that tun’d to Woe
The sadly sighing Breeze,
A weeping Hamadryad mourn’d
Her Fate-devoted Trees.

Ah! Stop thy sacrilegious Hand, (5)
Nor violate the Shade,
Where Nature form’d a silent Haunt
For Contemplation’s Aid.

Canst thou, the Son of Science, train’d
Where learned Isis flows, (10)
Forget that nurs’d in shelt’ring Groves
The Grecian Genius rose.

Beneath the Platane’s spreading Branch,
Immortal Plato taught:
And fair Lyceum form’d the Depth (15)
Of Aristotle’s Thought.

To Latian Groves reflect thy View,
And bless the Tuscan Gloom:
Where Eloquence deplor’d the Fate
Of Liberty and Rome. (20)

Within the Beechen Shade retir’d,
From each inspiring Bough,
The Muses wove unfading Wreaths,
To circle Virgil’s Brow.

Reflect, before the fatal Ax (25)
My threatened Doom has wrought:
Nor sacrifice to sensual Taste
The nobler Growth of Thought.

Not all the glowing Fruits, that blush
On India’s sunny Coast, (30)
Can recompense thee for the Worth
Of one Idea lost.

My Shade a Produce may supply,
Unknown to solar Fire:
And what excludes Apollo’s Rays, (35)
Shall harmonize his Lyre.

The first stanza establishes Carter’s speaking voice for the rest of the poem: a ‘weeping Hamadryad’, a nymph of classical mythology who lived in the woods and symbolized for ancient thinkers the sacred and human-like qualities of trees. Servius, the fourth-century commentator on Virgil, defines hamadryads as ‘nymphs who are born and die with trees. It was a hamadryad that Erysichthon killed. When he cut into the tree, her voice and her blood burst out together, as Ovid teaches us’.[6] Servius is referring to Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8.738-878), where the impious Erysichthon takes a ‘savage axe’ (saevam bipennem, 766) to an oak sacred to the goddess Ceres, thereby killing the hamadryad within. Ceres inflicts the tree-violator with a terrible hunger, so that the more he eats, the hungrier he gets. Insatiable, he consumes all that the earth produces – ‘whatever is reared by sea, land, or air’ (830) – until he dies by eating his own body. Cutting down trees in antiquity was a ‘hazardous act, stigmatized by society and divinity alike’ (Thomas 1988: 263), and in many texts severing branches or cutting down trees is frequently accompanied by forebodings of evil or death. When Carter imagines herself as a hamadryad, and Dr. Walwyn as an impious invader who threatens ‘Doom’ with his ‘fatal Ax’, it is likely that she has this famous story of Erysichthon specifically in mind. ‘Sacrilegious Hand’ (line 5) is close to the phrase Ovid uses to describe the violator’s ‘wicked hand’ (manus impia, Metamorphoses 8.761), and the hyperbolic allusion to all the fruits of India (29-30) may recall the world-consuming hunger with which Erysichthon was cursed. Presumably, Dr. Walwyn just wanted his fruit to ripen. Carter fuses this everyday situation with the heightened emotion and imagination of classical myth, so that Walwyn is prepared to ‘violate the Shade’ to sate his ‘sensual Taste’.

The poem argues that true values have been inverted. Any profit or utility in the fruit is worth less, Carter asserts, than the artistic inspiration offered by the old, shady grove of trees. The ideas fostered by the grove’s romantic gloom are therefore a paradoxical yet more valuable kind of ‘Produce’ (33), opposed to ‘Apollo’s rays’ (sunlight) but in harmony with Apollo’s lyre (poetic inspiration, 36). In stanzas three to six, Carter appeals a series of classical examples to support this argument. Plato was inspired by the plane tree, she says, alluding to the opening of the Phaedrus (13-4); Aristotle by the Lyceum, the shaded gymnasium outside Athens’ city walls where he established his school (15-6); Cicero by the ‘Tuscan Gloom’ of his villa, the dramatic setting of his Tusculan Disputations (16-20); and Virgil by the beech tree, echoing the first line of the Eclogues (21-4). The show of classical learning is in part designed to shame the Oxford-educated Walwyn, a ‘Son of Science’, who, naturally, should put ideas before fruit. (As a woman, Carter could not have attended Oxford, although she personally prepared her brother for entrance to Cambridge). But her description of these classical figures also subtly undercuts the usual praise of ancient male luminaries. Aristotle did not merely teach in the Lyceum, according to Carter’s poem. Instead, the landscape ‘form’d the Depth’ of his thought, as if the environment itself shaped and determined his philosophy. ‘Bless the gloom’ of Cicero’s villa, she says, rather than Cicero, whose name is unmentioned. In Virgil’s vignette, it is the female Muses who wreath the passive poet’s brow, and the trees that offer him inspiration. The wordplay between ‘Platane’ (plane-tree) and Plato suggests a closer, causal association between the philosopher and his arboreal setting. Elsewhere in her poems, Carter replaces typical odes to masculine genius with praise of other female writers. Here, instead, she credits the environment for the ideas propounded by classical thinkers. Her organic image of the ‘Growth of Thought’ (28) hints both at an alternative, ecological vision of the classical tradition, and a subtly subversive revision of encomia to heroic male achievement.

The complex of images of artistic inspiration and cutting down trees also has a personal and professional aspect, since it recalls a poetic exchange that brought Carter the widest attention of her early career. In July 1738, Carter visited Alexander Pope’s gardens at Twickenham, and was captivated by their elegant naturalness and evocative disorder. ‘One would fancy it the sequestered Habitation of a Society of wood nymphs’, she wrote in a private letter.[7] In the same month, an anonymous poet – almost certainly Samuel Johnson – published a Latin epigram commemorating Carter’s visit in Gentleman’s Magazine. By that point, Carter had published a series of poems of her own in Gentleman’s Magazine, and the poet uses the trip to Pope’s garden ostensibly to celebrate the female writer’s new-found poetic success:[8]

Elysios Popi dum ludit laeta per hortos
En avida lauros carpit Elisa manu.
Nil opus est furto. Lauros tibi, dulcis Elisa,
Si neget optatas Popus, Apollo dabit.

[While happy Eliza sports in the Elysian gardens of Pope, look! – she plucks some laurel with her greedy hand. No need for theft! If Pope should deny you the laurel you desire, sweet Eliza, then Apollo will grant it].

The epigram caused a minor sensation, and was followed in the next month’s issue by no less than three translations into English by different contributors to the magazine. One very free English adaptation of the Latin epigram, perhaps also by Johnson himself, recasts it in the mold of another story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the narrative of the nymph Daphne’s pursuit by the lustful Apollo and her transformation into a laurel tree to avoid rape. Startlingly, the poet casts Carter not in the role of the nymph, but of the pursuing god: ‘Cease, lovely thief! my tender limbs to wound,/ (Cry’d Daphne whisp’ring from the yielding tree)’.[9] Behind the ostensible praise of Carter’s new celebrity is a disturbing gender reversal. She is imagined in a lush pastoral setting but is assimilated to the male god pursuing a nymph. The scene of Carter plucking a laurel branch in Pope’s garden has become a symbol for her invasion of the bounded world of male poetic success.

Jennifer Wallace (2003: 318-20) has analyzed in detail these double-handed poetic compliments, in which images of theft and violation frequently accompanied commemoration of Carter’s rising celebrity. Her presence among learned men inspired both admiration and admonition. Carter too responded to the poem about Pope’s garden in her own Latin epigram in the Gentleman’s Magazine. The alleged ‘theft’, she says, brings her no joy:[10]

En marcet Laurus, nec quicquam juvit Elizae,
Furtim sacrilega diripuisse manu:
Illa petit sedem magis aptam, tempora POPI;
Et florere negat pauperiore solo.

[Look! – the laurel droops, nor does it please Eliza at all to have stealthily stolen it with sacrilegious hand. The laurel seeks a more appropriate abode, the brow of POPE; and it refuses to flourish in poorer soil].

Here as in the other ‘Pope’s garden’ poems, the pastoral space is legible as a symbolic representation of the professional landscape, a means of debating the boundaries and decorum of literary writing and publishing. Carter deferentially accepts the role of tree violator in which she was cast in the original epigram, but claims that the alleged ‘theft’ gave her no joy, and says humbly that the leaves are dying around her brow. To return to ‘On his Design of Cutting Down a Shady Walk’, a specific allusion links this earlier exchange of verses on Pope’s garden with the later and more assertive poem to Dr. Walwyn. Carter had depicted herself stealing the laurel ‘with sacrilegious hand’ (sacrilega… manu). But now she passes that role back on to a male figure – the figure of Dr. Walwyn, to whom she issues the forceful command: ‘Stop thy sacrilegious hand’. In the reminiscence of the earlier incident, and her reassertion of an identification with the nymph rather then the violator, Carter is righting an earlier professional wrong.

Indeed, Carter’s identification with classical nymphs is surprisingly pervasive throughout her work Rather than any simple idealization of nature, these passages all reflect her sense of comfort or vulnerability in the different spaces of her personal or professional life. In expressing her love of walking outdoors, for example, she writes in 1746 that health ‘flies from the downy pillow of sloth, and the confinement of studious repose’ and ‘lives in the wild rage of rural scenes, and converses with mountain nymphs and hamadryads’ (Pennington 1807: 72). Similarly, in letters that reflect the closeness and intimacy of her relationship with Catherine Talbot, she describes herself as ‘as perfect a Hamadryad as you can possibly be’, and a ‘pastoral nymph’, ‘lolling on a green bank, among roses and honeysuckles’, and later she writes that she has ‘run wild & led the Life of a wood nymph without any danger of being molested in my Walks…’.[11] In a letter from Talbot to Carter congratulating her addressee on her publication in Dodsley’s anthology in 1748, Talbot says that the poem to Walwyn has been ‘fixed at last under the protection of your Hamadryad in Mr. Dodsley’s laurel-grove’; here the pastoral space is particularly clearly seen as a symbol for the professional space of the published book.[12] The nymph is an apt figure through which Carter can express herself, since the mythic character epitomizes both a kinship with nature and a susceptibility to threats of male dominance and invasion. Such imagery is not merely decorative or inertly ‘classicizing’, but part of a heightened awareness of the borders of safety and respectability in an educated woman’s public life.

Elizabeth Carter, according to her nephew and biographer Montagu Pennington, was ‘better acquainted with the meanderings of the Peneus, and the course of the Ilyssus, than she was with those of the Thames or Loire’ (Pennington 1807: 11). She knows these rivers so closely, he says, because of her passion for ancient geography. But his remark also adds to the picture of Carter we have seen in her vigorous mountain-climbing as an aerobates in Oxfordshire, in her poem to Dr. Walwyn ‘On his Design of Cutting Down a Shady Walk’, and in her private self-description as a frolicking nymph in letters to her friends. She saw places around her through classical eyes, in a manner that reflected her contested status in the eighteenth century as a learned woman. Far from being unworldly, it was her classical erudition that gave her both fame and a degree of independence; but she was also aware that this fame was being policed, in derogatory remarks or double-handed compliments that reminded her of more typical domestic responsibilities.[13] The description of Dr. Walwyn’s grove is, first, a playful poetic exercise to please her friends. An everyday situation is transmuted into the grander vision of Ovidian myth. Yet Carter’s poetic claim of ownership to this ‘silent Haunt/ For Contemplation’s Aid’ (7-8) also suggests a deeper assertion of lineage to the classical thinkers she lists. She walks among shades. Antiquity, we might say, is that place, that ‘Shady Walk’, the underworld to which readers and scholars can return – provided that spaces for its study are preserved from utilitarian claims of profit or cost. Carter’s gendered vision of the grove holds out the promise of a community of erudition. It is a space, at least in her poetry, to which all learned women can return.

– James Uden (Boston University)[14]


Boswell, J. 1887 [1791]. The Life of Samuel Johnson (ed. G.B. Hill). 6 vols. New York: Harper.

Carter, E. 1762. Poems on Several Occasions. London.

Clery, E.J. 2004. The Feminization Debate in Eighteenth-Century England: Literature, Commerce and Luxury. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dodsley, R. 1748. A Collection of Poems in Three Volumes. By Several Hands. London.

Freeman, L.A. 1999. “‘A Dialogue’: Elizabeth Carter’s Passion for the Female Mind”. In Armstrong & V. Blain (eds) Women’s Poetry in the Enlightenment. London: Palgrave.

Hampshire, G. 2005. Elizabeth Carter, 1717-1806: An Edition of Some Unpublished Letters. Newark: University of Delaware Press.

Hawley, J. 1999. Bluestocking Feminism: Writings of the Bluestocking Circle, 1738-1785. Vol 2. London: Pickering & Chatto.

Hunt, A. 2016. Reviving Roman Religion: Sacred Trees in the Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lee, A.W. 2011. “Who’s Mentoring Whom? Mentorship, Alliance, and Rivalry in the Carter-Johnson Relationship”. In A.W. Lee (ed) Mentoring in Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Culture. Burlington & Surrey: Ashgate. 191-210.

Miller, N. 1982. Heavenly Caves: Reflections on the Garden Grotto. New York: George Braziller.

Pennington, M. 1807. Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Elizabeth Carter. London.

———. 1809. A Series of Letters from Mrs. Elizabeth Carter and Miss Catherine Talbot. 4 vols. London.

Pickard, R. 1998. “Environmentalism and ‘Best Husbandry’: Cutting Down Trees in Augustan Poetry”. Lumen 17: 103-26.

Ronnick, M.V. 1995. “Epictetus’ Liberation of Elizabeth Carter”. Res Publica Litterarum 18: 169-71.

Thomas, R. F. 1988. “Tree Violation and Ambivalence in Virgil”. Transactions of the American Philological Association 118: 261-73.

Wallace, J. 2003. “Confined and Exposed: Elizabeth Carter’s Classical Translations”. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 22: 315-34.

Williams, C.D. 1996. “Poetry, Pudding, and Epictetus: The Consistency of Elizabeth Carter”. In A. Ribeiro & J.G. Basker (eds) Tradition in Transition: Women Writers, Marginal Texts, and the Eighteenth-Century Canon. Oxford: Clarendon    Press. 3-24.

Wilson, P. 2012. “Women Writers and the Classics”. In D. Hopkins and C. Martindale (eds) The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature. Vol. 3.Oxford: Oxford University Press. 495-518.


[1] The letter is printed in Hampshire (2005: 68-9). In an earlier letter to the same addressee (Hannah Underdown), she describes being introduced to a group of intellectuals at the house of the mathematician Thomas Wright, and comments: ‘Tis well if among all these Conjurors I do not turn witch, tho’ I believe you will think I have no great Capacity that way’ (Hampshire 2005: 43).

[2] This is at least according to the account of her nephew, Montagu Pennington, in his Memoirs of his late aunt (1807: 15). She describes her daily routine in much more tongue-in-cheek terms in a letter to her friend Catherine Talbot preserved by Pennington (1807: 90-3).

[3] Carter (1762: 25-6) [= Hawley 1999: 353-4], on which see Williams (1996: 9-15), Ronnick (1995: 170); Freeman (1999).

[4] The poem was first published under the title ‘To a GENTLEMAN, On his Intending to cut down a GROVE, to enlarge his Prospect’ in Dodsley’s anthology A Collection of Poems. By Several Hands (1748: 328-30). Then it was republished, with changes in punctuation and two minor changes in wording, under the title ‘To ¾. On his Design of cutting down a SHADY WALK’ in Carter’s own collection, Poems on Several Occasions (1762: 39-41) [= Hawley 1999: 358-9], which is the text used here.

[5] Pennington (1807: 383); the letter from Carter to Talbot is at Pennington (1809, vol 1: 108). Pickard (1998: 113-7), in the only detailed scholarly analysis of the poem, argues that its ‘outmoded personifications’ are the reason for its failure to save the trees. This misunderstands both author and poem. Wilson (2012: 512-3) mentions the poem’s wit and classical allusions as an exception to the sober, Stoic translations for which Carter was better known.

[6] Servius, on Eclogues 10.62, quoted by Hunt (2016: 192), who stresses the lack of consensus in classical sources about the exact nature of hamadryads.

[7] The letter is at Hampshire (2005: 44-5); on the aesthetics of Pope’s garden design, see Miller (1982: 77-85). On the relationship between Carter and Johnson, see Lee (2011); Clery (2004: 75) postulates that Johnson was using Carter as ‘bait in his own meditated challenge to Pope’s ascendancy’.

[8] The Gentleman’s Magazine, July 1738, p. 372, with my translation.

[9] The Gentleman’s Magazine, August 1738, p. 429.

[10] The Gentleman’s Magazine, August 1738, p.429, with my translation.

[11] Pennington (1808, vol.1: 66, 211); Hampshire (2005: 136). On these passages, see also Pickard (1998: 114).

[12] Pennington (1808, vol.1: 253). For the reference to Dodsley, see endnote 4 above.

[13] To quote only the most famous, Johnson later condescendingly quipped that Carter could ‘make a pudding as well as translate Epictetus’ (Boswell 1887, vol. 1: 142); and another man claimed that he would only subscribe to a woman’s translation of Epictetus if it were in fact a ‘treatise of œconomy for the use of the ladies’ (Pennington 1807: 143).

[14] I offer this essay, with thanks, to another learned woman, Olga Davidson.