Craigo Woods

Craigo Woods, wi’ the splash o’ the cauld rain beatin’
I’ the back end o’ the year,
When the clouds hang laigh wi’ the weicht o’ their load o’ greetin’
And the autumn wind’s asteer;
Ye may stand like ghaists, ye may fa’ i’ the blast that’s cleft ye
To rot i’ the chilly dew,
But when will I mind on aucht since the day I left ye
Like I mind on you – on you?

Craigo Woods, i’ the licht o’ September sleepin’
And the saft mist o’ the morn,
When the hairst climbs to yer feet, an' the sound o’ reapin’
Comes up frae the stookit corn,
And the braw reid puddock-stules are like jewels blinkin’
And the bramble happs ye baith,
O what do I see, i’ the lang nicht, lyin’ an’ thinkin’
As I see yer wraith – yer wraith?

There’s a road to a far-aff land, an’ the land is yonder
Whaur a’ men’s hopes are set;
We dinna ken foo lang we maun hae to wander,
But we’ll a’ win to it yet;
An’ gin there’s woods o’ fir an’ the licht atween them,
I winna speir its name,
But I’ll lay me doon by the puddock-stules when I’ve seen them,
An’ I’ll cry ‘I’m hame – I’m hame!”

There is something haunting happening in this poem. We find ‘ghaists’ in line 5, ‘wraith’ repeated in line 16. Is the poet haunted by the place? Is the speaker present in the landscape or is it a memory? Does this place only exist as a ghost in her mind now?

There is a distinct feeling of other-worldliness running through the poem. One of the first images of the poem has the clouds hanging “laigh wi’ the wecht o’ their load o’ greetin’” – a deeply sorrowful image which manages almost to personify the clouds: we imagine them perhaps as a crowd of people with their heads bowed in mourning. The autumn wind is restless, unhappy. Something’s changing. The use of pathetic fallacy to foreground the feelings of the poet is a well-worn one, but we appreciate this poem for the freshness of the imagery. We’ve all experienced a day like that in Scotland and Jacob’s skill brings it clearly to our imaginations.

We wonder who the poem is addressed to. Certainly its title and much of the content suggests that it is a poem to Craigo Woods, possibly an area near her home in Montrose. We know she spent a great deal of time in India and Egypt, and eventually settled in England. Perhaps it is a poem written to remind her of this place. If it is addressed to the woods, then they begin to take on certain human qualities.

In line 5 the poet addresses Craigo Woods: we can imagine trees in low cloud, perhaps some mist, standing “like ghaists”. The poem continues: “ye may fa’ i’ the blast that’s cleft ye” – again, we can imagine trees uprooted in strong wind, littering the forest, rotting “i’ the chilly dew”. But we are struck by the exceptional violence of the image in line 5. The words ‘blast’ and ‘cleft’ are strongly consonantal, with quick sharp vowels and really foreground the wrench of separation of the trees from their soil.

The notion of separation is key in this poem and we don’t have to look much further to find it again. In line 7 the poet asks: “But when will I mind on aucht since the day I left ye/ Like I mind on you – on you”. In other words: when will I remember anything else the way I remember you. It is a lyric to a beloved. The use of repetition here – a device we will find at the end of each verse – really underscores the emotion behind the words, and reminds us of a love song.

The beginning of the second verse re-establishes contact with the place. But this time, it’s a much more gentle image. In place of the “cauld rain beatin’” we find Craigo Woods “i’ the licht o’ September sleepin’”. Again, there is the use of personification, but this is a much more peaceful incarnation than the previous verse. The mournful clouds are replaced by “saft mists”. There is a subtle parallelism at work between verse one and two that really makes the contrast in mood stand out: e.g. compare verse one’s “load o’ greetin’” with verse two’s “sound o’ reapin’”.

This is a landscape which is alive in so many ways. Nothing is still. Perhaps it is the live associations that the place has for the poet, the vibrancy of life there – not to mention the weather. From the cold rain beating down and the autumn wind stirring in verse one to the “hairst [climbing] to your feet”. Even the “braw reid puddock-stules” are described as “jewels blinkin” – another use of personification here, which also gives us the image of a forest floor dappled with sun-light.

At the end of the second verse, the beautiful, gentle images give way to something slightly more sinister as the poet thinks of the woods as a “wraith” – with the word hauntingly repeated. In folklore a wraith is the spectral appearance of someone who is still living and it is generally considered to be a warning that the person’s death is imminent. We might recall too that the poem takes place at harvest-time, or autumn – a time of year when the annual cycle of life is drawing to a close, things begin to die off and rot. There is also a sense of hopefulness to harvest-time. Change is a good thing, renewal of the land as well as a kind of spiritual renewal are positive and enriching processes, even though they might be a bit painful at the time. For this poet, things are definitely moving on.

Movement as a theme emerges more and more in the poem until the beginning of verse three when we are told of “a road to a far-aff land”. Now this theme is transposed from the movement of elements in the landscape to the speaker in the poem. The other-wordly feel becomes more literal – a place “yonder/ whaur a’ men’s hopes are set.”

Formally, the poem moves, too. The patterns established in the first two verses are broken. Verse three doesn’t begin with “Craigo Woods”, but significantly with the “road to a far-aff land”. We are being taken out of the specific locality of the woods towards a different kind of landscape. What is it? Is it literally a different country? From what we know of the poet’s life, this is possible. Perhaps she is being taken away from her beloved home to a foreign country. Perhaps the “we” in the third line of the final stanza is herself and her husband whose work in the military necessitated their travel. Or is she including the reader here? Isn’t this journey also a metaphorical one – the journey of life towards understanding, towards self-knowledge? On life’s journey no-one knows “foo lang we maun hae to wander” – but we know that eventually “we’ll a’ win to it”.

In the last few lines we are presented with a scene strongly reminiscent of Craigo Woods – with “woods o’ fir an’ the licht atween them” and, a few lines down, the familiar puddock-stules. But it’s obviously somewhere else and the poet “winna speir its name” – again, the use of personification. Perhaps to name the place would be to restrict it, to label it as somewhere else, to consciously rob her of the conceit that she has come home. It is enough to know that we have arrived. In these lines Jacob seems to anticipate the great Modernist poet TS Eliot, whose poem Little Gidding contains the lines: “the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” Jacob’s homecoming in Craigo Woods is a similarly spiritual one.

In Craigo Woods Jacob has created a deeply emotional evocation of place – but the poem remains totally devoid of sentimentality. The woods are a powerful physical and psychical presence throughout the poem and can stand for Scotland as a whole. Indeed, one may universalise the poem to the experience of anyone who has known separation and loss, and the yearning to become re-united.