Anyone who has seen wild deer will recognize the rustling shuffle, the momentary partings of overgrowth, the startled eyes as a surprised animal stops short, regarding its human observer with something of the child’s startled curiosity. These wordless meetings are like momentary trysts.
The Cervidae family, which we know as deer, evolved from muntjac-like animals originating in Europe around thirty million years ago. They are pictured in heraldry, having appeared on flags and Heads of Arms for centuries, and play a major role in literary symbolism. Deer are not uncommon sights where I live, and benefit from the combination of open grassland and forest. You will see them darting through the trees at Rough Hey, or grazing fruit-rich hedges around former quarry lands at Brighouse. One sighting sticks in my mind more than any. On a sunny afternoon in June, 2012, glimpsed from the towpath where the Rochdale Canal threads its way into the Calder and Hebble Navigation, the Sika doe almost seemed to float along the slope, its head dipping in and out of sight as it wove through low-hung branches It was an understated meeting. But for a number of reasons it was highly significant.
In The White Doe of Rylstone, Wordsworth relates how:
The presence of this wandering Doe
Fills many a damp obscure recess
With lustre of a saintly show;
And, reappearing, she no less
Sheds on the flowers that round her blow
A more than sunny liveliness
and casts the gentle, unassuming creature as a kind of emblem of peace, bringing comfort to the mind of a girl whose soldier brother is killed and buried near the family’s ancestral home: the doe acts as faithful companion, visiting the brother’s grave even of her own volition. Wordsworth’s poem - felt by the poet to be “in conception the highest work” that he produced - frames the deer in a spiritual imagery recalling its traditional mythology: throughout history, the symbolism of deer has denoted kindness, loyalty, compassion.
Greek mythology features the Cerynian Hind, associated with the Goddess Artemis, and whose temporary capture is set down by the monarch Eurystheus as one of the Labours of Hercules, punishments imposed on him for the crime of having slain his own children while suffering from madness.
Nordic sagas depict four stags consuming foliage, said to reflect environmental and climactic symbolism. In 1886, English banker-scholar Benjamin Thorpe (1782 - 1870) translated the long poem Grímnismál (Sayings of Grímni), a mediaeval rendition of folkloric myth, recounting:
Harts there are also four,
which from its summits,
Dâin and Dvalin,Duneyr and Durathrô
Fifty years on, American scholar Lee M. Hollander (1880 - 1972) produced the section as follows:
Four harts also
the highest shoots
ay gnaw from beneath:
Dáin and Dvalin,
Duneyr and Dýrathró
In a rare example of the deer as antagonist, Norse mythologists portrayed a hart permanently biting into the flesh of Yggdrasil - the World Tree whose roots sustain the Nine Worlds - to add to the suffering the tree endures from sundry other natural sources in its efforts to maintain the existence of the world(s).
In the Talmud, the giant stag Keresh inhabits Bel Ilai, a magical forest, apparently without influence on the outside world, and in Oriental spirituality deer are messengers to the gods, while in South American cultures deer are taken as representational rather than playing active roles in legends. In Celtic mythology, fairy cattle were nocturnally milked by giantesses who could transform themselves into deer; the animal is also a popular choice of transformation for those escaping persecution. The Christian legend of Saint Hubert conveys upon the deer restorative, revolutionary powers. Drawing together historical elements of varying accuracy, the tale - first attributed to Hubert in the 15th Century having been adapted from similar stories since around the 8th Century - describes the life of a son of the Duke of Aquitane who, in common with his 7th Century contemporaries, habitually hunted deer. However, whena deer he is pursuing turns to face him, revealing a crucifix between its antlers, Hubert then hears a voice, which warns him: "Hubert, unless thou turnest to the Lord, and leadest an holy life, thou shalt quickly go down into hell," whereupon the erstwhile hunstman resolves to abandon his former ways and lead a peaceful life of charity and preaching.
Eight years before The White Doe of Rylstone, the 1800 volume of Lyrical Ballads opened with the poem Hart-Leap Well, which takes its name from an actual spring at Richmond, Yorkshire, and in which Wordsworth presents a more celestial vision of a deer, albeit one burdened with the misery of “a remarkable Chase” as, shifting between past and present tense, the poet describes a solitary knight pursuing it up a hill ("at least nine roods of sheer ascent"):
The poor Hart toils along the mountain-side;
I will not stop to tell how far he fled,
Nor will I mention by what death he died;
But now the Knight beholds him lying dead.
Remarkably, though, the deer has transfixed his assailant who witnesses an extraordinary scene, as the deer appears to descend the hill in just three leaps:
Sir Walter wiped his face, and cried, "Till now
Such sight was never seen by human eyes:
Three leaps have borne him from this lofty brow,
Down to the very fountain where he lies.
The creature’s life, of course, could not be saved by its miraculous abilities, for the poet has already made clear how:
Upon his side the Hart was lying stretched:
His nostril touched a spring beneath a hill,
And with the last deep groan his breath had fetched
The waters of the spring were trembling still.
Walter resolves upon witnessing this feat to commit himself to a goodlier life, or at least - in a blatant nod to Coleridge’s Kubla Kahn - "to build a Pleasure-house upon this spot."
In the poem’s second part, the hart’s death scene has ceased to be a place of joy and, the Knight long since deceased, has dwindled into grimness and decrepitude. We encounter a classic Wordsworthian technique, as the interpretation of nature is left not to a sage or scholar, but a humble shepherd, whose anthropomorphic reflections on the hart are harrowingly poignant:
What thoughts must through the creature's brain have past!
Even from the topmost stone, upon the steep,
Are but three bounds—and look, Sir, at this last—
O Master! it has been a cruel leap.
"For thirteen hours he ran a desperate race;
And in my simple mind we cannot tell
What cause the Hart might have to love this place,
And come and make his death-bed near the well.
"Here on the grass perhaps asleep he sank,
Lulled by the fountain in the summer tide;
This water was perhaps the first he drank
When he had wandered from his mother's side.
It is thus the image of suffering, rather than fantastical redemption, that is most powerfully asserted as we near the poem’s conclusion. As if in consolation, we are reassured that
This Beast not unobserved by Nature fell;
His death was mourned by sympathy divine
As the unnamed narrator insists
The Being, that is in the clouds and air,
That is in the green leaves among the groves,
Maintains a deep and reverential care
For the unoffending creatures whom he loves.
American poet Jane Hirshfield shines a light on the subtle miracle of the deer, casting it as an almost transubstantiative enigma:
The quiet opening
between fence strands
perhaps eighteen inches.
Antlers to hind hooves,
four feet off the ground,
the deer poured through it.
No tuft of the coarse white belly hair left behind.
I don’t know how a stag turns
into a stream, an arc of water.
I have never felt such accurate envy.
Not of the deer—
To be that porous, to have such largeness pass through me.
(The Supple Deer)
And in Standing Deer, she paints the creature in a more transient light, seeming to suggest the elusive, fleeting nature of happiness and human certainty:
A root seeks water.
Tenderness only breaks open the earth.
This morning, out the window,
the deer stood like a blessing, then vanished.
From the days of Saint Francis to the age of Heraldry, through their favourable depiction as messengers of magic in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, or as the loveable Bambi in Felix Salten’s children’s stories, later screened as Disney cartoons, to their position in modern literature as woodland heroes and heroines, as in Colin Dann’s The Animals of Farthing Wood, in which The Great White Stag protects the animals of the promised land of White Deer Park, deer have enjoyed respectful, affectionate, even reverential treatment. In a poem brilliantly capturing the awful realisation of death, Jon Loomis describes in chilling detail the step-by-step horrors of car and deer collision:
You're seventeen and tunnel-vision drunk,
swerving your father's Fairlane wagon home at 3:00 a.m.
Two-lane road, all curves
and dips—dark woods, a stream, a patchy acre
of teazle and grass. You don't see the deer
till they turn their heads—road full of eyeballs,
small moons glowing. You crank the wheel,
stamp both feet on the brake, skid and jolt
into the ditch. Glitter and crunch of broken glass
in your lap, deer hair drifting like dust. Your chin
and shirt are soaked—one eye half-obscured
by the cocked bridge of your nose. The car
still running, its lights angled up at the trees.
You get out. The deer lies on its side.
A doe, spinning itself around
in a frantic circle, front legs scrambling,
back legs paralyzed, dead. Making a sound—
again and again this terrible bleat.
Aside from unintended deaths, deer have been stalked and killed in Britain since the Middle Ages, and in Wordsworth’s time the “sports” were rife. In As You Like It, Shakespeare decried the cruelty of the hunt:
A poor sequester’d stag
That from the hunter's aim hath ta’en a hurt
Did come to languish. . . . .
. . . . And the big round tears
Coursed one another down his innocent nose
In piteous chase
Against this backdrop of disregard for the suffering of their kind, England’s deer are at threat. On the 14th November, 1843, in her beautifully written Stanzas, Emily Bronte expressed sympathy with the timid deer whose limbs are fleet with fear, while in her 1914 poem Two Kinds Of Sport, American writer Calla L Harcourt, describing a pair of hunters, reports:
They blotted out lives that were happy and good,
Blinded eyes and broke wings that delighted to soar,
They killed for mere pleasure, and crippled and tore
Regardless of aught but the hunger for blood.
Did they dream that night as they sank to their rest
How poor little Broken-Leg out in the field
All nurseless and doctorless, fever possessed,
Felt all of the torture that battlegrounds yield?
This is contrasted with the exploits of a photographer who carried a Kodak instead of a gun. Unlike the victims of the hunters, The deer that he "shot" never dreamed of his aim and Yet rich were his "trophies" and varied his "game."
Calla L. Harcourt’s photographer was clearly cut from the same cloth as contemporary Scottish poet Kenneth C Steven, author of the wonderful short poem The Deer:
Come December they click at nightfall,
When the hills are ghostly with snow,
Flint-hoofed into a town led by moonlight.
They are whittled from wood;
Sinews of strength sewn together,
Their hearing honed to catch the slightest falls in the forest,
Or know the click of a gun.
Their mouths soften the grass of gardens
Before dogs nose them, bound out barking, big-voiced,
Send them no louder than a scattering of leaves
Back into the huge night.