If you have passed the Museum recently you may have noticed our current willow-themed window display. The creation is in honour of an announcement this month about the future of Johnson’s Willow and a poetry competition in celebration of the tree. John Winterton, the Johnson Society’s Heritage Liaison Officer, tells us more in this month’s blog post
Johnson’s Willow, which stands beside Stowe Pool, is one of Lichfield’s most historic landmarks. The tree was probably first planted in around 1700, and during the eighteenth century became famous for its great size. Originally known as ‘the Lichfield Willow’, it gained its modern name of ‘Johnson’s Willow’ from its connections with Samuel Johnson. When Johnson was young, he would often have seen the tree, which stood close to his father’s parchment factory; and whenever he returned to Lichfield in later life, he always made a point of visiting the Willow. Such was Johnson’s affection for the tree that he is said to have described it as ‘the delight of his early and waning life’.
After Johnson’s death, his fondness for the Willow prompted many people to seek it out. The original tree blew down in 1829, but that was not the end of the Willow’s story, as a cutting from it was planted on the site in 1830 to become the Second Willow. This process of replanting the Willow from a cutting of the previous tree has since happened on two further occasions: in 1898 the Third Willow was planted, and in September 1959 the celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Johnson’s birth included the planting of the Fourth Willow.
In recent years, the Fourth Willow has become extensively decayed, and will sadly have to be felled in mid-August 2021. The importance of preserving the tradition of Johnson’s Willow has, however, been recognised by both Lichfield District Council and the Johnson Society, who have been working together to repeat the replanting process once again. In 2018, cuttings were taken from the current tree; these have been tended and raised by the District Council’s Parks Department, and one of the saplings grown from them will become the fifth incarnation of Johnson’s Willow. The new tree will be planted on the same site as its predecessor, at a ceremony to be held in November 2021. (Read the official press release about the replanting here)
Johnson was not the only author to take an interest in the tree. The Lichfield poet Anna Seward (1742–1809) mentions it several times in her writings, referring in one poem to ‘yon willow’s ample shade’. Much further afield, in 1787 the American poet Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson (1737–1801) wrote ‘Two Odes on the Litchfield Willow’, in which she commemorated Johnson and other prominent figures who might have walked beneath the Willow’s boughs; she also celebrated the tree itself as a symbol of poetry and culture.
To maintain the link between poetry and Johnson’s Willow, the Johnson Society is running a competition to find the best new poem about the tree; the winning entry will be read out at the planting ceremony for the Fifth Willow in November, and will also be published in the Johnson Society’s Transactions. Entries must be submitted by 15 August 2021; for further details see the Society’s website here.
In her first Willow ode, Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson expressed the hope that the Lichfield Willow’s ‘Emblematic Boughs’ would ‘ages Hence wave ore the Brows / Of true Poetic Swains’. The action being taken by the District Council and the Johnson Society will ensure that future generations can appreciate the heritage of Johnson’s Willow – as Johnson, Seward and Fergusson would certainly all have wished.
Read more about recent artistic responses to Johnson’s willow in our previous blog posts on Willow Words Exhibition in 2019 and an appearance of the willow in a children’s book. For more on the history of Johnson’s Willow, you can download a leaflet by the Johnson Society here, or pick up a copy free of charge from the Birthplace Museum
Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson’s Odes are available to purchase from the Birthplace Bookshop, and you can read more about the poet and her work here