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We're Not out of the Woods

Michael Symmons Roberts wonders what we mean when we say we are 'not out of the woods yet' and if being 'out of the woods' is really where we want to be.

Michael Symmons Roberts goes into the depths of the forest to find out the meaning of the cliché "we're not out of the woods yet". From the time we are children, woods and forests are portrayed as places of menace and foreboding, where dangerous creatures like wolves and gruffalos lurk, intent on causing us harm. Normally they are places we want to escape from, but not everyone is so keen to get out.

For authors, poets and composers, the woods can be places of creativity, testing and transformation and a symbol not only of fertility - as it is for DH Lawrence - but also for the very health of a nation, as W.H Auden so powerfully expresses: "This great society is going to smash; They cannot fool us with how fast they go, How much they cost each other and the gods. A culture is no better than its woods."

Modern poetry and music also engage with the symbolism of the woods. We hear from Emily Berry and her beautiful poem Canopy, as well as Alice Oswald's Wood Not Yet Out and - perhaps surprisingly - from rock star Prince, whose song The Cross powerfully captures the emotion of the crucifixion. Roberts revisits the notion that, in literature, it is hard to escape the link between wood and the cross of Christ. He quotes the great Anglo Saxon poem The Dream of the Rood, where the cross itself is the narrator.

Roberts concludes that maybe being in the woods is not all bad. "Like all the richest metaphors...there's something so deep rooted about the woods, the forest, trees as symbols and metaphors that we can't leave them alone... We're not out of the woods yet, but perhaps we don't want to be."

Presenter: Michael Symmons Roberts
Producer: Michael Wakelin
A TBI Media production for BBC Radio 4.

28 minutes

Music Played

  • Stephen Sondheim

    Find The Boy

  • Stephen Sondheim

    No More

  • Olivier Messiaen

    Regard de la Croix

  • Johann Strauss II

    Tales from the Vienna Woods

  • Prince

    The Cross


Title: The Company of Wolves

Author: Angela Carter

Publisher: Victor Gollancz Ltd


Title: The Life of Messiaen

Author: Christopher Philip Dingle

Publisher: Cambridge University Press


Title: Massacre of the Innocents

Author: Michael Symmons Roberts

Publisher: Cape Poetry


Title: Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Author: D.H. Lawrence

Publisher: Wordsworth Editions


Title: Bucolics: II. Woods

Author: W.H. Auden

Publisher: Faber & Faber


Title: Wood Not Yet Out

Author: Alice Oswald

Publisher: Faber & Faber


Title: The Dream of Rood

Author: Michael Alexander (trans.)

Publisher: Penguin Classics


Title: East Coker

Author: T.S. Eliot

Publisher: Faber & Faber


Title: Canopy

Author: Emily Berry

Publisher: Faber & Faber