Helpful Lessons in the 'Firewood Poem'

A wood burning fireplace.

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If you are curious about which type of wood burns best in your fireplace, you could consult a list, which would be accurate if not very exciting. But if you wanted to be entertained while getting your information you might turn to a poem about wood.

The "Firewood Poem" was written by the wife of British World War I hero Sir Walter Norris Congreve and is as accurate as any modern scientific research.

Lady Celia Congreve is believed to have written it around 1922 for a published book titled "Garden of Verse." This particular verse expresses how information in the form of a poem can both beautifully describe things and serve as a guide for burning wood.

This poem fetchingly describes the value of certain tree species either for their ability or failure to provide heat from seasoned and unseasoned wood.

Lady Congreve likely composed the poem using traditional English folktales passed down through the centuries. It is amazing how accurately and charmingly the poem captures the properties of firewood.

The Firewood Poem

Beechwood fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year,
Chestnut's only good they say,
If for logs 'tis laid away.
Make a fire of Elder tree,
Death within your house will be;
But ash new or ash old,
Is fit for a queen with crown of gold

Birch and fir logs burn too fast
Blaze up bright and do not last,
it is by the Irish said
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread.
Elm wood burns like churchyard mould,
E'en the very flames are cold
But ash green or ash brown
Is fit for a queen with golden crown

Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke,
Apple wood will scent your room
Pear wood smells like flowers in bloom
Oaken logs, if dry and old
keep away the winter's cold
But ash wet or ash dry
a king shall warm his slippers by.

The Poem Explained

Traditional folk legends are quite often expressions of early wisdom acquired over time and passed along by word of mouth. Lady Congreve must have taken anecdotes from these to compose this very accurate depiction of the properties of wood and how different tree species burn.

She especially pens praises for beech, ash, oak and aromatic fruit trees like apple and pear. Wood science and measurements of the heating properties of wood support her recommendations.

The best trees have a dense cellular wood structure that, when dry, have greater weight than lighter woods. Wood that is dense will also have to ability to produce more heat over a longer time with longer-lasting coals.

On the other hand, her assessments of chestnut, elder, birch, elm, and poplar are spot on and deserve her bad review. They all have low wood cellular densities that rapidly burn with low heat but few coals. These woods produce a lot of smoke but very little heat.

Lady Celia Congreve's poem is a cleverly written but non-scientific approach to selecting firewood. It is certainly supported by the sound science of wood burning and heating values.