Pope's Asethetic Principles Applied to Poetry and Landscape Gardening
by John D. Tatter
In 18th-century English landscape gardening, the garden structure known as the ha-ha, or sunken fence, provides a barrier to keep pasture animals such as sheep, cattle, and deer out of the more formal garden areas while maintaining the illusion that these animals inhabit the same space as the landowner, who can glimpse them from the windows of his manor house and from carefully constructed points of view in walks through the garden. It is the ha-ha--like this one at Stowe Landscape Gardens in Buckinghamshire--that allows the landowner and his guests to imagine themselves in a pastoral landscape, to imagine themselves as shepherd-poets, without having to deal with the unpleasant aspects of the shepherd's life.
This physical arrangement mirrors exactly the prescription Pope gives for proper pastoral poetry: "we are not to describe our shepherds as shepherds at this day really are," he says, "but as they may be conceived then to have been, when the best of men followed the employment . . . . we must therefore use some illusion to render a Pastoral delightful; and this consists in exposing the best side only of a shepherd's life, and in concealing its miseries." A perfect visual example of this concept is Nicholas Poussin's painting Arcadian Shepherds, or as it is sometimes titled, Et in Arcadia Ego. In the painting, a group of shepherds gather around a tomb and discuss its inscription, translated as "I also am in Arcadia." Whether the inscription suggests that even death enters the perfect world of Arcadia or that through death (or art) one enters that perfect world, the shepherds seem to be spending more time discussing ideas than tending sheep. Like that of the pastoral painter, the business of the pastoral poet, at least according to Pope, is to create an illusion, to make the ideal look real and vice versa.
In this sense Pope wanted to conceal the boundaries between art and nature. In his Essay on Criticism, for example, Pope encourages poets and critics to use nature as "the Source, and End, and Test of Art" (73). In fact, at one point Pope suggests that the best art is inseparable from nature--when Virgil examined Homer's poetry in order to use it as a model for his own Aeneid, Pope claims, "Nature and Homer were, he found, the same" (135). Therefore, according to Pope, the rules by which we measure poetry are "discover'd" (descriptive) "not devis'd" (prescriptive) and "Are Nature still, but Nature Methodiz'd" (88-89). He encourages poets and critics to "Learn thence for Ancient Rules a just Esteem; / To copy Nature is to copy Them" (139-40). Or, putting it another way, "True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance, / As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance" (362-63).
Early in his Moral Essay Of the Use of Riches, which celebrates his friend Lord Cobham's gardens at Stowe as the epitome of landscape design, Pope makes a similar point, that the landscape architect planning a garden should "Consult the Genius of the Place" (57), or the natural contours of the land, so that nature "Paints as you plant, and as you work, designs" (64). The blending of the terms of nature and art is interesting here: it is nature that paints and the artist who plants; it is nature that designs the framework within which the architect works. In the same passage, Pope also claims that the landscape designer "gains all points who pleasingly confounds, / Surprises, varies, and conceals the Bounds" (55-56). In other words, the landscape garden must be artificially constructed but at the same time seem to be entirely natural. The great beauty of nature, as Pope celebrates it in his poem Windsor Forest, is that the natural elements "strive" or work together:
Not Chaos-like together crush'd and bruis'd,Pope suggests that art and nature were one when the Creator formed the world, and that this unity was accomplished by giving order to variety, by providing an underlying harmony to apparent confusion. Pope encourages landscape architects to mimic this creative behavior and, rather than designing a garden that is highly symmetrical and therefore quite apparently un-natural (the practice of the previous generation of garden designers), to create instead what he calls an "artful wildness to perplex the scene" (116). The ha-ha, or sunken fence, was the principal means to join artfulness and wildness because it allowed the neater and more regular garden visually to blend with the larger countryside while at the same time allowing the countryside visually to seem more ordered by association with the garden. Hence the boundary formed by the ha-ha is actually more of a means of connection than a means of separation precisely because it is invisible to those standing inside the garden. As Horace Walpole later said of William Kent, the landscape architect responsible for the design of the gardens at Stowe during the time Pope knew them as a frequent visitor, "He leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden."
In another sense, though, by concealing the borders between art and nature, an artist can manipulate the viewer or reader into valuing only the ways in which art and nature resemble each other, into valuing only the artistic aspects of nature and the natural aspects of art. Such a vision is a conservative one, in which order and agreement are assumed to be good and in which disorder and chaos are banished from within the borders of civilization or, in artistic terms, relegated to the area outside outside the frame of the landscape painting or outside the scope of the poem. Such a vision is also prescriptive while claiming to be descriptive: the governing principles that seem to be "discover'd" are actually quite carefully "devis'd." Whenever disorder does creep in, it must be controlled--by mowing the lawn and clipping the hedges of the garden, by reshaping the forms of land, water, and sky in a painting, and by careful editing in the drafting process of a poem.
Disorder may also emerge in the encounter between the audience and the art form, and here it must also be controlled--not by the artist but by the audience. At the end of the first epistle of the Essay on Man, for example, Pope claims that in real life
All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;The pairs of opposites created by the structure of these heroic couplets is an interesting one: Nature is grouped with chance, discord, and partial evil while Art is grouped with direction, harmony, and universal good. In such a context, the individual, finite human perspective (presented in terms of pride and erring reason) must defer to the grand design of the infinite Creator. What the Creator has created must be good, so humans in their turn must strive to know, see, and understand creation.
It follows, then, for Pope that the creative artist enjoys a similar privilege in his or her relationship with the reader or viewer. If in the creation of an art form "whatever is, is right," then what seems like chance or discord to the viewer or reader may be assumed instead to be direction and harmony not yet appreciated. This assumption is based, of course, on an underlying assumption that artists design works of art on principles of order and harmony: as Pope suggests of Homer in An Essay on Criticism: "Those oft are Stratagems which Errors seem, / Nor is it Homer Nods, but We that Dream" (179-80). A few lines later in the same poem, Pope admonishes those aspiring to be literary critics that
A perfect Judge will read each Work of WitIn fact, Pope suggests, only if an audience shares with an artist a spirit that values order and harmony will nature move and rapture warm the mind. Likewise, if an artist "gains all points who pleasingly confounds"--that is, if the artist pleases the audience most when the work of art provides pleasant surprises-- the audience must already share with the artist a set of expectations that such surprises work against. In a poem, such a surprise might derive from encountering a metaphor or literary allusion that presents familiar information from a new perspective. "True Wit," Pope says, "is Nature to Advantage drest, / What oft was Thought, but ne'er so well Exprest" (297-98). Likewise, in a garden, a monument or temple may surprise a visitor not only by calling to mind images of similar structures in landscape paintings or in engravings of classical architecture, but also by slipping in and out of view as the visitor moves along the garden paths. Thus Pope encourages the landscape gardener to embellish nature as a fashion designer would dress a client:
But treat the Goddess like a modest fair,By setting a boundary beyond which an observer is not allowed to go for the moment in viewing an object of beauty, the landscape designer, like the fashion designer, heightens the interest and sparks the imagination.
There is a limit, however, to how many times one can be surprised by the views of a building in a landscape garden or by the appearance of a metaphor or literary allusion in a poem. As Samuel Johnson points out in his "Preface to The Plays of William Shakespeare," "the irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight awhile . . . but the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth." The more seasoned reader of poetry or visitor to gardens must take pleasure in something beside or beyond surprise. The seasoned reader of poetry, for example, who encounters a literary allusion takes pleasure in the justness of the parallel relationship between two texts, what Johnson would call the "stability of truth." But the same reader also takes a more personal pleasure in his or her own familiarity with the text being alluded to. By noticing the connection between the two texts, the reader joins an interpretive community, an exclusive society that the author has established by creating the allusion in the first place. There is pleasure in being an insider--one who understands the structural elements of the work of art upon which the beautiful exterior depends for its form, one who understands the creative work from the creator's point of view.
A perfect example--and a more literal one--of the phenomenon of joining a society of insiders occurs at Stowe when a garden visitor climbs the steps and enters the Temple of Ancient Virtue in the area of the garden known as the Elysian Fields. As long as one just walks past the Temple, one appreciates only the architectural form of the building and its placement in the landscape, both of which are impressive enough. When one enters the Temple, however, one first notices the statues of four men who represent the virtues of ancient Greece--Homer the poet, Socrates the philosopher, Lycurgus the lawgiver, and Epaminondas the general--and the inscriptions above them that emphasize their importance. But there is more to notice: it becomes significant where the statues are placed. The statue of the greatest general of the ancient world looks out of the northeast door of the building on a direct line toward a monument commemorating the death in battle of a member of the family. Likewise, the statue of the greatest philosopher of the ancient world looks out of the southeast door of the building on a direct line toward the Temple of Friendship in the southeast corner of the garden where Lord Cobham gathered with his friends to discuss politics. When a garden visitor enters the Temple, when he or she physically becomes an insider by standing among the representatives of Ancient Virtue, the meaning of the Temple's name and the axes that form the larger structure of the garden design become apparent.
Those structural axes, those lines of sight, are concealed from an outsider just as the boundary of the garden is concealed by the ha-ha. But the garden designer, by providing paths and opening up views, invites a visitor to become an insider, to imagine that he or she is a member of the society of Ancients and to imagine that a walk through the garden is a walk through nature. The garden visitor completes the garden by making the connections that the designer created but left obscure. In the same way, a poet provides paths to meaning by using traditional, recognizable poetic techniques, and the reader completes the poem by following those paths and arriving at the meaning that the poet (apparently) intended.
The boundaries, then, between artist, audience, and work of art become indistinct if each has a part in the poetic experience. Pope makes this phenomenon clear when, at the end of the first section of Essay on Criticism he invokes the aid of the Ancient poets and critics whom he admires, and prays
Oh may some Spark of your Coelestial FirePope identifies himself as both reader and writer within the context of a poem about writing and criticizing poetry. Moreover, he claims his own kinship with Ancient writers and critics while inviting outsiders into the society of Ancients. The only prerequisite for joining this society seems to be to defer to "superior sense" when in doubt on a point of aesthetics. Pope makes a similar stipulation in his essay on gardening when he admonishes landscape architects to
Still follow Sense, of ev'ry Art the Soul,Two things in this passage relate to the blurring of boundaries. First, for Pope, as we have seen in previous passages, sense is the soul of art--that is, art is rational, ordered, and reasonable. One of the beauties of a work of art is the way in which its parts relate to one another and form a coherent whole. Second, Pope claims that the landscape architect who follows sense will be joined by nature and time in creating that coherent whole. Over time, the boundary between art and nature becomes less and less distinct. This phenomenon allows the garden visitor to take a more active role in creating the art form of the garden as he or she walks through it and to experience the "wonder" Pope refers to in the final line of the passage.
The term ha-ha, as reported by the Oxford English Dictionary, according to French etymologists, derives from the exclamation of surprise one has upon encountering a sunk fence. Perhaps this "ah-ha!" exclamation may serve to describe all experiences of delight when a reader of literature or viewer of paintings or garden visitor discovers something unexpected and thereby feels a stronger personal connection to the work of art or, if you will, discovers that the boundary between subject and object is often hard to draw with any certainty.
State University of West Georgia, Atlanta, Georgia, October 1997.