Reflections on Pope
and the Gardens at Stowe

John Tatter
March 1992




Four years ago, while teaching in a summer school program for American students at Oxford University, I spent an afternoon at Rousham Park, about 20 minutes north by car from Oxford. I did not know at the time that the garden there was one of Alexander Pope's favorite places to relax, though I did recognize in William Kent's garden design what Pope referred to as an "artful wildness." The central experience of the afternoon for me, however, had nothing to do with landscape gardening. While waiting on the parterre in front of the house for the rest of my tour group, I heard the approach of a low-flying, single-engine aircraft. Looking up, I recognized the silhouette of a Spitfire as it flew over -- noticed it, in fact, before any of the British visitors to the house did. Thinking about that afternoon now, I realize that in recognizing the World War Two fighter plane I was able to appreciate fully what I encountered only because in earlier years I had recreated visual images from British war comics I devoured as a child. My sensual experience was enhanced by a previous intellectual experience. Indeed, it was possible only because I had previously concentrated on seeing with my mind's eye.

By contrast, I recently had the pleasure of attending a performance by the Alvin Ailey Dance Company at the end of which the troupe performed Ailey's 1960 composition "Revelations," a series of pieces set to the music of African-American spirituals. While at the moment I was caught up in the energy of the performance, rising to my feet with the rest of the crowd as the dancers bobbed and whirled to the tune of "Rock My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham," later, as I walked to my car, I began to think about what had just happened to me. I realized that during the previous hours I had experienced simultaneously at least four levels of expression: the Biblical texts in King James English I had learned as a child, the oral poetry of a familiar but foreign culture that had transformed those earlier texts into something all its own, the patterns of movement that Ailey had created over thirty years before in response to the music, and the individual performances of the dancers themselves. What delighted me most, however, was realizing that my intellectual response was secondary. I had absorbed with my senses all that really mattered, and my rationalizing was simply part of the afterglow of the physical experience.

To appreciate fully the landscape garden at what is now Stowe School, a visitor must strike a balance between physical and intellectual attention. I'm not sure if one can respond both ways simultaneously -- I certainly have not been able to -- but one must be ready to shift perspectives as often as possible. A perfect example of the dangers of over-intellectualizing occurs on the videotape I recorded when I first saw Stowe in 1989. I was at the south end of the garden filming the Palladian bridge, trying to create a narrative on the soundtrack that would explain to my students why such a highly formal structure is perfectly natural in an informal landscape. I was droning on and on, after quoting from Pope's "Epistle to Burlington" the lines "You show us, Rome was glorious, not profuse, / And pompous buildings once were things of Use" (23-24), when I realized that the herd of sheep grazing on the lawn were all but drowning out my words with their bleating. Feeling suddenly (and appropriately) out of place, I shut off the camera and sat down on the shore of the lake so that I could experience the bridge rather than remain trapped in analysis.

It is just as easy, however, to become so caught up in a physical and emotional response to the garden as to miss its intellectual beauties. Catching sight of the Temple of British Worthies bathed in the late afternoon sun, its honey-colored stone mirrored in the "River Styx" that lies placidly between it and the Temple of Ancient Virtue, is a mesmerizing experience. The tranquility of the scene is overpowering. The same is true of the view of the south front of the house from the far side of the Octagon Lake. The first time I visited Stowe I missed the west section of the garden entirely because I spent too long sitting in one of John Vanbrugh's Lake Pavilions trying to take in the vast space of the south lawn. The grounds at Stowe have become even more aesthetically pleasing in the past two years now that the National Trust has begun restoration work in earnest. In addition, however, in not only its highly visible work on the garden buildings but also its knowledgeable staff at the giftshop, the Trust points visitors, especially those unfamiliar with the theoretical basis for eighteenth-century landscape gardening, to the importance of encountering the garden with both head and heart.

I would guess that the typical tourist interested in English landscape gardens might choose to visit Chatsworth, where the Dukes of Devonshire have added to and improved their garden for centuries. The huge car park there was certainly full last summer when I visited, and the house and grounds were almost overrun with camera-toting foreigners, many of whom were Americans like me who had first heard of Chatsworth when the Public Broadcasting System aired its series "The Treasure Houses of Britain." I was frustrated with the crowds that day, and I remember thinking that the whole experience was like visiting a zoo. I realized later, however, that not only the atmosphere but also the garden design itself was similar to that of a zoo in that it was a collection of garden styles, each exhibit different and isolated from the others. It struck me that Pope would hate Chatsworth were he able to visit it today because over the centuries it has become entirely unlike the Edenic state of nature he described in 1704 in "Windsor Forest":

Not Chaos-like together crush'd and bruis'd,
But as the World, harmoniously confus'd:
Where Order in Variety we see,
And where, tho' all things differ, all agree. (13-16)
The garden at Chatsworth impressed me with its size and variety, but I found it chaotic: confused without any sense of harmony, varied without any sense of order, and full of difference without any sense of agreement. I left it at the end of the afternoon feeling exhausted instead of uplifted, overburdened instead of relieved.

The garden at Stowe offers an entirely different experience to the visitor. Though its design at present differs somewhat from what Pope knew it to be, his description of the ideal landscape garden in his "Epistle to Burlington" (1731) still seems to find its objective correlative there. Pope admonishes those who wish to create a satisfying landscape, one that pleases emotionally, aesthetically, and intellectually, to begin with what nature itself suggests -- not to import beauty but to restore it to its ideal state:

To build, to plant, whatever you intend,
To rear the Column, or the Arch to bend,
To swell the Terras, or to sink the Grot;
In all, let Nature never be forgot. (47-50)
Pope's concept of the ideal landscape, a concept he used to create his own garden surrounding his villa at Twickenham and one he consistently advised others to follow, was based on two world views that, unlike most of us in the late twentieth century, he saw as perfectly complementary. First, Pope saw it as his Christian duty to reclaim a fallen world. As a satirist, he reminded his readers of the state of grace he believed they could approach with the help of God. As a garden designer, he suggested to his clients that there was a perfect garden waiting in the overgrown clutter of their real estate. Second, Pope conceived of the perfect garden as a landscape painting that depicted a scene from classical antiquity. Such a scene was neither geometrically formulaic, like the gardens at the Palace of Versailles, nor wild and untamed like the virgin woods in the American colonies.

Indeed, Pope saw the potential for a garden in an unimproved piece of property as he knew a sculptor could see the potential for a statue in a block of granite. Actually, Pope favored the metaphor of painting to that of sculpture, because he knew that landscape painters created an idealized scene by bringing together ideal elements from several separate studies and composing them to create not a photographic representation of a real scene but, rather, an inspired vision of how that real scene would appear under the best of circumstances. And he believed that such a vision could be inspired by what he called "the genius of the place." Later in "Epistle to Burlington" Pope advises gardeners to

Consult the Genius of the Place in all;
That tells the Waters or to rise, or fall,
Or helps th' ambitious Hill the heav'n to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the Vale,
Calls in the Country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks or now directs, th' intending Lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs. (47-50; 57-64)
Pope's concept of garden design, then, was doubly idealized. Landscape painters composed their scenes from ideal elements and balanced those elements to create an aesthetically pleasing, coherent whole. Landscape gardeners planted trees and shrubbery, moved earth and built temples based on classical architectural models, in order that their gardens could resemble, framed by the windows of the house as someone looked through those windows, not nature itself but a framed landscape painting.

Whenever visitors to the garden at Stowe pause in their walk -- and certain spots in the garden invite such pauses -- the scenes they encounter will seem perfectly composed yet not contrived. It is obvious, but only on reflection, that great care went into the overall design of the garden so that each garden structure, a temple or a monument, offers a view of several others. From the Doric Arch, for example, on the east edge of the south lawn, one can glimpse through the intervening groves not only the crescent-shaped Temple of British Worthies nestled in the valley of the Elysian Fields to the northeast, but also the Palladian Bridge at the east end of the Octagon Lake and the Rotondo to the west. Likewise, from the Rotondo, one can see at different angles the Queen Caroline Monument, which supports her statue on four graceful fluted Ionic columns, the Temple of Venus across the Eleven-acre Lake, and the Doric Arch. The rustic cascade at the west end of the Octagon Lake can be seen from the balustrade of the Palladian bridge, and both cascade and bridge can be seen as one descends the path along the Eleven-acre Lake. Of course, the heart of the garden is the Elysian Fields, where the Temple of Ancient Virtue and the Temple of British Worthies face each other from opposite banks of the river.

The use of space in the garden is all-important. There are over a dozen temples and monuments scattered throughout it, but the garden never seems crowded. Each structure has its own integrity, but each provides a contrast to and comment on the others. These contrasts and comments are possible precisely because the garden was designed for multiple views. The garden at Chatsworth can be frustrating because it is partitioned into several sections. The beauty of the garden at Stowe is its unified variety. Take, for the best example, the Elysian Fields. The semi-circle of the Temple of British Worthies sits across the river from the circular, domed Temple of Ancient Virtue. The two structures are connected visually by their curved design and the fact that they were built to house statuary. But they are also connected intellectually because the busts of the "worthies" -- British philosophers, writers, soldiers, and monarchs -- face "ancient virtue" across the river and up the hill in the form of the statues of Homer, Socrates, Lycurgus, and Epaminondas, who represent classical ideals in poetry, philosophy, law, and military planning. Standing in the valley between the two structures, one can experience visually the abstract handing-down of ideas from the ancient world to the modern; one can feel the symbiosis of classicism and neo-classicism. As a neo-classical thinker and writer, Pope must have taken great pleasure in visiting this part of the garden. His comments on the classical basis for art in "Essay on Criticism" match the scene perfectly:

Those Rules of old discover'd, not devis'd,
Are Nature still, but Nature Methodiz'd. . . .
Learn hence for Ancient Rules a just Esteem;
To copy Nature is to copy Them. (88-89; 139-140)
To present visitors to the garden, who have a post-romantic and even post-modern understanding of trends in literary and artistic history, two other perspectives are perhaps more exciting than that to be found in the Elysian Fields. First, the Palladian Queen's Temple faces the more plain and rustic Temple of Friendship across the space of Hawkwell Field on the east side of the garden. In between them, slightly to the east, stands the Gothic Temple. While each can be appreciated individually, taken together these three structures document the changes in architectural style during the eighteenth century. Second, the Palladian bridge and the rustic stone cascade punctuate the two ends of the Octagon Lake in much the same way that Pope and Wordsworth dominated the literary scene at either end of the same period. Both in Hawkwell Field and on the Octagon Lake, structures that represent symbolically either the neo-classical or the romantic movement in art and literature are eternally separated by space and style even as they are joined by angles of vision and points of view. It is the human beings who stand between the temples or who view one from the porch of another, visitors to the garden who notice the contrast between the bridge and cascade, who complete the garden. Because of the open space between the structures, the style of each is a static entity, and it is entirely appropriate that no one style dominates. The visitor to the garden, then, is free to make connections, draw contrasts, claim personal preferences. The whole of the garden is greater than the sum of its parts precisely because with the addition of even a single human observer, the parts are not simply additive but multiple. So it is that Pope's advice to landscape designers focuses on both intellectual and sensual perception:
Still follow Sense, of ev'ry Art the Soul,
Parts answ'ring parts shall slide into a whole,
Spontaneous beauties all around advance,
Start ev'n from Difficulty, strike from Chance;
Nature shall join you, Time shall make it grow
A Work to wonder at -- perhaps a Stow. (65-70)
When Pope claims that nature joins the gardener in creating the garden and that time makes the garden grow, he speaks specifically of the development of the garden plan into a mature, vibrant, reclaimed Eden. But time in a more limited sense offers the visitor to Stowe a perspective in addition to the ones of space I have discussed above. As one walks through the garden, one continually sees the familiar in contrast with the new. For example, last summer when I arrived at the Rotondo, which I had seen earlier from the Doric Arch, I was able to see the Arch from a distance while also seeing it in contrast to the Temple of Venus and the Queen Caroline Monument, which are not visible from the Arch. In a way, then, a walk through the garden is like two aspects of life. There is a wisdom that derives from encountering and affirming contrasting styles and perspectives. But there is also a wisdom that derives over time. Not only is there variety at Stowe, but there is also order, order in the sense of sequence. Timing can be of ultimate importance. A visitor may be better able to appreciate the Palladian bridge after seeing the rustic cascade, and vice versa. The architectural details of the Gothic Temple become more meaningful once one has noticed the vastly different details of the Queen's Temple or the Temple of Ancient Virtue.

Furthermore, the experience of visiting Stowe will be different on every new occasion. Not only can a visitor choose a different sequence of walks on a subsequent visit, but changes in the seasons, a variety of weather conditions, and perhaps most notable, the renovation efforts of the National Trust as it fells and replants trees and repairs buildings have a remarkable effect. The Trust has taken seriously Pope's advice: "You too proceed! make falling Arts your care, / Erect new wonders, and the old repair" (191-192). What is especially delightful, however, is that while Pope called such restoration efforts "Imperial Works, and worthy Kings" (204), the National Trust has made Stowe a national treasure, open to any and all visitors for a modest entry fee. I believe, of course, that a visit to Stowe will be far richer for those familiar with Pope's poetry and those who have already visited other gardens like those at Blenheim Palace, Hampton Court, Versailles, and Chatsworth.

A simply sensual response to the garden at Stowe is satisfying, just as my immediate response to the Alvin Ailey Dance Company was satisfying. Reason, however, allows us to place our sensual experience in a wider context. I want to allow Pope the last word on how humans can maintain the precarious balance between sense and intellect not only in experiencing gardens but in responding to the other beauties life offers:

Love, Hope, and Joy, fair pleasure's smiling train,
Hate, Fear, and Grief, the family of pain;
These mix'd with art, and to due bounds confin'd,
Make and maintain the balance of the mind:
The lights and shades, whose well accorded strife
Gives all the strength and colour of our life. ("Essay on Man," II, 117-122)


[ Back to Stowe Gardens Main Page ]

© John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College, jtatter@bsc.edu