Poet as Gardener, Gardener as Poet
John D. Tatter
One of my favorite poems by William Butler Yeats is “The Circus Animal’s Desertion,” in which the poet wrestles with a universal problem for writers—the blank sheet of paper or, these days, the blank screen. Yeats’ search for a topic prompts him to look back on his career and muse about the recurring themes that his poetry has addressed. Here is the final stanza, which gets to the source of those themes:
A few weeks ago, as I was staring at my own blank screen wondering how to begin an essay connecting poetry and gardening, it occurred to me that the “foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart” that Yeats describes is nothing more or less than the gardener’s compost heap. The soil from which plants grow is enriched by scraps of kitchen garbage, grass clippings from the lawn, garden vegetables that the insects or squirrels got to first—literally "refuse" and "sweepings." Likewise, the common language from which poems grow is enriched by the leftovers of our lives, bits and pieces of our experience that may seem meaningless in themselves but that, when combined with other bits and pieces and left to stew for awhile, give language its strength and vigor.
Though I can’t speak for all poets and gardeners, I know that in my own case the impulse to write and the impulse to garden come from the same place, from the “foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart” that Yeats describes. The impulse can take many forms: to make an order of chaos or tame a wilderness, to decorate what was plain, to multiply perspectives, to appropriate the elusive, to express a world view, to grow food for the table or for thought, to set a mood, to celebrate the exotic, to show off, to memorialize a loved one—the list goes on. But at bottom, the impulse is at least partly ego-driven: poets and gardeners wish to stamp an image on the retina and the heart of an intended audience. We wish to control, if only for a moment or a season, the slippery and evasive elements of the world, all the while knowing that such a project is beset with difficulties. The impulse is also mimetic: poets and gardeners wish to create a world that accords with their personal vision, a local and miniature Eden, rescued from the fall or wrested from the chaos, as the case may be.
Thus, like poetry, gardening is artifice—in the best sense of the word. A garden is precisely not nature, though it is often designed to look natural and is certainly made up of natural elements. A garden is a garden by virtue of its composition, its purpose, and its being tended by a gardener. Gardens take many forms. Botanical gardens collect species of plants much as zoological gardens house a variety of animals, many of them strange and wonderful. Flower gardens beautify and soften the rigid structure of the houses they surround. Vegetable and herb gardens supply our kitchens and dining rooms with their produce. Memorial gardens provide a quiet and dignified resting place for our dead. The gardens of the great estates of Europe and North America perform many of these functions at once, and even the smallest of gardens—a single rose bush in a square foot of dirt by the door of a city townhouse—fulfills its purpose by bringing nature home to us, properly civilized of course.
The garden I know best besides my own is the landscape garden at Stowe, just outside of Buckingham, England. I have studied it for close to eighteen years, now, and have made extended visits both to learn more of its intricacies and, as a volunteer, to help maintain and restore it. The former manor house of the Dukes of Buckingham is now the home of a private school, and the extensive gardens surrounding it are under care of the National Trust. Stowe is both the most complex and the best preserved example of the great English landscape gardens of the 18th Century. Created in contrast to the French gardens of the period, which were designed to be seen from the windows of the château and to symbolize the dominance of humans over nature, English gardens like Stowe were designed to be entered and explored. On foot, following winding paths through groves of trees, the visitor would encounter a series of scenes similar to the landscape paintings of the popular French artist Claude Lorrain and his imitators. Like these paintings, the garden at Stowe celebrates characters and recounts stories from history and mythology, and it teaches corresponding moral lessons.
For example, in the older western part of the garden, a visitor comes upon temples, monuments, and statuary in the landscape that emphasize themes of love and marriage. Paintings that once hung in, or that were painted on the walls and ceilings of, these garden buildings illustrated love stories from Virgil, Spenser, and Shakespeare. Likewise, statues of Venus were paired with those of historical figures, including Cleopatra (lover of both Caesar and Marc Antony), Elizabeth I, the “virgin queen,” and Queen Caroline, wife of George II who ruled England during the time that the garden was being developed. Visitors were expected to draw conclusions from the juxtaposition of these images. In the eastern part of the garden, the owner of the estate, Lord Cobham, built a series of temples with a different theme, one that promoted his political values—particularly the values of the Whig party that stood for personal liberty and against the power of the Crown.
“Reading” this landscape garden—whether the western part with its private and personal themes or the eastern part with its public and political ones—is similar to the process of reading a poem. One has to take note of the literary and historical allusions, to see each garden building in contrast with the others and to speculate on what such contrasts might mean, and to be alert to the symbolism of the plants that surround the garden structures, each of which has its own iconography. To “read” the garden for its moral and political lessons is a different experience than to enjoy a picnic there under the trees (though both activities are satisfying in their own way). Only those who bring with them a knowledge of English literature, Greek mythology, and European history can appreciate the intricate and complex design of the place. It should be no surprise that the great neo-classical poet Alexander Pope was a friend and consultant to Lord Cobham as he developed the gardens at Stowe, and that Pope in one of his poems cites Stowe as the epitome of the art of landscape gardening. Pope, whose poetry is full of classical allusions and has as its purpose to teach moral lessons, clearly appreciated and approved of a garden with the same allusive structure and moral agenda.
Pope’s own garden in the village of Twickenham, now part of greater London, was designed with the same purpose and a similar structure as Lord Cobham's garden at Stowe, though on a much smaller scale. Professor Maynard Mack, Pope’s biographer and the editor of what has become the standard edition of his poems, has pointed out that the design and horticultural composition of the garden resemble descriptions of gardens in Homer’s Odyssey, which Pope was translating at the time. In addition, at the entrance to the garden resting in niches in the hedge stood busts of Homer, Virgil, Cicero, and Marcus Aurelius—even more obvious attempts to classicize his little tract of English landscape. Within the garden, a small, round temple at the junction of several paths provided a space for rest and contemplation, while a large mount offered views of the countryside and surrounding villages, combining solitude with a sense of community. Like Stowe, Pope’s garden was dotted with urns and statuary that served as reminders of human mortality, and at his mother’s death he raised an obelisk to her memory which dominated the far end of the garden space. As a poet, then, Pope saw his garden as a place to retire, either with friends or alone to think and write. The garden structures he built invited particular kinds of conversation and contemplation, and the overall design recalled for him the descriptions of places in Homer’s epic poems. Pope’s garden thus both reflected his personal and professional identity and served as a place of inspiration for him to continue writing: a physical emblem and a physical prompt.
Though often seen in stark contrast to Pope, whose poems are shaped by traditional forms and composed of traditional subject matter, William Wordsworth, who co-published with Samuel Taylor Coleridge the Romantic manifesto Lyrical Ballads, was just as avid a gardener as his predecessor. As one might expect, however, Wordsworth’s gardens took as different a form from Pope’s as his poems did. By the time Wordsworth came to write and to garden, the concept of nature had shifted drastically from what it was in Pope’s time. Pope, in his “Essay on Criticism,” confidently pronounced that nature and Homer are in essence the same, and he claimed that the poet should “Learn hence for ancient rules a just esteem; / To copy nature is to copy them.” It should not be surprising that Pope’s own garden was modeled after a description in Homer. By contrast, Wordsworth, in the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, suggested that the natural world was itself the proper subject for poetry. “Low and rustic life was generally chosen,” Wordsworth claimed of his poems, “because in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are under less restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language.” Wordsworth’s gardens at Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount in the English Lake District reflect a similar reverence for the rustic, the more plain, and the local and familiar.
By the late 18th Century, the taste and style in landscape gardening had experienced a shift similar to the one in poetic style and form. The typical English gentleman who might develop a garden on his estate not only made the requisite “Grand Tour” to France and Italy but also added “Picturesque Tours” to the more remote and wild parts of Great Britain—the highlands of Scotland, the mountains of North Wales, and Wordsworth’s own Lake District. Less expensive and closer to home, these new tours were open to a wider audience as well and thus shaped the views of the growing middle class. Instead of the classical architecture of Rome or placid scenes of Venetian canals, the “picturesque tourist” focused on prospects of rugged mountains and valleys and the humble cottages of shepherds and farmers. The landscape of reason had given way to the landscape of feeling. As a result, garden design shifted away from teaching a moral through encounters with emblematic temples, statues, and inscriptions to evoking emotions like wonder, melancholy, and contentment. The garden remained a meditative and contemplative place, but it performed that function through different means.
Wordsworth’s gardens thus differed from Pope’s in two fundamental ways. First, they were designed in keeping with their Lake District location, not according to formal, classical models. Whereas Pope surrounded himself with busts of classical poets to inspire him and hired professionals to dig a grotto and build a temple to aid his contemplation, Wordsworth built with his own hands long terraces and rustic seats out of the local stone. From these he could glimpse the lakes below his property and compose lines of poetry to the rhythm of his strides as he paced back and forth. Wordsworth’s gardens also differed from Pope’s in their composition. William, first with his sister Dorothy and later with his wife Mary, chose to fill his gardens not with emblematic shrubs and trees but with flowering bulbs, perennials, ferns, mosses, and lichens that they gathered locally or acquired from friends and neighbors. Wordsworth’s poems are full of references to these plants, perhaps the most famous being “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” The poem refers to a field of daffodils by the shore of Ullswater, a lake a few miles away. But Wordsworth the gardener successfully brought that wider landscape into his domestic sphere at Rydal Mount, lining the terraces with daffodils and filling the meadow of Dora’s Field with them. Whereas Pope looked to classical antiquity for his inspiration, importing foreign materials and structures for his poems and his gardens, Wordsworth used what was close at hand and familiar, celebrating what we might otherwise overlook.
When Stanley Kunitz bought his house in Provincetown on Cape Cod in 1962, his front yard was little more than a sand dune that sloped toward the street and the sea. From the moment he first saw the house, he says in his memoir The Wild Braid, he also began to see a garden in that barren space. Over the next two years, with the help of a local mason, Kunitz created a series of tiered flower beds and enriched the sandy soil with manure, peat moss, and seaweed—much of which he gathered himself from the beach. Just as Wordsworth was thinking of the indigenous plants of the Lake District when he created his gardens, Kunitz claims that he had the sea in mind as he planned his. “The plants,” he says, “for example the lavender and roses, all respond positively to the sea air. The successive inclination of the garden gives it an illusion of motion, echoing the changing depths of the sea. It is imperative for any gardener to respect the land before alterations, modifications, or plans for the design of the garden are made. If a garden doesn’t fit into that landscape and reflect it in some way, it’s an invasion, an occupation” (50).
Kunitz explains the design of his tiered garden in poetic terms as well, suggesting that each terrace “contributes to the garden as a whole in the same way each stanza in a poem has a life of its own, and yet is part of a progressive whole as well.” Kunitz goes on to point out that, “often, when you finish reading a poem, the impulse is to revisit the beginning now that you’ve been all the way through it, and then each subsequent trip through the poem is different and colored by having seen the whole thing” (72). In this sense, Kunitz’s small 20th-century garden is similar to the huge 18th-century landscape garden at Stowe with its separately themed spaces and with its multitude of monuments and temples. For example, in the sheltered valley in the eastern half of the garden at Stowe, the section of the garden named the Elysian Fields, the garden visitor first encounters the Temple of Ancient Virtue, a circular building ringed with Ionic columns that houses full-length statues of Homer, Socrates, Lycurgus, and Epaminondas—identified by their accompanying inscriptions as the greatest poet, philosopher, lawgiver, and general of ancient Greece. Downhill and across a narrow body of water (appropriately called the River Styx) stands the Temple of British Worthies—a curving arcade housing the busts of sixteen figures from British history that Lord Cobham considered to be the greatest champions of British liberty. Seen in conjunction, the two temples take on greater significance than each would alone. The garden visitor notices that it takes four times as many modern Britons to equal the ancient Greeks, who stand protected in their monument while the Britons, open to the weather, look literally upward toward them for inspiration. After a number of trips to the garden at different times of the day, the visitor may eventually note that the Temple of Ancient Virtue was purposely situated to be lit by the morning sun while the Temple of British Worthies receives the setting sun.
Just as a visitor comes to understand the garden by making connections between and among its parts, a reader discovers a poem’s complexity by seeing each separate poetic device in the context of the entire piece. Furthermore, both garden and poem become richer art forms the more often they are visited. As Kunitz explains, “you don’t see the garden as a whole from any point, but you begin to know it by making a tour around it. Then it becomes a garden in the mind, and you become the instrument that defines it, just as you have to create the wholeness of the poem in your mind. Though you learn the meaning of a poem, the sense of a poem, word by word, in the end what you have is a fusion” (79). “Whether you’re walking through the garden or reading a poem,” Kunitz says, “there’s a sense of fulfillment. You’ve gone through a complete chain of experience, changing and communicating with each step and with each line so that you are linked with the phenomenon of time itself” (105).
Though not a gardener in the same sense as the poets mentioned above, Wendell Berry as a farmer offers a perspective complementary to theirs. Though he did not develop his farmland to serve as a locus for contemplation or composition, Berry uses farming as a controlling metaphor in much of his poetry. His poems are highly personal and active, making specific links among his farm, his habits of farming, his practice of writing, and his investment in his marriage and community. Berry thus brings into the mix the varied manifestations of husbandry—the practice of domestic economy and stewardship. Berry illustrates perfectly the concept of husbandry in his poem “The Seeds,” in which literal seeds expand to become words and ideas as the sower and poet become one:
For Berry, farming and writing are more than parallel activities that reflect one another. The land does more for Berry than to provide a space for contemplation and an endless supply of figures of speech. His practice of husbandry integrates his efforts and his relationships into a single way of relating to and behaving in the world.
As a young poet in college and graduate school in the 1970s I resonated with Berry’s world view and counted him as a mentor. Under his influence, a number of poems in my master’s thesis use landscape and farming metaphors, though these grew out of conceptual exercise rather than personal experience. In fact, as a single man in my 20s trying to find my way in the world, I envied Berry his farmland, his marriage, his fatherhood and his sureness of vocation. I wanted soil of my own in which to put down roots, whether that soil meant a literal place or a more abstract personal grounding.
My sense of identity and vocation has grown and solidified in the twenty years I have spent teaching at a small liberal arts college in Birmingham, Alabama. It is only in the last five years, however, that I have purchased a home. Owning real property has allowed me to appreciate better what all of the poets above have to say about their relationship with the land, and I finally have the chance to shape my physical surroundings. Our house perches on a steep, wooded hillside that overlooks one of the dwindling number of steel mills and the Birmingham airport. Three winters ago we had a couple of dead trees taken down on the slope up behind the house, and as I walked through the woods for the first time I realized that the little clearing made by the missing trees offered a perfect view of the airport runway, where planes arrived and departed with the regularity of the hornets at their nest in the eaves above our garage door. During the next spring, I laid out a path from the top of the small retaining wall up to the clearing, and every weekend I gathered two or three large flat stones from other parts of our property and dug them into the hillside to form a series of steps. Over spring break that year, I built a small deck in the clearing, and since that time Jonie and I have often had our morning coffee or a tall glass of iced tea there, watching the planes come and go.
Though I never made the connection at the time, I had, like Wordsworth at Rydal Mount and Dove Cottage, built a seat with a view and used local stone for stairs. In fact, I never thought of that deck as a garden structure, nor did I ever think of our rocky, wooded hillside as a garden, until this past year, after my father and older sister died within three months of each other. I realized over the summer that I wanted a physical object on that hillside to prompt my memories of family. Appreciating the allusive power of urns in English gardens, I decided on a cast-concrete finial urn, which I placed on a cairn I constructed at the turn of the stone steps I had built leading up to the deck. I sited the urn thoughtfully, where it could be seen from several vantage points in the yard and from the window of the back door. Even at night, lit by the mercury-vapor security light, it catches the eye.
It struck me a few days later that I had, by inserting the urn into the landscape, lived out the events of Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar,” in which the speaker places a jar on a Tennessee hill only to find that the presence of the jar has changed the character of its surroundings. “The wilderness rose up to it,” Stevens says, “and sprawled around, no longer wild.” Prompted by Stevens’ poem, I realized that I had been living with a garden temple on the hillside behind my house for three years—my little deck was nothing less than a temple to flight, and during the months when I wasn’t able to slake my wanderlust with trips to Great Britain (or even to the Gulf coast) the sight of arriving and departing planes brought back memories of past trips and encouraged me to dream of the next one.
Other objects in what I now call my garden have taken on deeper meaning because of their relationship with each other and their participation in the meaning of the whole space, what Kunitz calls the “garden in the mind.” Last summer I spent a week with my mother sorting through my father’s workshop and choosing which tools I wanted to bring back to Alabama with me. Along with these tools and his workbench, I brought back a wrought iron garden bench that had stood for years in front of my grandmother’s house and upon which I had had my picture taken when I was three years old. That bench now sits in the open space above our driveway, and it catches my eye every evening as I return home from work. It is more than a piece of garden furniture, though it serves that purpose admirably. It connects me to my childhood, in particular to the lake where my grandparents lived, where I learned to swim and canoe, and where my father taught me how to trim the jib correctly when we sailed. Like the urn further up the hillside, it is an allusive object, but unlike the urn, which carries universal meaning, the garden bench refers to things that only I can recognize.
This past fall, I discovered a boulder with a relatively flat top situated beneath a poplar tree at the highest corner of the property, and I noticed that a natural terrace walk runs down from it to the back of the deck. Having begun to think in gardening terms, I imagined the site as a future rustic seat, and using two long steel pry bars that I had inherited from my father, I leveled the boulder and resettled it in the earth. I spent much of the fall killing the poison ivy along the terrace, and this winter’s project is to remove the fallen tree that blocks the terrace walk. By spring I will have opened up another garden space, one that I have discovered also affords a direct view down to my grandmother’s bench and beyond, to where the pink and white azaleas wait to bloom.
I said at the outset that the poet and gardener are at least partly ego-driven and that they wish to control, if only for a while, the slippery and evasive elements of the world. But even the artist’s ego recognizes that both poems and gardens are living things, and that, as Kunitz suggests, the artist is at best a co-creator. I certainly feel, most of the time, that my garden is introducing itself to me as I tend it, and that what I place there must somehow be approved by the genius loci. The land teaches me how to dress it, how to be a better husbandman. I resonate with Berry’s Mad Farmer, who claims that “the real products of any year’s work are the farmer’s mind and the cropland itself,” and that “the finest growth that farmland can produce is a careful farmer.”
I will be teaching our poetry workshop this spring for the first time in more than a decade, and I’m hoping that the long fallow years, the ones in which the refuse of each season was worked back into the soil, will have provided me with a fertile ground in which to try my hand at sowing words once again.
For a scholarly analysis of Pope’s theory and practice of gardening, see Peter Martin’s Pursuing Innocent Pleasures: The Gardening World of Alexander Pope (Archon Books, 1984). For a less scholarly but no less fascinating account of Wordsworth as both poet and gardener, see Carol Buchanan’s Wordsworth’s Gardens (Texas Tech University Press, 2001). For Stanley Kunitz’s reflections on his life as poet and gardener, see The Wild Braid (Norton, 2005). For his series of poems that reveal the roots of his poetry in his sense of place, see Wendell Berry’s Farming: A Hand Book (Harcourt, 1970). For my own Web site on Stowe Landscape Gardens, please follow this link.