Gardens and Garden-Craft
""A Garden in its pride,
Odorous with hint and rapture
Of soft joys no tongue can capture,"
is a delight to which none but the thrushes can give adequate expression, for they are past masters in the "fine careless rapture.""
To leave the din and clatter of the streets, the clang of the trolley cars, the cries of the venders, and all the jarring noises of this workaday world, and lose one's self in such a book as that of John Sedding's, is indeed a rest unto the soul: to feel the dreamy charm and half-forgotten fragrance of the old gardens and breathe a Herrick atmosphere
"Of brooks, of blossoms, birds and bowers,"
a book where it is a matter of course to meet Gower and Andrew Marvell, and a surprise to chance upon a bit of Browning; where Sir William Temple dissertates upon "The perfectest figure of a Garden I ever saw, either at Home or Abroad," and Evelyn gives advice on terraces; where Lady Mary Wortley Montagu forgets her neuralgia and her quarrel with Pope, although he is not two chapters off, and discourses amiably of the Giardino Jiusti, and even crusty Horace Walpole drops his misanthropy for the moment, and does a service which makes the garden-lover always his debtor.
Like these old-time worthies who chat and mingle so congenially in his pages, Sedding was not a gardener by profession: he was an architect, whose work was blest with both originality and artistic quality, an artist with a passionate love for studying flower and leaf. For garden-making is the craft of crafts for the artist-amateur. "Thus, if I make a garden," writes Sedding, "I need not print a line, nor conjure with the painter's tools to prove myself an artist...Whilst in other spheres of labor the greater part of our life's toil and moil will of a surety end, as the wise man predicted, in vanity and vexation of spirit, here is instant physical refreshment in the work the garden entails, and, in the end, our labor will be crowned with flowers."
"A garden is a place where these two whilom foes--Nature and Man--patch up a peace for the nonce. Outside the garden precincts--in the furrowed field, in the forest, the quarry, the mine, out upon the broad seas--the feud still prevails that began when our first parents found themselves on the wrong side of the gate of Paradise."
"'There be delights,'" quotes Sedding, "'that will fetch the day about from sun to sun and rock the tedious year as in a delightful dream.'...For a garden is Arcady brought home. It is man's bit of gaudy make-believe--his well-disguised fiction of an unvexed Paradise...a world where gayety knows no eclipse and winter and rough weather are held at bay."
But this first chapter with its page after page of garden rhapsody is by way of invocation. There are quaint designs for formal gardens with their sundials and clipped yew hedges, an admirable historical sketch of English garden-craft, the work of the old masters, Bacon, Evelyn, and Temple; the sad record of the early eighteenth century when Mr. Brown, in the name of landscape gardening and nature, demolished the ancient avenues and pleasure grounds with a completeness which would have made Spenser's Sir Guyon think of his efforts in Acrasia's bower and blush for incompetence: not even Sir Walter Raleigh's garden was spared "unparalleled by anie in these partes," and as an advertising agent blazons his wares on the silent boulders, Mr. Brown's name was writ large for posterity on English gardening. "All in CAPITALS," to quote Dr. Young.
It is the old-fashioned garden, "that piece of hoarded loveliness" as he calls it, which holds Sedding's allegiance: the garden of the men who wrote and wrought when English poetry and English garden-craft were in their springtime, where contentions had not entered in. He finds excellent poetic backing for his love of confessed art in a garden, intrenching himself behind two such nature-lovers and notable gardeners as Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott.
Indeed, the kinship between garden-craft and poetry is often overlooked; "we have only to turn to the old poets and note how the texture of the speech--the groundwork of the thought--is saturated through and through with garden imagery," for garden-craft is only another medium of expression for the art of the period: even in the Jacobean garden, "we have much the same quips and cranks, the same quaint power of metrical changes, playful fancy of the poetry of Herbert, Vaughan, Herrick, and Donne."
Perhaps the most potent charm of the book, as of the Canterbury Pilgrimage, is in the goodly company and the pleasure of finding, like Chaucer,
"That I was of hir felawshipe anon,"
"to be brought to old Lawson's state of simple ravishment, 'What more delightsome than an infinite varietie of sweet-smelling flowers? decking with sundry colors the green mantle of the Earth, coloring not onely the earth, but decking the ayre, and sweetning every breath and spirit;'...to be inoculated with old Gerarde of the garden-mania as he bursts forth, 'Go forward in the name of God: graffe, set, plante, nourishe up trees in every corner of your grounde.'"
The landscape architect may look askance at some of Sedding's authorities, not only such garden-masters as Bacon, Temple, Evelyn, or the later gardeners of repute, Gilpin and Repton, or Loudon of the "Gardenesque School," but More, Sir Joshua, Sir Walter, Elia, Tennyson, William Morris, and Wordsworth, who was Sedding's ideal gardener. If, as Ruskin says, an architect should be a painter and a sculptor, a landscape architect should be an artist and a poet also, with the poet's imagination and the gift of seeing "the wonders that may be." "To my mind," writes Sedding, "a garden is the outward and visible sign of a man's innate love of loveliness." Now if a man have not this love of loveliness, which is the soul of poetry, his garden-craft profiteth him nothing.
Although it is of English gardening that Mr. Sedding writes, the American landscape architect will find excellent planting hints if he does not object to "precepts wrapped in a pretty metaphor," and there is this catholic advice for the amateur, "Put all the beauty and delightsomeness you can into your garden, get all the beauty and delight you can out of your garden, never minding a little mad want of balance, and think of the proprieties afterwards!" while he turns to the "Other Side," and in his Plea for Savagery makes charming excuse for those of us to whom the wilderness is dearer and better than the best of gardens, the sweet and blessed country which, however the title deeds run, belongs by birthright to the shy wood folk.
Very pleasant is the glimpse Mr. Russell gives in his memoir of the man John Sedding,--the sunshiny, helpful presence among the young art students, the ready friendliness which was the outer garment of a deeply religious nature, the earnest work, and after the day's work the delights of gardening, "the happiest of homes and the sweetest of wives," the grave on the sunny slope of the little Kentish churchyard where, under the quiet elms, John Sedding and this "sweetest of wives" are together:--
"'T is fit One Flesh One House should have
One Tombe, One Epitaph, One Grave;
And they that lived and loved either
Should dye, and Lye and sleep together."
Unlike Garden-Craft, there is little theory in Flowers and Gardens, and the poetry of the book lies in the rarely beautiful flower studies, the chapters on Vegetation and the Withering of Plants, while the garden papers are rather desultory prose. The author, who died in early manhood, was a physician by profession, a botanist by taste and inheritance, and more than this deeply and intensely a flower-lover, which the botanist does not always nor of necessity include. Did not Karshish, who was botanist enough to notice
"on the margin of a pool
Blue-flowering borage, the Aleppo sort,"
express his astonishment that Lazarus should so love "the very flowers of the field"? Forbes Watson from his youth up was preeminently and passionately a lover of flowers,--not for the lust of the eye, nor for the pride of the collector, not for gracing the house with their "endearing young charms," nor giving color and fragrance to the gardens,--he loved each for its "own dear loveliness."
To his mind there was more to be learned of a plant that its physical structure,--there was its expression, its peculiar beauty: "What is the dearest and the deepest in the flower," he wrote, "is best seen when that glower is observed alone." It was of this "dearest and deepest" element that Forbes Watson sought to learn, studying with scrupulous care of the smallest detail, with unwearying patience, one and another of the common every-day flowers, until as Shelley says,--
"The soul of its beauty and love lay bare,"
and he found there is no curve of petal, no line of leaf nor touch of color, that has not only its part to play in the physical life, but is essential to the attainment of its individual beauty.
The twelve Studies in Plant Beauty, which comprise the first part of the book, show a rare delicacy of observation, a poetic insight in the
"deeper meanings of what roses say,"
that not even Ruskin exceeded, and are touched beside with that other-worldliness one might look to find in writing done during an illness which a man knew to be his last.
It would be a pleasure to quote his analysis of the Yellow Crocus with its tiny mirror-like devices for flashing and holding the sunlight, or the Cowslip, or his finely delicate study of the Snowdrop, or the poetic interpretation of the Purple Crocus's expression; but these are too long to be given in full, and without the complete analysis quotations if not rendered meaningless would be sadly marred, and the studies are too beautiful for such spoiling.
To a man who loved flowers after this manner, dwelt on their beauty with such a lingering tenderness, it is easy to understand that the gardener's use of them seemed sometimes a desecration; flowers and leaves speckled and spotted whose chief claim to attention was novelty. "Look at that scarlet geranium," he writes, "whose edges are broadly buttered round with cream color (I can use no other term which will express the vulgarity of the effect); consider first the harshness of the leaf coloring in itself, then its want of relation to the form, and finally, what a degradation this is of the clear, beautiful, and restful contrast which we find in the plain scarlet geranium; and then you ask yourself what this taste can be where this is not only tolerated, but admired."
It was because of his love of the individual flower that Forbes Watson fought a good fight against the carpet beds that thirty years ago were in their glory, and considered the acme of garden perfection,--the greatest blare of color, the greatest excellence (which suggests the ideal of the Vicar's family in another art, when Olivia declares admiringly that the Squire can sing "louder than her master").
"Our flower beds," he wrote indignantly, "are considered mere masses of color instead of an assemblage of living beings,--the plant is never old, never young, it degenerates into a colored ornament."
The carpet beds, it is to be hoped, have passed away with that other carpet work of an earlier generation which Mr. Jameson declared so immoral; still, that popular feminine adornment, the huge bunch of violets is only another form of the same barbarism; nothing could be more utterly alien to the character and individuality of this dear, shadow-loving, poet's flower, and here is a landscape architect whose advertisement in one of the current magazines runs in this fashion: "There is no more useful garden material than the so-called Dutch bulbs, hyacinths, crocuses, narcissi," and the like, none which yield a larger return "for so small an expenditure of time and money!" Alas for the flowers!--the narcissi that Shelley loved--the dainty crocuses that lift their faces to the doubtful sun with such a childlike confidence; they have fallen into the hands of the Philistines; how they must sigh for Content in a Garden of Mrs. Wheeler's making, where the flowers have their preferences consulted, are loved and petted and praised as flowers should be, make room for one another in the garden beds with gracious courtesy, and are given delightful introduction to the world in the charming pages of her little volume where the sense of green things creeps into the very pages.
"None," Forbes Watson declares,-- "none can have a healthy love for flowers unless he loves the wild ones." It is on this study of the wild flowers that he insists, not only for their own sake, although they give ample recompense, but because it is only in this way that the eye may be kept single, that one can know the true beauty from the false, nor go after strange gods and sacrifice for more size and sensuousness the rarer, finer qualities of harmony and purity of form.
If Forbes Watson thought of the hurrying, restless generation, the men and women nerve-distracted, careful and troubled about many things, or wearied with pleasures "daubed with cost," as Bacon says,--the things which make for "state and magnificence, but are nothing to the true pleasure of a garden,"--who have eyes, but not for the flowers, he might have felt with the prophet when his servant was anxious and distressed because he saw not the heavenly vision.
"My master how shall we do?" and Elisha prayed unto the Lord and said, "Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes."
Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.