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Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

July 1912

Gardens and Gardens

by H.G. Dwight

Is it too ingenuous to imagine that anything can be left to say about a garden? Garden literature, descriptive, reminiscent, and technical, has blossomed so profusely among us during the last decade, that he should be an expert indeed who ventures to add thereto. Gardening is distinctly the fashion, and American gardens have already begun to form a school of their own. But literature in general is there to prove that, on a worthy subject, or one merely interesting to successive generations, too much, apparently, can never be said. Only ephemeral matters are over-written. And as a friend of gardens goes about the land he observes that, while they are a good deal the fashion, they are not nearly enough the fashion. They seem chiefly to be the fashion, that is, among possessors of many acres, or those who keep up at least two permanent homes. There are still many dwellers in great houses, however, who would ransack five continents to match a curtain and a carpet, but whose grounds show scarcely a trace of human intelligence; while to too many inhabitants of suburbs and villages a garden means no more than a cabbage-patch. Until such as these, therefore, are turned from the error of their way, until America ceases to be the most gardenless country in the world, too much cannot be said about gardens.

Let no one conclude that I am about to break into a panegyric of the spade and the watering-pot, of weeding and early rising, and I know not what other salutary exercises. These have been sufficiently celebrated. There is no need for me to mention them, save by way of insinuating how fractional a part of a garden they are. As for vegetables, I do not consider a plot of ground devoted to them worthy of the honorable name of garden. Vegetables are, of course, a part of gardening, but the least, the last,--for those who do not have to raise them, the most dishonorable part.

Even the culture of flowers is not the whole of a garden. It is a larger part than the preceding because it gives play to the rarer, the more trampled instincts of man,--his sense of color, his feeling for beauty, his reaching out after something beyond the mere necessity of the instant,--but the cultivation of flowers is only a rudimentary stage of a greater art; and happy are they who pass beyond it into the higher degrees of initiation.

Having said so much I may, perhaps, be expected, particularly by the outraged allies of the onion and the bean, to state in so many words what I conceive a garden to be. Not at all. I propose to make no such mistake. Has any one yet defined religion, or virtue, or love, or life? Only by experience may these, and gardens, be known, and by study of the great examples. Garden masterpieces are to be found in almost every part of the world where travelers go. The Arabs, the Persians, and the Japanese, among remoter peoples, have in their several ways carried the art to great perfection. Those of our own stock who have best understood a garden seem to have been the Italians of the Renaissance, after whom the French and the English worked with the happiest results. It is not for me to commemorate the magic and the melancholy of those great villas that hold half of the wonder of Italy. Yet it is something to my purpose to recall one or two nameless gardens, perhaps even more characteristic of a country where no piece of ground is considered too small or too dark for its decorative treatment.

One of the earliest with which I formed personal ties was in Asolo, whither I first went in a youthful enthusiasm for Browning, but which I found so much more poetic than the poet that my enthusiasm cooled to a disconcerting degree. What to me were bells and pomegranates of the printed page, when growing pomegranates and distantly-sounding bells might be enjoyed so much more vividly in a certain narrow riva--as the local dialect has it--overhanging the vast plain of the Po?

On one side of this little garden a grassy walk followed the edge of a declivity where grapes sunned themselves, to a clump of laurel trees. There a small white god stood against the sacred green, and there it was good to take a book in the morning--or tea in the afternoon. Across a dip of the town you could see the Queen Cornaro's tower printed against the sky, and the pillars of a colonnade, and the sharpness of a cypress tree; and beyond it all the long scroll of the Dolomites sank into the plain. On the other side, a charmille of clipped beech made a cool green tunnel under the wall. That was for sun or for rain, and it led to an arbor of roses. Here, too, the ground dropped away, falling from garden to garden, from vineyard to vineyard, from chestnut glen to chestnut glen, until the great green plain spread out its wonderful web that faded into a blue haze like the sea. Out of the plain rose, like the Amber Isles that Strabo called them, the strange cones of the Euganean Hills. Beyond them, to the left, you sometimes caught under a clear sun, or a high moon, the glint of the Adriatic.

For certain gardens, swimming bodily in that sea, I came to have a fantastic weakness. By nothing am I more easily undone than by the association of growing things with water. Then the crowded islands of Venice have so little room to spare that the flowers and vines and trees prospering there in so many inhospitable crannies prove again how deep-rooted in the Italian nature is the need of beauty, and the instinct to create it. There are, to be sure, really big gardens in the place, some hidden away where no outsider would guess. Not the least delightful, though, are the numberless closes, each with its own ingenuities for privacy or pleasure, so small that I used to wonder how spring ever found them out. Most of them, of course, I never visited except in imagination, although to not a few I vulgarly obtained entrance under a false pretense of house-hunting. But the one with a long red wall above a canal in an out-of-the-way part of town, through the grill work of whose open arches poured such a sense of green seclusion--who would have violated it? And while I would have sold my soul to possess the giardinetto with a Gothic water-gate and a balcony jutting out from the top of the wall, where seats were set in the shadow of a huge acacia, it was better, since that might not be, never to penetrate it.

I cannot forbear mentioning, however, one into which I penetrated so often that my affections took root beyond any possibility of transplanting. I have never forgiven D'Annunzio and Mrs. Temple Thurston for afterwards putting it into books without so much as changing its name. If they had known it as well as I, they could not have made out of it such copy as they did. It belonged to a palazzo of the Renaissance, in whose great lower hall the shimmer of the canal in front met the green light of the garden behind. You entered it by a formal court, where battered Roman emperors stood gravely in niches of the wall on either side, and a low parapet surmounted by a grille of wrought iron sharpened your anticipation of joys to come. This grille was also a device to set off the garden gate, a charming old twisted cancello between high stone posts, whereon nymphs struggled in the arms of satyrs, or Sabines were rapt to Rome.

And then you were upon enchanted ground. You would never have suspected yourself to be in the heart of a city. Scarcely even would you have suspected yourself to be in Venice, for the water was nowhere visible--although the sense of it would sometimes fill the silence at a gondolier's cry or the distant splash of an oar. A long path led you, if flower-beds and fruit trees and shady trellises did not beguile you by the way, to a sort of temple set against an ivied wall. Therein were celebrated no rites more mysterious than those which caused this paradise to bloom from the winter day when the Japanese calycanthus held out a first spicy hope of spring till the last chrysanthemum of autumn bowed its head. Yet could rites more mysterious have been celebrated?

Certain miracles that I beheld there have haunted my memory ever since: a gray April morning of sirocco, when the almond blossoms, the flaming tulips, the young green of the vines, hung as if painted on the motionless air; a summer night when the roses had an unearthly pallor under a half-eaten moon, whose ghostliness was somehow one with their perfume and with the phosphorescence of dew tipping their petals; a day when the trees stood part submerged in fog, into which leaves dropped slowly, slowly, one after another, and sank out of sight. And there were times when one yielded quite shamelessly to the sentimental. They were more likely to be times of crickets, I think, than of birds--when it was impossible not to feel, like another essence of the sunlight, the bittersweet of life that lingers about old houses, and places where men have died, and things that forgotten hands have touched.

This garden has always remained for me the perfection and pattern of its kind. It was not very big. It had none of the tricks, unless you count the court and the temple, whereby the old gardeners sometimes sought to catch your fancy. It did not even afford the view which contributes so much to the famous places of Italy. It was merely a small level inclosure behind a house, a larger and more delightful living-room, where its owners could find quiet and beauty, and their own portion of the earth. And while the grace of its setting, and some breath of legend that blew about it, were not a little of its charm, the essential elements of that charm were so simple that I am never through marveling at my fellow countrymen for so often wasting their own opportunities. Is it that they fail to perceive their opportunities? Or do they live in fear of Mrs. Grundy and the nemesis she has sometimes visited upon a neighbor who dared to call his ground his own? Or are they so sunken in the fallacies of that school of gardening, so-called of landscape, that they find no beauty save in the monotonous wastes whereby they surround themselves?

I recognize, of course, that its lawns give a cachet to an American village; and a cachet is never to be scorned. Moreover I would be the last to deny that an American country street makes a most agreeable perspective in summer, with its arching trees and its park-like fringe of green and its clear-colored houses set a little apart from each other and from the public way. And there is not a little to be said for the confidence and friendliness which carry life forward so sociably in the open. Yet I never admire one of these thoroughfares without amazement at the householders who can freely throw away half their land and all their privacy in order to make a boulevard of an indifferent highway. I myself should be totally incapable of such a renunciation. The first thing I should do, were I so happy as to own the most infinitesimal fraction of the earth's surface, would be to surround at least a portion of it--possibly sacrificing the 'front lawn' on the altar of public opinion and democracy--with a hedge so thick and so high that my neighbors would have to go to some trouble in order to take observations of my affairs. And the next thing I should do would be to lay out that inclosed space after a design of my own imagining.

Whistler liked to maintain that Nature is but a clumsy artist, incapable of properly harmonizing or arranging her materials. I do not know how far I should be willing to follow Whistler. I have seen works of Nature that I should have been very sorry to let any one touch. But such masterpieces, save minute details of them, or the great picture of the skies, cannot exist in towns or their vicinity. And it is impossible for a strip of grass between a neatly-painted house and an oiled road to produce an illusion of the wild-wood--unless it is so big or so cleverly inclosed by trees as to be outside the scope of this paper. The open lawn of custom, with its geometrical boundaries and its weekly or bi-weekly shaving, is as frankly artificial as the most elaborate perversities of the Baroque period. A really good lawn, moreover, even, green, and free of weeds, exacts a greater tribute of time and money than a garden of the same size.

Convention for convention, therefore, the more considered lines of a garden harmonize better with houses and streets than any attempt to domesticate the prairie on a hundred-foot front. And the design of a garden satisfies an instinct as native to us as any other. There is something in us that loves symmetry, selection, arrangement, as well as wildness and irregularity. A small garden, accordingly, gives its owner a far greater opportunity to express himself than a small lawn. The usual lawn expresses nothing so much a vacancy of mind or an impious waste of good material; whereas in a garden any man may be an artist, may experiment with all the subtleties or simplicities of line, mass, color, and composition, and taste the god-like joys of the creator.

I hesitate to use the epithet 'formal' with regard to a small garden, for I generally find the word to suggest trees clipped into the form of peacocks, or flower-beds imitating carpets and sofa-cushions. How little, indeed, the Italian secret is understood, even by persons who have had opportunity to study it at first hand, we sometimes see graphically illustrated in this country by those who tuck a pergola and a few bits of marble into one corner of their grounds, and then call upon their friends to admire their Italian garden. One is reminded of the mansions that used to abound more self-confidently than they do now, wherein one was led from an Empire salon to a Japanese room, and finally brought to rest in a Turkish corner.

As to pergolas, by the way, I often ask myself where in the world the strange erections that stalk through an increasing number of American gardens, that even cover not a few American verandahs, staring-white, bare of foliage, and solid enough to support a sky-scraper, are supposed to have derived their origin. In some of the greatest Italian gardens the pergolas are made of slender unplaned poles fastened together by withes, which are invisible under the vines that cover them. The nakedness of the American pergolas has sometimes been explained to me by the fact that grape-vines must be cut down every year in order to bear well. What of it? The vine exists for the pergola, not the pergola for the vine. Even in countries so poor as Greece and Turkey thousands of vines are grown simply for their shade and beauty. If we called a pergola a trellis, and were done with it, we might be less in danger of disfiguring our gardens by a species of snow-shed.

Pergolas, however, or marbles either, do not constitute an Italian garden. That is a matter of structure, whose principle will naturally work out different results under different conditions. It has already worked out very happy results in this country--results often bearing no superficial resemblance to the popular idea of an Italian garden. For the principle is not Italian or of any other nationality; it is merely a principle of good taste, which any woman who knows how to dress should, with a little imagination, be able to grasp very quickly. It consists in treating a piece of ground as if it were at one with the architecture upon it. Thus the marbles, in Italy, and the occasional white pergolas, repeat a note of the villa, which always has a good deal of marble about it; but they would be absurdly out of place if the villa happened to be a colored timber house.

The reason why the grounds are formal is that the villa itself is more formal than most of our country-houses. The degree of elaborateness depends upon the scale of the place, though some formality is the only possible transition between house and country. At the same time the grounds are laid out with reference to whatever view they may command. And they are planned to contain a constructional beauty of their own, independent of decoration or view. Thus a garden of agreeable design, which is accentuated by evergreens and simple architectural features, gives pleasure in winter as in summer, whether it is kept up or not. Its pattern attracts the eye like a picture. Whereas a blank lawn, unmarked by paths or anything else save trees or shrubs set about at random, is rarely a pleasant sight during the leafless part of the year.

The best thing, after all, about an Italian garden is that it is intended to be lived in. The paths, the arbors, the terraces, the seats, the pergolas, and other covered walks, are not mere ingenuities of ornament. They are for use. They make it possible to extend the life of the house under the sky, and in various weathers. The wall, accordingly, is a necessary part of the scheme; for the garden without an inclosure is a picture without a frame, a room without a partition.

Here is where I find the lawns of my country most intolerable. That they should be without form and void is less injurious than that they should bear no relation to the lives of their possessors. How pitiable are thousands of unfortunate persons, of unquestioned title to varying portions of the earth's surface, who yet go down to the grave ignorant of their true heritage. For the sums which they expend in maintaining vacancy about them they might create each his own Eden. But no; custom forbids them walls, even behind the building line. Their very grass is not their own, for it must be kept wet, and many feet will wear it out. Moreover, its exposure to every eye hedges them more narrowly about than privet or masonry. Would they taste that pleasant idleness of the clement season which is to loll with a book under a tree--or without one? They must dress for it, if they have the tree, and take thought not to assume too undignified a posture. Is it theirs to spread the family board in the open? They might as well spread it on the sidewalk. They may not even indulge in so promiscuous an entertainment as a lawn-party without darkenings of the horizon by the uninvited.

And as for the more intimate passages of life!--What can there be of intimacy about a lawn? It is part of the street, at best no more than a part of a neighbor's premises; and the householder must comport himself accordingly. He shall never really know--I do not speak, of course, of those who are happy enough to live in open country or surrounded by their own acres--what life out-of-doors may be. His only ideas of such a thing is to spend an hour at the country club, or a holiday in the mountains or by the sea. The notion that his own ground might be put to any use has never entered his head--unless in the rudimentary form represented by a potato patch. But until he and his house enjoy the freedom of a garden, they will never be more than strangers to the sun.

There prevails among many of us an actual hostility toward gardens, upon which I have mused not a little. One would suppose that a people so devoted to the cult of fresh air, so given to piazzas and 'sleeping porches,' would be quick to afford themselves so simple a luxury. I cannot believe the objection oftenest made to me: that mosquitoes prevent the enjoyment of a garden. True as it is in part, it is true only for certain seasons and for certain hours of the day. Mosquitoes never yet kept any one who really wanted a garden from having one. Neither do I put much faith in the altruism of those who protest against walls because they prevent outsiders from enjoying one's own grounds. It would be entirely possible to make a defense of walls on the highest psychological basis. Nay, what could be more delightful than to take an outraged community by the hand and point out that a glimpse of green through an open gate, a vine hanging over a coping, a tree peering above a hedge, suggests more to the inquiring mind than the most unobstructed view? But I suspect that the real milk in that cocoanut is a fear lest the rocker on the piazza be cut off from the spectacle of the street and of neighboring rockers.

Far be it from me to denounce the pleasures of the rocking-chair, or of contemplating the human spectacle. They merely afford me a step in a philosophical inquiry, leading to the conviction that, as a people, we are distinctly rebellious against the theory of a garden. It is natural enough that this should be. The sons of pioneers with all the blood of adventure in their veins, we are not even yet settled into this huge, half-tamed country of ours. We have a genuine love of wildness and space, which is impatient of what there may be dainty and confined about a garden. And we are somewhat notoriously averse to anything that resembles idleness. But I think there also must be in us a nerve duller than in other men; a blind spot in our eyes.

At any rate, as I go about those parts of our land where our fathers had early opportunity of expressing themselves, those parts which remain least troubled by foreign ideas, I never fail to be impressed by the unerring instinct with which the houses turn their backs to the most desirable view. Being given their choice of a happy valley or a dusty road, they invariably prefer the latter. Set down on a spot where it is impossible to avoid some agreeable outlook, they block out as much of it as possible by an enormous barn.

Now a Turk is regarded by the inhabitants of those houses as a bloody and heathenish man, unsusceptible to any of the softer feelings that visit their own breasts. Yet that heathenish and bloody man has an unerring instinct of another kind. He has, uninstructed by any Village Improvement Society, a natural genius for placing his house, and, cut off in a town from wide prospects, the view of trees, the sight and sound of water, it would be inconceivable to him to make his back-yard such an abomination of desolation as may be seen from the rear windows of any American city.

The sense of beauty is a sprite of strange whims, visiting those who know her not, abandoning those who passionately sue her, never dwelling long in one time or people, and always discovering herself in new forms. If she has yet done no more than visit our shores furtively, and at rare intervals, that is no reason for giving up hope that she may some day reign in our midst. Shall there never be a Renaissance or Golden Age again?

In this small question of gardens, however, there is another element, another national idiosyncrasy, related to the rocking-chairs noted above. A larger expression of it is the house on whose piazza the rocking-chair rocks; a house whose front door is courteously made of glass in order to deprive the public of as little as possible of what goes forward within, and whose interior partitions have almost totally disappeared. All is the integration of Spencer; there is scarcely any differentiation here between one room and another. In so far as consciousness may be concerned in these things I have no doubt that they are ordered for the common good, and on some vague protestant principle of a life to come--as of large entertainments that seldom take place. Yet I seem to connect them with our somewhat noted American partiality for hotels--for change, travel, and publicity also, as opposed to rootedness and the individual life.

Here I think must lie the seed of that unfriendliness toward gardens which I not seldom encounter. It is the more curious that any such unfriendliness should exist, since individualism is supposed to hold freer sway among us than among any other people of the earth. Yet, with all that individualism and vitality, there is lacking a certain sense of life, a sense of the life of the moment, which our bloody and heathenish friend the Turk possesses along with his sense of beauty. Is it that, like the younger sons we are of all the younger sons of the world, we must still forage and sow wild oats, the resources of the inner life being a secret of age?

Separation, after all, is as native and as needful to us as society. Every man bears within him a solitary world which no one else may enter. Nor is this merely a matter of the sentimental. There is something aloof within us that will not be divided or communicated. Our rarest, like our bitterest, moments are for ourselves alone. And only by being most himself can a man be most for his kind. It is entirely possible to pay too much for the common good. Dangerous doctrine though this be, double-edged for good or ill, it is proven by great poets; by the great initiators of any breed. Whence it is that a garden wall is no piece of that exclusiveness at which we like to throw our word 'un-American.' If private life be less American than life of the street, the sooner we naturalize it the better.

Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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