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Gardens - Gardens Of The Poets

( Originally Published 1901 )



"The chief use of flowers is to illustrate quotations from the poets."

ALL English poets have ever been ready to sing English flowers until jesters have laughed, and to sing garden flowers as well as wild flowers. Few have really described a garden, though the orderly distribution of flowers might be held to be akin to the restraint of rhyme and rhythm in poetry.

It has been the affectionate tribute and happy diversion of those who love both poetry and flowers to note the flowers beloved of various poets, and gather them together, either in a book or a garden. The pages of Milton cannot be forced, even by his most ardent admirers, to indicate any intimate knowledge of flowers. He certainly makes some very elegant classical allusions to flowers and fruits, and some amusingly vague ones as well. "The Flowers of Spenser," and " A Posy from Chaucer," are the titles of most readable chapters in A Garden of Simples, but the allusions and quotations from both authors are pleasing and interesting, rather than informing as to the real variety and description of the flowers of their day. Nearly all the older English poets, though writing glibly of woods and vales, of shepherds and swains, of buds and blossoms, scarcely allude to a flower in a natural way. Herrick was truly a flower lover, and, as the critic said, "many flowers grow to illustrate quotations from his works." The flowers named of Shakespeare have been written about in varied books, Shakespeare's Garden, Shakespeare's Bouquet, Flowers- from Stratford-on-Avon, etc. These are easily led in fulness of detail, exactness of information, and delightful literary quality by that truly perfect book, beloved of all garden lovers, The Plant Lore and Garden Craft of Shakespeare, by Canon Ellacombe. Of it I never weary, and for it I am ever grateful.

Shakespeare Gardens, or Shakespeare Borders, too, are laid out and set with every tree, shrub, and flower named in Shakespeare, and these are over two hundred in number. A distinguishing mark of the Shakespeare Border of Lady Warwick is the peculiar label set alongside each plant. This label is of pottery, greenish-brown in tint, shaped like a butterfly, bearing on its wings a quotation of a few words and the play reference relating to each special plant. Of course these words have been fired in and are thus permanent. Pretty as they are in themselves they must be disfiguring to the borders —as all labels are in a garden.

In the garden at Hillside, near Albany, New York, grows a green and flourishing Shakespeare Border, gathered ten years ago by the mistress of the garden. I use the terms green and flourishing with exactness in this connection, for a great impression made by this border is of its thriving health, and also of the predominance of green leafage of every variety, shape, manner of growth, and oddness of tint. In this latter respect it is infinitely more beautiful than the ordinary border, varying from silvery glaucous green through greens of yellow or brownish shade to the blue-black greens of some herbs ; and among these green leaves are many of sweet or pungent scent, and of medicinal qualities, such as are seldom grown to-day save in some such choice and chosen spot. There is less bloom in this Shakespeare Border than in our modern flower beds, and the flowers are not so large or brilliant as our modern favorites ; but, quiet as they are, they are said to excel the blossoms of the same plants of Shakespeare's own day, which we learn from the old herbalists were smaller and less varied in color and of simpler tints than those of their descendants. At the first glance this Shakespeare Border shines chiefly in the light of the imagination, as stirred by the poet's noble words ; but do not dwell on this border as a whole, as something only to be looked at ; read the pages of this garden, dwell on each leafy sentence, and you are entranced with its beautiful significance. It was not gathered with so much thought, and each plant and seed set out and watched and reared like a delicate child, to become a show place ; it appeals for a more intimate regard ; and we find that its detail makes its charm.

Such a garden as this appeals warmly to any-one who is sensitive to the imaginative element of flower beauty. Many garden makers forget that a flower bed is a group of living beings — perhaps of sentient beings — as well as a mass of beautiful color. Modern gardens tend far too much toward the display of the united effect of growing plants, to a striving for universal brilliancy, rather than attention to and love for separate flowers. There was refreshment of spirit as well as of the senses in the old-time garden of flowers, such as these planted in this Shakespeare Border, and it stirred the heart of the poet as could no modern flower gardens.

The scattering inflorescence and the tiny size of the blossoms give to this Shakespeare Border an unusual aspect of demureness and delicacy, and the plants seem to cling with affection and trust to the path of their human protector; they look simple and confiding, and seem close both to nature and to man. This homelike and modest quality is shown, I think, even in the presentation in black and white given on page 216 and opposite page, 218, though it shows still more in the garden when the wide range of tint of foliage is added.

A most appropriate companion of the old flowers in this Shakespeare Border is the sun-dial, which is an exact copy of the one at Abbotsford, Scotland. It bears the motto 'EPXETAI PAP meaning, " For the night cometh." It was chosen by Sir Walter Scott, for his sun-dial, as a solemn monitor to himself of the hour " when no man can work." It was copied from a motto on the dial-plate of the watch of the great Dr. Samuel Johnson; and it is curious that in both cases the word PAP should be introduced, for it is not in the clause in the New Testament from which the motto was taken. It is a beautiful motto and one of singular appropriateness for a sun-dial. The pedestal of this sun-dial is of simple lines, but it is dignified and pleasing, aside from the great interest of association which surrounds it.

I had a happy sense, when walking through this garden, that, besides my congenial living companionship, I had the company of some noble Elizabethan ghosts ; and I know that if Shakespeare and Jonson and Herrick were to come to Hillside, they would find the garden so familiar to them ; they would greet the plants like old friends, they would note how fine grew the Rosemary this year, how sweet were the Lady's-smocks, how fair the Gillyflowers. And Gerarde and Parkinson would ponder, too, over all the herbs and simples of their own Physick Gardens, and compare notes. Above all I seemed to see, walking soberly by my side, breathing in with delight the varied scents of leaf and blossom, that lover and writer of flowers and gardens, Lord Bacon —and not in the disguise of Shakespeare either. For no stronger proofs can be found of the existence of two individualities than are in the works of each of these men, in their sentences and pages which relate to gardens and flowers.

This fair garden and Shakespeare Border are loveliest in the cool of the day, in the dawn or at early eve ; and those who muse may then remember another Presence in a garden in the cool of the day. And then I recall that gem of English poesy which always makes me pitiful of its author ; that he could write this, and yet, in his hundreds of pages of English verse, make not another memorable line : —

" A Garden is a lovesome thing, God wot ;
Rose plot,
Fringed pool,
Ferned grot,
The veriest school of Peace ;
And yet the fool
Contends that God is not in gardens.
Not in gardens ! When the eve is cool !
Nay, but I have a sign.
'Tis very sure God walks in mine."

Shakespeare Borders grow very readily and freely in England, save in the case of the few tropical flowers and trees named in the pages of the great dramatist ; but this Shakespeare Border at Hillside needs much cherishing. The plants of Heather and Broom and Gorse have to be specially coddled by transplanting under cold frames during the long winter months in frozen Albany ; and thus they find vast contrast to their free, unsheltered life in Great Britain.

Persistent efforts have been made to acclimate both Heather and Gorse in America. We have seen how Broom came uninvited and spread unasked on the Massachusetts coast ; but Gorse and Heather have proved shy creatures. On the beautiful island of Naushon the carefully planted Gorse may be found spread in widely scattered spots and also on the near-by mainland, but it cannot be said to have thrived markedly. The Scotch Heather, too, has been frequently planted, and watched and pushed, but it is slow to become acclimated. It is not be-cause the winters are too cold, for it is found in considerable amount in bitter Newfoundland ; perhaps it prefers to live under a crown.

Modern authors have seldom given their names to gardens, not even Tennyson with his intimate and extended knowledge of garden flowers. A Mary Howitt Garden was planned, full of homely old blooms, such as she loves to name in her verse ; but it would have slight significance save to its maker, since no one cares to read Mary Howitt nowadays. In that charming book, Sylvana's Letters to an Unknown Friend (which I know were written to me), the author, E. V. B., says, " The very ideal of a garden, and the only one I know, is found in Shelley's Sensitive Plant." With quick championing of a beloved poet, I at once thought of the radiant garden of flowers in Keats's heart and poems. Then I reread the Sensitive Plant in a spirit of utmost fairness and critical friendliness, and I am willing to yield the Shelley Garden to Sylvana, while I keep, for my 'own delight, my Keats garden of sunshine, color, and warmth.

That Keats had a profound knowledge and love of flowers is shown in his letters as well as his poems. Only a few months before his death, when stricken with and fighting a fatal disease, he wrote : —

" How astonishingly does the chance of leaving the world impress a sense of its natural beauties upon me ! Like poor Falstaff, though I do not babble, I think of green fields. I muse with greatest affection on every flower I have known from my infancy — their shapes and colors are as new to me as if I had just created them with a superhuman fancy. It is because they are connected with the most thoughtless and the happiest moments of my life."

Near the close of his Endymion he wrote : —

" Nor much it grieves
To die, when summer dies on the cold sward.
Why, I have been a butterfly, a lord
Of Rowers, garlands, love-knots, silly posies,
Groves, meadows, melodies, and arbor roses ;
My kingdom's at its death, and just it is
That I should die with it."

In the summer of 1816, under the influence of a happy day at Hampstead, he wrote that lovely poem, " I stood tiptoe upon a little hill." After a description of the general scene, a special corner of beauty is thus told :

A bush of May flowers with the bees about them —
Ah, sure no bashful nook could be without them —
And let a lush Laburnum oversweep them,
And let long grass grow round the roots to keep them
Moist, cool, and green ; and shade the Violets
That they may bind the moss in leafy nets.
A Filbert hedge with Wild-brier over trim'd,
And clumps of Woodbine taking the soft wind,
Upon their summer thrones."

Then come these wonderful lines, which belittle all other descriptions of Sweet Peas : —

" Here are Sweet Peas, on tiptoe for a flight,
With wings of gentle flush o'er delicate white,
And taper fingers catching at all things
To bind them all about with tiny wings."

Keats states in his letters that his love of flowers was wholly for those of the " common garden sort," not for flowers of the greenhouse or difficult cultivation, nor do I find in his lines any evidence of extended familiarity with English wild flowers. He certainly does not know the flowers of woods and fields as does Matthew Arnold.

The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table says : " Did you ever hear a poet who did not talk flowers ? Don't you think a poem which for the sake of being original should leave them out, would be like those verses where the letter a or e, or some other, is omitted? No; they will bloom over and over again in poems as in the summer fields, to the end of time, always old and always new." The Autocrat himself knew well a poet who never talked flowers in his poems, a poet beloved of all other poets, — Arthur Hugh Clough,— though he loved and knew all flowers. From Matthew Arnold's beautiful tribute to him, are a few of his wonderful flower lines, cut out from their fellows: ____

" Through the thick Corn the scarlet Poppies peep,
And round green roots and yellowing stalks
I see Pale blue Convolvulus in tendrils creep,
And air-swept Lindens yield
Their scent, and rustle down their perfumed showers Of bloom.

"Soon will the high midsummer pomps come on,
Soon will the Musk Carnations break and swell.
Soon shall we have gold-dusted Snapdragon,
Sweet-william with his homely cottage smell,
And Stocks in fragrant blow."

Oh, what a master hand ! Where in all English verse are fairer flower hues ? And where is a more beautiful description of a midsummer evening, than Arnold's exquisite lines beginning: —

" The evening comes ; the fields are still ;
The tinkle of the thirsty rill."

Dr. Holmes was also a master in the description of garden flowers. I should know, had I never been told save from his verses, just the kind of a Cambridge garden he was reared in, and what flowers grew in it. Lowell, too, gives ample evidence of a New England childhood in a garden.

The gardens of Shenstone's Schoolmistress and of Thomson's poems come to our minds without great warmth of welcome from us ; while Clare's lines are full of charm : —

"And where the Marjoram once, and Sage and Rue, And Balm, and Mint, with curl'd leaf Parsley grew, And double Marigolds, and silver Thyme,

And Pumpkins 'heath the window climb.
And where I often, when a child, for hours
Tried through the pales to get the tempting flowers,
As Lady's Laces, everlasting Peas,
True-love-lies-bleeding, with the Hearts-at-ease
And Goldenrods, and Tansy running high,
That o'er the pale tops smiled on passers by."

A curious old seventeenth-century poet was the Jesuit, Renι Rapin. The copy of his poem entitled Gardens which I have seen, is the one in my daughter's collection of garden books; it was "English'd by the Ingenious Mr. Gardiner," and published in 1728. Hallam in his Introduction to the Literature of Europe gives a capital estimate of this long poem of over three thousand lines. I find them pretty dull reading, with much monotony of adjectives, 'and very affected notions for plant names. I fancy he manufactured all his tedious plant traditions himself.

A pleasing little book entitled Dante's Garden has collected evidence, from his writings, of Dante's love of green, growing things. The title is rather strained, since he rarely names individual flowers, and only refers vaguely to their emblematic significance. I would have entitled the book Dante's Forest, since he chiefly refers to trees ; and the Italian gardens of his days were of trees rather than flowers. There are pas-sages in his writings which have led some of his worshippers to believe that his childhood was passed in a garden ; but these references are very indeterminate.

The picture of a deserted garden, with its sad sentiment has charmed the fancy of many a poet. Hood, a true flower-lover, wrote this jingle in his flaunted House:

" The Marigold amidst the nettles blew,
The Gourd embrac'd the Rose bush in its ramble.
The Thistle and the Stock together grew,
The Hollyhock and Bramble.

The Bearbine with the Lilac interlaced,
The sturdy Burdock choked its tender neighbor,
The spicy Pink. All tokens were effaced
Of human care and labor."

These lines are a great contrast to the dignified versification of The Old Garden, by Margaret De land, a garden around which a great city has grown.

"Around it is the street, a restless arm
That clasps the country to the city's heart."

No one could read this poem without knowing that the author is a true garden lover, and knowing as well that she spent her childhood in a garden.

Another American poet, Edith Thomas, writes exquisitely of old gardens and garden flowers.

" The pensile Lilacs still their favors throw.
The Star of Lilies, plenteous long ago,
Waits on the summer dusk, and faileth not.
The legions of the grass in vain would blot
The spicy Box that marks the garden row.
Let but the ground some human tendance know,
It long remaineth an engentled spot."

Let me for a moment, through the suggestion of her last two lines, write of the impress left on nature through flower planting. " The garden long remaineth an engentled spot." You cannot for years stamp out the mark of a garden; intentional destruction may obliterate the garden borders, but neglect never. The delicate flowers die, but some sturdy things spring up happily and seem gifted with everlasting life. Fifteen years ago a friend bought an old country seat on Long Island ; near the site of the new house, an old garden was ploughed deep and levelled to a lawn. Every year since then the patient gardeners pull up, on this lawn, in considerable numbers, Mallows, Campanulas, Star of Bethlehem, Bouncing-bets and innumerable Asparagus shoots, and occasionally the seedlings of other flowers which have bided their time in the dark earth. Traces of the residence of Sir Walter Raleigh in Ireland may still be seen in the growth of richly per-fumed wall-flowers which he brought from the Azores. The Affane Cherry is found where he planted it, and some of his Cedars are living. The summer-house of Yew trees sheltered him when he smoked in the garden, and in this garden he planted Tobacco. Near by is the famous spot where he planted what were then called Virginian Potatoes. By that planting they acquired the name of Irish Potatoes.

I have spoken of the Prince Nurseries in Flushing; the old nurserymen left a more lasting mark than their Nurseries, in the rare trees and plants now found on the roads, and in the fields and gardens for many miles around Flushing. With the Parsons family, who have been, since 1838, distributors of unusual plants, especially the splendid garden treasures from China and Japan, they have made Flushing a delightful nature-study.

In the humblest dooryard, and by the wayside in outlying parts of the town, may be seen rare and beautiful old trees : a giant purple Beech is in a la-borer's yard ; fine Cedars, Salisburias, red-flowered Horse-chestnuts, Japanese flowering Quinces and Cherries, and even rare Japanese Maples are to be found ; a few survivors of the Chinese Mulberry have a romantic interest as mementoes of a giant bubble of ruin. The largest Scotch Laburnum I ever saw, glorious in golden bloom, is behind an unkempt house. On the Parsons estate is a weeping Beech of unusual size. Its branches trail on the ground in a vast circumference of 222 feet, forming a great natural arbor. The beautiful vernal light in this tree bower may be described in Andrew Marvell's words :

Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade."

The photograph of it, shown opposite page 232, gives some scant idea of its leafy walls ; it has been for years the fit trysting-place of lovers, as is shown by the initials carved on the great trunk. Great Judas trees, sadly broken yet bravely blooming ; decayed hedges of several kinds of Lilacs, Syringas, Snowballs, and Yuccas of princely size and bearing still linger. Everywhere are remnants of Box hedges. One unkempt dooryard of an old Dutch farm-house was glorified with a broad double row of yellow Lily at least sixty feet in length. Everywhere is Wistaria, on porches, fences, houses, and trees ; the abundant Dogwood trees are often overgrown with Wistaria. The most exquisite sight of the floral year was the largest Dogwood tree I have ever seen, radiant with starry white bloom, and hung to the tip of every white-flowered branch with the drooping amethystine racemes of Wistaria of equal luxuriance. Golden-yellow Laburnum blooms were in one case mingled with both purple and white Wistaria. These yellow, purple, and white blooms of similar shape were a curious sight, as if a single plant had been grafted. As I rode past so many glimpses of loveliness mingled with so much present squalor, I could but think of words of the old hymn : —

"Where every prospect pleases
And only man is vile."

Could the hedges, trees, and vines which came from the Prince and Parsons Nurseries have been cared for, northeastern Long Island, which is part of the city of Greater New York, would still be what it was named by the early explorers, " The Pearl of New Netherland."



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