Summer's Gardens and The Poets

by John Batchelor

M idsummer is normally a time for undergraduate productions of Shakespeare in many of the college gardens in Oxford, but not this year!

Gardens are wonderful places for rest and recovery during the pandemic and in a heatwave they are welcome refuges.

The notion that England itself is a garden often occurs in Shakespeare, and two of Shakespeare's comedies, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Winter's Tale, explore the consolations that gardens offer. Their titles are based on the two extremes of the turning year, and in A Midsummer Night's Dream Oberon, king of the fairies, describes the bower of his queen, Titania, in these terms:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine;
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamelled skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.

This snake is not the serpent who invaded the Garden of Eden but a friendly snake, looking after Titania's fairy companions. And in The Winter's Tale Perdita, the lost princess whose life was saved by shepherds, and who believes herself to be a peasant girl, distributes summer flowers to the other characters in the play:

Here's flowers for you,
Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram;
The marigold that goes to bed with the sun
And with him rises weeping.

She distributes her flowers widely in the rest of this famous and beautiful speech: daffodils 'that come before the swallow dares', violets 'sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes', primroses, oxlips and lilies. This is a love speech as well. She has fallen for Florizel (himself a prince in disguise) and will 'garland' him. So we may be sure that the young lovers affairs will come right in the end. These two plays are both festive comedies in which the natural world helps all the characters recover their right identities and secure the right partner at the close, and in a time of pandemic they are engagingly hopeful and rewarding.

Some 50 years later, in the period of the Civil War, The Garden by Andrew Marvell (MP for Hull for about 20 years) offers a refuge from all forms of conflict. The grapevines and the fruit trees in this garden are eager to meet his needs:

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine, and curious peach,
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons, as I pass,
Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas,
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

The notion that equivalents of land creatures existed in the sea seems to reflect a contemporary speculation about the natural world, while quite what he means by 'a green thought in a green shade' remains anybody's guess. It may have to do with Plato's teaching that there is a world of ideal forms of which the visible world is a rough and approximate representation, but the source of the idea here hardly matters. The poem is generously inviting the reader to share a vivid and wonderfully peaceful experience.

Kipling took up the symbolic function of gardens in his The Glory of the Garden which refers back to Shakespeare and also to the seventeenth century country house poetry of the kind that Marvell wrote, but then challenges their assumptions.

Our England is a garden that is full of stately views,
Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,
With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by;
But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye.

In Kipling's poem gardens are not for rest and refreshment but for work and effort (the poem was published in 1911, a time of great international tension). There is some parallel here with the impressive amount of work visible in local gardens now during the pandemic, although Kipling was actually thinking about the war in Europe which he already regarded as inevitable:

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
By singing – 'Oh, how beautiful!' and sitting in the shade,
While better men than we go out and start their working lives
At grubbing weeds from gravel paths with broken dinner-knives.

There's not a pair of legs so thin, there's not a head so thick,
There's not a hand so weak and white, nor yet a heart so sick,
But it can find some needful job that's crying to be done,
For the Glory of the Garden glorifieth every one.

Then seek your job with thankfulness and work till further orders,
If it's only netting strawberries or killing slugs on borders;
And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden
You will find yourself a partner in the Glory of the Garden.

For Kipling England is an embattled garden which urgently needs defending. He supported Lord Roberts who had campaigned for compulsory military service since 1902 (it was finally introduced in1916). Much later, though, in 1935, the last year of his life, Kipling wrote a story called Ham and the Porcupine where the garden, an idealized England, is simply a refuge. The hedgehog, the porcupine's gentle cousin, will be allowed to settle 'in a comfy little place called England – all among the gardens and the box-borders and slugs, where people will be glad to see you.'

SEE ALSO by John Batchelor:
• The Tipping Point
• Tennyson's Lady of Shalott
• Alice in Lockdown
• Summer's Gardens and The Poets
• Poetry and Crisis: Edward Thomas
• Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year and the Current Pandemic

John Batchelor is a resident of the village of Kidlington, Oxfordshire.

Formerly a Fellow of New College, Oxford, John is also Emeritus Professor at the University of Newcastle. His books include biographies of Mervyn Peake (1974), Joseph Conrad (1995), John Ruskin (2000), Ruskin's close friend Lady Trevelyan (2006), and Alfred Tennyson (2012). His other books have included critical studies of H G Wells (1985) and Virginia Woolf (1992).

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