Our theme for this month’s poetry is ‘gardens’, which might include ‘flowers’ and ‘gardening’.
I suggested this theme for our poetry choice this month because during the 16 months of Covid lockdowns and restrictions, those of us lucky enough to have gardens have found them particularly valuable. Not only are they places to meet ‘outside’ but gardening can be therapeutic, healing, soothing, and it can also bring joy and hope as we watch our plantings and efforts come to life and thrive. I thought of gardens in a positive and happy way. However, I first came across some rather melancholy poems, such as my first two, but then sought out something a bit more joyful to end with!
New Feet Within My Garden Go by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
New feet within my garden go –
New fingers stir the sod –
A Troubadour upon the Elm
Betrays the solitude.
New children play upon the green –
New Weary sleep below –
And still the pensive Spring returns –
And still the punctual snow!
Emily Dickinson was apparently better known as a gardener than a poet when she was alive, which I felt made her an essential choice for this poetry theme. This poem explores the idea of one’s garden – my garden – going beyond our own lives and being enjoyed by future generations. Yet while there is at first something joyful in thinking of one’s garden living beyond us, there is a melancholy in this poem too: the Troubadour (a bird) ‘betrays the solitude’, disrupting the peace in the garden; and the Spring is ‘pensive’, as we often witness, coming slowly, then retreating again into winter before emerging again; the ‘New Weary’ are the recently dead who ‘sleep below’.
Lodged by Robert Frost (1874-1963)
The rain to the wind said,
‘You push and I’ll pelt.’
They so smote the garden bed
That the flowers actually knelt,
And lay lodged – though not dead.
I know how the flowers felt.
In this poem Frost is linking the flowers bending and lying low to survive to his own method of survival: ‘I know how the flowers felt.’ Although not ‘joyful’, I think it does convey the idea that gardening can be therapeutic; Frost is able to identify with the garden’s struggles and perhaps feel less alone with his own experiences. And I did feel that last line could be read with a touch of humour.
Garden Magic by Marie Nettleton Carroll
This is the garden’s magic,
That through the sunny hours
The gardener who tends it,
Himself outgrows his flowers.
He grows by gift of patience,
Since he who sows must know
That only in the Lord’s good time
Does any seedling grow.
He learns from buds unfolding,
From each tight leaf unfurled,
That his own heart, expanding,
Is one with all the world.
He bares his head to sunshine,
His bending back a sign
Of grace, and ev’ry shower becomes
His sacramental wine.
And when at last his labors
Bring forth the very stuff
And substance of all beauty
This is reward enough.
I came across this in my search for ‘joyful garden poems’ though couldn’t find out much about the poet, other than she appears to have been American and living in the early 20th century (a paper cutting records her marriage in 1924). There are distinct religious overtones to this, which I have to confess might have put me off, but I think it captures the way gardening is about more than planting things and keeping the garden tidy. For me personally, gardening is a kind of mindfulness meditation: it slows me down, it takes me into the moment as I look at my plants – how are they doing? Do they need pruning, dead-heading, more water? I think the poem conveys the joyous satisfaction we gain when our garden thrives; it does indeed require at times ‘the gift of patience’ but when the tended and loved garden comes to life then any ‘labors’ are nothing to ‘all the beauty’ which ‘is reward enough’.
The first poem is from Ten Poems about Gardens in Candlestick Press Ten Poems series (highly recommended). This particular poem is about the heritage industry milking Vita and Virginia’s legacy for all it’s worth but somehow, with the offbeat descriptions (bulging veins of clematis) the garden wins out.
Sub Rosa by Maura Dooley
At Sissinghurst we are meant to gasp at
the borders. No one could fail to notice the
bulging veins of clematis shinning up and over
so much powdery red brick. Who could be
unimpressed by the swags of roses, carpets of camomile,
the best Sunday manners of it all? But we came
with our vague ideas of Vita, Virginia, a friendship
under trees. Little of that left here, between
the roped-off library books, a shop exhaling pot-pourri,
scones leaning patiently on loaded plates.
We let ourselves out by the back gate, follow
the Lakeside Walk, till it collapses into nettles,
then fall down too, stretched out beneath
the cleanliness of trees, beside a scummy pool.
Water like pea soup, bright and green, on which
a single grebe is turning, leaving no wake.
Water where, weighed down with sorrows or stones,
the weed might part for you, close over your head silently.
Back in the garden the borders are busy with bees,
the air is humming with autorewinds, china and small change
chatter cosily, passion rots quietly under the rose.
The second poem is from a blog written in response to the theme “about a garden”. The blog’s author spent a year as Leverhulme Poet in Residence at Moorbank, Newcastle University’s Botanic Garden and again I recommend this online anthology for anyone looking for good unusual poems on this topic. The link is here : Anthology | In the poet’s garden (wordpress.com)
Mother’s Hydrangea by Marlynn Rosario
Others flounce in blossom petticoats,
promise ripening flesh.
This one is green,
broad-veined, shear-edged, sappy;
taken from southern clay, holds steady
in the shift of northern sand.
Their fallen petals, pulled
wings, lie in sherbet drifts
while its slow blush spreads,
tinge to tint to blaze.
Hidden iron nails the colour.
Each bloom becomes a bouquet,
housing a kiss of ladybirds,
a throatiness of frogs.
Deepening the length of Autumn, preserved,
its scabbed parchment stays ornamental.
Cut to twiggy bone, it will return,
heads rearing beyond the wall;
casting a dewdropped web,
netting close its shadows.
Digging by Edward Thomas
I have had an allotment for many years and find this poem so evocative of the scents, smells and feelings associated with gardening. I showed this poem to my lovely neighbour who helped me with the analysis.
The abcb rhyme and slow rhythm provides a subtle musical background to this poem.
The poet achieves many of his effects through the use of sound;
Monosyllabic words that slow the rhythm down … ’scents dead leaves yield’ … ‘When the spade wounds the roots of tree’
The use of consonance, particularly on the ’s’ sound, links certain words throughout the poem … ’scents’, ‘seed’, ‘celery’, ‘smoke’s smell’, ‘sweetness turns’, ‘sings’, ‘sad songs’. This has the effect of unifying the poet’s sensory and emotional experience which leads to ‘Sad songs of Autumn mirth’.
A beautiful, simple poem that works on several levels!
Today I think
Only with scents – scents dead leaves yield,
And bracken, and wild carrot’s seed,
And the square mustard field;
Odours that rise
When the spade wounds the roots of tree,
Rose, currant, raspberry, or goutweed,
Rhubarb or celery;
The smoke’s smell, too,
Flowing from where a bonfire burns
The dead, the waste, the dangerous,
And all to sweetness turns.
It is enough
To smell, to crumble the dark earth,
While the robin sings over again
Sad songs of Autumn mirth.
My Garden by Thomas Edward Brown (1830-1897)
A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot?
Fern’d and grot –
The veriest school
Of peace; and yet the fool
Contends, that God is not –
Not God! in gardens! when the eve is cool?
Nay, but I have a sign;
‘Tis very sure God walks in mine.
My mother quoted that poem frequently and at last, after having now read it a few times, I think I understand it and I know I like it. The punctuation, jerkiness and variation of the length of lines are strange but I think it works.
Garden Love by Juliana Horatia Ewing (1841-1885)
Every child who has gardening tools,
Should learn by heart these gardening rules:
He who owns a gardening spade,
Should be able to dig the depth of its blade.
He who owns a gardening rake,
Should know what to leave and what to take.
He who owns a gardening hoe,
Must be sure how he means his strokes to go.
But he who owns a gardening fork,
May make it do all the other tools’ work
Though to shift, or to pot, or annexe what you can,
A trowel’s the tool for child, woman, or man.
‘‘Twas the bird that sits in the medlar-tree,
Who sang these gardening saws to me.
I love this woman’s poems , I’ve read two more garden ones – The Burial of the Linnet and A Friend in the Garden. Also The Willow-Man and The Dolls’ Wash which makes us realise how similar ordinary lives run along very much in the same way year on year.
My final choice is Thomas Hardy’s poem The Lodging-House Fuchsias. As Clare Tomalin said ‘he put a human story into a few lines, he was also a novelist with an eye for a plot.’
Mrs. Masters’s fuchsias hung
Higher and broader, and brightly swung,
Bell-like, more and more
Over the narrow garden-path,
Giving the passer a sprinkle-bath
In the morning.
She put up with their pushful ways
And made us tenderly lift their sprays,
Going to her door:
But when her funeral had to pass
They cut back all the flowery mass
In the morning.