Great Garden Poems, Part Ten–To Penshurst, by Ben Jonson

Something of an idealized description of the old English country estate, though at least it has a great description of the garden.

To Penshurst

BY BEN JONSON

Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show,
Of touch or marble; nor canst boast a row
Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;
Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told,
Or stair, or courts; but stand’st an ancient pile,
And, these grudged at, art reverenced the while.
Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air,
Of wood, of water; therein thou art fair.
Thou hast thy walks for health, as well as sport;
Thy mount, to which the dryads do resort,
Where Pan and Bacchus their high feasts have made,
Beneath the broad beech and the chestnut shade;
That taller tree, which of a nut was set
At his great birth where all the Muses met.
There in the writhèd bark are cut the names
Of many a sylvan, taken with his flames;
And thence the ruddy satyrs oft provoke
The lighter fauns to reach thy Lady’s Oak.
Thy copse too, named of Gamage, thou hast there,
That never fails to serve thee seasoned deer
When thou wouldst feast or exercise thy friends.
The lower land, that to the river bends,
Thy sheep, thy bullocks, kine, and calves do feed;
The middle grounds thy mares and horses breed.
Each bank doth yield thee conies; and the tops,
Fertile of wood, Ashore and Sidney’s copse,
To crown thy open table, doth provide
The purpled pheasant with the speckled side;
The painted partridge lies in every field,
And for thy mess is willing to be killed.
And if the high-swollen Medway fail thy dish,
Thou hast thy ponds, that pay thee tribute fish,
Fat aged carps that run into thy net,
And pikes, now weary their own kind to eat,
As loath the second draught or cast to stay,
Officiously at first themselves betray;
Bright eels that emulate them, and leap on land
Before the fisher, or into his hand.
Then hath thy orchard fruit, thy garden flowers,
Fresh as the air, and new as are the hours.
The early cherry, with the later plum,
Fig, grape, and quince, each in his time doth come;
The blushing apricot and woolly peach
Hang on thy walls, that every child may reach.
And though thy walls be of the country stone,
They’re reared with no man’s ruin, no man’s groan;
There’s none that dwell about them wish them down;
But all come in, the farmer and the clown,
And no one empty-handed, to salute
Thy lord and lady, though they have no suit.
Some bring a capon, some a rural cake,
Some nuts, some apples; some that think they make
The better cheeses bring them, or else send
By their ripe daughters, whom they would commend
This way to husbands, and whose baskets bear
An emblem of themselves in plum or pear.
But what can this (more than express their love)
Add to thy free provisions, far above
The need of such? whose liberal board doth flow
With all that hospitality doth know;
Where comes no guest but is allowed to eat,
Without his fear, and of thy lord’s own meat;
Where the same beer and bread, and selfsame wine,
This is his lordship’s shall be also mine,
And I not fain to sit (as some this day
At great men’s tables), and yet dine away.
Here no man tells my cups; nor, standing by,
A waiter doth my gluttony envy,
But gives me what I call, and lets me eat;
He knows below he shall find plenty of meat.
The tables hoard not up for the next day;
Nor, when I take my lodging, need I pray
For fire, or lights, or livery; all is there,
As if thou then wert mine, or I reigned here:
There’s nothing I can wish, for which I stay.
That found King James when, hunting late this way
With his brave son, the prince, they saw thy fires
Shine bright on every hearth, as the desires
Of thy Penates had been set on flame
To entertain them; or the country came
With all their zeal to warm their welcome here.
What (great I will not say, but) sudden cheer
Didst thou then make ’em! and what praise was heaped
On thy good lady then, who therein reaped
The just reward of her high housewifery;
To have her linen, plate, and all things nigh,
When she was far; and not a room but dressed
As if it had expected such a guest!
These, Penshurst, are thy praise, and yet not all.
Thy lady’s noble, fruitful, chaste withal.
His children thy great lord may call his own,
A fortune in this age but rarely known.
They are, and have been, taught religion; thence
Their gentler spirits have sucked innocence.
Each morn and even they are taught to pray,
With the whole household, and may, every day,
Read in their virtuous parents’ noble parts
The mysteries of manners, arms, and arts.
Now, Penshurst, they that will proportion thee
With other edifices, when they see
Those proud, ambitious heaps, and nothing else,
May say their lords have built, but thy lord dwells.

Ah, the good old days, when a poet had to suck up to rich people, just to get a decent meal. At least now, they just have to kiss the Dean’s butt, to stay off of public assistance.

Great Garden Poems, Part Nine–Ah! Sun-Flower, by William Blake

Readers of this series will recall that Blake and his wife would spend time in their garden while totally nude. They must have also grown sunflowers.

Ah! Sun-flower

BY WILLIAM BLAKE

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done. 

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow: 
Arise from their graves and aspire, 
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

To finish with a quote from another favorite, “The One Song,” by Mark Strand.

Flowers bloom

Flowers die

More is less

I long for more

Comment–that sound like Blake’s fashion sense.

Great Garden Poems, Part Eight–A Bird, came down the Walk, by Emily Dickinson

The Belle of Amherst wrote more nature poems than you can swing a cat at, but this is one of the best. Also sometimes given the title of “In the Garden.”

A Bird, came down the Walk – (359)

BY EMILY DICKINSON

A Bird, came down the Walk – 
He did not know I saw –
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw, 

And then, he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass –
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass –

He glanced with rapid eyes,
That hurried all abroad –
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought,
He stirred his Velvet Head. – 

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers, 
And rowed him softer Home –

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,
Leap, plashless as they swim. 

I have always been jealous of Ms. Dickinson, as the she was considered a “no-hoper” in college, because the powers that be thought that her soul, or chance for salvation, was without hope. She left the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary after one year. Her brother was allowed to go to Harvard. Guess which one is remembered now.

Great Garden Poems, Part Seven–Is my Team Ploughing? by A. E. Housman

I loved this poem the first time I read it, though it still gives me the willies. Maybe more farming than gardening, but it involves cultivation, so here it is.

Is My Team Ploughing

BY A. E. HOUSMAN

“Is my team ploughing,
   That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
   When I was man alive?”

Ay, the horses trample,
   The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
   The land you used to plough.

“Is football playing
   Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
   Now I stand up no more?”

Ay the ball is flying,
   The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
   Stands up to keep the goal.

“Is my girl happy,
   That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
   As she lies down at eve?”

Ay, she lies down lightly,
   She lies not down to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
   Be still, my lad, and sleep.

“Is my friend hearty,
   Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
   A better bed than mine?”

Yes, lad, I lie easy,
   I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
   Never ask me whose.

Thanks again to the incredible Poetry Foundation. Even more thanks to our favorite classical scholar who wrote this gem.

Great Garden Poems, Part Six–Loveliest of Trees, by A. E. Housman

One of the greatest classical scholars, A. E. Housman truly brought the Roman pastoral tradition back to England. I never really liked this poem until I heard it sung by the Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel. It’s a killer set to music.

Loveliest of Trees

A. E. Housman – 1859-1936

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

OK, a token Easter poem. I just love everything Housman wrote, except for the things in Latin. Melanie Jane minored in Latin at UI, but I spent my time trying to think in English, French, and German, at the same time. And my native language is Southern.

Great Garden Poems, Part Five–The Sick Rose, by William Blake

Back to Blake’s garden again, where he and Catherine liked to hang out naked. I swear that I am fully clothed, as this one sounds like a really bad trip.

The Sick Rose

BY WILLIAM BLAKE

O Rose thou art sick. 
The invisible worm, 
That flies in the night 
In the howling storm: 

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

I always hate it when those invisible worms show up. The only thing worse are invisible politicians.

Great Garden Poems, Part Four–The Garden of Love, by William Blake

Illuminated Manuscript

William Blake loved his small garden in London. In fact, he loved it so much, that when one of his friends visited, he found Blake and Blake’s wife Catherine out in the garden, reciting poetry to each other–buck naked. They were reciting Paradise Lost, with Blake as Adam and Catherine as Eve. They must have been method actors as well.

At any rate, here’s a twelve line version of Paradise Lost.

The Garden of Love

BY WILLIAM BLAKE

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not. writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore. 

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

Blake is also considered by many to be the best English graphic artist, and I would name him as the GOAT English poet. His circle of London radicals included his close friend Thomas Paine, who was also a friend of Mr. Jefferson, and Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote the revolutionary Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Blake did the illustrations for her earlier book of children’s stories.

This poem is what Russian Formalist critics called condensed language, as it can be unfolded almost forever. And it may well be.

Great Garden Poems, Part Three–The Mower against Gardens, by Andrew Marvell

This poem by Marvell is not as famous as the one about the “vegetable love” he had for his coy mistress, but it puts formal gardens in their place. That would be last in line.

The Mower against Gardens

BY ANDREW MARVELL

Luxurious man, to bring his vice in use,
Did after him the world seduce,
And from the fields the flowers and plants allure,
Where nature was most plain and pure.
He first enclosed within the gardens square
A dead and standing pool of air,
And a more luscious earth for them did knead,
Which stupified them while it fed.
The pink grew then as double as his mind;
The nutriment did change the kind.
With strange perfumes he did the roses taint,
And flowers themselves were taught to paint.
The tulip, white, did for complexion seek,
And learned to interline its cheek:
Its onion root they then so high did hold,
That one was for a meadow sold.
Another world was searched, through oceans new,
To find the Marvel of Peru.
And yet these rarities might be allowed
To man, that sovereign thing and proud,
Had he not dealt between the bark and tree,
Forbidden mixtures there to see.
No plant now knew the stock from which it came;
He grafts upon the wild the tame:
That th’ uncertain and adulterate fruit
Might put the palate in dispute.
His green seraglio has its eunuchs too,
Lest any tyrant him outdo.
And in the cherry he does nature vex,
To procreate without a sex.
’Tis all enforced, the fountain and the grot,
While the sweet fields do lie forgot:
Where willing nature does to all dispense
A wild and fragrant innocence:
And fauns and fairies do the meadows till,
More by their presence than their skill.
Their statues, polished by some ancient hand,
May to adorn the gardens stand:
But howsoe’er the figures do excel,
The gods themselves with us do dwell.

Now that is how you end a poem.

Great Garden Poems, Part Two–This Compost, By Walt Whitman

I have gardening poems lined up like people trying to get a Covid vaccine, or folks trying to vote in Georgia. Here’s a masterpiece by Walter Whitman, from NY.

This Compost

Walt Whitman – 1819-1892

1

Something startles me where I thought I was safest,
I withdraw from the still woods I loved,
I will not go now on the pastures to walk,
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea,
I will not touch my flesh to the earth as to other flesh to renew me.

O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
How can you be alive you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?

Where have you disposed of their carcasses?
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations?
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day, or perhaps I am deceiv’d,
I will run a furrow with my plough, I will press my spade through the sod and turn it up underneath,
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.

2

Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person—yet behold!
The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noiselessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings while the she-birds sit on their nests,
The young of poultry break through the hatch’d eggs,
The new-born of animals appear, the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato’s dark green leaves,
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk, the lilacs bloom in the dooryards,
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.

What chemistry!
That the winds are really not infectious,
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea which is so amorous after me,
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues,
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that have deposited themselves in it,
That all is clean forever and forever,
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good,
That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy,
That the fruits of the apple-orchard and the orange-orchard, that melons, grapes, peaches, plums, will
   none of them poison me,
That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.

Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.

Now that is a recycling poem. Walt, the GOAT? He gets my vote, though I call a tie between him and Miss Emily Dickinson.

Great Garden Poems, Part One–Down By the Salley Gardens, by William Butler Yeats

A combo/poem song, by the great Irish poet. Enjoy.

Down by the Salley Gardens

Down by the salley gardens
   my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens
   with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy,
   as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish,
   with her would not agree.

In a field by the river
   my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder
   she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy,
   as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish,
   and now am full of tears.

No “Rough Beasts” “Slouching toward Bethlehem” in this one, Yeats fans. Just a great song. A superb recording of this song was made by the Irish family group Clannad. You’ll love their lead singer, whose sister happened to be named Enya.