An excerpt from
What Gardens Mean
by Stephanie Ross

Published by the University of Chicago Press

Gardens and Poems

In what follows, I shall describe and discuss four gardens from the first half of the eighteenth century: Twickenham, Stowe, Stourhead, and West Wycombe. In each case I shall argue that, in important ways, these gardens function like poems.


Alexander Pope was the preeminent poet of Augustan England; he also wrote about gardens, advised his friends on the disposition of their estates, and created his own garden at his estate at Twickenham, beginning in 1719. He is an especially appropriate figure to discuss in connection with the comparison between gardening and poetry because he helped to formulate the doctrines of both disciplines. Yet Pope was also an amateur painter, and so his writings and his garden are relevant as well to the second of Walpole's two comparisons.

Pope's garden at Twickenham has an interesting commercial connection to poetry. The poet acquired his estate with profits derived from his successful subscription translation of Homer's Iliad. He leased a small villa on the Thames and eventually cultivated a surrounding five-acre plot. The villa was about fifteen miles from London, and the area was decidedly rural in feeling. In creating a garden there, Pope was clearly and self-consciously echoing themes and forms from his poetry.

Though Pope wrote poems of many kinds throughout his career, all his writings are distinguished by their ties to the classical world. Never schooled in a systematic manner, Pope acquired his learning first at the hands of a Catholic tutor, and then through a self-guided course of reading. He told his friend Joseph Spence that during his "great reading years" he read "all the best critics, almost all the English, French and Latin poets of any name, the minor poets, Homer and some of the greater Greek poets in the original, and Tasso and Ariosto in translations." During this time Pope also exercised himself with projects of translation and imitation. He thus emerged familiar with the great authors of antiquity and conversant with a variety of genres. One critic lists the many kinds of poetry Pope attempted as follows: the mock epic, the georgic, the pastoral, the dream vision, the didactic, the heroic epistle, the elegy, the familiar epistle, the formal verse satire, the moral epistle, the prologue, the epilogue, the ode, the epigram, and the epitaph.

Many writers see parallels between Pope's poetry and his gardening. Just as Pope's poems treat classical themes, utilize classical forms, and imitate classical exemplars, so too his garden combines themes from classical poetry and forms from classical architecture with the learned allusiveness of the arts of its day. Consider the features of Pope's estate. His three-story house was set alongside the Thames, a grassy lawn running down to the river. Behind the house, the main road to London separated the house from the garden. An underground tunnel--Pope's grotto--ran beneath the road and led to the garden, which occupied a rectangular plot about twice the width of the front lawn. Maynard Mack, in his study The Garden and the City, lists the garden's features as follows: "a grotto, three mounts (one of these quite large), some quincunxes, groves, a wilderness, an orangery, a vineyard, a kitchen garden, a bowling green, a shell temple, and an obelisk." He also calls attention to the poet's "striking use of openings, walks, and vistas, each terminating on a point of rest, supplied by urn or statue."

Pope's Twickenham
Alexander Pope's garden at Twickenham, plan by John Searle. Reproduced by permission of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Stylistically, Pope's garden combines both forward- and backward-looking features. The entire ensemble was arranged axially, though not in line with the underground passage leading from the Thames. Upon emerging from this passage (i.e., the "grotto,") the visitor passed the shell temple and a large mount, traversed first a wide alley flanked by groves and then a circular bowling green, walked between two smaller mounts, and finally approached the obelisk to the memory of the poet's mother, which Mack describes as the "visual and emotional climax" of the garden. The linearity of the garden was countered by its bowers, hills, and thickets, as well as by the surrounding "wildernesses"--quincuncial groves penetrated by serpentine paths. Urns were arrayed in various parts of the garden, and over the grotto entrance was inscribed a line from Horace, "Secretum iter, et fallentis semita vitae," translated by Spence as "A hid Recess, where Life's revolving Day,/ In sweet Delusion gently steals away."

Two other features of Pope's garden must be described before we can consider its likeness to a poem. The first is Pope's grotto--more technically, a cryptoporticus, or subterranean portico. It consisted of several chambers through which trickled a small stream. The walls and ceilings were decorated with a collection of rocks, spars, flints, and shells, which Pope had gathered on his travels or been given by friends. The poet had also attached small pieces of mirror to the pebbled surfaces, and so his grotto multiplied both sounds and sights, the murmur and splash of the stream and the flash of flames and lamps. From the grotto, a view extended in two directions. Visitors glancing up into the garden could see the shell temple, while turning the other way, they could glimpse boats sailing on the Thames. In a letter to Martha Blunt, Pope explicitly mentions how the grotto functioned like a camera obscura once its doors were shut: "on the Walls . . . the River, Hills, Woods, and Boats, are forming a moving Picture in their visible Radiations."

Grottos are associated with creativity and contemplation. Inhabited by nymphs, oracles, divinities, and muses, the grottos described in classical literature are loci of poetic inspiration. Maynard Mack links Pope's grotto to caves described by Homer and Ovid; he also situates Pope's move to Twickenham and his creation there of garden and grotto against the tradition of retirement stemming from Virgil's Georgics.

Though Pope's entire garden is allusive, recalling both literature and ideals from the classical past, one section of his estate bore an even stronger likeness to a poem. This was a plan for a series of monuments to adorn the riverfront. The sculptural ensemble, as described by Pope's friend Joseph Spence, combined a swan flying into the river, two reclining river gods holding inscribed urns, and busts of Homer, Virgil, Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero. Explaining the significance of this ensemble, Mack states that it is "a more elaborate work of the associative instinct than at first appears. Like some of the allusions in Pope's verse, it spreads in circles of analogy that one hardly knows how to follow." One of the inscriptions is from Politian's Ambra. It reads: "Here softly flows the Meles, and silent in its deep grottos listens to its singing swans." As Mack explains, this alludes to the poetic enterprise (the singing swans), as well as to the preeminent poet associated with the river Meles, namely, Homer. The second inscription--"Where the Mincius wanders with great windings"--is drawn from a passage in Virgil's Georgics where the poet writes of taking home spoils and trophies from conquered Greece to his Italian home. In using this quotation, Pope alludes to his own career. He too has brought home artistic "spoils," namely, the poetry and learning of the ancient world which, through his imitations and translations, he has secured for Augustan England. Hunt writes "This elaborate contrivance, properly decyphered, would lead the spectator to recall the birth of Homer from Politian and the poetic conquest of Greece from Virgil and so to identify Pope's own role in rededicating this classical literary heritage to his own age."

To "read" Pope's garden ensemble requires the very same skills as reading a poem. The viewer must recognize the quotations, recall the context from which they are drawn, and realize their relevance to Pope's situation. Considerable background knowledge is required, not only about Ambra and the Georgics but also about conventions in the various arts--for example, the fact that in classical times rivers were often personified by reclining figures pouring forth water from urns. Viewers must also understand that the meaning to be extracted from the riverside ensemble is cumulative--that is, that the busts of Homer and Virgil reinforce and complement the meaning to be teased out of the statues and inscriptions. How such meaning is conveyed by ensembles of the sort just described is a problem for art in general, not one newly raised by gardens and by the claim that gardens must be read. Paintings and poems are allusive in similar ways--thus the doctrine of the sister arts--and the example of Twickenham shows that gardens can function in just the same manner.

I said earlier that Pope's garden combined innovative and traditional elements. If the sculptural ensemble placed on the banks of the Thames must be unpacked much like Pope's denser poems, the meaning of Pope's grotto can be viewed differently. The shells and minerals affixed to the ceiling and walls evoke personal rather than emblematic associations, while the implicit connection between the flowing spring and the poet's (and viewer's) mind anticipates later romantic conceptions of artistic creativity. John Dixon Hunt argues that the varied acquatic effects in Pope's grotto--pools, rills, torrents, fountains--"provide a machinery of meditation, various landscapes where the expressive character of water determines mental activity."


I have been arguing that portions of Pope's small landscape at Twickenham give striking support to Walpole's claim that poetry and gardening are sister arts. One of the most famous of all eighteenth-century gardens, Richard Temple, Lord Cobham's estate at Stowe, is another that is frequently cited in support of Walpole's claim. Like Pope's garden, Stowe cannot be easily forced into a single stylistic category. A succession of gardeners worked there in the course of the century, among them Charles Bridgeman, Richard Kent, and Capability Brown, and different parts of the garden exhibit quite different styles. I would like to start, however, by briefly recounting the features to be found in the Elysian Fields, an area of the garden designed by William Kent in the 1730s.

The Elysian Fields occupies a wooded glade fed by a small stream known as the River Styx. Three structures are crucial to the overall meaning of this area: The Temple of Ancient Virtue, the Temple of Modern Virtue, and the Temple of British Worthies. The first of these is a round classical building modeled after the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli. The Ionic structure houses statues of Socrates, Homer, Lycurgus, and Epaminondas--the most famous philosopher, poet, lawmaker, and soldier, respectively, of the classical world. Next to this was the Temple of Modern Virtue, which no longer stands. It was built in the Gothic style and was, moreover, built as a ruin. Downhill and across from these stands the Temple of British Worthies, a semicircular building with sixteen niches, each containing the bust of a British notable. Included are philosophers, poets, scientists, and statesmen. Architecture carries much of the meaning in Stowe's comparison of ancient and modern virtue. The juxtaposition of Gothic and classical styles creates the visual pun between a ruined temple and ruined virtue. But the very topography of the garden contributes to the meaning as well, for the British worthies are placed downhill, looking up to their ancient predecessors.

The three temples of the Elysian Fields make a moral statement, but Kent and Cobham added further layers of subtlety to give the ensemble political and religious dimensions as well. John Dixon Hunt declares the Temple of British Worthies to be an "ideological building." He states that "the message of these figures is anti-Stuart, anti-Catholic, pro-British." Lord Cobham had been dismissed from Queen Anne's army and was among those Whigs who came to oppose Sir Robert Walpole's ministry. The choice of figures for the temple--in particular, the omission of Queen Anne--underscores this point. In addition, a quotation from Virgil is presented with a crucial line omitted. Hunt explains: "This particular religious hostility is reinforced by a quotation from the sixth book of the Aeneid . . . in which a line praising priesthood is omitted. . . . Such is the learned subtlety of [this building] that we must not only identify our Virgil but recognize how and why it is incomplete."

Note that the Elysian Fields are as demanding intellectually as the section of Pope's garden described above. Hunt and Willis sum up the challenges this section of the garden presents to its "reader":

The Elysian Fields present a much more ambitious scheme of associations; they require a visitor to compare ancient virtue with its modern counterpart . . . to register the political significance of the British Worthies, which in turn required noticing that a line was missing from a Virgilian quotation, and to appreciate that the Temple of Ancient Virtue called to mind the Roman Temple of Vesta . . . at Tivoli, and the Temple of British Worthies some other modern Italian examples.

While writers discussing the poetic powers of eighteenth-century gardens tend to fixate on the small sector of Stowe containing these three temples with their political and religious connotations, other iconographical programs could be found in other parts of the garden. Ronald Paulson writes that the rotondo was the focal point of the garden, since it could be seen from all parts of the estate. This structure originally held a gilded statue of Venus; later this was replaced by a statue of Bacchus. Since the grounds also boasted a Temple of Venus (which, the current Stowe guidebook reports, contained "indelicate murals") and a Temple of Bacchus, Paulson argues that the overall theme of the garden was love in all its varieties. He states, "The temples thus tell of wives running away from their jealous husbands to consort with satyrs, Dido seducing Aeneas, and even a saint who finds it hard to resist sexual temptation in his grotto."

One further argument that is supported by the gardens at Stowe is John Dixon Hunt's claim that eighteenth-century English gardens progressed from the emblematic to the expressive. In his book Observations on Modern Gardening (1770), published some fifty years after Pope began laying out his Twickenham estate and some thirty-five years after Bridgeman and Kent commenced the creation of Stowe's Elysian fields, Thomas Whately rails against the demands of emblematic gardens. He writes:

Statues, inscriptions, and even paintings, history and mythology, and a variety of devices have been introduced [into gardens]. . . . All these devices are rather emblematical than expressive; they may be ingenious contrivances, and recall absent ideas to the recollection; but they make no immediate impression, for they must be examined, compared, perhaps explained, before the whole design of them is well understood; and though an allusion to a favourite or well-known subject of history, of poetry, or of tradition, may now and then animate or dignify a scene, yet as the subject does not naturally belong to a garden, the allusion should not be principle; it should seem to have been suggested by the scene: a transitory image, which irrestibly occurred; not sought for, not laboured; and have the force of a metaphor, free from the detail of an allegory."

A section of Stowe which answers to this new antiemblematic taste is the Grecian Valley, the last of the areas created during Lord Cobham's lifetime. The Grecian Valley was a rolling green expanse surrounded by thick woods but lacking the denotative apparatus--temples, statues, inscriptions, and so on--so common elsewhere at Stowe.

Hunt suggests that the emblematic garden from the first half of the eighteenth century went out of favor in part because garden owners and designers wanted to create landscapes which would answer to the new Lockean theory of the mind, that is, landscapes that would support and promote a train of private associations, answer to viewers' changing moods. He says of Stowe's Grecian Valley: "The subtle varieties of the valley afford a landscape that seems to answer our moods, that allows a unique and individual response by each visitor to its unobtrusive character. It expresses us and our changing moods, or such is the illusion that it encourages."

I am not convinced that designers consciously sought to make gardens compatible with so-called Lockean epistemology; it is not clear what might establish such a claim. It is beyond question, however, that the passage from Whately expresses impatience with the demands emblematic gardens made upon their viewers. It is also the case that there was a convergence in the middle of the eighteenth century. Epistemologists, moralists, scientists, and aestheticians were all of them focusing in one way or another on individuals' responses to their surroundings. I cannot say why such an interest should have arisen at this moment, though it may have involved a reaction against authoritarian and rationalist strains in both politics and philosophy.

That Stowe was the most famous English eighteenth-century garden is evidenced by the flurry of guidebooks which were published to help visitors appreciate (read) it. Guidebooks were offered by the Buckingham bookseller Seeley beginning in 1744, and were revised and reissued for the next one hundred years. Other descriptions and guides include Gilbert West's Stowe: The Gardens of the Right Honourable Richard Viscount Cobham (1732), William Gilpin's anonymous A Dialogue on the Gardens at Stow (1748), and George Bickham's The Beauties of Stowe (1750). The very fact that these guides were so popular says something about the way eighteenth-century viewers construed the task of visiting a garden: they sought help, a book or lexicon which would unpack the garden's meaning.


I would like to briefly describe two more mid-eighteenth-century gardens which further support the claim that a garden can be like a poem. Stourhead, in Wiltshire, is one of the most beautiful of all landscape gardens. It differs from Stowe in that it was designed by its owner, the banker Henry Hoare, rather than by a troop of hired garden designers. It therefore exhibits more stylistic unity than does Stowe, and it expresses a more personal content. (In this respect, it recalls Pope's estate at Twickenham.)

Stourhead is laid out as a circuit. A path descends from the house and circles a lake, passing by temples, a grotto, a hermitage, a Palladian bridge, a rusticated cottage, a medieval cross, and more. Inscriptions give some clue to the iconographic program, which Kenneth Woodbridge has argued is based on Virgil's Aeneid. The words "Procul, o procul este profani" (Begone, you who are uninitiated! Begone!) are carved over the door of the first temple passed, the Temple of Flora. These words are uttered by the Cumean sibyl as Aeneas is about to descend into the underworld and be told of the founding of Rome. Perfectly paralleling Aeneas's experience, the path descends to a grotto containing statues of a sleeping nymph and a bearded river god. Inscriptions provide a further link to Virgil's epic. A quotation from book 1 over the grotto's entrance refers to a cave where Aeneas took refuge. Paulson points out that the river god alludes to Aeneas's encounter with Father Tiber, who told him "Here is your home assured." Here as at Stowe the very topography of the garden contributes to the iconography, for the steep path out of the grotto marks Aeneas's difficult journey back to the upper regions.

Further layers of meaning enrich the Stourhead circuit. Woodbridge writes that "Stourhead is dedicated to the pagan deities of rivers and springs; and to heroes--Aeneas, Hercules, and King Alfred." A statue of Hercules stood in the Pantheon (which was originally known as the Temple of Hercules), while a crenellated Gothic tower dedicated to King Alfred was placed two miles northwest of the Stourhead House. In his description of Stourhead, Ronald Paulson notes that "The basic elements, besides the long journey through the wilderness, are temples of tillage and harvest, of fame, and of wisdom, in that ascending order." He suggests that the ultimate destination of the circuit around the lake is the Temple of Apollo, which functions as the Temple of Wisdom. Finally, Max F. Schultz, in a fascinating paper "The Circuit Walk of the 18th-Century Landscape Garden and the Pilgrim's Circuitous Progress" points out the multiple Christian and pagan associations which attach to any circuit walk like that at Stourhead. The circular path round a garden inevitably recalls certain archetypes--patterns of ritual repetition and eternal return--which characterize not only Aeneas's journey but also more primitive fertility cycles and later Christian parables of the pilgrim's progress, which in turn model the soul's journey through life. Schultz speculates that "it would have been extraordinary if the religious associations of the circuit walk had not occurred to visitors."

The final gloss added by readers of Stourhead is a personal one. Henry Hoare's garden refers not only to well-known literary and religious figures; it also tells us something about Henry himself. That is, Stourhead is a highly personal poem as well as an allusive one. Again quoting first Paulson, then Woodbridge: "[Henry Hoare] makes his garden almost literally a poem, creating a series of emblems whose statement at its most general is about the course of man's life on earth and ultimately about his choice between a life of duty and a life of retirement and contemplation." "Henry, in his garden, celebrated the founding of Rome, just as he, like Aeneas, was establishing a family in a place."


To end my description of emblematic or poetic gardens on a lighter note, I would like to close with an account of a ribald garden, Sir Francis Dashwood's estate West Wycombe. Sir Francis was a cultivated man, one of the founders of the Society of Dilettanti, a member of parliament for twenty-two years, and chancellor of the exchequer under Lord Bute. He had, however, a darker side. His youthful escapades on the grand tour were notorious. In Russia he masqueraded as the deceased Charles XII of Sweden in order to woo Tsarevna Anne; in Italy he was expelled from the dominions of the church. Upon returning to England, he and a group of fellow rakes founded a club which met in an old Cistercian abbey in Medmenham. The group, known variously as the Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe, the Mad Monks of Medmenham, and, later, the Hell-Fire Club, reputedly engaged in obscene parodies of religious rites and in the deflowering of local virgins. The club's motto was "Love and Friendship," and the Rabelaisian inscription "Fay Ce Qu Voudras" was carved above the abbey door.

When public interest in the group's activities made their meetings at the abbey untenable, Dashwood decided to create a setting at his own home, West Wycombe. A set of caves was dug beneath the parish church, which sits on chalky hills overlooking the house. Some say the caves themselves were designed to mimic the female anatomy. In any case, Dashwood designed other parts of his West Wycombe estate in keeping with his club's endeavors. His was clearly an X-rated garden.

West Wycombe
West Wycomb, the Venus Temple. Photograph by David Conway.

Scholarly studies of this aspect of West Wycombe are hard to come by. But the following features are acknowledged in various popular accounts of the gardens. First, there was a central lake shaped like a swan, possibly intended to recall Leda and her fate. A number of islands dotted the lake. On one of them, reachable only by boat, stood a Temple of Music designed by Nicholas Revett. Another of the garden features in keeping with the overall theme was the temple of Venus, which stood on a belly-like mound. An anatomically shaped Venus chamber was dug into the mound. Dashwood's friend John Wilkes said of the temple that "the entrance to it is the same entrance by which we all come into the world and the door is what some idle wits have called the Door of Life." In Dashwood's time the temple mound was adorned with forty-two erotic statues. Lord Bute, who particularly admired this temple, advised Dashwood to "lay out 500 pounds to erect a Paphian column to stand by the entrance." Finally, in his History of Gardens, Christopher Thacker quotes a volume of Victoria County History to the effect that Dashwood's lake and gardens were "laid out by a curious arrangement of streams, bushes and plantation to represent the female form." Donald Mannix in his book The Hell Fire Club is much more explicit. He tells how two mounds each topped with a circle of red flowering plants were lined up at a certain distance from a triangle of dark shrubbery. Sir Francis reputedly took a local priest up into a nearby tower, asked him "What do you think of my gardens?" then arranged to have three fountains turned on. Two of them spouted a milky white fluid from the top of each red-flowered mound while the third gushed from the area of the shrubbery.

While Lord Cobham's gardens at Stowe generated a spate of guidebooks to help visitors read the gardens, no such industry was spawned by Sir Francis's creations. Arthur Young wrote of the park in 1767 that "The situation is very agreeable on an eminence rising from a most elegant river which meanders through the park and gardens, with the happiest effect," while Brayley and Britton's tour book The Beauties of England and Wales (1801) speaks of "the variety of fascinating scenery, which results from the harmonious intermixture and disposition of its woods and water." The authors add that "The character of the place is animated and beautiful; and the late removal of various insignificant and unmeaning buildings, has restored the appearance of the ground to its genuine simplicity and nature."

As I said at the outset, I have not been able to find scholarly confirmation for the more extravagant claims made about Sir Francis's garden at West Wycombe. William Hannan painted four scenes of the estate during Dashwood's time. William Woolett's engravings of Hannan's landscapes show no traces of recumbant female forms hidden in the undulating lawns. [See Engraving 1 and Engraving 2] (But let me note in passing that there is such a female form in a contemporary garden, the Turfwoman in James Pierce's Pratt Farm in Clinton, Maine.) Nevertheless, rumors about Sir Francis's personal excesses and about the erotic aspects of his garden have persisted from his time on. I take this, in and of itself, to be sufficient confirmation for my claim. The mere fact that people for generations have continued to think that Dashwood created an erotic garden as a site for debauched adventures shows they believe that a garden can have a sexually explicit design or program. Thus even the persistence of ungrounded rumors about the iconography of West Wycombe attests to the rich symbolic powers we willingly attribute to gardens.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 55-70 of What Gardens Mean by Stephanie Ross, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 1998 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of both the author and the University of Chicago Press.

What Gardens Mean
Stephanie Ross
© 1998, 272 pages, 8 color plates, 60 halftones
Cloth $50.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-72822-3
Paper $27.50 ISBN: 978-0-226-72807-0

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