Alexander Pope and the eighteenth-century garden

The Citadelpark, Ghent’s most well-known public garden, is a perfect combination of ‘natural’ and cultural elements. On a stroll through, you can find statues, Roman-inspired buildings, columns, and a kiosk, but also waterfalls, a lake, trees, ancient ruins and a grotto. The latter may seem natural, but are in fact carefully designed, artificially made, with a watchful eye for detail and variety. The park is a great nineteenth century example of the popular English garden that has its origins in the eighteenth century. However, where the Citadelpark today mostly provides a pleasurable stroll, the gardens in the eighteenth century were much more than that.

Citadelpark, Ghent (youropi.com)

The eighteenth-century garden

At that time, Great Britain was already one of the world’s most influential powers. Most of its revenue came from the colonies with materials such as mining resources, cotton and gold. In the eighteenth century, the British aristocracy started to invest in trading, and consequently gained more money. With these profits they felt an urge to rebuild their estates. To reflect Britain’s new role as a powerful empire, they looked back to ancient Rome and Greece, therefore implying that Britain was the new Rome (Beulens and Claes, 2012). The English garden became true landscapes, with breathtaking open vistas with triumphal arches and winding roads with pleasant shades and small rivers.

The first to successfully mix the Roman style with the contemporary tastes was Andrea Palladio, an Italian architect. He based his work on the Vitruvian principle that architecture should be solid, useful and beautiful. His design is characterized by classical elements such as frontons, columns, symmetry, and friezes, with emphasis on simplicity and geometrical patterns. This type of architecture became known as the Palladian style and was dominant in Europe for the next two centuries. Inigo Jones was the pioneer in England to use Palladio’s design in his architecture and stage designs. The same principles were used to rebuild several cities such as Edinburgh and the City of London (designed by Christopher Wren when the City burned down in 1666).

Villa Foscari La Malcontenta, design by Andrea Palladio (wikipedia.org)

Stowe Garden, Vista (merve-references.blogspot.be)

Stowe Garden, Palladian Bridge (merve-references.blogspot.be)

Harewood House, Garden Terrace, Leeds (guardian.co.uk)

When the British aristocracy started to redesign their estates, they were also inspired by the Palladian style.  Many of them were friends of Alexander Pope, who was not only a poet but also a source of inspiration for landscape designers, being a fervent gardener himself.  Pope, being a Catholic, was not allowed to own property in London, so he bought an estate, Twickenham, just outside the city along the river Thames. His garden was famous and greatly admired. Many people asked him for advice and wanted to contribute to his garden by sending in stones, fossils and minerals from all over Britain. After his death, these things were often stolen by visitors and were kept as souvenirs. Hence, not much of the actual splendour of the garden remains; the only thing left is the Grotto, which is also a pale image of what it used to be.

Pope’s Grotto (thelondonphile.com)

Pope’s opinion on gardening

Pope is the perfect representative of Augustan poetry, and he uses the same principles when it comes to landscape gardening. The Augustan style takes its inspiration from ancient Rome and Greece, emphasizing elegance, harmony, balance, formal strictness, simplicity and being capable of using Sense (thinking rationally and keeping your emotions under control) (Beulens and Claes, 2012). In his poem Epistle to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, he explains these principles to describe what a perfect garden should be like. He illustrates this by contrasting it with a bad example: the garden of Timon.

“At Timon’s Villa let us pass a day,
Where all cry out, ‘What sums are thrown away!’
So proud, so grand, of that stupendous air,
Soft and Agreeable come never there.” (l. 99-102)

There are three main things that bother Pope about his garden. First of all, a garden should be balanced, which means that people should treat a garden like a “modest fair, nor over-dress, nor leave her wholly bare” (l. 51-52). This means that there should be an equal amount of the ‘natural’ and the cultural. However, the natural is mostly artificial since it is manipulated to make it seem as if it was not man-made. A good designer respects the materials he is working with, and his goal is to improve what is already there. Secondly, a garden needs variety; behind every corner you should find something new that keeps you stimulated. Too much of the same can overwhelm or  bore you:

“On ev’ry side you look, behold the Wall!
No pleasing Intricacies intervene,
No artful wilderness to perplex the scene;
Grove nods at grove, each Alley has a brother,
And half the platform just reflects the other.” (l. 114-118)

Thirdly, a walk through the garden should be a pleasant experience, something which Timon did not achieve, due to a lack of variety. There are, for example, too many slopes, too few places to rest, too little shade, too many open vistas, and too many Roman ornaments:

“The suff’ring eye inverted Nature sees,
Trees cut to Statues, Statues thick as trees,
With here a Fountain, never to be play’d,
And there a Summer-house, that knows no shade.” (l. 119-122)

In short, Timon failed to respect the original natural scenery. His garden is dominated by cultural objects, and too many of the same patterns and decorations. In all of this, he has forgotten to include the natural, which results in a pompous and ostentatious impression.

Function of the garden

As mentioned in the introduction, the garden in the 18th century was aesthetic, but also functional. A walk in a garden was more than just a walk; it was a true experience. Visitors actively participated in the garden, smelling, touching, hearing and watching the scenery change as they walked along the paths. People read poetry to each other, music was played, and fruits or vegetables were cultivated (Bell 1990).

In Windsor Forest, Pope describes another important aspect of garden design. The garden reflects the abilities of its owner; if it is well-proportioned, it means that the owner is capable of Sense. This person knows how to take the golden middle-path: he is rational and balanced in his designs. Windsor Forest is a royal estate and therefore the king or queen should be as balanced and reasonable as his garden. A good land owner makes a good governor.

The poem celebrates the beauty of Windsor Forest, which is a reflection of the golden reign of Queen Anne. With each new king or queen, the garden changed according to his or her political abilities. In times of political disturbance, the garden was imbalanced and chaotic. Queen Anne’s reign, however, was peaceful, balanced, moderate and prosperous.

“Rich Industry sits smiling on the plains,
and Peace and Plenty tell a STUART Reigns. “ (l. 41-42)

Because Queen Anne is moderate and balanced, Windsor Forest has all the qualities of the perfect garden as Pope describes it. Moderation is key to running things the right way, not only in the garden but also in the nation.

“Here earth and water seem to strive again,
Not chaos like together crushed and bruised,
But as the world, harmoniously confused:
Where order in variety we see,
And where, though all things differ, all agree.” (l. 12-16)

Hunting was an important activity in Windsor Forest, which was exclusively practiced by the royal family. This might be interpreted as a reflection of British colonialism, as Pope cautiously suggests in lines 105-110:

“Thus (if small things we may with great compare)
When Albion sends her eager sons to war,
Some thoughtless town, with ease and plenty blessed,
Near, and more near, the closing lines invest;
Sudden they seize th’amazed, defenseless prize
And high in air Britannia’s standard flies” (l. 105-110)

Colonialism was associated with bringing civilization and improvement to the world. Being able to improve your garden is transferred to improving an entire country. However, the colonizer is associated with a hunter here, and there is a certain aspect of violence in Pope’s description of the hunt. Pope may have questioned colonial violence, but we cannot be completely sure of this.

“See! From the brake the whirring pheasant springs,
And mounts exulting on triumphant wings;
Short is his joy! He feels the fiery wound,
Flutters in blood, and panting beats the ground.” (l. 111-114)

In this quote, it does seem like Pope makes a strong association between the native Americans, the victims of the British colonization, and the pheasant, the victim of the hunt, by mentioning the colourful feathers and even moving to the metallic colour of gold, which was mined in Peru for example.

“Ah! What avail his glossy, varying dyes,
His purple crest, and scarlet-circled eyes,
The vivid green his shining plumes unfold;
His painted wings, and breast that flames with gold?” (l. 115-118)

However, this could also mean that he actually approves of the colonization. The native Americans have a lot of luxurious things, but do not seem to make use of them. According to Pope, a good land owner makes full use of the land’s resources.

In short, the poem describes how a good monarch should try to improve his or her nation, like he or she improves his garden. Queen Anne is a good land owner and therefore a good ruler. However, the hunting extract does raise some interesting questions about Pope’s opinion on colonialism.

Conclusion

We can conclude that, in the eighteenth century, gardening involved much more than just the aesthetic aspect, since the structure of the garden was interpreted as a direct reflection of the owner’s morality. On a larger scale, however, the new garden-structures represented the politics of that time. The renewed balance and harmony between nature and culture in the garden illustrated the restored peace and the glorious reign of Queen Anne after a long period of war and chaos. Alexander Pope was one of the leading figures to express this renewed peace and harmony, not only through his poems, but also literally through the structure of his garden and his ideas about garden landscaping.

Sources

Bell, Susan Groag. “Women Create Gardens in Male Landscapes: A Revisionist Approach to Eighteenth-Century English Garden History.” Feminist Studies 16.3 (1990): 471-491. Print.

Buelens, Gert and Claes, Koenraad. English Literature II Historical Survey: more recent period. Gent:  Academia Press, 2012. Print.

Citadelpark, Gent. Youropi. Web. 8 November 2012 (http://www.youropi.com/nl/gent/activiteiten/citadelpark-8764)

Harewood House, Garden Terrace, Leeds. The Guardian. Web. 8 November 2012. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/sep/11/landscape-gardens-georgian-british-architecture)

Palladian Bridge. Grafting Landscapes / Inspirations: Stowe Garden. Web. 8 November 2012. (http://merve-references.blogspot.be/2010/01/stowe-garden.html)

Palladio, Andrea. Villa Foscari La Malcontenta. Wikipedia. Web. 11 November 2012. (http://www.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:VillaFoscari_2007_07_10_02.jpg#file)

Pope, Alexander. “Epistle IV to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington. Argument of the Use of Riches.” 1731.

Pope, Alexander. “Windsor Forest.” 1713.

Pope’s Grotto. Thelondonphile. Web. 8 November 2012. (http://thelondonphile.com/2012/06/27/twickenhams-grottoes/)

Stowe House. Grafting Landscapes / Inspirations: Stowe Garden. Web. 8 November 2012. (http://merve-references.blogspot.be/2010/01/stowe-garden.html)

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5 thoughts on “Alexander Pope and the eighteenth-century garden

  1. Very enlightening and interesting indeed. Is it known from which poem comes the extract which is to be seen on the wall in Heywood garden, Ballinakill, Ireland ? I love it. I understand it is by Alexander Pope.

    • Hello Eithne, sorry for taking a while to reply; do you happen to know a line or three from that inscription? I cannot find any references to it right now beyond the mention that the inscription is indeed from Pope’s work.

  2. I would like to site this post in a paper I’m writing and I’m having trouble finding the authors name. Can I please have information to site this? It’s very pertinate to my paper but I don’t want to use it unless I can properly site it.

    • Hi Melissa, thanks for your inquiry and for your interest in the blog. The blog, at least as it stands right now, was co-written by students in an MA seminar at Ghent University a few years ago; I think it would make the most sense to cite it as a stand-alone article without authors . . . depends a bit on which citation style you are using, but it could look something like: “Alexander Pope and the Eighteenth-Century Garden,” Eighteenth-Century Media. Nov. 11, 2012. Web. [access date].
      Hope this helps!

  3. Pingback: Garden thoughts of Alexander Pope | e a m harris

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