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23 March 2022

From the NS archive: Shakespeare’s garden

26 May 1923: With what relish Shakespeare recites his catalogue of flowers!

By Ernest Barker

A “Shakespeare garden”, a style that became popular in the early 20th century, can refer to one of a number of things: in New York’s Central Park, planted in 1916, you’ll find all the different flora mentioned in Shakespeare’s work. Others, like the Folger Shakespeare Library planted in 1989, are designed according to the formal fashions of the Bard’s lifetime. Another example, in Cleveland, Ohio, also planted in 1916, is a fantasy imagining of Shakespeare’s own garden. The playwright’s original garden at his home in Stratford-upon-Avon was restored in 1920 and aimed to accurately recreate how he would have enjoyed it. In this “New Statesman” article from 1923, the political scientist Ernest Barker scrutinises Shakespeare’s gardening skills. Taking references from across his body of work, Barker speculates on Shakespeare’s botanical choices, as well as the horticultural habits of other great writers including Milton, Tennyson and Wordsworth.


There is a garden, if I remember rightly, behind Shakespeare’s house at Stratford, which, about this time, is beginning to flower with all the flowers which its long-dead master knew and recited in verses. Whether “chimney-sweepers” are there no, I cannot tell (probably they intrude in high midsummer), but there is a goodly company of rarer and more splendid things:

Roses, their sharp spines being gone,
Not royal in their smells alone,
But in their hue.
Maiden pinks, of odour faint,
Daisies smell-less, yet most quaint,
And sweet thyme true.
Primrose, first-born child of Ver,
Merry spring’s sweet harbinger,
And hare-bells dim.
Oxlips, in their cradles growing,
Marigold, on death-beds blowing,
Lark’s heels trim.
All dear Nature’s children sweet…

But I wonder if Shakespeare really wrote these lines. There are times when I feel inclined to lay a ducat on it. And yet Shelley told his wife, “I do not believe he wrote a word of it.” Nor am I sure of the chronology which places roses and primroses together on the same day of the same month. Perdita is a more expert chronologist:

Sir, the year growing ancient,
Not yet on summer’s death, not on the birth
Of trembling winter, the fairest flowers o’ the season
Are our carnations and streak’d gillyvors.

To these she adds, with the same exactitude,

Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram:
The marigold, that goes to bed with the sun
And with him rises weeping: these are flowers
Of middle summer –

And all these she would give to men of middle age, but to youth the flowers of the year’s youth – daffodils that the winds of March; violets dim; pale primroses; bold oxlips; lilies of all kinds. What a gardener Shakespeare must have been; and with what relish he recites his catalogue of flowers! How they all live, not through any fantasy about the “language” they speak, such as even Tennyson condescended upon in Maud, but through a royal marriage of each of its inevitable phrase, which brings it ever afterwards to the eye of imagination in a sort of transfiguration. I wonder which of them he liked best. Daffodils certainly: he can join hands with Wordsworth to watch them dancing, and taking the winds like a gallant yacht. Primroses, too – pale primroses:

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That die unmarried, ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus in his strength,

Here again he touches Wordsworth – or at any rate he satisfies Wordsworth:

A primrose by the river’s brim,
A yellow primrose was to him,
And it was something more.

But I put violets first:

Sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes,
Or Cytherea’s breath.

There is a line in Hamlet about the violet (I wish Ophelia had spoken it instead of Laertes):

The perfume and suppliance of a minute.

I used to think that suppliance meant supplication, and though I now know better, I can never lose the notion of supplication when I see a violet. That is why I put it first. But this is a very illogical reason. I have another, which is perhaps a little better. Ophelia in her madness is prodigal of flowers – rosemary for remembrance; pansies for thoughts (this is the language of flowers, but it only comes from a jangled brain); fennel and columbines; rue and daisies. But she cannot give violets: “they withered all when my father died.”

I fancy Shakespeare must have been much troubled by blights and bad weather, like all who grow flowers:

The canker galls the infants of the spring,
Too oft before their buttons be disclosed,
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth
Contagious blastments are most imminent.

So Viola,

Let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek.

Shakespeare was perhaps troubled, too, by incompetent gardeners:

Who spread the compost on the weeds
To make them ranker.

Whether he had a vegetable garden I cannot be sure; but it is possible that Raleigh had egged him on to grow potatoes. I feel sure, however, that he had a bowling green; that he played many a game upon it, with indifferent skill; and that “rubs” and “biases” and “smooth runs” made riot in his thoughts, as “puts” and “approaches” trouble many minds today. But I like best the little sloping bank in Shakespeare’s garden (perhaps it was at the end of the bowling green, shutting it off from the vegetable garden in which Raleigh’s potatoes grew) – a little sloping bank with herbs (how fond he was of herbs), covered by a pergola:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite overcanopied with lush woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.

How much less Milton knew about flowers. He too has his catalogue of flowers, at the end of Lycidas, where, in the manner of the lyric with which we began, he strews all the season’s flowers, somewhat pell-mell, upon the laureate hearse of his dead friend:

The rathe primrose that forsaken dies,
The tufted crow-toe, and pale jessamine,
The white pink, and the pansy freak’d with jet,
The glowing violet,
The musk-rose, and the well-attired woodbine,
With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head.

This is poetic, but it is also academic. It almost looks as if Milton had gone to the little sloping bank, and pilfered many of the flowers; for musk-rose, woodbine, cowslip and violet are common to both passages, and if eglantine (which is sweet-briar) has turned itself into jessamine, this is perhaps because Milton did not know what he was pilfering. He certainly did not know a violet when he saw it; or he would never have called the “violet dim,” the subtle and hidden “perfume of a minute,” by the epithet “glowing,” as if it were a sun-flower. I doubt if Milton really cared about gardening. The chief thing he noticed about gardens was that they meant a great deal of work. (This is quite true, but does it matter?) Think of the splendour of the flowers of Paradise which he might have sung. And then think of his actual song (it is just like Milton to put it in the mouth of Eve):

Adam, well may we labour still to dress
This garden, still to tend plant, herb, and flower,
Our pleasant task enjoined; but, till more hands
Aid us, the work under our labour grows,
Luxurious by restraints; what we by day
Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind,
One night or two with wanton growth derides,
Tending to wild.

But the thought occurs (and it is a chastening thought) that it was a blind man who wrote of Paradise. How could he people it with flowers, or know that God walked in it in a visible Beauty?

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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