An Oxfordshire Market Gardener

The Diary of Joseph Turrill of Garsington 1863-67

Edited by E. Dawson & S.R. Royal (Alan Sutton, 1993)

Recommended by Martin Stott

Joseph Turrill was a young man working as a market gardener in the Oxfordshire village of Garsington when he kept his diary. As a working-class lad, he experienced the landscape less through the views and more by what he could grow. His detailed observations of the seasons, the weather, the wildlife, and what would sell, as well as the habits and quirks of his neighbours, customers, family and girlfriend, reflect a very different experience of life and locality from contemporary diarists such as Francis Kilvert in Clyro, or earlier natural historians such as Gilbert White in Selborne, let alone his neighbour in Garsington Manor, Lady Ottoline Morrell and the galaxy of literary stars that she entertained there. Whether it is the progress of a row of beans, gathering walnuts for pickling, or gardening by moonlight (’the parish lantern’) after a late shift in his mother’s pub, the diaries shed a fascinating and distinctive light on a much written about locality.

Diary of Joseph Turill

 

Call for Papers: William Cowper, Art and Afterlife

Call for papers from postgraduate students and early-career researchers for a two-day seminar on William Cowper to take place in Olney, Buckinghamshire, from 3–4 September 2021.

Cowper lived in and around Olney from 1768 to 1795, and it was here that he wrote Olney Hymns (1779) with John Newton, Poems (1782), The Task (1785), and translated Homer. The seminar will be centred on Cowper’s career in verse (hymns, poems, and translations), with a particular focus on the formal and stylistic elements of this writing. Among a range of potential subjects, papers may wish to address Cowper’s place in the satirical tradition, the potential for ecocritical and environmental approaches to poems such as ‘Yardley Oak’ and ‘The Cast-away’, or Cowper’s critical heritage from Wordsworth and Coleridge to Empson and Davie.

Proposals should be in the form of 150-word abstracts for fifteen- to twenty-minute papers. Papers will be delivered in a sedentary roundtable format, with fifteen minutes for questions and conversation. No fee will be charged to postgraduates and / or early career researchers who are selected to give a paper, and we will provide them with free accommodation and meals.

Speakers include: Will Bowers (QMUL), Alexandra Harris (Birmingham), Andrew Hodgson (Birmingham), Gregory Leadbetter (Birmingham City), and Fiona Stafford (Oxford).

Email abstracts to w.bowers@qmul.ac.uk and a.hodgson@bham.ac.uk by 5th June 2021.

‘William Cowper’ by George Romney (1792)

Featured image: ‘William Cowper’ by George Romney (1792), National Portrait Gallery

Conference supported by the British Association for Romantic Studies, British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and Queen Mary, University of London

Listen to Alex Harris and Kate McLoughlin talking about Cowper’s poetry here.

Collected Poems, 1956-2001

Thomas Kinsella (Wake Forest University Press, 2006)

Recommended by Trish Halligan

Thomas Kinsella (born 1928, Inchicore, Dublin) is a poet of the random and of restoration: ‘order’ is one of his most-used words, though he uses it in the sense of reconciliation rather than of restriction.

Kinsella came from a family of stone cutters and this inheritance somehow comes across in his writing: he puts shape to the stone but doesn’t always dress it. Similarly, his explorations of nature and his recollections of his native Dublin are neither bucolic nor nostalgic, and even more rarely are they consolatory. Kinsella often savagely satirises contemporary Dublin city planning, especially with reference to Ireland’s frequently catastrophic lack of conservation.

His other great recurring interest is the exploration of the physical similarities and differences across generations of his family. While his thoughts are often rooted in the sensuous and tactile (‘His Father’s Hands’, for example), he frequently describes hands which stroke, twist, clench and work, but which also touch to communicate when words fall short or as a silent assurance of trust.  These poems are vivid fragments: they possess the quality of memories bursting upon the mind, like light cast into a room by a door suddenly thrown open.

Kinsella is not interested in tidiness or pat conclusions: there is rarely a sense of an ending in his work; even his later (much shorter) poems end by creating ripples of thoughts and evoke other times and places.

The Poetics of Space

Gaston Bachelard (1958)

Recommended by Trish Halligan

This book is difficult to categorise but this is where, to me, the joy of it dwells. In describing the domestic spaces that both give us shelter and provide an untrammelled place in which to think and feel, Bachelard explores poetry, philosophy, observation and memory (sometimes simultaneously). He offers reflections on drawers, chests, nests, wardrobes and corners; there is also a seemingly contradictory but completely revelatory chapter on what Bachelard terms ‘intimate immensity’.

I especially love this latter chapter and the one on corners. Somehow I never realised that I most comfortably read, think and work in the shelter of a corner, either a naturally occurring one or one I have managed to construct. Bachelard removes entirely the negative connotation of being “cornered” and in these chapters beautifully aligns the absence of claustrophobic thinking with its opposite of being present in vast exterior spaces: on the sea or in forests. It summons to my mind Woolf’s recognition of the need for the ‘queer amalgamation of dream and reality, the perpetual marriage of granite and rainbow’.

‘Housed everywhere but nowhere shut in’, writes Bachelard, ‘is the motto of the dreamer of dwellings… A daydream of elsewhere should be left open therefore, at all times’. This also puts one in mind of anchoresses or of William Cowper in his beloved alcove at Olney. In both cases their bodies are sheltered by a small space and their external vision is only fixed on one point, yet this provides their internal vision with endless space to explore.

Four Hedges

Clare Leighton (1935; Little Toller, 2010)

Recommended by Martin Stott

Clare Leighton is remembered as one of the finest wood engravers of the twentieth century. Having made her name with The Farmer’s Year (published in 1933), the publication of Four Hedges in 1935 established her as an engraver as well as a writer. Her skill as a chronicler of nature, the seasons, and of place (the half acre in the Buckinghamshire Chilterns that she and her partner, the radical journalist Noel Brailsford, transformed into a garden in the early 1930s) is on full display in this luminous work structured around the twelve months of the year. By observing the seasonal changes in their garden she grew familiar with its wildlife and character, forming a bond that fed her work as an artist. The book is illustrated with over eighty of her wood engravings, each one a microcosm of the landscape that encompasses them. Together, prose and engravings combine to give a sense of an earth that is full of wonder and joy.

 

The Harz Journey

Heinrich Heine (1826)

Recommended by Andrew Hodgson

Der Harzreise is an account of a trip from the German town of Göttingen (‘famous for its sausages and university’) into the Harz mountains. You couldn’t want a more entertaining travel companion than Heine, whose voice is by turns sarcastic and lyrical, sentimental and ironic, curious and bored. Along the way are encounters with grotesque tourists, records of hallucinatory dreams, a descent into a coal mine, poems and songs in celebration of the quiet life, an ascent of the Brocken, and passages of unaffected pleasure in nature. The book ends, in a moment typical of its witty self-awareness, with Heine ‘lost in thought’ on top of a rock in the Ilse Valley, almost tumbling into a ravine under the influence of his own giddy delight in the surroundings.

The Discovery of France

Graham Robb (Picador, 2008)

Recommended by Andrew Hodgson 

Robb offers a magnificent description of France as a massive patchwork of places. The ‘discovery’ is both the author’s uncovering of the intricate jumble of tribes, tongues, and traditions that make up France’s history, and the country’s attempt to forge a unified identity from them. The book is written with an ironic care for the way the spirit of place shapes and finds expression in the everyday existence of its people. One of the most attractive passages involves Robb pausing over the ‘large and luckless’ contingent of ordinary lives strung out among the nation’s gradual incline to modernity, who spent the best part of their years ‘cocooned in idleness’ from the gloom and cold of winter, attempting to make life as uncomplicated as possible.

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

Jan Morris

(Faber, 2002)

Recommended by Andrew Hodgson

Jan Morris’s book on Trieste is a lyrical history of the city. It is a description of Trieste and its past; it is also an attempt to work out what Trieste means to Morris, and to understand how one’s relationship with a place changes through time. It shows how to appreciate a place’s sadness, ‘the allure of lost consequence and fading power’. It’s a great book on place because it doesn’t just tell you about a place, but shows you how to enjoy it. The best place to read it is outside a bar off the Piazza Unità d’Italia, sipping a Campari and soda, gazing out into the Adriatic for a glimpse of the ghost of Browning’s Waring.

Mr Roscoe’s Garden

Jyll Bradley (Liverpool University Press, 2008)

Recommended by Martin Stott

I came to this book as a photographer. But it is much more than a photo book.  Published as part of Liverpool’s Capital of Culture celebration in 2008 it is a book about a place, Mr Roscoe’s garden in Liverpool, that no longer exists. Through words and pictures Bradley recreates the garden, and charts its life and afterlife, from its foundation in 1802 through its time as a public Botanic Garden from the 1840s to its eventual destruction in 1984 when it closed, the victim of a political storm that mirrored the cataclysmic decline of Liverpool itself. Told through the eyes of a skilled photographer, and the words and memories of Liverpool’s gardening community, the ‘garden’ almost defies definition: does its specialness lie in the plants, the gardeners, the sites, or the greatest orchid collection ever amassed in municipal Britain and rediscovered intact despite the vicissitudes of time? Drawing on history, memory, politics and place, it is a book about why we need gardens and what gardens mean.

 

 

Wordsworth’s art of place

In the year of Wordsworth’s 250th birthday, Jessica Fay shows how Wordsworth responded to the craze for picturesque garden ruins and his affirmation of the slower, quieter stories of lives and places that ruins can evoke.

Myles Birket Foster’s frontispiece to William Wordsworth, The Deserted Cottage (1859) engraved by the Brothers Dalziel.

Myles Birket Foster’s frontispiece to William Wordsworth, The Deserted Cottage (1859) engraved by the Brothers Dalziel.

Imagining William and Dorothy Wordsworth out walking in the Lake District might involve thinking of them closely observing their surroundings, commenting on what they notice, talking about local news or Napoleon’s most recent campaign, or reciting poetry. We might imagine them pausing to refresh themselves with cold beef or leftover gooseberry pie that they carried in their pockets. But we might not think of them pausing to take out a tinted Claude Glass.

The fashionable activity of ‘picturesque tourism’, made popular by William Gilpin’s guidebooks of the 1780s and 90s, involved observing natural scenery through a small glass mirror or an imaginative filter. The mild absurdity of this practice of re-tinting and rearranging what was actually visible in a landscape is emphasized by a quip of Jane Austen’s in Northanger Abbey (composed 1798–99), where Henry and Isabella Tilney view ‘the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing’ and proceed to decide its ‘capability of being formed into pictures’ (with a pun on the nickname of fashionable landscape gardener Lancelot “Capability” Brown). The heroine, Catherine Morland, is considered ironically to be without ‘natural taste’ until she’s been instructed in picturesque principles.

Wordsworth intimates his opposition to the picturesque in Book XI of The Prelude (1805), where he describes the habit of looking at nature through the lens of art as ‘a strong infection of the age’. He objected to landscape appreciation in which ‘the eye [is] master of the heart’ and where insufficient attention is paid to ‘the moods | Of nature, and the spirit of place’. Although Gilpin and his followers recognised the importance of felt responses to scenery, picturesque tourism seemed (to the poet) to commodify nature. But the Wordsworths did own a Claude Glass and William’s engagement with the picturesque—as a gardener as well as a poet—was deep and considered.

In his Guide through the District of the Lakes (first published in 1810), Wordsworth sets out a key principle for gardening: ‘The rule is simple; with respect to grounds—work, where you can, in the spirit of nature, with an invisible hand of art’. This might appear to be an endorsement for the style of gardening initiated by William Kent at Stow in the 1730s, which helped catalyse the craze for all things ‘picturesque’. Kent’s invention of the ha-ha (or sunken fence) made it possible to conceal boundaries between a cultivated garden and the landscape beyond. In Kent’s sweeping open prospects, the ‘hand of art’ was far less visible than it had been when parterres and topiary were the order of the day. Yet Wordsworth agreed with gardeners such as Uvedale Price (whose Essay on the Picturesque was first published in 1794) that the conventions established by Kent, Brown, and their followers came to be applied too mechanically. Since features such as serpentine lakes, trees arranged in clumps or belts, temples, hermitages, or follies were so recognisable, the artifice of landscape gardening was in fact obvious. Disregarding the idiosyncrasies of a given place, these “improvers” often overlooked ‘the spirit of nature’.

A 19th century Claude Glass, or Black MirrorIn particular, Wordsworth agreed with Price that ‘improvers’ paid too little attention to timeworn characteristics such as ancient trees and dilapidated stonework. But Wordsworth and Price appreciated these rugged features for different reasons. For Price, any object is picturesque if it bears three specific visual qualities: roughness, sudden variation, and irregularity. Ruins of different kinds—the remains of once-consecrated monasteries, crumbling manor houses, mouldy humble cottages, or even purpose-made follies—are equally admirable when they exhibit these qualities. Wordsworth, by contrast, didn’t primarily value ruins for their surface appearance: he was less interested in form and texture and more concerned with the personal or communal histories attached to these objects. The ruins of medieval monasteries such as Tintern, Furness, and Bolton, were important as loci of regional heritage; the ruins of secular dwelling places similarly offered, for Wordsworth, means of connection with previous inhabitants through an experience of place. Importing faux ruins or follies into gardens as picturesque props—and for the sake of fashion—bypassed any such place-centred human connection.

An entry in Dorothy’s Alfoxden journal from April 1798 provides an example of what the siblings considered a misuse of garden-ruins. Dorothy describes a visit to Crowcombe Court in the Quantocks where she explored a garden laid out by John Bernard (son-in-law of the owner Thomas Carew) in the 1770s:

A fine cloudy morning. Walked about the squire’s grounds. Quaint waterfalls about, where Nature was very successfully striving to make beautiful what art had deformed—ruins, hermitages, &c., &c. In spite of all these things, the dell romantic and beautiful, though everywhere planted with unnaturalised trees. Happily we cannot shape the huge hills, or carve out the valleys according to our fancy.

The ruins at Crowcombe were fifteenth-century fragments of stone arches transplanted from nearby Halsway Manor, perhaps arranged to evoke contemplation or melancholy, or to give the Court (built in 1725) an air of antiquity. When Dorothy complains that Bernard has deformed nature, she recognizes that the ruins don’t belong there and is thankful that nature is visibly pushing back against the interfering ‘hand of art’.

A more complex example of nature counteracting cultivation is worked out in Wordsworth’s The Ruined Cottage. First composed at Alfoxden in 1797, the poem underwent several stages of revision before being published as the first book of The Excursion (1814). If it had appeared under its original title at the end of the 1790s, however, that title would have raised specific expectations. For readers well-acquainted with picturesque aesthetics, The Ruined Cottage promises riches: perhaps the poem will focus on quaint ruins like those commonly found in landscape paintings or used as garden ornaments? The opening lines, which describe the effect of ‘steady beams’ of sunshine on an expansive landscape, might also have encouraged readers to think they’d embarked on a conventional eighteenth-century prospect poem. But Wordsworth quickly subverts, or rather deepens, these expectations. As the cottage and its garden are placed in the context of the suffering of their inhabitants, the poem becomes a critique of purely visual, surface appreciation of ruins.

The Ruined Cottage narrates a meeting between a Poet and a Pedlar beside the dilapidated cottage of a woman named Margaret. As they look at the ruin, the Pedlar explains Margaret’s history. Following failed harvests, illness, and loss of work Margaret’s husband, Robert, was forced to enlist. She was left alone with two children and became increasingly despondent as she failed to discover news of Robert’s whereabouts or welfare. Under the weight of poverty, desolation, and loneliness, during a time of deprivation and war, Margaret neglected to take care of herself, her children, the cottage, and the garden. At length she was deprived of both children and of all hope that Robert would return; after five years of suffering, Margaret died.

At the start of the poem, the Pedlar and the Poet survey the deserted cottage and garden:

It was a plot
Of garden-ground, now wild, its matted weeds
Marked with the steps of those whom as they pass’d,
The goose-berry trees that shot in long lank slips,
Or currants hanging from their leafless stems
In scanty strings, had tempted to o’erleap
The broken wall. Within that cheerless spot,
Where two tall hedgerows of thick willow boughs
Joined in a damp cold nook, I found a well
Half-choked [with willow flowers and weeds.]
I slaked my thirst and to the shady bench
Returned, and while I stood unbonneted
To catch the motion of the cooler air
The old Man said, “I see around me here
Things which you cannot see: we die, my Friend,
Nor we alone, but that which each man loved
And prized in his peculiar nook of earth
Dies with him or is changed, and very soon
Even of the good is no memorial left. (ll. 54–72)

At Crowcombe, Bernard’s ruin was installed and positioned for picturesque effect; through later neglect, nature began to counteract the ‘fancy’ of the gardener, and this pleased Dorothy. In The Ruined Cottage, however, any assessment of nature’s reclamation of Margaret’s garden is more complicated. From the Poet’s perspective, this is a scene of deprivation: the garden wall has fallen down, the well is ‘half-choked’ by weeds, the gooseberry bushes are ‘lank’, strings of currants are ‘scanty’; it’s a ‘cheerless spot’ and there are implications of sinfulness and corruption in images of temptation, trespass, and forbidden fruit. The Poet (keen to find compelling material to write about) is inclined to indulge in the melancholy atmosphere. Yet the Pedlar sees things differently.

One reason why the Poet doesn’t see what the Pedlar sees is that, at this point, he hasn’t heard Margaret’s story. As the poem progresses, the Pedlar peels back layers of time and memory, revealing how the stages of Margaret’s emotional deterioration contributed to the development of the ruin. By the end of the poem, the tumbledown cottage and overgrown garden bespeak Margaret’s decline, and thus the Poet’s perception is changed: he doesn’t now appreciate the ruins for their picturesque form and texture (as Uvedale Price might have done) but rather for their human context. As Dorothy noted at Crowcombe, ruins are not moving in themselves; but the ruined cottage has a profound emotional effect on the Poet when history, imagination, and empathy are added to his visual experience.

The poem concludes, however, with the Pedlar asking the Poet not to indulge in the sadness of the scene but to walk away in calm happiness:

“My Friend, enough to sorrow have you given,
The purposes of wisdom ask no more;
Be wise and cheerful, and no longer read
The forms of things with an unworthy eye.
She sleeps in the calm earth, and peace is here.
I well remember that those very plumes,
Those weeds, and the high spear-grass on that wall,
By mist and silent rain-drops silver’d o’er,
As once I passed did to my heart convey
So still an image of tranquillity,
So calm and still, and looked so beautiful
Amid the uneasy thoughts which filled my mind,
That what we feel of sorrow and despair
From ruin and from change, and all the grief
The passing shews of being leave behind,
Appeared an idle dream that could not live
Where meditation was. I turned away
And walked along my road in happiness”. (ll. 513–24)

Wordsworth’s thinking about picturesque aesthetics helps explain these moving, yet difficult, lines. One of the purposes of the poem is to teach the Poet to be serene in the face of suffering and change: the extra unstressed syllable at the end of the first line denotes the cusp of what is ‘enough’. Ruins make visible processes of decay but they also reveal nature’s regenerative powers. As Margaret finds ultimate harmony with—and within—the earth (‘She sleeps in the calm earth, and peace is here’), the pace of the verse slows. The Pedlar recognizes that the tranquillity of nature endures, whereas grief is alleviated by time. The survival of the spear-grass and the sustained life and beauty of the garden, channelled through memory and expressed within an elongated sentence that entwines visual with interior experience, provide lasting consolation. The Pedlar’s speech affirms that poetry, and the empathy it produces, helps readers to apprehend the significance beneath the surface; reading ‘the forms of things’ more worthily involves attending to art and nature with an eye that is not ‘master of the heart’. Visual apprehension is transformed when it is supplemented with an underlying sense of what a place has meant to—and what it says about—the people connected with it. Picturesque gardening that clears away knotted or uneven features produced by the slow passage of time (in favour of smooth man-made lines) lacks these submerged human resonances.

Looking through a Claude Glass is, in this way, a less worthy (that is to say, less poetic) mode of viewing. But, for Wordsworth, shaping nature into art has its benefits, too. While the Wordsworths’ Claude Glass may have helped them to reimagine the landscape in a moment (perhaps between bites of cold gooseberry pie), practical gardening works with nature to produce visual and emotional effects over time. ‘Laying out grounds’, William once explained, ‘is some sort like Poetry and Painting, and its object … [is] to assist Nature in moving the affections’. But, he continued, ‘If this be so when we merely put together words or colours, how much more ought the feeling to prevail when we are in the midst of the realities of things’. Gardening that balances the ‘spirit of nature’ with the ‘hand of art’ is itself a kind of poetry; or, we might say, an art of place.