James Golden on Allusion in Gardens

September 5, 2007

in Articles, From the USA

Comment on Allusion in Gardens trialogue : Noel Kingsbury, Anne Wareham, Yue Zhuang

I find much to agree with in the ‘trialogue’ on Allusion in Gardens by Noel Kingsbury, Yue Zhuang, and Anne Wareham, but I’m disturbed by heavy emphasis, particularly Noel Kingsbury’s, on the need to find new languages (garden languages) to speak to the present.

Of course, we do need to do this, but not to the exclusion of rich allusory experience, even if it comes from “a foreign or dead language, or a forgotten culture.” Perhaps I’m reluctant to abandon a world I know. However, I do know that understanding can grow over time. Full appreciation of a garden and all its elements does not have to occur at the moment of the first visit; experience can deepen as knowledge increases, as Yue Zhuang says.

Here are two cases that, while not examples of allusion, illustrate how such ‘hidden’ knowledge can deepen sensual, aesthetic, and intellectual experience. Several years ago I read Haldor Laxness’ The Fish Can Sing. The novel left me mystified. Though I knew a few Icelanders then, I didn’t understand their insular social life, particularly in previous generations, and sharp focus on things close to home. Not until about five years after I read The Fish Can Sing, did I realize the book is a sharp social commentary and satire! Yet I enjoyed it on first reading, even without “getting” its critical meaning. And in retrospect, I now enjoy it more deeply.

Poetry provides other examples of this phenomenon. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Windhover begins with this extraordinarily baroque and sensually appealing sentence: “I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding of the rolling level underneath him steady air …” I didn’t understand the meaning of this sentence at all when I first read it at age 19, but I got its music and could immediately take a sensual delight in its imagery. Later, after more careful study, I came to love it as a miracle of language. (Anne makes reference to The Wasteland, a much more obscure and difficult poem; none of us can understand it without the footnotes.)

In a similar way, one’s appreciation of a garden can grow and change over time, and can be enriched by learning. Allusion doesn’t either work or not, as Anne says; it does both – or not, if not well done. Initially, one is delighted by sensual appeal of beautiful plantings, stunning views, hoarfrost on branches. If there are elements not understood, what more is that than a sense of mystery, which leads to further thought, and perhaps discovery? Don’t most people enjoy some mystery? I don’t see use of classical allusion or Latin or other less-than-current cultural references as necessarily elitist. Do we need to dumb down our art and our gardens just because most people are no longer educated in such things? By analogy, do we throw out the lessons of the Enlightenment and all become religious fundamentalists because the world seems to be headed in that direction? Change happens. And the past usually comes back.

James Golden

View from Federal Twist blog

Return to the article

Subscribe to the thinkinGardens Blog

Enter your email address to get new articles from the thinkinGardens blog by email:

Previous post:

Next post: