For the same reason that your town man keeps a pot of Geraniums on his
window-sill, and a caged bird in his house, your countryman plants
bright-coloured flowers by his door, and regales his children with news
of the first cuckoo. They pull as much of Heaven down as will
accommodate itself to their plot of earth.
Any man standing in the centre of however small a space of his personal
ownership—a piece of drugget in a garret, a patch of garden—makes it the
hub of the universe round which the stars spin, on which his world
revolves. Within a hand-stretch of him lie all he is, his intimate
possessions, his scraps of comfort scratched out of the hard earth:
books, pictures, photographs showing the faces of his small world of
friends and his tiny travels—how little difference there is between a
walk through Piccadilly and a journey across Asia: your great traveller
has little more to say than the man who has found Heaven in a penny
bunch of Violets, or heard the stars whisper over St. James’s
Park—within his reach are the things he has paid the price of life for,
and they are the cloak with which he covers his nakedness of soul
against the all-seeing eye he calls his Destiny.
With all this, commenced perhaps in cowardice—for the earth’s brown
crust is too like a grave, the garret floor too like a shell of
wood—your man, town or country, grown to know love of little things,
nurses a seedling as if it were his conscience, patches his drugget as
if it were a verse he’d like to polish. Out of the vast dreary waste of
faces who pass by unheeding, and the unseeing world that does not care
whether he lives or dies, he makes his small hoard of treasures, as a
child hides marbles, thinking them precious stones—as, indeed, they are
to those who have eyes to see—and, be they books, or pictures, pots of
plants, or curious conceits in china, they all answer for flowers, for
the bright-coloured spots of comfort in a life of doubt.
No man thinks this out carefully, and sets about to plan his garden in
this spirit: he feels a need, and meets it as he can. In this manner we
are all cottage gardeners.
In days gone by—days of serfdom, oppression, battle, slavery,
poverty—the countryman passed his day waiting for the next blow, living
between pestilences, and praying in the dark for small sparks of
comfort. The monks kept the land sweet by growing herbs in sheltered
places; the countryman looked dully at Periwinkles and Roses and
Columbines, thought them pretty, and passed by. Even the meanest flower,
Shepherd’s-eye or Celandine, was too high for him to reach. (The poet
who keeps Jove’s Thunder on his mantelpiece would understand that.)
Roses were common enough even in the dark ages; the English hedgerow
threw out its fingers of Wild Rose and scented the air—but where was the
man with a nose for fragrance when a mailed hand was on his shoulder.
Those Roses on the Field of Tewkesbury—think of them stained with blood
and flowering over rotting corpses.
“I sometimes think that never blows so red
The Rose as where some buried Cæsar bled;
That every Hyacinth the Garden wears
Dropt in its lap from some once lovely Head.
And this delightful Herb whose tender Green
Fledges the River’s Lip on which we lean.
Ah, lean upon it lightly! for who knows
From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen.”
Little did the dull ploughman think of Roses in the hedge, or Violets in
the bank, he’d little care except for a dish of Pulse. Yet, all the
time, curious men were studying botany, dredging the earth for secrets,
as the astronomer swept the sky. The Arviells, Gilbert and Hernicus,
were, one in Europe, the other in Asia, collecting good plants and herbs
to replenish the Jardins de Santé the monks kept—that in the thirteenth
century, too, with war clouds everywhere, and steel-clad knights wooing
maidens in castles by the secondhand means of luting troubadours.
The Arts of Rome were dead, buried, and cut up by the plough. (How many
ploughmen, such as Chaucer knew, turned long brown furrows over Roman
vineyards, and black crows, following, pecked at bright coins, brought
by the plough to light.)
All at once, it must have seemed, the culture of flowers, was in the
air: Carnations became the rage; then men spent heaven knows what on a
Tulip bulb; built orangeries; sent Emissaries abroad to cull flowers in
the East. The great men’s gardeners, great men themselves, kept flowers
in the plot of ground about their cottages; gave out a seed or so here
and there; talked garden gossip at the village ale-house. (Tradescant
steals Apricots from Morocco into England. A Carew imports Oranges. The
Cherry orchards at Sittingbourne are planted by one of Henry the
Eighth’s gardeners. Peiresc brings all manner of flowers to bloom under
our grey skies: great numbers of Jessamines, the clay-coloured Jessamine
from China; the crimson American kind; the Violet-coloured Persian.)
[Illustration: A SURREY COTTAGE.]
The grass piece by the cottage door begins to find itself cut into beds;
uncared for flowers, wild Gilly-flowers, Thyme, Violets and the like,
give colour to the cottage garden that has only just become a garden.
With that comes competition: one man outdoes another, begs plants and
seeds of all his friends; buds a Rose on to a Briar standard, and boasts
the scent of his new Clove Pinks, And so it grew that times were not so
strenuous: Queen Victoria comes to the throne, and with prosperity come
the pretty frillings of life, and cottage gardens ape their masters’
Rose walks, and collections of this and that. To-day Africa and Asia nod
together in a sunny cottage border, and Lettuces from the Island of Cos
show their green faces next to Sir Walter Raleigh’s great gift to the
poor man, the Potato. Poplars from Lombardy grow beside the garden gate;
the Currant bush from Zante drips its jewel-like fruit tassels under a
Cherry tree given to us, indirectly, by Lucullus, lost by us in our
slumbering Saxon times, and here again, with Henry the Eighth’s
gardener, from Flanders. In some quite humble gardens the Cretan Quince
and Persian Peach grow; so that history, poetry, and romance peer over
Giles’s rustic hedge; and the wind blows scents of all the world through
the small latticed window.
Ploughman Giles, sitting by his cottage door, smoking an American weed
in his pipe while his wife shells the Peas of ancient Rome into a basin,
does not realise that his little garden, gay with Indian Pinks and
African Geraniums, and all its small crowd of joyous-coloured flowers,
is an open book of the history of his native land spread at his feet.
Here’s the conquest of America, and the discovery of the Cape, and all
the gold of Greece for his bees to play with. Here’s his child making a
chain of Chaucer’s Daisies; and there’s a Chinese mandarin nodding at
him from the Chrysanthemums; and there’s a ghost in his cabbage patch of
Sir Anthony Ashley of Wimbourne St. Giles in Dorsetshire.
Ploughman Giles is a fortunate man, and we, too, bless his enterprise
and his love of striking colours and good perfumes when we lean over the
gate of his cottage garden to give him good-day.
I showed him once a photograph of a picture by Holbein—the Merchant of
the Steel Yard—and pointed out the vase of flowers on the table and the
very same flowers growing side by side in his garden, Carnations, the
old single kind, and single Gilly-flower. He looked at the picture with
his glasses cocked at the proper angle on his nose—he’s an oldish man
and short-sighted—and said in his husky voice, “Well, zur, I be
surprised to zee un.” And he called out his wife to look—which didn’t
please her much as she was cooking—but, when she saw the flowers, “In
that there queer gentleman’s room, and as true as life, so they do be,”
she became enthusiastic, wiped her hands many times on her apron, and
looked from the picture to the actual flowers growing in her garden with
a kind of awe and wonder. It was of far more interest to them to know
that they were hand in glove with the history of their own country than
it would have been to learn that chemists made a wonderful drug called
digitalis out of the Foxgloves by the fence. I gave them the photograph
and it hangs in a proud position next to a stuffed and bloated perch in
a glass-case; and, what is more, they have an added sense of dignity
from the dim, far away time the picture represents to them.
“He might a plucked they flowers in this very garden,” she says; and
indeed, he might if he had happened that way. But the older flowers,
though they don’t realise it, are the people themselves. Ploughman Giles
and his wife, have been on the very spot far, far longer than the Pinks
and Gilly-flowers, blooming into ripe age, rearing countless families
back and back and back, until one can almost see a Giles sacrificing to
Thor and Odin at the stone on the hill behind the cottage. The Norman
Church throws its shadow over the graves of countless Gileses, and over
the graves, pleasant-eyed English Daisies shine on the grass.
After all, when we see a cottage standing in its glowing garden, with a
neat hedge cutting it off from its fellows; with children playing
eternal games with dolls (Mr. Mould’s children following the ledger to
its long home in the safe—shall I ever forget that?), we see the whole
world, cares, joys, birth, death and marriage; the wealth of nations
scattered carelessly in flowers, spoils from every continent, surrounded
by a hedge, its own birds to sing, its hundred forms of life, feeding,
breeding, dying round the cottage door; and, at night, its little patch
of stars overhead.
It was a fanciful child, perhaps, but children are full of quaint ideas,
who caught the moon in a bright tin spoon, and put it in a bottle, and
drew the cork at night to let the moon out to sail in the sky. The child
found the tin spoon, dropped by a passing tinware pedlar, in the road,
waited till night came, with his head full of a fairy story he had
heard, and when it was dark, except for the moon, he stepped into the
garden, held the bowl of the spoon to catch the moon’s reflection, and
when she showed her yellow face distorted in the bright spoon, he poured
the reflection, very solemnly, into a bottle and corked it fast and
tight. Then, with a whispered fairy spell, some nurse’s gibberish, he
took the precious bottle and hid it in a cupboard along with other
mysterious tokens. That’s a symbol of all our lives, bottling up moons
and letting them out at nights. Isn’t a garden just such a dream-treat
to some of us? There are golden Marigolds for the sun we live by, and
silver Daisies for the stars, and blue Forget-me-nots for summer skies.
Heaven at our feet, and angels singing from birds’ throats among the
Sometimes we see one cottage garden, next to a Paradise of colour,
flaunting Geraniums, and all the summer garland, and in it a poor tree
or so, a few ill-kept weedy flowers, overgrown Stocks, a patch of
drunken-looking Poppies, a grass-grown waste of choked Pinks: the whole
place with a sullen air. What is the matter with the people living
there? A decent word will beg a plant or two, seeds and cuttings can be
had for the asking. Is it a poor or a proud spirit who refuses to join
the other displays of colour? Knock at the door, and your answer comes
quick-footed; it is the poor spirit answers you. Of course, there are
men who can coax blood out of a stone, and find big strawberries in the
bottom of the basket; and others who cannot grow anything, try as they
may. It is common enough to hear this or that will not grow for
so-and-so, or that man makes such a plant flourish where mine all die.
There’s something between man and his flowers, some sympathy, that makes
a Rose bloom its best for one, and Carnations wither under his touch, or
Asters show their magic purples for one, and give a weak display for
another. No one knows what speaks in the man to the Roses that bloom for
him, or what distaste Carnations feel for all his ministrations, but the
fact remains—any gardener will tell you that. So with your man of
greenhouses, so with your humble cottage gardener, and, looking along a
village street, the first glance will show you not who loves the flowers
but whom flowers love.
This, of course, is not the reason of the weedy garden of the poor
spirit, the reason for that is obvious: the poor spirit never rejoices,
and to grow and care for flowers is a great way of rejoicing. There’s
many a man sows poems in the spring who never wrote a line of verse: his
flowers are his contribution to the world’s voice; united in expressions
of joy, the writer, the painter, the singer, the flower-grower are all
part of one great poem.
The average person who passes a cottage garden is more moved by the
senses than the imagination; he or she drinks deep draughts of perfume,
takes long comfort to the eyes from the fragrant and coloured rood of
land. They do not cast this way and that for curious imaginings; it
might add to their pleasure if they did so. There are men who find the
whole of Heaven in a grain of mustard seed; and there are those who, in
all the pomp and circumstance of a hedge of Roses, find but a passing
pleasure to the eye.
We, who take our pleasure in the Garden of England, who feast our eyes
on such rich schemes of colours she affords, have reason to be more than
grateful to those who encourage the cottage gardener in his work. It is
from the vicarage, rectory, or parsonage gardens that most encouragement
springs; it is the country clergyman and his wife who, in a large
measure, are responsible for the good cottage gardening we see nearly
everywhere. These, and the numberless societies, combine to keep up the
interest in gardening and bee-keeping, to which we owe one of our
chiefest English pleasures. The good garden is the purple and fine linen
of the poor man’s life; poets, philosophers, and kings have praised and
sung the simple flowers that he grows. Wordsworth for instance, sings of
a flower one finds in nearly every cottage garden:
You call it “Love-lies-Bleeding”—so you may,
Though the red Flower, not prostrate, only droops
As we have seen it here from day to day,
From month to month, life passing not away:
A flower how rich in sadness! Even thus stoops,
(Sentient by Grecian sculpture’s marvellous power)
Thus leans, with hanging brow and body bent
Earthward in uncomplaining languishment,
The dying Gladiator. So, sad Flower!
(’Tis Fancy guides me, willing to be led,
Though by a slender thread,)
So drooped Adonis bathed in sanguine dew
Of his death-wound, when he from innocent air
The gentlest breath of resignation drew;
While Venus in a passion of despair
Rent, weeping over him, her golden hair
Spangled with drops of that celestial shower.
She suffered, as Immortals sometimes do;
But pangs more lasting far that Lover knew
Who first, weighed down by scorn, in some lone bower
Did press this semblance of unpitied smart
Into the service of his constant heart,
His own dejection, downcast Flower! could share
With thine, and gave the mournful name
Which thou wilt ever bear.
Then again, Mrs. Browning, who loved Nature and England, and spoke her
love in such delicate fancies, writes of flowers in “Our Gardened
England,” in a poem called,
A FLOWER IN A LETTER.
Red Roses, used to praises long,
Contented with the poet’s song,
The nightingale’s being over;
And Lilies white, prepared to touch
The whitest thought, nor soil it much,
Of dreamer turned to lover.
Deep Violets you liken to
The kindest eyes that look on you,
Without a thought disloyal!
And Cactuses a queen might don
If weary of her golden crown,
And still appear as royal!
Pansies for ladies all! I wis
That none who wear such brooches miss
A jewel in the mirror:
And Tulips, children love to stretch
Their fingers down, to feel in each
Its beauty’s secret nearer.
Love’s language may be talked with these!
To work out choicest sentences,
No blossoms can be neater—
And, such being used in Eastern bowers,
Young maids may wonder if the flowers
Or meanings be the sweeter.