Planting a bulb, strange gardens

Planting a bulb, strange gardens

Planting a bulb
Planting a bulb, Blue Poles

Ian Hamilton Finlay, a concrete poet, began planting poetry in his garden Little Sparta part of a five-acre farm at Stonypath, near Edinburgh in 1966 (died 2006). He had the 18th-century landscape gardener and poet William Shenstone in mind.

Little Sparta
Little Sparta

William Shenstone developed the garden at Leasowes from 1743 (pronounced lezzoes) near Dudley and it has been reconstructed . It was simple but rural: ‘No one will prefer the beauty of the street to the beauty of a lawn or grove; and indeed the poets would have found no very tempting an Elysium, had they made a town of it.’[1]

The Leasowes, 1811
The Leasowes, 1811

His design of a contemplative linear circuit walk was original and attracted visitors from abroad. It was prescriptive. He got angry if visitors to Leasowes went round past the architectural, sculptural and textual motifs the wrong way. His poetry was intimate with his gardening. In a letter  of  1743, he wrote: ‘My favourite scheme is a poem, in blank verse, upon Rural Elegance, including cascades, temples, grottos, hermitages, greenhouses…The next, running upon planting, & c. will end with a vista terminated by an old abbey.’[2]

At the same time Alexander Pope was landscape gardening, and moved to the ‘natural’ in reaction to the utterly formal French garden, a mathematical proposition. Pope developed a view of the natural in gardens and art, proffering two complimentary rules for poets: ‘follow nature’ and use ‘nature methodised’. [3] Pope thought that this way art and nature could work together.

The new bourgeoisie required new ways to articulate and realise their emerging power, sensibility and sense of individual selves. John Archer writes of Leasowes, ‘“the innovative qualities of this landscape and the ways in which it was used both embrace and refract some of the most dynamic currents in eighteenth-century British culture. These range from evolving notions of privacy, property, gender, and domesticity to complex shifts in understanding the production of the self.’  [4]

Little Sparta path
Little Sparta path

Finlay collaborated with crafts people to create sculptures and carved poems that run through the garden. He is interested not in the Gothic or Romantic, but in neo-classicism and ideals of ethics. War is an ongoing theme. Mark Scroggins explains, “Finlay’s tutelary deity is both classical Greek and Jacobin, “Apollon Terroriste” — depicted in a bronzed bust that is itself a visual poem, the name engraved on the figure’s forehead — and Finlay’s poetry is essentially a terrorist act: in the first place, as it breaks down the boundaries between the verbal and the visual in a manner that Anglo-American modernism had proved far too timid to essay; and, perhaps more importantly, as it uncovers and lays bare the foundations of rational modernity, foundations laid in terror and arbitrary violence. Finlay’s generic transgressions, ostensibly classical in their ordered restraint, mime the violence (however deceptively restrained) that lies at the heart of that order.’ [5]

The film director Derek Jarman (1942-1994) created a garden on the shingle shore near Dungeness nuclear power station. He disliked modernism’s emphasis on efficiency and its  rejection of poetry and metaphor, ‘Paradise haunts gardens, and some gardens are paradises. Mine is one of them. Others are like bad children, spoilt by their parents, over-watered and covered with noxious chemicals.’ The garden is a small one with wild flowers, stones, small sculptures, its shingles seamless with the horizon. Jarman’s partner Keith lives there and while the garden is not open to the public, visitors are not discouraged.

DerekJarman's garden
DerekJarman’s garden

I planted a bulb today, though it was not spring. I thrust the Edison screw into clay in a small ceramic Chinese plant pot.

Jagun from Blue Poles_pn_w
Jagun NR from Blue Poles

Thomas Edison, America’s most famous inventor recommended electrocution as the best way to execute prisoners, but as usual he was using the media to help his company that used direct current. He argued electrocution was best, but that Westinghouse’s alternating current would be better (hoping to associate AC with death in the public mind.

In a Coney Island amusement park an elephant named Topsy, was claimed to be uncooperative. The owners sought publicity for their new venture by executing her with Edison’s help. Topsy place her feet obediently into specially designed wooden sandals, lined with copper wiring and linked to an AC power supply. Smoke billowed up from her feet and within a minute or two he or she was dead.

In the 1870s, Edison established an ‘invention factory’ and undertook a ‘massive, methodically directed trial and error search for a suitable filament for the incandescent light . . . first created the industrial research organisation tied to capitalist economic strictures.’ [6]

He was selfish, took credit for work performed by assistants and was eccentric. Rats lived in his laboratory and he often slept in his clothes, because he believed that changing or taking them off induced insomnia. He refuse to eat because he believed food was poisoning his intestines. He changed our world.

[1] Quoted in British ruralism,

[2] The Letters of William Shenstone, Arranged and Edited with introduction, Notes and Index by Marjorie Williams (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1939, p62.

[3] n Essay on Criticism, (1711) Pope recommends using nature as ‘the Source, and End, and Test of Art’.

[4] John Archer, ‘Landscape And Identity: Baby Talk At The Leasowes, 1760’, Cultural Critique 51, 2002, p146, 147.

[5] Mark Scroggins, The Piety of Terror: Ian Hamilton Finlay, the Modernist Fragment, and the Neo-classical Sublime   DL. 16.2.99

[6] Carl Mitcham, Thinking through Technology: The Path Between Engineering and Philosophy, University of Chicago P, 1994, p218.




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