And now the Irish are ashamed
To see themselves in one year tamed
So much one man can do
That does both act and know.
They can affirm his praises best,
And have, though overcome, confest
How good he is, how just
And fit for highest trust.
The above lines are taken from a poem called “An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return From Ireland”. It was written by the English poet, Andrew Marvell, in 1650. The previous year Cromwell’s army had slaughtered the royalist garrisons in Drogheda and Wexford when they refused to surrender. Marvell was an admirer of Cromwell and viewed his campaign in Ireland as a triumph for the republican cause, that they both supported, during the English Civil War. However, Irish people have a very different perspective of that period of history and have never thought that Cromwell was either “good” or “just” where they were concerned.
Despite this lapse of judgement, Marvell was a wonderful poet and one of his best poems is called “The Garden”. He opens the poem by wondering why people spend so much time pursuing fame in various walks of life when the garden offers all that a person could want. In the second verse, he tells us that quiet and innocence are to be found only in a garden, while in the third verse he suggests that when romantic passion is spent, we retire to the garden for comfort and consolation. The fourth verse is a feast for the senses:
What wond’rous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Ensnar’d with flowers, I fall on grass.
In the last 3 verses he writes about the tranquility and happiness that the mind can find in the garden “annihilating all that’s made to a green thought in a green shade”.
Clearly, Marvell is writing about one of these elaborate and ornate gardens that the English gentry created on their vast estates. Referring to vines, nectarines, peaches and melons in the England of 1650 is remarkable. No doubt there were scores of gardeners available to create this veritable Garden of Eden.
I love gardening, and while I did manage to grow grapes, the rest of my endeavours were humbler: carrots, parsnips, leaks, celery, peas, tomatoes, etc. When we had a family to feed, we grew a wide range of vegetables and fruit but that day is long gone, partly because the children have flown the coop and partly because of Lidl. So instead, the garden is now full of trees, shrubs, plants and flowers.
Spring is the highlight of any gardener’s year because it is a veritable resurrection. All the bare trees and shrubs, and the dormant plants buried in the soil, come alive over a short period and fill the place with colour, movement and fragrance.
Philip Larkin captures this miracle in his poem “Trees”.
The trees are coming into leaf
like something almost being said;
the recent buds relax and spread.
their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
and we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
is written down in rings of grain.
Yet, still the unresting castles thresh
in full grown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
Of course, gardening is labour intensive but that can be seen as a positive. It offers a lot of worthwhile and varied physical activity whether that is cutting the grass, digging the soil, planting out shrubs, collecting leaves, removing weeds or pruning trees and hedges. This is activity with a purpose unlike the dreary, sterile atmosphere of a gym. The body may ache at the end of the day, after all the bending and lifting, but it is a satisfying ache because the fruits of your labour are there to see and enjoy.
Apart from the obvious benefits, gardening teaches valuable life lessons. Gardeners learn to accept things because nature is very unpredictable and we cannot control everything despite our best efforts. It is also an antidote for perfectionism – that bane of life that causes so much unhappiness. No matter how hard you try, nothing will ever be perfect in a garden with its perpetual cycle of growth and decay. So, a garden teaches us to accept failure as inevitable and helps us to move on when faced with drawbacks.
Above all gardening reduces stress, tension and anxiety and aids relaxation.
How pleasant it is, on a warm, Summer’s day, to sit in a garden surrounded by nature’s kaleidoscope: to observe the ever-changing patterns on the ground as the sun’s rays are filtered by the swaying branches and leaves of the trees; to feast your eyes on the forty shades of green and the multitude of other colours afforded by flowers and shrubs; to inhale the fragrance of cut grass and honeysuckle and to listen to the susurration of the wind accompanying the tweeting and chirping of the birds. As Marvel so well expressed it – a “wondrous life”.
Now if Cromwell had been a garden lover, perhaps he might have led a more tranquil life and the bitter legacy he left in Ireland might never have happened.