Thursday, February 22, 2007

Disconcerting Garden History

“I was one day admiring one of the falls of the Clyde; and ruminating upon what descriptive term could be most fitly applied to it, I came to the conclusion that the epithet ‘majestic’ was the most appropriate. While I was still contemplating the scene, a gentleman and a lady came up, neither of whose faces bore much of the stamp of superior intelligence, and the first words the gentleman uttered were ‘It is very majestic.’ I was pleased to find such a confirmation of my opinion, and I complimented the spectator upon the choice of his epithet, saying that he had used the best word that could have been selected from our language ‘Yes, sir,’ replied the gentleman, ‘I say it is very majestic: it is sublime, It is beautiful, it is grand, it is picturesque.’ ‘Ay (added the lady), it is the prettiest thing I ever saw.’ I own that I was not a little disconcerted.”
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (London and New York, 1960), II, 37.

Whoa, there Big Fella. Is Sam skewered with the irony of being caught in the act of being smug and self-congratulatory about the Lavaterish stamps of superior freakin’ intelligence on his own freakin’ face? Aspiring to pompous superiority over the great unwashed masses, his pretentious sense of the sublime was just upstaged by the real thing? And, but, he’s man enough to enjoy the irony? Have we moved from the sublime to the ridiculous? Or, is that just me?

I’m studying the history of gardens, which frequently leaves an unpleasant Eurocentric aftertaste of how England brought together the three sister arts thereby elevating formerly modest tilling of the soil into a sublime art. Sadly, once landscape gardening started hanging around with Landscape Painting and Poetry, the utilitarian vegetable garden was left behind like the kid that doesn’t get picked in a schoolyard game of dodge ball. Roses are beautiful. Radishes are functional.

Well, not in my backyard. By the end of this summer, if you come to my garden, I want you to say, without a trace of disconcertion, that it’s the prettiest thing you ever saw. Then, without apology to Sam, we’ll make a tasty fresh salad and sit in the afternoon sun admiring the waterfall while we marvel at our refined good taste.

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