Wherever you walk, cool gusts of wind will fan the clearing;
The trees, where you sit, will pile up in the shade;
Wherever you walk the blushing streams will rise,
And all things flourish where you turn your eyes.
Many years ago. . . Harry Truman was president. . . my older brother Tom and I were traveling up the Thames west of London to find the villa and gardens where Alexander Pope, the poet, wit and satirist had lived. The town on the river was called Twickenham, and Tom, already a specialist in the 18th century, reminded me that during Pope’s lifetime (1688-1744) it was pronounced Twit’nam.
We knew that Pope’s original villa had been demolished and replaced; it was now a convent school. But we hoped that Pope’s famous tunnel/grotto which led from his garden under a road and down to the Thames would be intact, and indeed it was. Its walls of “shells interspersed with angularly shaped pieces of mirror” were somewhat jaded but still spectacular to behold. And at the entrance was a great tree stump, the original willow that Pope was the first to plant but from which the willows had multiplied, along the river and in places as far as the Catherine the Great’s palace in St. Petersburg where Pope had cuttings sent. Here is the grotto today and the pope’s description:
You who will walk where the translucent wave of the Thames
Shines a wide Mirror, through the dark Cavern,
Where distil the persistent drops of the mineral roofs,
And the sharp crystals break the sparkling stream;
Unpolished gems don’t shine on pride,
And the latent metals shine innocently;
Get close to the great outdoors, gaze carefully
And look at the Mine, without desire for Gold.
* * *
It is fitting that Pope, who grew up in Windsor Forest, refers to Great Nature in his poem, as nature is central to Pope’s views on landscape gardening.
To build, plant, whatever you want,
To raise the Column, or the Arc to bend,
Inflate the Terras, or sink the Grot;
In all, let Nature never be forgotten.
He embraced the idea of following the classic gardening practices of ancient Rome with groves, wilderness areas, hills and scattered statues, winding paths with shady sections and small rivers. Not for him the studied formality of the French.
First follow NATURE and your frame of judgment
By its just standard, which is always the same:
Infallible nature, still divinely luminous,
A clear, immutable and universal light,
Life, strength and beauty must be transmitted to all,
At the same time source, end and proof of art.
The art of this fund that each supply provides,
Work without spectacle, and without ostentation presides over:
In a beautiful body so informing soul
With spirits feeds, with vigor fills the whole,
Every movement guides, and every nerve sustains;
Himself invisible, but in effect, remains.
You could say that Pope brought home the poetry and learning of the ancient world through his translations and imitations, and their landscaping principles through his garden designs. As fellow writer Horace Walpole once said, poetry and gardening are sister arts.
To which arts Pope added an element of utility by incorporating a vegetable garden, orchard and vineyard near his villa. And he generally asked us to “vary scenes, lights, and shades to pick up what feels good,” which, incidentally, included a bocce ball court.
He wins all endings, which confuses pleasantly,
Surprises, varies and hides the limits.
* * *
The Pope not only made impressive designs for his own lands, but he freely offered advice to his friends in the Thames Valley, especially the Earl of Burlington at Chiswick House and the Countess of Suffolk at Marble Hill, ( mistress of George II) who installed the pope – inspired winding paths, a grotto and, of course, willow trees.
* * *
Visitors who were welcomed by Pope at his own villa included Swift and Voltaire, but there were also visitors who came uninvited, particularly budding poets who wanted to perform for the master. Pope said to his servant:
Close, close the door, good John! Tired, I say,
Tie the door knocker, say I’m sick, I’m dead.
The Dog-star is raging! no, there is no doubt,
Any Bedlam, or Parnassus, is freed:
Fire in every eye and papers in every hand,
They rave, recite and panic the country.
What walls can protect me, or what shadow can hide me?
They pierce my groves, through my Grot they glide;
By land, by water, they renew the charge;
They stop the tank and board the barge.
All fly to Twit’nam, and in humble tension
Apply yourself to me, to keep them mad or vain.
Arthur, whose thoughtless son neglects the Laws,
Accute to me and my damn’d labors the cause:
Poor Cornus sees his terrified wife run away,
and cursed Wit, and Poetry, and Pope.
* * *
Absent intruders, Pope and his friends greatly enjoyed life at the villa. In his version of a satire on Horace, he says:
Happy with little, I can draw here
On broccoli and mutton, all year round;
It’s true, no turbot honors my boards,
But gudgeons, dabs, what my Thames offers;
To Hounslow heath I point, and Bansted down,
From there comes your sheep, and these chicks are mine;
From this old walnut will fall a show’r;
And the grapes, long lingering on my only wall,
And the figs, of the stallion and of the Espalier join;
The devil is in you if you can’t have dinner.
So happy health (your Mistress will take place)
And what is rarer, a Poet will say Grace.
* * *
In recent years, after a period of neglect, there has been renewed public interest in visiting the Pope’s Grotto and the magnificent display of willows along this part of the Thames. The many landscape and gardening books of Mavis Batey, Honorary President of the Garden History Society and recipient of an MBE Honor from the Queen, are largely responsible for this. His best-known book, “Alexander Pope: The Poet and the Landscape”, has become a virtual bible for landscape architects in Britain. But there is another degree that might interest you. In March 1941, during World War II, then 19-year-old Mavis Batey destroyed the Italian Navy.
* * *
If you’ll pardon the diversion, I suppose an explanation may be in order. Mavis was one of the bright young women hired to work alongside Alan Turing as a code breaker at Bletchley Park. In March 1941, the Italian fleet was using an Enigma code that had defied cracking. Unbeknownst to the British, they were planning to ambush a Royal Navy convoy coming out of Egypt. At this critical moment, Mavis broke the Enigma and brought the news to Admiral Cunningham and his Royal Navy fleet. They turned around, defeated the Italians decisively, and controlled the Mediterranean for the rest of the war. Mavis then organized the fake coded reports that set the stage for D-Day.
One last note, I promise: When Mavis was being considered for Bletchley, they said they were puzzled over the code word STGOCH and that she could help identify this mysterious saint. She said the answer might more likely be Santiago, Chile, and she was right. As for how she went from decoding to gardening, well, as Pope might have said (but didn’t):
Search among the trees and the flowers and you will find
A few rivals for your mindscapes.
* * *
Now, these many years later, I would like to return to Twickenham, revisit the grotto which will be officially open to the public in 2023 and admire the assemblage of willows that line the Thames. . . a living tribute to Alexander Pope.
* * *
VIDEO. We invite you to join Jill Tanner and the other members of the First Poetry Quartet as they present several aspects of Pope’s writing:
His famous first poem, “Ode on Solitude”, composed when he was 12 years old.
A selection of his oft-heard quotes, outnumbered only by Shakespeare and the Bible.
A vigorous dialogue from “Epilogue to the Satires”
And to conclude, a virtual 18e tour of the century on the Thames at Twickenham with verses from the Pope’s ‘Epistle to the Earl of Burlington’.
CLICK ON THIS LINK FOR THE VIDEO: ALEXANDER POPE