Green Thoughts: The Forms, Affordances, and Politics of Garden Poetry
The garden is a rich site for framing the flows and contestations of culture because it is, on the one hand, a social practice with its own extensive history, methods, and concerns, and, on the other, a rich literary image. This interwoven history makes it a worthwhile object of study, but it has also resulted in studies that are either decidedly broad, very specific, or that focus exclusively on one kind of garden at the expense of the other. This thesis seeks to address these obstacles by challenging the line between real gardens and their images. Applying a novel working definition of “form”, I argue that the constituent forms of real gardens can be conceptualised as a set of meaning-bearing resources which enable, when represented, kinds of figurative meanings. This thesis considers the real garden as reducible to three forms essential to all gardens: enclosure, internal arrangement, and cultivation by a gardener. Such a distillation allows us to interrogate persistent meanings of the garden image across literatures by fixing it as an object of inquiry. These three forms, I argue, enable political meanings, figuring the relationship of individuals to greater systems or wholes, their arrangement of elements, and dramatising the operation and limits of power. However, those forms have been emphasised, represented, and ultimately signified differently in images of various provenance and in various writers’ hands.
My chapters trace the garden’s persistent forms across time and place. Two of my chapters address Civil War England. The first considers how gardens respond to a specific discursive context to imagine a dystopian state in Andrew Marvell’s “The Mower against Gardens” and the potential for utopian change in “The Garden”. In my second chapter, I turn to Lucy Hutchinson’s “Elegies”, considering how her poetic garden operates within the elegy and country house genres and responds to literary precedents like Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” to characterise a grief that is intractably personal and political. My final two chapters shift in time and place to consider twentieth- and twenty-first-century New Zealand poetry, analysing in the third chapter the turn away from colonial settler verse in Ursula Bethell’s poetry towards the domestic garden as a site of home and belonging. Finally, my last chapter considers Jenny Bornholdt’s contemporary New Zealand verse, in which the garden image dramatises the power imbalance and artifice intrinsic to poetry itself. This thesis therefore seeks to produce general knowledge about how the garden, through its forms, can mean, while also producing specific knowledge about how garden images have meant in particular texts across different contexts. I argue that these are not contrary aims: a new approach to the garden as a set of forms proves an incisive tool with which to understand this important and variegated image.