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An essay by Vernon Lee

The Garden Of Life

Title:     The Garden Of Life
Author: Vernon Lee [More Titles by Lee]

"Cela est bien dit," repondit Candide; "mais il
faut cultiver notre jardin."--ROMANS DE VOLTAIRE.

This by no means implies that the whole of life is a garden or could be made one. I am not sure even that we ought to try. Indeed, on second thoughts, I feel pretty certain that we ought not. Only such portion of life is our garden as lies, so to speak, close to our innermost individual dwelling, looked into by our soul's own windows, and surrounded by its walls. A portion of life which is ours exclusively, although we do occasionally lend its key to a few intimates; ours to cultivate just as we please, growing therein either pistachios and dwarf lemons for preserving, like Voltaire's immortal hero, or more spiritual flowers, "sweet basil and mignonette," such as the Lady of Epipsychidion sent to Shelley; kindly rosemary and balm; or, as may happen, a fine assortment of witch's herbs, infallible for turning us into cats and toads and poisoning our neighbours.

But with whatever we may choose to plant the portion of our life and our thought which is our own, and whatsoever its natural fertility and aspect, this much is certain, that it needs digging, watering, planting, and perhaps most of all, weeding. "Cela est bien dit," repondit Candide, "mais il faut cultiver notre jardin." He was, as you will recollect, answering Dr. Pangloss. One evening, while they were resting from their many tribulations, and eating various kinds of fruit and sweetmeats in their arbour on the Bosphorus, the eminent optimistic philosopher had pointed out at considerable length that the delectable moment they were enjoying was connected by a Leibnitzian chain of cause and effect with sundry other moments of a less obviously desirable character in the earlier part of their several lives.

"For, after all, my dear Candide," said Dr. Pangloss, "let us suppose you had not been kicked out of a remarkably fine castle, magnis ac cogentissimis cum argumentis a posteriori; suppose also that, etc., etc. had not happened, nor, furthermore, etc., etc., etc.; well, it is quite plain that you would not be in this particular place, _videlicet_ an arbour; and, moreover, in the act of eating preserved lemon-rind and pistachio nuts."

"What you say is true," answered Candide, "but we have to cultivate our garden."

And here I hasten to remark, that although I have quoted and translated these seven immortal words, I would on no account be answerable for their original and exact meaning, any more than for the meaning of more officially grave and reverend texts, albeit perhaps not wiser or nobler ones.

Did the long-suffering hero of the Sage of Ferney accept the chain of cause and effect, and agree that without the kicks, the earthquake, the _auto-da-fe_, and all the other items of his uneasy career, it was impossible he should be eating pistachio nuts and preserved lemon-rind in that arbour? And, in consideration of the bitter sweet of these delicacies, was he prepared to welcome (retrospectively) the painful preliminaries as blessings in disguise? Did he even, rising to stoical or mystic heights, identify these superficially different phenomena and recognize that their apparent contradiction was real sameness?

Or, should we take it that, refraining from such essential questions, and passing over his philosophical friend's satisfaction in the _causal nexus_, poor Candide was satisfied with pointing out the only practical lesson to be drawn from the whole matter, to wit, that in order to partake of such home-grown dainties, it had been necessary, and most likely would remain necessary, to put a deal of good work into whatever scrap of the soil of life had not been devastated by those Leibnitzian Powers who further Man's felicity in a fashion so energetic but so roundabout?

All these points remain obscure. But even as a play is said to be only the better for the various interpretations which it affords to as many great actors; so methinks, the wisest sayings are often those which state some principle in general terms, leaving to individuals the practical working out, according to their nature and circumstances. So, whether we incline to optimism or to pessimism, we must do our best in the half-hours we can bestow upon our little garden.

I speak advisedly of half-hours, and I would repeatedly insist upon the garden being little. For the garden, whatever its actual size, and were it as extensive as those of Eden and the Hesperides set on end, does not afford the exercise needful for spiritual health and vigour. And whatever we may succeed in growing there to please our taste or (like some virtuous dittany) to heal our bruises, this much is certain, that the power of enjoyment has to be brought from beyond its limits.

Happiness, dear fellow-gardeners, is not a garden plant.

In plain English: happiness is not the aim of life, although it is life's furtherance and in the long run life's _sine qua non_. And not being life's aim, life often disregards the people who pursue it for its own sake. I am not, like Dr. Pangloss, a professional philosopher, and what philosophy I have is of no particular school, and neither stoical nor mystic. I feel no sort of call to vindicate the Ways of Providence; and on the whole there seems something rather ill-bred in crabbing the unattainable, and pretending that what we can't have can't be good for us. Happiness _is_ good for us, excellent for us, necessary for us, indispensable to us. But ... how put such transcendental facts into common or garden (for it is _garden_) language? But _we_--that is to say, poor human beings--are one thing, and life is quite another. And as life has its own programme irrespective of ours, to wit, apparently its own duration and intensifying throughout all changes, it is quite natural that we, its little creatures of a second, receive what we happen to ask for--namely, happiness--as a reward for being thoroughly alive.

Now, for some reason not of our choosing, we cannot be thoroughly alive except as a result of such exercises as come under the headings: Work and Duty. That seems to be the law of Life--of Life which does not care a button about being aesthetic or wisely epicurean. The truth of it is brought home to us occasionally in one of those fine symbolical intuitions which are the true stuff of poetry, because they reveal the organic unity and symmetry of all existence. I am alluding to the sense of cloying and restlessness which comes to most of us (save when tired or convalescent) after a very few days or even hours shut up in quite the finest real gardens; and to that instinct, impelling some of us to inquire about the lodges and the ways out, the very first thing on coming down into some private park. Of course they are quite exquisite, those flowery terraces cut in the green turf, and bowling greens set with pines or statues, and balustraded steps with jars and vases. And the great stretches of park land with their solemn furbelowed avenues and their great cedars stretching _moire_ skirts on to the grass, are marvellous fine things to look upon....

But we want the ploughed fields beyond, the real woods with stacked-up timber, German fashion; the orchards and the kitchen gardens; the tracks across the high-lying sheep downs; the towing-paths where the barges come up the rivers; the deep lanes where the hay-carts have left long wisps on the overhanging elms; the high-roads running from village to village, with the hooded carts and bicycles and even the solemn Juggernaut traction-engines upon them. We want not only to rest from living, to take refreshment in life's kindly pauses and taste (like Candide in his arbour) the pleasantness of life's fruits. We want also to live.

But there is living and living. There is, unfortunately, not merely such breezy work-a-dayness as we have been talking of, but something very different indeed beyond the walls of our private garden. There are black, oozy factory yards and mangy grass-plots heaped with brickbat and refuse; and miles of iron railing, and acres of gaunt and genteel streets not veiled enough in fog; a metaphorical _beyond the garden walls_, in which a certain number of us graduate for the ownership of sooty shrubberies and clammy orchid houses. And we poor latter-day mortals have become so deadly accustomed to the routine of useless work and wasteful play, that a writer must needs cross all the _t_'s and dot all the _i_'s of his conviction (held also by other sentimentalists and cranks called Carlyle, Ruskin, and Morris) that the bread and wine of life are not grown in the Black Country; no, nor life's flowers in the horticultural establishments (I will not call them gardens) of suburban villas.

Fortunately, however, this casual-looking universe is not without its harmonies, as well as ironies. And one of these arrangements would seem to be that our play educates the aims and methods of our work. If we lay store by satisfactions which imply the envy and humiliation of other folk, why then we set about such work as humiliates our neighbours or fills them with enviousness, saving the case where others, sharing our tastes, do alike by us. Without going to such lengths (the mention of which has got me a reputation for lack of human sympathy) there remains the fact that if our soul happen to take delight in, let us say, futility--well, then, futility will litter existence with shreds of coloured paper and plaster comfits trodden into mud, as after a day of carnival at Nice. Nay, a still simpler case: if we cannot be happy without a garden as big as the grounds of an expensive lunatic asylum, why, then, all the little cottage gardens down the lane must be swept away to make it.

Now, the cottage gardens, believe me, are the best. They are the only ones which, being small, may be allotted in some juster future to every man without dispossessing his neighbour. And they are also the only ones compatible with that fine arable or dairy country which we all long for. Stop and look over the hedges: their flowers leave no scrap of earth visible between them, like the bedded-out things of grander gardens; and their vivid crimsons, and tender rose and yellow, and ineffable blue, and the solemn white which comes out in the evening, are seen to most advantage against the silvery green of vegetables behind them, and the cornfield, the chalk-pit under the beech trees beyond. The cottage flowers come also into closer quarters with their owners, not merely because these breathe their fragrance and the soil's good freshness while stooping down to weed, and prune, and water; but also, and perhaps even more, because the flowers we tend with our own hands have a habit of blooming in our expectations and filling our hopes with a sweetness which not the most skilful hired gardeners have ever taught the most far-fetched hybrids that they raise for clients.

Which, being interpreted, may be taken to mean that it is no use relying on artists, poets, philosophers, or saints to make something of the enclosed spaces or the waste portions of our soul: _Il faut cultiver notre jardin._

[The end]
Vernon Lee's essay: The Garden Of Life