It always comes as a delightful shock to notice that the evenings are drawing out and spring is in full swing in garden, pond and forest. In a moment of madness last summer – you know how easy it is to agree to anything if it is far enough in the future – we agreed to be part of a village ‘gardens open’ this year, so April has seen us, in defiance of the weather, which has been a bit Novemberish for my tastes, digging and raking and sticking tentative forks into what we optimistically call the lawn. Frogs have spawned, snowdrops have been and gone and we are now knee-deep in daffodils and blossom, with tulips ready to upstage the lot. What we need from this week’s books is flowers.
Let’s start with some poetry. Every garden-lover should have a copy of Poems for Gardeners by the bed. An anthology put together by Germaine Greer, it is exactly the right mixture of the well-known and the surprising, wandering pleasingly far and wide to remind us that gardens have always been, quite literally, a paradise. Greer includes Andrew Marvell, because he is impossible to resist at the best of times and especially when talking about gardens. Always writing in couplets, Marvell can seem clunky to us now, and I always have a lurking suspicion that the thought behind ‘The Garden’ outstrips the phrasing – casting the body’s vest aside, for example: memorable, certainly, but, at least in the NorthernReader household, impossible to read straight-faced, which rather lowers the tone. In all his poems about the natural or the cultivated outdoor world, in fact – Upon Appleton House, the ‘Mower’ poems – Marvell sticks rigidly to his prevailing mood of a rather gloomy austerity. No, I think I want someone cheerier as my garden companion for today.
Not Wendy Cope, then; but only because her entirely marvellous short poem, ‘Flowers’, breaks my heart.
Some men never think of it.
You did. You’d come along
And say you’d nearly brought me flowers
But something had gone wrong.The shop was closed. Or you had doubts –
The sort that minds like ours
Dream up incessantly. You thought
I might not want your flowers.It made me smile and hug you then.
Now I can only smile.
But, look, the flowers you nearly brought
Have lasted all this while
From this it is but a short step to Dorothy Parker’s indispensable ‘One Perfect Rose’. We have talked about this before (Week 83), but here it is in its full acerbic glory:
A single flow’r he sent me, since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet –
One perfect rose.
I knew the language of the floweret;
‘My fragile leaves,’ it said, ‘his heart enclose.’
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.
Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.
Not yet known to me, but looked forward to, is the collection Reading the Flowers by Linda France, who will be talking about her work next Saturday at the Hexham Book Festival. I have seen her poems described as ‘a work of scholarship and imagine and precise observation’ which make them sound exactly the sort of thing for me.
On any bookshelf about flowers, Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever has to take pride of place. Perfectly balanced between Calvinist restraint and Catholic excess, the novel is saturated with the extraordinary, breath-holding world that produced the sumptuous still-lives of the Dutch Old Masters. If you haven’t, read it; if you have, read it again: time well spent in either case. And we can indulge in some mild word-play by adding Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower and the collected works of Rose Tremain to our shelf: none of them very helpful on the natural history or horticultural front, but essential reading on other grounds. And lest it was buried in the middle of my little list, let me repeat that Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower has to be read; now, at once, immediately: it is that rarest of rare things, an entirely perfect work of art.
Children are probably better served nowadays than they were when I was little and in danger of being fobbed off with the sugary pleasures of Cicely Mary Barker’s The Flower Fairies. It may of course be that I was an unusually horrid and insensitive child, but I’m afraid her classic illustrations of little girls simpering about with wings and floaty frocks inspired nausea even at a very tender age. You may of course have loved them, in which case you are very far from being alone judging from the brisk trade in posters, fabric, ceramics and what the NorthernReader household learned from Betty MacDonald to call toe-covers (such a useful phrase, we find, to sum up all those gifty knick-knacks of no possible benefit to mankind). Getting the poppets to notice flowers, and spot the differences between them, is a good start to engaging them in a lifetime of pleasure in the natural world. Flowers are colourful, so give children paints and paper and send them outside. Anyone brought up on the detailed botanical drawings of Beatrix Potter has a headstart; and, among many other reasons for reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, the practical descriptions of gardening constitute good sound advice. You can always follow up with Christopher Lloyd’s The Well-Tempered Garden for a later birthday.
Right. The sun has come, a little fitfully, out. On with boots and gloves and out we go.