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The Arcadian Friends
The Arcadian Friends
Tim Richardson
Bantam Press, 2007
359 pp.,

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Alan Jacobs


Gardening and Governing

Nature and culture among the roses.

Just in the center of Richard II, Shakespeare's most geometrically designed play, and the only one written wholly in verse, we are presented with a scene in a garden. Richard's Queen and her ladies stroll in it, but are heavy of heart—the King's grip on the throne is quickly loosening—and when the gardener and his servant arrive to do some work, they hide themselves and listen. The gardener offers these instructions:

Go thou, and like an executioner,
Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays,
That look too lofty in our commonwealth:
All must be even in our government.

And if this political allegory were not explicit enough, the servant dispenses with it and makes his commentary direct:

Why should we in the compass of a pale
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit-trees all upturned, her hedges ruin'd,
Her knots disorder'd and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?

At this point the gardener reveals that "the wasteful king" has been "seized" by Henry Bolingbroke. He exclaims, "O, what pity is it / That he had not so trimm'd and dress'd his land / As we this garden!"

The link between gardening and ruling was not first forged here, but rarely had it been made so strong; and Shakespeare offers the added lovely complication of placing this scene centrally, like a sculpture or tableau at the heart of a formal garden, thereby exhibiting his own skills at design, his own mastery of the available resources.

Gardening marks, as clearly as any activity, the joining of nature and culture. The gardener makes nothing, but rather gathers what God has made and shapes it into new and pleasing forms. The well-designed garden shows nature more clearly and beautifully than nature can show itself. And this can be a model of politics: people left to their own devices can run riot, make themselves and their environment ...

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