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The churchyard in Waterloo #6: Gardening against Adversity, thoughts on a line from Virgil

Jonathan Trustram, a volunteer at the Churchyard at St John's Waterloo, has been helping us explore the garden's history, its plants and its kind carers. Today, he takes on a different kind of gardening tour, one primarily concerned with Virgil and poetry.

St John's Churchyard


and already offering plane tree to the drinkers shade


the Georgics, Book 4, line 146


For years I've been at times pre-occupied with a few lines from Virgil's Georgics. When I worked in St Mungo's gardening project, Putting Down Roots, in which homeless people, mostly living in St Mungo's hostels, came out – for some it was a coming out – to do voluntary gardening, St John's churchyard in Waterloo, long a place for street drinking, drug taking and rough sleeping was one of our gardens; though scarcely a garden in the beginning, and a favourite spot for drinkers was under a big pollarded plane tree. Soon after I came to work there I read some of the Georgics, his long poem about agriculture - and nature, emperors and politics. Loyal to the new emperor, Virgil had neverthless lost his home and land – though this is now disputed - in the redistribution of property undertaken by Augustus to reward his soldiers for their long, hard service in the wars which led to the final overthrow of the Roman republic and to Augustus becoming the first emperor. (The most famous incident in these struggles was the murder of Julius Caesar.) He writes lyrically about rural life, but the threat of political and natural disaster is always present.

Book 4 is about bees. And bees lead to gardening, in that Virgil describes the construction of a garden which will be a safe and productive environment for bees, just as today we are urged to plant for pollinating insects:

Make gardens with saffron crocuses to invite the bees, and let the watchman against thieves and birds, Priapus of the Hellespont, protect them with his willow hook. And bring thyme and wild laurels from the mountains and plant them round their homes, caring for the bees, and make your hands hard with work, plant cuttings and water them carefully.
Priapus (fresco, Pompeii)

Statues of the fertility god Priapus with an erection like a baseball bat were often set up in Roman gardens, more as security guards than as boosts to productivity, security and boundaries being always a fundamental part of garden construction. (Maybe we should have tried that at St John's.) How astonishing that Virgil commends hard hands! As if rough, callused hands were not just a necessity, but a virtue. Stay in touch with the land, with the soil, even though you become successful and own a big villa; the idea of civilisation as rooted in everyday work.

It’s about design, but there is no designer, the design is in the doing.

Virgil goes on to regret that he hasn’t the time or space to write more about gardens. (He needs to get on and finish the Georgics, before devoting the rest of his life to the Aeneid, the great epic which links the foundation of Rome to the defeat of Troy, and which is in part another tribute to the Emperor Augustus.) But if he had the time, well... and what follows is the first and maybe the best poem about a real garden, with a real gardener, although it's like a trailer for a film that was never completed, a glimpse of might have been:

I remember how below the fortifications of Oebalia

where the dark river Galaesus waters yellow fields

I saw an old Corycian who had a few acres

of derelict land, too awkward for the plough,

the grazing too poor for sheep, no good for vines,

but he planted herbs in gaps among the thorns

and white lilies and verbenas and fragile poppies.

In his little kingdom he had the riches of the world.

Coming home late at night he laid out

on the table the feast he’d grown himself.

He picked the first roses of spring and the first apples in the autumn

and when desolate winter still split freezing rocks

and stopped the flow of streams with ice

he was already picking soft hyacinth flowers

and grumbling about the weather – spring breezes late,

would summer ever come?

His hives were the first to be filled with healthy swarms of bees,

e squeezed the comb and gathered foaming honey

his lime trees and viburnums were luxuriant

and the fruitful promise of spring's blossom

was always kept in autumn’s fruit.

and he planted out rows of well grown elms

pear trees hardened off, plum trees already fruiting

and plane trees offering the drinkers shade.

So the first poet of gardens says nothing about the grounds of the emperor’s palace or the formal, watered court yards of the wealthy in Rome, but is arrested by his memory of a grumpy, competitive old man with a patch of wasteland he’s taken over, a loner and a magician, a prize winner, emphatically not a designer, someone for whom nature is adversarial as well as bountiful, who is happy to provide shade for the drinkers but won’t actually sit down himself. One of the first and greatest poems about gardens is actually about an allotment, seemingly squatted.

Virgil defines the site of the old Corycian's garden in negative terms: it's no good for the plough, or for sheep, or for vines, which are the subjects of the first three books of the Georgics. It's 'relictus', which means abandoned, derelict. But it's a good place for bees. I'm reminded of the great stretches of stony, thorny phrygana in Greece which produce nothing but honey, (and some lean pickings for goats.)

Our idea of gardens is situated between opposites: bountiful, fertile places and the cruel wasteland, (in the Christian tradition the garden of Eden and the post-lapsarian world, the world after the Fall.) The one garden that Virgil describes unites these opposites.

Mary Beard thinks that the old Corycian, Virgil's gardener, was a pirate, one of those settled on the land by Pompeii in an unusually enlightened piece of social engineering. From piracy to gardening – from a life of easy pickings to a life of struggle?

It wasn’t until the Twentieth Century that garden poetry returned to work and food and the hard hands of the gardener: the actual doing of gardening. In between, it was mostly about people of leisure experiencing God or nature (or their power over nature) or romantic love. Gardens were places for leisurely, contemplative walks and romantic assignations. The gardeners in big estates had to be invisible, to run and hide if any of the gentry approached; their work had to leave no traces. Virgil of course was fairly well off, and Rome was a society based on slavery, but nostalgia for Rome’s origins meant that the peasant was idealised and the simple country life stood for values renounced by the idle rich.

But Alexander Pope in the 18th century did invoke the Virgilian, the Augustan (after the first emperor) spirit. While almost all writing about landscapes and gardens was concerned exclusively with the sublime and the beautiful, with the interplay of art and nature, and rarely mentioned any actual plants, Pope uses the shocking word 'broccoli' in one of his poems.

To come back to the last line of Virgil’s aborted poem about gardening, it was the word ‘potantibus’ which really struck me in the context of working at St John’s. Potantibus – to or for the drinkers. Because ‘drinkers’ is normally an awkward translation. If there were two or three people sitting in your garden you wouldn’t refer to them as ‘drinkers,’ because the word has become a euphemism for alcoholics. So it might have sometimes been appropriate at St John’s but I prefer the word ministrantem, with its religious overtone, and the feeling that the gardener somehow acts with and through the trees to make this gesture, a kind of ministering unto.

Derek Jarman's garden in Dungeness

Derek Jarman created a garden against adversity with a similar appeal in a very different landscape, the windy shingle of Dungeness. It is celebrated because of the astonishing seeming-contradiction between the bare, barren site and the tender beauty of the flowers he planted. Virgil's and Jarman's gardens both approach utopia in a very different way from the garden of Alcinous in Homer. This famous garden was literally magical: there were no seasons and no pests or diseases, but continuous perfection, constant budding and blossoming and fruiting, as in Eden. It sounds boring. When Europeans first discovered the tropics they thought they had found Eden again, a golden age, until they began to die of yellow fever.

The extreme boldness of Jarman's garden is that it has no boundaries, it shows no fear of wind, thieves or trespassers. The wild plants of the shingle are allowed to move into the garden, and the garden plants out onto the shingle, so that there is no clear cut distinction between the two. Virgil doesn't tell us whether the old Corycian built walls or fences, but I can't imagine them. He planted in 'pockets among the thorns' which would have given protection. Would he have had a statue of Priapus, the watchman? I doubt it. Enclosures define almost all gardens. Kew sits cosy behind not just walls but belts of trees which keep out flying weed seeds, wind and noise (except for the planes, of course). At St John's we've always had a lot of trouble with boundaries. Gates that wouldn't shut, or wouldn't open. Drinkers climbing over the wall at night. The only part of the garden to be granted official protection is the old brick wall, a grade 2 listed structure. The city itself is a kind of protection for the churchyard, its great walls of brick, concrete and steel keeping out aphids and slugs, acting as a kind of cordon sanitaire against disease, at a cost, of course, the cost of pollution, but the pollutants are more harmful to people than plants.

On the strength of our work at St John's in 2012 Putting Down Roots came second in a national competition organised by the Daily Telegraph, Gardening Against Adversity! The awards ceremony took place at Syon House, the 'spectacular London home of the Duke of Northumberland'. What about the duchess? She was there, he wasn't. Alan Titchmarsh gave out the prizes!


Jonathan Trustram is a gardening volunteer at the Churchyard of St John's Waterloo. You can follow his blog here.

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