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,