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Gated Community II
Partly, I’ve taken a fancy to Upon Appleton House and other country-house poems because the freedom of being a guest (as opposed to the responsibility of being the homeowner) is akin to becoming a child again. Innocence: a state propitious to the lyric. (Also: free time.)
Marvell lived through one of the most turbulent eras in British history. That we know him as a poet of gardens and greenery, ratiocination and repose, seems on consideration unlikely. A modern equivalent would perhaps be James Schuyler—who also wrote of roses and repose during the 1960s and 1970s, a time when other poets were riven apart by politics.
It was in 1651 that Marvell was summoned to the estate called Nun Appleton, in Yorkshire, to tutor the daughter of Lord Fairfax in languages. Fairfax was the former general of the parliamentary armies, and it is with the knowledge of Fairfax’s worldly responsibilities that Marvell penned stanzas 42 and 43:
Unhappy! shall we never more
That sweet militia restore,
When gardens only had their towers,
And all the garrisons were flowers;
When roses only arms might bear,
And men did rosy garlands wear?
Tulips, in several colours barred,
Were then the Switzers of our Gard.
The gard’ner had the soldier’s place,
And his more gentle forts did trace.
The nursery of all things green
Was then the only magazine.
The winter quarters were the stoves,
Where he the tender plants removes.
But war all this doth overgrow:
We ordnance plant and powder sow.
In Gardens, Harrison explains the philosophical difference between an Aristotelian idea of the campus and an Epicurean idea of the campus: in the former, schools are only a temporary haven—a place to mold the souls of future statesmen, who will soon enough be thrust back into the public agon. Thus do retreats from “reality” remain ethical: they are places to regroup and rehumanize. The Epicurean view, however, holds that it is fruitless to try to cultivate anything but one’s own happiness, and that it is perfectly ethical to do so. This is the standpoint that Linh Dinh inveighs against in his posts: “Poets shouldn’t loiter in paradise.”
Gardens and armies have been oddly paired since Cyrus the Great discovered that the quincunx shape maximized the efficiency of both soldiers in formation and fruit trees in orchards. (Sir Thomas Browne expounded on it, and S.G. Sebald after him.)
Speaking of Epicurus. A.E. Stallings, who has marvelously translated Epicurus’s disciple Lucretius, talks here about our stay in Angistri with her infant daughter. It was my first trip to Greece, and even at that time of year, end of January, it possessed an extraordinary enchantment: the entire island smelled like pine and lemons; anemones were just starting to bloom among the drying husks of asphodel.
Having a baby girl with us added to the enchantment. A child’s infancy is every bit as fleeting and achingly memorable as a visit to an exotic locale.
Alicia instructed me that eggs are best fried in cloudy green olive oil, and popcorn is much improved by being doused in olive oil rather than butter. She made a salad that had no lettuce in it: just parsley and dill (greens that I had always relegated to the status of mere garnish) which blended perfectly with pomegranate, feta, olive, walnut, avocado. The pomegranates were from her trees out back. Her sloping yard was divided into three terraces, and the view encompassed the sea, the island of Aegina, and in the distance, the formidable former site of Eleusis. Early in the evening, cuttlefish boats would shine their piercing lights into the sea, so the squid would swim up at this simulation of the full moon.
Annie Finch is right: there is nothing staid about gratitude.