Not upon oath Posted on January 5, 2009

We have seen ‘gay’ appropriated. And ‘wicked’ and ‘cool’. It is all too easy to claim a word for a purpose, a cause or an occasion and to colour it, for the rest of us, and for good, with an association that puts its original meaning out of reach.

Sound-bites do the same with phrases. No one can link the words ‘wind’ and ‘change’ without Harold Macmillan’s drooping eyelids appearing momentarily in the corner of the frame. Of course there are coinages that enrich the language. Churchill gave us the Iron Curtain and Nelson ‘England expects’. But quotations need the protection of silent inverted commas, or they risk becoming clichés so embedded in the language that they no longer fulfil their function.

Freshness and toughness are two qualities essential in a memorable phrase. They are the spirit of the haiku; a verse form that must strike, surprise, resonate but remain faintly ambivalent and mysterious. They tend to feel fragile in translation. One of the master Basho’s most quoted is

‘old pond

a frog jumps in

the sound of water’.

I believe the sound of the Japanese (and perhaps the look of the characters) expresses more froggy thoughts than any English version. ‘Old pond ……’ nonetheless could make a pleasantly whimsical inscription beside the water in a garden.

Why all this? Ever since I started gardening here I have been tempted to caption, as it were, certain parts of the place with lapidary inscriptions. I love the look of letters carved in stone, and I want to share certain thoughts with visitors. We have a grove of young oaks I have deliberately pruned in the manner of a French forest: branchless boles to 30 feet or so supporting the leafy canopy. I tell every visitor that to me it represents and recalls the Fôret de Tronçais, the vast horn-echoing domain that produces France’s finest timber. Beside our Tronçais glade stands a splendid branchy veteran in the English style: a lion among gazelles.

Could I transmit these associations in a few words on stone? Could I or should I add a reflection on the reflection in the moat? There are gardens that lead parallel lives: a leafy one and a lapidary one. Stowe, for example, or Rousham, with their ‘worthies’. Little Sparta is a garden of stone-cut knotty thoughts that needs only their moorland setting to free your mind to follow them. ‘Language’, said its creator, Ian Hamilton Finlay, ‘ambushes the visitor’. Unexpected language, monumentally inscribed, does more: it kidnaps his thoughts, contradicts his natural impulses and leaves him disquieted.

There are those who hold that modern gardens should do precisely this, disquiet, to have any claim to be considered art. They define art as a challenge. Its job is to remind us of the (miserable) ‘human condition’. The aggressive wit you feel in Little Sparta is thus its claim to be a work of art.

I could inscribe, at the entrance to my oak glade, ‘Forty cords of firewood’ or ‘Fifty thousand kilojoules (and rising)’. I could deconstruct the sum of nature and horticulture around us, or thread it with musical references or puff it up with poetry.

I won’t, though. Words are too potent, captured and cut, for the ambivalence of growth and light. Once we thought (or Keats did) Beauty is Truth. Even that, though, is too blunt a thought.

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