These poems are about gardens, particularly the seventeenth-century French baroque gardens designed by the father of the form, André Le Nôtre. While the poems focus on such examples as Versailles, which Le Nôtre created for Louis XIV, they also explore the garden as metaphor. Using the imagery of the garden, Cole Swensen considers everything from human society to the formal structure of poetry. She looks in particular at the concept of public versus private property, asking who actually owns a garden? A gentle irony accompanies the question because in French, the phrase "le nôtre" means "ours." Whereas all of Le Nôtre's gardens were designed and built for the aristocracy, today most are public parks. Swensen probes the two senses of "le nôtre" to discover where they intersect, overlap, or blur.


André Le Nôtre (1613-1700) is often considered the father of the French formal garden. As the son and grandson of royal gardeners, he was born in the Tuileries and inherited a tradition already quite old. He took those traditions and adapted them to early Enlightenment thinking, incorporating contemporary mathematical and optical techniques, such as anamorphic perspective, to create gardens unprecedented in their appeal to both the eye and the mind.

Versailles is his best-known work, but he played a crucial role in many other gardens,including those at Chantilly, Saint-Cloud, Sceaux, the Tuileries, and Vaux-le-Vicomte. This last was his first major commission, and it remains famous both for its perfection and for the scandal incited when it was unveiled for the king and his court in the summer of 1661. It was so grand that it threw Louis xiv into a fit of jealousy and convinced him that its owner, Nicolas Fouquet, who was also his superintendent of finance, must have been embezzling. Fouquet was arrested a few weeks later and spent the rest of his long life in jail.

That story and others inform some of the following poems, but none of them is necessary, or even particularly helpful, for reading the poems themselves. Similarly, a few proper names are mentioned here and there, not for their historical significance, but rather to underscore their bearers’ simultaneous roles as average peo ple doing daily things, such as loving gardens.

André Le Nôtre lived a long and prosperous life. By the end of his career, he was consulted by royalty and aristocracy all over Europe, and his influence had spread even farther. and yet one of the things that is most remembered about him and most often repeated is that he was a great guy — modest, fun-loving, easy-going, and friendly — so somehow it seems fitting that, although he created all his gardens for members of the most exclusive classes, they are today almost all public parks. As if to underscore the irony, the phrase “le nôtre” means “ours.”

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