Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Chapter 4: A Horticultural Metamorphosis: Sepes Hortenis

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Chapter 4: A Horticultural Metamorphosis: Sepes Hortenis

Article excerpt

Dillingham's recreation of natural landscape and of its inhabitants manifests itself on a rather different level in his Sepes Hortensis. For this is a poem that celebrates the reinvention of a whole series of creatures from the natural world, and it does so by means of a garden topiary. A draft of the piece was sent by Dillingham to his longtime friend and critic, William Sancroft, who, despite offering a couple of suggestions for improvement,1 conveyed more than his customary enthusiasm:

The Truth is, I ought in justice to step yet further back; and to diank you also for your former Letter, and what came with it, your elegant Description of a Garden-hedge, and gravell walk. I will not tell you, how often, and with how much Delight I have pac'd it over from End to End, and entertain'd myself in it.2

For Sancroft the poem comes to life, providing an entertaining space that is both literary and pseudohorticultural, a space within whose confines the reader may pace with pleasure. As Ross remarks "gardens are at once parts of the real world-actual pieces of land-and also virtual worldscoherent sets of possible stimuli."3 These real and virtual worlds coalesce in Dillingham's poem as a seventeenth-century garden becomes the site of myth and metamorphosis. And more than that, for, as noted below, this "garden hedge" also comes to function as a symbol of transformation and transgression, a locus in which boundaries may be crossed. Or in the words of Foucault:

The limit and the transgression depend on each other for whatever density of being they possess: a limit could not exist if it were absolutely uncrossable and, reciprocally, transgression would be pointless if it merely crossed a limit composed of illusions and shadows.

The Sepes Hortensis was also deemed by Dillingham to be appropriate for much younger eyes than those of an Archbishop. On 14 February 1672, he sent the poem to Justinian Isham for his son Thomas, writing: "I send your sonne a verse made upon a garden dipt hedge which I have sometimes seen."5 And the event was recorded by the young Thomas in his famous Latin diary: "John Fisher returned from Oundle bringing a letter to my father from Dr Dillingham with some verses on the topiary art."6 It is possible that Dillingham was aware of Thomas's apparent predilection for hedges and gardens, a predilection that seems to be attested by several of the diary entries.7 Or his sending the poem may reflect a more general interest in the younger Isham's education. In the same letter Dillingham had recommended a range of texts that might prove useful to the boy's classical studies. Even so his own piece is rather self-consciously juxtaposed with such texts as though assuming a proud place alongside the classics.

After all, the very craft of topiary8 traces its origins back to the classical world. It was a skill that had developed as a by-product of the Romans' mastery of the technique of pruning. Originally the role of the topiarius was one of clipping hedges (nemora tonsilla).9 Thus "the Gardeners, from clipping and laying out every thing by the Line, and turning Trees and Hedges into various Forms, were called Topiarii."10 Gradually the term opus topiarium was used to describe the crafted art of the landscape gardener. 1 1 The skill of the topiary worker was held in high esteem by the ancients,12 characterized as it was by precision and versatility. As Lawson remarks, the classical topiarist "was not content to depict individual figures but achieved elaborate compositions, such as hunting scenes and naval battles."13 Pliny the Younger could boast that his Tuscan estate possessed a terraced formal garden with box hedge topiary, from which there sloped a bank with more box hedges clipped into the figures of animals (bestiarum effigies)}* John Ray defined the art as follows: Topiarium opus vocant arbores et herbas egregio artificio in formas animalium aut aliarum rerum ductas, and proceeded to emphasize the importance of the vegetation's "flexibility" as it is molded into a variety of shapes (frútices aut arbusculae tonsiles religatae . …

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