Scholia Reviews 14 (2005) 29.
John Henderson, Hortus: The Roman Book of Gardening. London and New York: Routledge, 2004. Pp. ix + 152. ISBN 0-415-3245-0. UKú17.99.
Classics, University of Exeter
The blurb on the back cover tells us that this is a 'timely' contribution to our understanding of gardening history. However, if the evening television schedules are a reliable guide to public interest, then it seems that gardens have for a good while been replaced first by cookery and then by home interiors as the favourite enthusiasm of the British. Certainly, the increasing number of once-smart front gardens that have been turned into concrete parking spaces suggests that priorities have changed. Nevertheless, gardens remain an object of passion for many English people, not least for Oxford and Cambridge dons accustomed to take an interest in their fine college gardens. John Henderson does not try to hide his own passions in this volume and indeed we meet here the gardener as hero, a figure who, for Henderson in an oddly essentializing mode, embodies an outlook on life which survives the changes that might be occurring around him. As Henderson says of the selections in this volume, 'in each of them the voice of the gardener, the gardener who means it, keeps ringing through. You can't miss it, outlook and attitude both add up -- they are what make gardeners worth their salt' (p. 1).
The title of this book is Hortus, but it is gardening not gardens themselves that provide the focus. Henderson offers us a lively translation of texts which tackle the subject more or less explicitly. First, we are offered Virgil's account of the aged Corycian gardener (the 'Corycian old- timer', in Henderson's version, p. 29) from the Georgics. For Henderson, in a short but illuminating reading, this brief interlude makes us re-assess the world of the rest of the poem: 'the poet takes pains to mark out the garden as a lamentable, regretted, gap in his poem on farming. He proffers gardening to us as a topic clamouring for posterity to prioritize. Make good the void left to glare from Virgil's farm' (pp. 4f.). Henderson seems to read Virgil through the lens of contemporary middle-class anxieties concerning modern food production: 'All the cultural work embodied in the Georgics, on paper and in heads, is evoked in this magical parable -- checking out the values and scale of agrobusiness against the caring intimacy of gardening' (p. 5). We can almost picture Henderson's Virgil in his villa looking forward to the delivery of his weekly box of locally-produced organic vegetables.
Columella is next: Book 11 of the De Re Rustica with its instructions to the farm manager, followed by the poem on the garden in Book 10. Henderson justifies the switch in order in the over-excited prose that is typical of the book: 'Why the switch? So that we can first connect with the world of canny, applied know-how of garden-lovers everywhere. After that, by all means, the poem can cut loose with its release of whooping enthusiasm and emotional highs and lows through every turn of the garden. (You wait.)' (p. 6). At certain moments, one feels that Henderson is trying too hard to argue for the merits of his material. The constant barraging of the addressee (us) with imperatives and questions is doubtless an attempt to cast the narrator in the light of a master of didactic, as passionate as Lucretius as he spreads enlightenment to the dubious reader. However, one suspects that only those who are already sold on the glories of gardening will accept these bullying tactics without resisting. Readers who more resemble Memmius will surely admire and respect Henderson's proselytizing zeal but they are unlikely to be converted by Henderson's rhetoric.
Pliny Book 19 is next, with its account of garden plants. Pliny is introduced as an 'eccentric human volcano who wound up Grand Vizier of the Cosmos' (p. 20), and once more this reader can only admire Henderson's enthusiasm for his chosen material, in this case an author whose 'drive to get those facts -- all of 'em -- suits gardening multi-culture just fine' (p. 25). Closing the collection is the 'gutsy' Palladius (p. 2), with selections from his account of the yearly labours of a gardener. Once more, Henderson sees shining through the true spirit of that seemingly eternal figure of the gardener: 'His "go-do-it" teaching certainly did run real farming in early modern Europe; and the complete blanking out of all connection between the farm he envisages and any world beyond brings us up close as can be to the handling of soil and seed, plant and pest, where gardening comes alive most of all' (p. 26).
Here, I have focused on Henderson's introduction, but it is the extended translations which form the heart of the book. Ultimately, it will be gardening and perhaps food enthusiasts who will enjoy these texts most, with their often fascinating details and idiosyncratic judgements concerning garden technique and the properties of fruit and vegetables. Most readers will be able to appreciate on some level a genuinely-felt paean to the cabbage and many will share Henderson's obvious pleasure at the almost erotically-charged accumulation of exotic names of plants, fruit and vegetables: 'artichoke, mustard, coriander, rocket, basil, all- heal, celery/parsley, parsnip/carrot, rampion, elecampane, alexanders, mint, rue, thyme and savory, pepperwort, beet, chervil and orach, poppy, dill, caper' (pp. 6f.). This eroticism is made explicit by Columella and cleverly translated by Henderson:
'But, it's time, the season to chop those early "first-cut" stalks, and tear off the stems that come from Tartessus and Paphos, and then belt the bundles all around with parsley and chive. Time, erotic rocket comes erect in perfumed garden. Time, oily sorrel, time, thamnum shrubs, grow stiff by themselves. And squill. Butcher's broom, bushed to make a bristling hedge, is now pushing on, And wild "corruda" stem, asparagus' twin. Moisture-retaining purslain seals cover for thirsty rows. The eye bean spoils things for the orach, by rearing up tall. Here, hanging in an outhouse, or there, like some watersnake, out in the summer sum, all through the cool shade of the grass, there creeps... cucumber. And swollen gourd, come to term. Ready to pop.' (p. 63)
And so on. In translating these texts with such enthusiasm, Henderson has done us all a service. I suspect that those of us who lack the gardener's grit and toughness will only dip in and out of this collection. But kindred spirits, able to nod with approval or raise an eyebrow at these ancient words of wisdom, will surely find it a joy.