You only have to glance through the dates in this list to see the enduring presence of gardens in literature. From Ancient Rome to twentieth century Britain, glorious flowerbeds and overgrown wildernesses have proven richly evocative and often symbolic settings for some of the greatest stories ever told. We selected some of our favourites, along with a few choice quotes that you can pull out next time you want to relive the days of impressing wide-eyed fellow undergrads with your paperback poetry…
Paradise Lost - John Milton (1667)
We couldn’t really start anywhere else could we? A retelling of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden Of Eden, Milton’s monumental work is one of the towering masterpieces in literary history. Whilst the purity of Adam and Eve is more complex from the start than in the biblical version, the resplendent glory of Eden itself is stunningly realised in contrast to the depths of hell witnessed elsewhere in the text.
“Immortal amarant, a flower which once
In paradise, fast by the tree of life,
Began to bloom; but soon for man's offence
To heaven removed, where first it grew, there grows,
And flowers aloft, shading the fount of life,
And where the river of bliss through midst of heaven
Rolls o'er elysian flowers her amber stream:
With these that never fade the spirits elect
Bind their resplendent locks.”
Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier (1938)
An enduring success of twentieth century English literature, fondly remembered for both the classic Hitchcock adaptation it inspired and the descriptions of Manderley, a fictional estate in the south of England. From the famous opening line (’Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’) to the end, the novel is full of memorable descriptions of the grounds - “There was something rather blousy about roses in full bloom, something shallow and raucous, like women with untidy hair” - which come to play a central role in the story itself.
“The peace of Manderley. The quietude and the grace. Whoever lived within its walls, whatever trouble there was and strife, however much uneasiness and pain, no matter what tears were shed, what sorrows borne, the peace of Manderley could not be broken or the loveliness destroyed. The flowers that died would bloom again another year, the same birds build their nests, the same trees blossom. That old quiet moss smell would linger in the air, and the bees would come, and crickets, the herons build their nests in the deep dark woods. The butterflies would dance their merry jug across the lawns, and spiders spin foggy webs, and small startled rabbits who had no business to come trespassing poke their faces through the crowded shrubs. There would be lilac, and honeysuckle still, and the white magnolia buds unfolding slow and tight beneath the dining-room window. No one would ever hurt Manderley. It would lie always in its hollow like an enchanted thing, guarded by the woods, safe, secure, while the sea broke and ran and came again in the little shingle bays below.”
‘The Door In The Wall’ - H.G. Wells (1911)
Wells’ most acclaimed short story sees the sci-fi forefather exploring the conflict between the rational world of science and the unbridled realm of imagination. In it, the protagonist Lionel Wallace is convinced that he has unearthed a secret door in his building that leads to an enchanted garden. Wallace’s inability to square his rational knowledge with his desire to believe provides the backdrop to an ending steeped in the sad reality of the situation.
“Was there, after all, ever any green door in the wall at all?”
The Art Of Love - Ovid (2AD)
Written in the second century AD, the Ars Amatoria, is an elegy to intimate expressions of love by the Ancient Roman poet, Ovid. His use of flower and garden-filled metaphors had a profound influence on everyone from Shakespeare to Spenser, though the more, erm, pornographic usages didn’t always maintain the greatest of legacies… In 1497 Italian preacher Savonarola burned all copies of the book in Florence, and, even as late as 1930, English translations were being seized by U.S. customs.
“The sharp thorn often produces delicate roses.”
Richard II - William Shakespeare (1595)
It may not be approaching the bard’s best-known or best-loved works, but the first play in the ‘Henriad’ does (in this writer’s opinion anyway) contain some of his finest lyrical passages. Famously, the titular Richard’s speech is heavy in symbolism and cloaked in metaphors, yet one of the most memorable moments comes as a lowly gardener compares the state of their land to the entirety of England itself.
“…our sea-walled garden, the whole land / is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up.