By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Come into the garden’, as the speaker of Tennyson’s ‘monodrama’, Maud, entreated that poem’s title character. That poem is included below, along with nine other classic garden poems from over six centuries of English (and American) literature. So, why not lift the latch and step through the garden gate with us and enjoy some of the greatest poems about gardens?
Geoffrey Chaucer, from The Romaunt of the Rose.
The French allegorical poem Roman de la Rose was the work of two poets: Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. This earlier section, dating from around 1230, was composed by Lorris and is set in a walled garden, a classic setting for courtly poetry and romantic literature of the Middle Ages.
It is this section of the poem which is included above, in an English translation written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late fourteenth century.
Sir Philip Sidney, Sonnet 82 from Astrophil and Stella.
Sweet garden-nymph, which keeps the cherry-tree
Whose fruit doth far the Hesperian taste surpass,
Most sweet-fair, most fair-sweet, do not, alas,
From coming near those cherries banish me …
Although not the most famous sonnet in Sidney’s remarkable Elizabethan sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella, sonnet 82, beginning ‘Nymph of the garden where all beauties be’, is a wonderful poem which takes the garden as its chief metaphor. The garden in this poem is a metaphor for Stella’s body, the object of Sidney’s/Astrophil’s desire.
Andrew Marvell, ‘The Garden’.
Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade …
This is one of Andrew Marvell’s most famous poems, and takes the form of a meditation in a garden; this setting has led critics to interpret the poem as a response to the original biblical garden, Eden, while other commentators have understood the poem as a meditation about sex, political ambition, and various other themes.
Its celebrated lines about ‘Annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade’ are especially memorable and evocative.
William Blake, ‘The Garden of Love’.
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green …
In this poem, Blake’s speaker goes into the Garden of Love and finds a chapel built on the spot where he used to play as a child. The gates of the chapel are shut, and commandments and prohibitions are written over the door.
The garden has become a graveyard, its flowers replaced by tombstones. This idea of love starting out as a land of liberty and promise but ending up a world of death and restriction is expressed very powerfully through the image of the garden.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘Beloved, thou has brought me many flowers’.
This poem, one of Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) written about her love for her husband, Robert Browning, describes how her beloved brought her flowers plucked in the garden, as tokens of his affection.
Barrett Browning instructs her beloved to accept her gifts – her thoughts – which, like the flowers in the garden, have grown within her and, under his care, ‘shall not pine’.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Come into the garden, Maud’.
This lyric from Tennyson’s longer 1855 poem Maud is possibly the most famous garden poem in all of English literature, with description of night as ‘the black bat’, and the troubled speaker standing ‘at the gate, alone’:
Emily Dickinson, ‘New feet within my garden go’.
Barely any of the hundreds of poems Emily Dickinson wrote were published during her lifetime, and indeed, while she was alive, she was far better known as a gardener than a poet.
This poem, about new generations setting foot in her garden while the seasons continue to roll on and roll round, is short and poignant and reminds us of the link between mankind’s toil (working in the garden) and the vast and eternal cycle of nature which dwarfs our achievements.
Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Glory of the Garden’.
‘Our England is a garden that is full of stately views, / Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues’. So begins this classic poem about English gardens from one of the most popular poets of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Kipling extols the virtue of hard work involved in cultivating a garden, rather than ‘sitting in the shade’:
Our England is a garden that is full of stately views,
Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,
With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by;
But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye …
Robert Frost, ‘Lodged’.
This is the shortest poem to appear in this list of the greatest garden poems. In just six lines, Frost (1874-1963) draws a link between himself and the flowers in the flowerbed of a garden, pelted by wind and rain and yet managing to survive by lying low and waiting it out.
W. H. Auden, ‘Their Lonely Betters’.
Probably written in around 1950, this short lyric is not one of Auden’s most famous poems, but it’s fine choice to conclude this pick of the greatest garden poems.
With its allusion to Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ (‘promises to keep’), this poem, which contrasts the poet’s lyric voice with the voiceless existence of the birds and flowers, follows on nicely from the previous poem on this list.
Continue to explore the world of poetry with these classic poems about home, these great poems about childhood, our pick of the greatest poems about flowers, and these tips for analysing poetry. For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.