The Landscape Guide

 René Rapin's garden poetry

On the threshold of this period the French garden found its earliest poets. René Rapin, the learned Jesuit who wrote so many books, published in 1665 a poem called Hortorum libri quattuor. This was in undisguised imitation of Virgil’s Georgics, but aimed at giving a supplement on the province of the garden, which the Roman poet had neglected. Rapin had already seen something of the development of gardens in the grand siècle, and this appears in much of what he wrote. But he chiefly concerns himself with the gardens of the time of Maria de’ Medici and Henry IV of France. All that he writes in his first book, The Flower Garden, is what is demanded by the usual theorists. About flowers he only gives pretty myths in the style of Ovid. But in the second book he is inspired with new ideas, the exhaustive treatment of the park (nemus) : he says that when you step out of the garden the park must at once appear as a stage formally arranged. The trees must be in the form of the quincunx, with straight lines and right angles, although he also likes slanting lines and circular arches in some places. All the paths have to be provided with fine sand or closely mown grass, and at the sides the beeches or cypresses have to be clipped so as to make straight walls, but the lighter branches may be worked into a thousand shapes and mazes of any kind. He is full of praise for the oak as a good forest tree, and he is emphatically opposed to the clipping of oaks, using all his rhetoric and calling down all mythological punishments upon the heads of the desecrators of trees. This care for the park and its cultivation is by no means unfamiliar in Renaissance times, but the close connection of its main design with that of the garden points to a period which is still to come.

In the same way the third book, which treats of water, adhering to all the fantastic ideas of the Renaissance, rejoicing in every one of the innumerable water-devices, and demanding a great extension and development of cascades, does try most energetically to enforce strict regularity even in the domain of water. It is admitted that tricks of teasing waters in grottoes, and pumice and shells for decoration, are all wonderful attractions for the people on festival days; but anyone who is sensible, large-minded and thoughtful is fond of great sheets of water, and canals like rivers : it is to sing of these that his lyre shall be strung. To this poem of Rapin’s, which is by far the best of his works, and long enjoyed a high renown, he later added a treatment of the same subject in prose. Here he shows learning both fundamental and far-reaching, and in the form of a representation of the Quarrel between Ancients and Moderns he puts forward the modern view ; men of the old style, he admits, were full of enthusiasm for garden architecture, but remained stationary at one stage of their art ; whereas all progress, all individual art, belonged to the moderns. The garden of Alcinous was nothing more than a peasant’s garden, and even there we found very few kinds of fruits.

Now, however, the garden is the glory of the age, and its noblest art, and there is no house worth looking at that cannot boast of its show garden. What once was a servant s work is now the achievement and delight of the master.” These words may serve as a motto for the period of garden art upon whose threshold Rapin stood, the age of Louis XIV.