The Landscape Guide

Horace Walpole's essay On Modern Gardening: John Milton

Introduction Ancient gardens Roman gardens Renaissance gardens John Milton Sir William Temple William Kent Early 18th century gardens Thomas Whately Landscape Gardens Lancelot 'Capability' Brown

John Milton

One man, one great man we had, on whom nor education nor custom could impose their prejudices; who, on evil days though fallen, and with darkness and solitude compassed round, judged that the mistaken and fantastic ornaments he had seen in gardens were unworthy of the almighty hand that planted the delights of Paradise. He seems with the prophetic eye of taste (as I have heard taste well defined by the great Lord Chatham, who had a good taste himself in modern gardening, as he showed by his own villas in Enfield Chase and at Hayes) to have conceived, to have foreseen modern gardening; as Lord Bacon announced the discoveries since made by experimental philosophy. The description of Eden is a warmer and more just picture of the present style than Claude Lorraine could have painted from Hagley or Stourhead. The first lines I shall quote exhibit Stourhead on a more magnificent scale:

" Thro' Eden went a river large, 
Nor changed his course, but thro' the shagey hill 
Pass'd underneath ingulph'd, for Grod had thrown 
That mountain as his gsurden-mound, high nds'd 
Upon the rapid current." — Paradise, Lost, book iv. 1. 222. 

Hagley seems pictured in what follows : — 

" which thro' veins 
Of porous earth with kindly thirst updrawn, 
Hose a fresh fountain, and with many a rill 
Water'd the garden."— Lib. ii. 228. 

What colouring, what freedom of pencil, what landscape in these lines — 

" From that sapphire fount the crisped brooks, 
Kolling on onent pearl and sands of gold, 
With mazy error under pendent shades 
Ran nectar, visiting each plant, and fed 
Flow'rs worthy of Paradise, which not nice art 
In beds and curious knots, but nature boon 
Pour'd forth profuse on hHl and dale and plain. 
Both where tne morning sun first warmly smote 
The open field, and where the impicrccd shade 
Imbrownd the noon-tide bowers. — Thus was this place 
A happy rural seat of various view" — Pp. 237-24:5.' 

Read this transporting description, paint to your mind the scenes that follow, contrast them with the savage but respectable terror with which the poet guards the bounds of his Paradise, fenced 

'* with the champain head 
Of a steep wilderness, whose haiiy sides 
With thicket overgrown, grotesque and wild 
Access denied ; and over head upnew 
Insuperable height of loftiest shade. 
Cedar, and pine, and fir, and branching palm, 
A sylvan scene, and as the ranks ascend. 
Shade above shade, a woody theatre 
Of stateliest view." — Book iv. 1. 141. 

And then recollect that the author of this sublime vision had never seen a glimpse of anything like what he has imagined, that his favourite ancients had dropped not a hint of such divine scenery, and that the conceits in Italian gardens, and Theobalds and Nonsuch, were the brightest originals that his memory could furnish. His intellectual eye saw a nobler plan, so little did he suffer by the loss of sight. It sufficed him to have seen the materials with which he could work. The vigour of a boundless imagination told him how a plan might be disposed that would embellish nature, and restore art to its proper office, the just improvement or imitation of it.

It is necessary that the concurrent testimony of the age should swear to posterity that the description quoted was written above half a century before the introduction of modern gardening, or our incredulous descendants will defraud the poet of half his glory, by being persuaded that he copied some garden or gardens he had seen-so minutely do his ideas correspond with the present standard. But what shall we say for that intervening half century who could read that plan and never attempt to put it in execution?