The Shakespeare Garden


Our Daily Correspondent

Perhaps you ran across a story in today’s New York Times about re-creating Emily Dickinson’s Amherst garden. Historians are discovering the layout of the family’s conservatory and planting heirloom varieties of fruit trees that would’ve grown in the orchard. Dickinson was apparently a prolific gardener—a talented amateur naturalist who attended carefully to her studies of the natural world. The article explains that her expertise “profoundly shaped her poetry”: 

As Farr wrote, her gardens “often provided her with the narratives, tropes, and imagery she required.” In her 1,789 poems, Dickinson refers to plants nearly 600 times and names more than eighty varieties, sometimes by genus or species. In her more than 350 references to flowers, the rose is most frequent, but Dickinson was also fond of humble plants like dandelions, clover and daisies. She used the latter two as symbols for herself in letters and poems. “The career of flowers differs from ours only in inaudibleness,” she wrote. “I feel more reverence as I grow for these mute creatures whose suspense or transport may surpass our own.”

For me, the concept of the literary garden evokes Shakespeare, who lived during a major landscaping craze—though the Shakespeare Garden is a relatively modern phenomenon. These gardens can refer to one of a few things: some, like Central Park’s, are planted with the different flora mentioned in all Shakespeare’s work—rosemary, pansies, red and white roses. Others—the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Elizabethan Garden—are landscaped after the formal fashions of his lifetime. Still others (such as that of Pittsburgh’s Mellon Park) are devoted to herbs and medicinal plantings. Many have quotations; some rely on the memories of the visitor, or only wish to transport. At the Anne Hathaway cottage near Stratford-upon-Avon, you can sit in the arboretum and listen to recordings of several sonnets. 

Evanston, Illinois, claims America’s first Shakespeare Garden. Cleveland built a celebrated version in honor of Shakespeare’s tercentenary anniversary, 1916. Central Park added its own the same year; both involved cuttings from a mulberry said to have come from Shakespeare’s property. In the early twenties, a Shakespeare Garden was built, appropriately, at the Bard’s final home, New Place. The landscape gardener Ernest Law based his design on a sixteenth-century engraving, although the vibe is as much storybook as historic. In any case, Shakespeare Gardens became all the rage, so much so that E. F. Benson gives one to his ever-pretentious heroine, Mrs. Emmeline Lucas, in 1931’s Mapp and Lucia:

There were “violets dim,” and primroses and daffodils, which came before the swallow dared and took the winds (usually of April) with beauty. But now in June the swallow had dared long ago, and when spring and the daffodils were over, Lucia always allowed Perdita’s garden a wider, though still strictly Shakespearian scope.

The Shakespeare Garden was particularly popular in the States, and to this day one can find them on campuses, in parks, and at Shakespeare Festivals across America. (Vassar’s garden—also created in 1916—was created in part by students of botany and Shakespeare.) It’s hard to know how many home gardens survive—or were left to languish, a picturesque remnant of an old world devastated by war. Here is part of the account of the opening ceremonies for Cleveland’s Shakespeare Garden in 1916:

A group of high school pupils in Elizabethan costume escorted the guests to the garden entrance and stood guard during the planting of the dedicatory elms. In his formal talk, Mr. Sothen urged storytelling days for children in the public parks. Miss Marlowe climaxed the proceedings by her readings of Perdita’s flower scene from “Winter’s Tale,” the fifty-fourth sonnet of Shakespeare, and verses from the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Her leading of all present in the singing of the national anthem brought the impressive event to a close.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.