Domestic War: Vita Sackville-West’s ‘The Garden’

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Vita Sackville-West, ‘The Garden’

“So does the gardener in a little way

Maintain a bastion of his opposition

…To keep enjoyment in his breast alive

When all is dark and even in the heart

Of beauty feels the pallid worm of death”

Written during the pangs of World War II and published one year after its end in 1946, this is a poem which reflects the concerns of that period through contemplation of ‘The Garden’. And it is a long poem: 130 pages of iambic pentameter separated into four sections, ‘Winter’, ‘Spring’, ‘Summer’ and ‘Autumn’. There is a dedication to T.S. Eliot, and his influence apparent especially in the Prefatory section which, like Eliot’s Four Quartets, is heavily concerned with the effects and cycle of time. Sackville-West outlines her intentions to tell “of gardens in the midst of war” and she uses the garden as a metaphor for life or humanity, and seasons through which she takes us seem to mirror the unpredictability of life. The War haunts the poem both explicitly and implicitly, and in the preface she tells of how

“…all the pocket folk

Were grabbed and shaken by a larger hand…”

What this ‘larger hand’ is – politicians, world leaders, God? – is up for grabs, but what is undeniable is the effect upon every Tom, Dick and Harry who are plucked up and sent to war. But what about those left behind, like Sackville-West?

“Daring to find a world in a lost world,

A little world, a little perfect world

…These lines, these modest lines, almost demure

…Renewed the million dapple of he leaves”

It is the world of poetry and the garden which keep her occupied, then. And the garden is the symbolic image which carries the poem, describing how the garden is a sort of domestic war which she fights daily:

“So does the gardener in a little way

Maintain a bastion of his opposition

…To keep enjoyment in his breast alive

When all is dark and even in the heart

Of beauty feels the pallid worm of death”

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The poet then waltzes us through the four seasons of her poem, tackling a panoply of themes in the process: the effects of time, solitude, the war and its effects, nature, religion, the list goes on. Beginning poignantly with Winter and its continual overtones of the on-going war. She evokes the solitude that war brings, emptying the land of its habitants. But rather than lament this solitude, she praises it:

“Darkness is greater light, to those who see;

Solitude great company to those

Who hear the immaterial voices; those

Who dare to be alone”

The ‘Winter’ section allows her to explore the effects of war more explicitly, and the imagery is abounding with the tumultuous changes which are being caused because of it:

“the unaccountable foe/ More dangerous than known danger”

“A force iniquitous, an infamy/ Whose only lust is ruin”

“Fangs/ Savaging the poor shelter of our house”

“The malice all around us”

Such imagery allows the reader to contemplate the ambience of the epoch, the continual fear, dread and paranoia of a world at war. Yet once again Sackville-West turns this on its head by praising the winter and suggesting there is a hidden beauty lying beneath the dark, bleak, morbid surface.

“But I like winter best, for…

…Beauty’s not always in a scarlet robe.

She wears and old black shawl…

See how one seedling, fallen all by chance

In some forgotten corner, as a stray,

Spreads sturdy as a little bush…

This lesson learn from Nature”

Nature the teacher, a very Wordsworthian concept. But what is she suggesting here? That the winter, symbolic for the war, isn’t such a bad thing after all? That some good will come of it? Sackville-West perceives winter as a necessary but also a valuable season which is indispensable to the cycle of the seasons. Perhaps she also believed the war was a necessary event which brought goodness into the world? Well if the war did not take place, who knows what sort of a world we’d live in today…

IMG_3026And the poem continues in such vein. As a whole it gives a fascinating insight into British life during the second World War, and it is the first time I have read such an account in the medium of poetry. While exploring many serious themes, VSW also shows a mastery of the language, mixing her iambic pentameter with lyrical sections which ease the tone of the poem. The garden also provides her with an inexhaustible wealth of images which she uses to good effect. One image which I love, although not particularly to do with her garden but domestic nonetheless, is when she describes how she sought safety in her home:

“Hidden, like a child afraid

Shrinking beneath the bed-clothes that persuade

Into a sense of safety, then

We cowered in our darkness…”

A rather winsome image. The only criticism I would have is the apparently endless lists of flowers Sackville-West describes for each season. True, her wealth of knowledge is piled-high and it is very impressive to look at, but I felt that these lists were tiresome and didn’t add very much to the poem (for instance she rarely, if ever, used the characteristics of the flowers to symbolise an aspect of the war or of a character, etc). Nevertheless it is definitely worth a read if wartime poetry is your thing, and it would be fascinating to compare Sackville-West’s view of the war to those of the poets who fought at the front.

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Thank you for reading!

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