Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Exhibit for Center's Garden Conference (5/7)

I've been busy today preparing a small exhibit of rare books for this weekend's Garden Conference at the Renaissance Center. The following images and descriptions are derived from the exhibit.

"You have wisely ordered your vegetable delights, beyond the reach of exception"
--Sir Thomas Browne, The Garden of Cyrus (1658) 

the Garden of Eden, from The Holy Bible [Bishop's Bible] (1602)
“And the Lord God placed a garden Eastwarde in Eden, and there he put the man whome he had made. For out of the grounde made the Lord God to growe everie tre pleasant to the sight, and good for meat: the tre of life also in the middes of the garden, and the tre of of knowledge of good and of evil” (Geneva Bible, 1560: Genesis 2:8-9).

Early printed Bibles frequently contain woodcut images of Eden, as seen above in the image from the 1602 Bishop's Bible. Our quarto copy of the KJV features a similar image. 

Engraved illustration in Paradise Lost (London: Tonson, 1705): Book Nine
The engraving shown here illustrates Book Nine of John Milton's Paradise Lost, and depicts  the serpent tempting and suborning Eve to eat the forbidden fruit.
Engraved illustration in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, trans. John Harington (1591): Canto Six
To complete their intended quests and fulfill the prophecies of ghosts and gods, epic heroes have had to face a seemingly endless series of redoubtable foes, including disaffected gods (Poseidon and Juno), monstrous creatures (Scylla and Polyphemus), and uninvited house guests (Penelope’s suitors). Yet these heroes must also avoid distraction, especially in the form of luxurious, paradisal lands inhabited by beautiful goddesses (Odysseus with Circe on Aeaea and Calypso on Ogygia; Aeneas with Dido at Carthage).  Modern readers might upbraid Odysseus and Aeneas for loving and leaving these women, but in the early modern period these paradisal places became literary tropes, imaginary locations symbolizing the deadly allure of seemingly beautiful lands and people. In the epic tradition of the Italian Renaissance, these places were figured as enchanted gardens, most notably those belonging to Alcina in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516) and Armida in Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata (1580). The first garden is described in Harington's English translation as a place where the “air is alway temperate and cleare, / And wants both winters storms, and summers heate, / As though that Aprill lasted all the yeare.” After luring the knight Ruggiero into her sumptuous palace, Alcina reveals her true form as a witch, a deformed hag made beautiful through enchantment.

Ariosto’s poem had an enormous influence on Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590), whose allegorical knight Guyon encounters the “Bower of Bliss” in Book Two. In the last canto Guyon enters the bower, “a place pickt out by choice of best alive, / That natures worke by art can imitate: / In which what ever in this worldly state / Is sweet, and pleasing unto living sense … Was poured forth with plentifull dispence, / And made there to abound with lavish affluence.” Despite its profound beauty, the Bower of Bliss is a site of temptation and evil in the allegorical project of the poem, and so must be destroyed. In an unsettling show of violent power that to this day troubles critics, Guyon brutally razes the bower to the ground, spoiling its “plentifull dispence” and “lavish affluence”:

                      But all those pleasant bowres and Pallace braue,
                      Guyon broke downe, with rigour pittilesse;
                      Ne ought their goodly workmanship might saue
                      Them from the tempest of his wrathfulnesse,
                      But that their blisse he turn'd to balefulnesse:
                      Their groues he feld, their gardins did deface,
                      Their arbers spoyle, their Cabinets suppresse,
                      Their banket houses burne, their buildings race,
                      And of the fairest late, now made the fowlest place.

"May," from John Evelyn, Kalendarium hortense (1683)
One of the Center's several early printed almanacs, John Evelyn’s Kalendarium hortense (1683) is subtitled “The Gard’ners Almanac, directing what he is to do Monthly throughout the year.” In the “Introduction to the Kalendar,” Evelyn notes that “as Paradise… was no longer Paradise than the Man was put into it to dress it, and to keep it; so, nor will our Gardens (as near as we can contrive them to the resemblance of that blessed abode) remain long in their perfection, unless they are also continually cultivated.” For every month of the year Evelyn offers his readers basic information (length of month, average times of sunrise and sunset), a list of tasks “to be done” in the garden (including planting, pruning, fertilizing, etc.), and a list of “flowers [or fruits] in prime, or yet lasting.”

Sir Thomas Browne, The Garden of Cyrus (1658)

a Quincuncial Pattern
Well known for his work as a physician and empirical scientist, Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was one of early modern England’s most inventive prose writers, composing  unique works like Religio medici (1642) and Pseudodoxia epidemica (1646). His Garden of Cyrus, or, The Quincunciall, Lozenge, or Net-work Plantations of the Ancients, Artifically, Naturally, Mystically Considered (1658) is a prolonged commentary and meditation on “X”-shaped forms in the human, natural, and mystical worlds. The “quincunx,” which literally means “five-twelfths” and was used in Classical antiquity to describe the spots of the “five” on a die, is “a pattern used for planting trees in which they are arranged in one or more groups of five, so placed that four occupy the corners of a square or rectangle and the fifth occupies its center” (OED). You can see an example of a quincuncial pattern in the image above. 

Intended as a “Garden Discourse” rather than a “massy Herball” (like John Gerard’s Herball—also owned by the Center), the work begins with a discussion of Babylon’s hanging gardens and the quincuncial layout of King Cyrus’ garden at Sardis. As the author notes in the dedicatory epistle to Nicholas Bacon, The Garden of Cyrus "range[s] into extraneous things, and many parts of Art and Nature...follow[ing] herein the example of old and new Plantations, wherein noble spirits contented not themselves with Trees, but by the attendance of Aviaries, Fish Ponds, and all variety of Animals, they made their gardens the Epitome of the earth, and some resemblance of the secular shows of old." 

Browne proceeds to trace the “X” or “net-work” (i.e. shaped like a net) pattern in the world around him, noting architectural styles, manners of sitting cross-legged, reticulated windows, the “pyramidal” cuts on precious gems, staggered battle lines, and astral constellations. His account of terrestrial and submarine plant life finds the quincunx in pineapples, seed pods, leaf structures, and various flowers. He finds it in the animal world, marking the scales of rattlesnakes and fish, the bee’s honeycomb, and even human skin. He points out that the motion of fins, wings, and human limbs depend on a back-and-forth, X-shaped movement. He even likens the elliptical shape of sound and light waves to the “decussated” line of the quincunx. At the end of his treatise, Browne applies the quincuncial  form to  more abstract ideas, including “intellectual reception” (“intellectual … lines be not thus rightly disposed, but magnified, diminished, distorted, and ill placed … whereby they [people] have irregular apprehensions of things”) and mystical philosophy. The structure of a garden, as Browne so creatively implies, can indeed reflect the organizational principles of nature itself, and become an “Epitome  of the world.”


  1. Browne's 'Garden of Cyrus' has been interpreted as a work of prophecy 'predicting' the Restoration of Monarchy, 'all things began in order, so shall they end, so shall they begin again'. It's title is a subtle dig at Cromwell and the Protectorate as Cyrus was the wise ruler who allowed religious toleration; its also an early example of 'altered consciousness' or 'stream-of-consciousness writing.

  2. Am I right in presuming that the 1658 edition being exhibited is one in which is appended to 'Pseudodoxia', as no surviving copies of the 2 Discourses alone survives.

    Above photo of title-page is identical to my own 1658 edition but with the frontispiece illustration on preceding page not adjacent to title page.

  3. Yes, this is the edition appended to "Pseudodoxia" (Wing B5162). The EEBO copy also features the frontispiece facing the title page, so it may be that it was bound backwards in your copy. Thanks for the additional information on a fascinating text!