The Landscape Garden by Edgar Allan Poe


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1850
THE LANDSCAPE GARDEN
by Edgar Allan Poe

The garden like a lady fair was cut
That lay as if she slumbered in delight,
And to the open skies her eyes did shut;
The azure fields of heaven were ‘sembled right
In a large round set with flow’rs of light:
The flowers de luce and the round sparks of dew
That hung upon their azure leaves, did show
Like twinkling stars that sparkle in the ev’ning blue.

GILES FLETCHER

NO MORE remarkable man ever lived than my friend, the young Ellison.
He was remarkable in the entire and continuous profusion of good gifts
ever lavished upon him by fortune. From his cradle to his grave, a
gale of the blandest prosperity bore him along. Nor do I use the
word Prosperity in its mere wordly or external sense. I mean it as
synonymous with happiness. The person of whom I speak, seemed born for
the purpose of foreshadowing the wild doctrines of Turgot, Price,
Priestley, and Condorcet- of exemplifying, by individual instance,
what has been deemed the mere chimera of the perfectionists. In the
brief existence of Ellison, I fancy, that I have seen refuted the
dogma- that in man’s physical and spiritual nature, lies some hidden
principle, the antagonist of Bliss. An intimate and anxious
examination of his career, has taught me to understand that, in
general, from the violation of a few simple laws of Humanity, arises
the Wretchedness of mankind; that, as a species, we have in our
possession the as yet unwrought elements of Content,- and that even
now, in the present blindness and darkness of all idea on the great
question of the Social Condition, it is not impossible that Man, the
individual, under certain unusual and highly fortuitous conditions,
may be happy.
With opinions such as these was my young friend fully imbued; and
thus is it especially worthy of observation that the uninterrupted
enjoyment which distinguished his life was in great part the result of
preconcert. It is, indeed evident, that with less of the instinctive
philosophy which, now and then, stands so well in the stead of
experience, Mr. Ellison would have found himself precipitated, by
the very extraordinary successes of his life, into the common vortex
of Unhappiness which yawns for those of preeminent endowments. But
it is by no means my present object to pen an essay on Happiness.
The ideas of my friend may be summed up in a few words. He admitted
but four unvarying laws, or rather elementary principles, of Bliss.
That which he considered chief, was (strange to say!) the simple and
purely physical one of free exercise in the open air. “The health,” he
said, “attainable by other means than this is scarcely worth the
name.” He pointed to the tillers of the earth- the only people who, as
a class, are proverbially more happy than others- and then he
instanced the high ecstasies of the fox-hunter. His second principle
was the love of woman. His third was the contempt of ambition. His
fourth was an object of unceasing pursuit; and he held that, other
things being equal, the extent of happiness was proportioned to the
spirituality of this object.
I have said that Ellison was remarkable in the continuous
profusion of good gifts lavished upon him by Fortune. In personal
grace and beauty he exceeded all men. His intellect was of that
order to which the attainment of knowledge is less a labor than a
necessity and an intuition. His family was one of the most illustrious
of the empire. His bride was the loveliest and most devoted of
women. His possessions had been always ample; but, upon the attainment
of his one and twentieth year, it was discovered that one of those
extraordinary freaks of Fate had been played in his behalf which
startle the whole social world amid which they occur, and seldom
fail radically to alter the entire moral constitution of those who are
their objects. It appears that about one hundred years prior to Mr.
Ellison’s attainment of his majority, there had died, in a remote
province, one Mr. Seabright Ellison. This gentlemen had amassed a
princely fortune, and, having no very immediate connexions,
conceived the whim of suffering his wealth to accumulate for a century
after his decease. Minutely and sagaciously directing the various
modes of investment, he bequeathed the aggregate amount to the nearest
of blood, bearing the name Ellison, who should be alive at the end
of the hundred years. Many futile attempts had been made to set
aside this singular bequest; their ex post facto character rendered
them abortive; but the attention of a jealous government was
aroused, and a decree finally obtained, forbidding all similar
accumulations. This act did not prevent young Ellison, upon his
twenty-first birth-day, from entering into possession, as the heir
of his ancestor, Seabright, of a fortune of four hundred and fifty
millions of dollars.*

* An incident similar in outline to the one here imagined, occurred,
not very long ago, in England. The name of the fortunate heir (who
still lives,) is Thelluson. I first saw an account of this matter in
the “Tour” of Prince Puckler Muskau. He makes the sum received
ninety millions of pounds, and observes, with much force, that, “in
the contemplation of so vast a sum, and of the services, to which it
might be applied, there is something even of the sublime.” To suit the
views of this article, I have followed the Prince’s statement- a
grossly exaggerated one, no doubt.

When it had become definitely known that such was the enormous
wealth inherited, there were, of course, many speculations as to the
mode of its disposal. The gigantic magnitude and the immediately
available nature of the sum, dazzled and bewildered all who thought
upon the topic. The possessor of any appreciable amount of money might
have been imagined to perform any one of a thousand things. With
riches merely surpassing those of any citizen, it would have been easy
to suppose him engaging to supreme excess in the fashionable
extravagances of his time; or busying himself with political
intrigues; or aiming at ministerial power, or purchasing increase of
nobility, or devising gorgeous architectural piles; or collecting
large specimens of Virtu; or playing the munificent patron of
Letters and Art; or endowing and bestowing his name upon extensive
institutions of charity. But, for the inconceivable wealth in the
actual possession of the young heir, these objects and all ordinary
objects were felt to be inadequate. Recourse was had to figures; and
figures but sufficed to confound. It was seen, that even at three
per cent, the annual income of the inheritance amounted to no less
than thirteen millions and five hundred thousand dollars; which was
one million and one hundred and twenty-five thousand per month; or
thirty-six thousand, nine hundred and eighty-six per day, or one
thousand five hundred and forty-one per hour, or six and twenty
dollars for every minute that flew. Thus the usual track of
supposition was thoroughly broken up. Men knew not what to imagine.
There were some who even conceived that Mr. Ellison would divest
himself forthwith of at least two-thirds of his fortune as of
utterly superfluous opulence; enriching whole troops of his
relatives by division of his superabundance.
I was not surprised, however, to perceive that he had long made up
his mind upon a topic which had occasioned so much of discussion to
his friends. Nor was I greatly astonished at the nature of his
decision. In the widest and noblest sense, he was a poet. He
comprehended, moreover, the true character, the august aims, the
supreme majesty and dignity of the poetic sentiment. The proper
gratification of the sentiment he instinctively felt to lie in the
creation of novel forms of Beauty. Some peculiarities, either in his
early education, or in the nature of his intellect, had tinged with
what is termed materialism the whole cast of his ethical speculations;
and it was this bias, perhaps, which imperceptibly led him to perceive
that the most advantageous, if not the sole legitimate field for the
exercise of the poetic sentiment, was to be found in the creation of
novel moods of purely physical loveliness. Thus it happened that he
became neither musician nor poet; if we use this latter term in its
every- day acceptation. Or it might have been that he became neither
the one nor the other, in pursuance of an idea of his which I have
already mentioned- the idea, that in the contempt of ambition lay
one of the essential principles of happiness on earth. Is it not,
indeed, possible that while a high order of genius is necessarily
ambitious, the highest is invariably above that which is termed
ambition? And may it not thus happen that many far greater than
Milton, have contentedly remained “mute and inglorious?” I believe the
world has never yet seen, and that, unless through some series of
accidents goading the noblest order of mind into distasteful exertion,
the world will never behold, that full extent of triumphant execution,
in the richer productions of Art, of which the human nature is
absolutely capable.
Mr. Ellison became neither musician nor poet; although no man
lived more profoundly enamored both of Music and the Muse. Under other
circumstances than those which invested him, it is not impossible that
he would have become a painter. The field of sculpture, although in
its nature rigidly poetical, was too limited in its extent and in
its consequences, to have occupied, at any time, much of his
attention. And I have now mentioned all the provinces in which even
the most liberal understanding of the poetic sentiment has declared
this sentiment capable of expatiating. I mean the most liberal
public or recognized conception of the idea involved in the phrase
“poetic sentiment.” But Mr. Ellison imagined that the richest, and
altogether the most natural and most suitable province, had been
blindly neglected. No definition had spoken of the Landscape-Gardener,
as of the poet; yet my friend could not fail to perceive that the
creation of the Landscape-Garden offered to the true muse the most
magnificent of opportunities. Here was, indeed, the fairest field
for the display of invention, or imagination, in the endless combining
of forms of novel Beauty; the elements which should enter into
combination being, at all times, and by a vast superiority, the most
glorious which the earth could afford. In the multiform of the tree,
and in the multicolor of the flower, he recognized the most direct and
the most energetic efforts of Nature at physical loveliness. And in
the direction or concentration of this effort, or, still more
properly, in its adaption to the eyes which were to behold it upon
earth, he perceived that he should be employing the best means-
laboring to the greatest advantage- in the fulfilment of his destiny
as Poet.
“Its adaptation to the eyes which were to behold it upon earth.”
In his explanation of this phraseology, Mr. Ellison did much towards
solving what has always seemed to me an enigma. I mean the fact (which
none but the ignorant dispute,) that no such combinations of scenery
exist in Nature as the painter of genius has in his power to
produce. No such Paradises are to be found in reality as have glowed
upon the canvass of Claude. In the most enchanting of natural
landscapes, there will always be found a defect or an excess- many
excesses and defects. While the component parts may exceed,
individually, the highest skill of the artist, the arrangement of
the parts will always be susceptible of improvement. In short, no
position can be attained, from which an artistical eye, looking
steadily, will not find matter of offence, in what is technically
termed the composition of a natural landscape. And yet how
unintelligible is this! In all other matters we are justly
instructed to regard Nature as supreme. With her details we shrink
from competition. Who shall presume to imitate the colors of the
tulip, or to improve the proportions of the lily of the valley? The
criticism which says, of sculpture or of portraiture, that “Nature
is to be exalted rather than imitated,” is in error. No pictorial or
sculptural combinations of points of human loveliness, do more than
approach the living and breathing human beauty as it gladdens our
daily path. Byron, who often erred, erred not in saying,

I’ve seen more living beauty, ripe and real,
Than all the nonsense of their stone ideal.

In landscape alone is the principle of the critic true; and, having
felt its truth here, it is but the headlong spirit of generalization
which has induced him to pronounce it true throughout all the
domains of Art. Having, I say, felt its truth here. For the feeling is
no affectation or chimera. The mathematics afford no more absolute
demonstrations, than the sentiment of his Art yields to the artist. He
not only believes, but positively knows, that such and such apparently
arbitrary arrangements of matter, or form, constitute, and alone
constitute, the true Beauty. Yet his reasons have not yet been matured
into expression. It remains for a more profound analysis than the
world has yet seen, fully to investigate and express them.
Nevertheless is he confirmed in his instinctive opinions, by the
concurrence of all his compeers. Let a composition be defective, let
an emendation be wrought in its mere arrangement of form; let this
emendation be submitted to every artist in the world; by each will its
necessity be admitted. And even far more than this, in remedy of the
defective composition, each insulated member of the fraternity will
suggest the identical emendation.
I repeat that in landscape arrangements, or collocations alone, is
the physical Nature susceptible of “exaltation” and that, therefore,
her susceptibility of improvement at this one point, was a mystery
which, hitherto I had been unable to solve. It was Mr. Ellison who
first suggested the idea that what we regarded as improvement or
exaltation of the natural beauty, was really such, as respected only
the mortal or human point of view; that each alteration or disturbance
of the primitive scenery might possibly effect a blemish in the
picture, if we could suppose this picture viewed at large from some
remote point in the heavens. “It is easily understood,” says Mr.
Ellison, “that what might improve a closely scrutinized detail, might,
at the same time, injure a general and more distantly- observed
effect.” He spoke upon this topic with warmth: regarding not so much
its immediate or obvious importance, (which is little,) as the
character of the conclusions to which it might lead, or of the
collateral propositions which it might serve to corroborate or
sustain. There might be a class of beings, human once, but now to
humanity invisible, for whose scrutiny and for whose refined
appreciation of the beautiful, more especially than for our own, had
been set in order by God the great landscape-garden of the whole
earth.
In the course of our discussion, my young friend took occasion to
quote some passages from a writer who has been supposed to have well
treated this theme.
“There are, properly,” he writes, “but two styles of
landscape-gardening, the natural and the artificial. One seeks to
recall the original beauty of the country, by adapting its means to
the surrounding scenery; cultivating trees in harmony with the hills
or plain of the neighboring land; detecting and bringing into practice
those nice relations of size, proportion and color which, hid from the
common observer, are revealed everywhere to the experienced student of
nature. The result of the natural style of gardening, is seen rather
in the absence of all defects and incongruities- in the prevalence
of a beautiful harmony and order, than in the creation of any
special wonders or miracles. The artificial style has as many
varieties as there are different tastes to gratify. It has a certain
general relation to the various styles of building. There are the
stately avenues and retirements of Versailles; Italian terraces; and a
various mixed old English style, which bears some relation to the
domestic Gothic or English Elizabethan architecture. Whatever may be
said against the abuses of the artificial landscape-gardening, a
mixture of pure art in a garden scene, adds to it a great beauty. This
is partly pleasing to the eye, by the show of order and design, and
partly moral. A terrace, with an old moss-covered balustrade, calls up
at once to the eye, the fair forms that have passed there in other
days. The slightest exhibition of art is an evidence of care and human
interest.”
“From what I have already observed,” said Mr. Ellison, “you will
understand that I reject the idea, here expressed, of ‘recalling the
original beauty of the country.’ The original beauty is never so great
as that which may be introduced. Of course, much depends upon the
selection of a spot with capabilities. What is said in respect to
the ‘detecting and bringing into practice those nice relations of
size, proportion and color,’ is a mere vagueness of speech, which
may mean much, or little, or nothing, and which guides in no degree.
That the true ‘result of the natural style of gardening is seen rather
in the absence of all defects and incongruities, than in the
creation of any special wonders or miracles,’ is a proposition
better suited to the grovelling apprehension of the herd, than to
the fervid dreams of the man of genius. The merit suggested is, at
best, negative, and appertains to that hobbling criticism which, in
letters, would elevate Addison into apotheosis. In truth, while that
merit which consists in the mere avoiding demerit, appeals directly to
the understanding, and can thus be foreshadowed in Rule, the loftier
merit, which breathes and flames in invention or creation, can be
apprehended solely in its results. Rule applies but to the excellences
of avoidance- to the virtues which deny or refrain. Beyond these the
critical art can but suggest. We may be instructed to build an
Odyssey, but it is in vain that we are told how to conceive a
‘Tempest,’ an ‘Inferno,’ a ‘Prometheus Bound,’ a ‘Nightingale,’ such
as that of Keats, or the ‘Sensitive Plant’ of Shelley. But, the
thing done, the wonder accomplished, and the capacity for apprehension
becomes universal. The sophists of the negative school, who, through
inability to create, have scoffed at creation, are now found the
loudest in applause. What, in its chrysalis condition of principle,
affronted their demure reason, never fails, in its maturity of
accomplishment, to extort admiration from their instinct of the
beautiful or of the sublime.
“Our author’s observations on the artificial style of gardening,”
continued Mr. Ellison, “are less objectionable. ‘A mixture of pure art
in a garden scene, adds to it a great beauty.’ This is just; and the
reference to the sense of human interest is equally so. I repeat
that the principle here expressed, is incontrovertible; but there
may be something even beyond it. There may be an object in full
keeping with the principle suggested- an object unattainable by the
means ordinarily in possession of mankind, yet which, if attained,
would lend a charm to the landscape-garden immeasurably surpassing
that which a merely human interest could bestow. The true poet
possessed of very unusual pecuniary resources, might possibly, while
retaining the necessary idea of art or interest or culture, so imbue
his designs at once with extent and novelty of Beauty, as to convey
the sentiment of spiritual interference. It will be seen that, in
bringing about such result, he secures all the advantages of
interest or design, while relieving his work of all the harshness
and technicality of Art. In the most rugged of wildernesses- in the
most savage of the scenes of pure Nature- there is apparent the art of
a Creator; yet is this art apparent only to reflection; in no
respect has it the obvious force of a feeling. Now, if we imagine this
sense of the Almighty Design to be harmonized in a measurable
degree, if we suppose a landscape whose combined strangeness,
vastness, definitiveness, and magnificence, shall inspire the idea
of culture, or care, or superintendence, on the part of
intelligences superior yet akin to humanity- then the sentiment of
interest is preserved, while the Art is made to assume the air of an
intermediate or secondary Nature- a Nature which is not God, nor an
emanation of God, but which still is Nature, in the sense that it is
the handiwork of the angels that hover between man and God.”
It was in devoting his gigantic wealth to the practical embodiment
of a vision such as this- in the free exercise in the open air,
which resulted from personal direction of his plans- in the continuous
and unceasing object which these plans afford- in the contempt of
ambition which it enabled him more to feel than to affect- and,
lastly, it was in the companionship and sympathy of a devoted wife,
that Ellison thought to find, and found, an exemption from the
ordinary cares of Humanity, with a far greater amount of positive
happiness than ever glowed in the rapt day-dreams of De Stael.

THE END

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