"The Glory of
the Garden"

Notes on the text


(by Peter Keating)




[Feb 26 2007]

[Title] The Glory of the Garden. Normally such a phrase would refer to the beauty of the flowers, bushes, and trees growing in a garden, and/or to the horticultural skill that has nurtured and arranged the various plants into an splendid pattern. It also invokes many images which link God’s presence with gardens, the ‘glory’ of the one often being equated naturally with the glory of the other. Kipling refers to these various connotations in his poem, but insists that the true glory of the garden lies elsewhere.

[Lines 1-4] Our England is a garden … more than meets the eye. Kipling is almost certainly alluding to a popular poem and song of the Victorian age called “The Homes of England” by Felicia Hemans. The poem was first published in Blackwood’s Magazine, April 1827, and collected in Hemans’s Records of Women: with other Poems (1828). The opening lines of the poem are:

The stately Homes of England,
How beautiful they stand!
Amidst their tall ancestral trees,
O’er all the pleasant land.
Hemans offers a highly sentimental, idealised view of English home life, from the stately to the humble, and although not carrying the overtly political message that is so important to Kipling, she does - rather oddly given her very different mood - seem to at least look in that direction by prefacing her poem with an epigram taken from Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion (1808):

Where’s the coward that would not dare
To fight for such a land?
The nearest Hemans herself gets to admitting that her English homes may at some time require more than God’s protection comes in the final stanza:

The free, fair Homes of England!
Long, long in hut and hall,
May hearts of native proof be rear’d
To guard each hallowed wall!
Even here, the attitude is pious, with nothing of Kipling’s passionate moral concern or his profound understanding of the dangers that complacent patriotism can bring. “The Glory of the Garden” opens with the strikingly communal 'Our England', which makes it clear that the poem is be about values which the poet wishes to share with his readers. There is no sense of a view of England being imposed from outside or above. If the reader does not respond positively to Kipling’s appeal, then the purpose of the poem collapses. The personal, inner nature of the values is stressed by the final line in the first stanza in which Kipling warns that the true glory of the garden is to be found in more than meets the eye. In other words, the reader is to be prepared for a point-of-view that is totally different from that of Felicia Hemans.

There is a further literary connection between Hemans and Kipling that deserves to be recorded. Noel Coward’s famous satirical song “The Stately Homes of England” (1938) also takes its starting point from Hemans:

The Stately Homes of England,
How beautiful they stand,
To prove the upper classes
Have still the upper hand.
Coward may also have had “The Glory of the Garden” in mind, as he most certainly did in a later lyric. This is “There are Bad Times just around the Corner” (1952), one of the very best of the several songs of disillusionment that Coward addressed to a depressed post-Second-World-War Britain. Its main theme is that the old brave glorious Britain seems to have gone for good. Kipling’s outlook in “The Glory of the Garden” is now being criticised in much the same way as he himself had once criticised Hemans’s “The Homes of England”:

While begging Kipling’s pardon
There’s one thing we know for sure
If England is a garden
We ought to have more manure.
[Line 5] laurels. Evergreen trees with dark green glossy leaves, most famously the bay. Because of their heavy presence they are usually planted on the outskirts of a garden, as here where they are placed along the thin red (i.e. red-brick) wall. There are two other possible allusions in this line that should be mentioned. Both are problematic. Laurels are traditionally regarded as a symbol of success or victory, though that would seem unlikely to apply here, given the very mundane, unheroic nature of the phrase old thick laurels. But Kipling’s use of thin red to describe the garden wall is much more puzzling. It evokes inevitably the phrase 'thin red line' with its strong military connection. It was coined by Sir William Howard Russell during the Crimean War, and then used by Kipling himself in his barrack-room ballad “Tommy.” For more details, see the notes on “Tommy” by Roger Ayers, in particular the note to line 22. If Kipling did intend thin red wall to contain a military allusion, the reason for him doing so is obscure. At the same time it is difficult to imagine him being unaware of the emotional associations the words were likely to evoke.

[Line 6] tool- and potting-sheds. Small buildings made of wood or brick which are used to store garden tools and, traditionally, as somewhere to pot up seedlings and cuttings.

[Line 7] cold-frame, a small unheated container with a glass top for protecting young plants; hot-house, a heated building, made largely of glass, for rearing tender or exotic plants; dung-pit, a compost heap; tanks, to store water.

[Line 8] rollers, to keep lawns flat and neat; carts and barrows, for moving heavy objects around the garden; drain-pipes, for irrigation; planks, of wood for walking across muddy or newly planted ground.

[Line 9] ’prentice. Apprentice.

[Line 10] Told off to do. To have tasks allotted to them. Large country houses employed a number of specialist gardeners and many assistants who would be informed of their daily jobs in just this quasi-military way.

[Line 12] it abideth not in words. It is a common habit of Kipling’s, in spite of his own lack of religious faith, to use this kind of Biblical-sounding phrase to add seriousness of tone to his message, as here and also in the final lines of stanzas four and five. The straightforward meaning of these words is that the true glory of the garden rests on what is done rather than what is said.

[Line 13] begonia, a plant which has flowers with brightly coloured sepals, no petals, and glossy leaves; bud, to graft a bud from one plant on to another.

[Line 15] sift the sand and loam. Loam is a rich fine soil formed largely from decomposed vegetation. It is sifted with sand before being used to lighten and enrich heavy earth.

[Lines 21-4] There’s not a pair of legs so thin … glorifieth every one. Lines which capture to perfection the range of attitudes Kipling is balancing throughout the poem. Although every one has a democratic part to play in maintaining a healthy garden, according entirely, that is, to individual abilities, the process still clearly reveals the hierarchical manner of the whole enterprise already noted in the gardener distributing jobs (line 10). But, with that said, it remains true, that if all members of society really do play a part,with the kind of dedication expected by traditional worship, then the Garden certainly will glorifieth every one, though the glory will now have been inspired by a patriotic and national passion rather than religious faith.

[Lines 17-18] Our England is a garden … by singing … and sitting in the shade. No doubt this attack by Kipling on those who boast smugly of the glory of their country while at the same time doing nothing to keep it so carries a further reference to Felicia Hemans’s "The Homes of England." But Kipling’s target is far broader than simply this. Fundamentally, he has in mind the creation myth of Genesis. 2,9 for example: ‘And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.’

Kipling is even more concerned, though, with the popular children’s hymns that inculcated this view of creation and along with it a bland mood of social passivity. Of these hymns, Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander’s “All Things Bright and Beautiful” is the type:

All things bright and beautiful
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
It may be that Kipling had this hymn specifically in mind. After all, “The Glory of the Garden,” along with all the other poems in A School History were also written with the aim of instilling into young children a very different set of values and overthrowing the views expressed in hymns like “All Things Bright and Beauty.” He must have felt that this ambition had to some extent between achieved, because on 11 October 1919 he proudly told André Chevrillon that “The Glory of the Garden” had become ‘a sort of school recitation piece’. Letters 4, p. 580.

[Line 26] netting strawberries. Stawberries grow along the ground and are covered with nets to stop birds from eating them.

[Line 29] Oh, Adam was a gardener. ‘And the Lord God planted a garden eastward, in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed’ Genesis 2,8; ‘And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it’. Genesis. 2,15. The Biblical references are crucial, not only in themselves, but because they were often invoked by early radicals to justify egalitarian views, with Adam being advanced as the natural representative of mankind. Shakespeare was very aware of this kind of usage. As the gravedigger in Hamlet points out: ‘There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers, and gravemakers – they hold up Adam’s profession’ (Act V, i, 32). And, almost the same words as Kipling’s in “The Glory of the Garden” are used by the rebel Jack Cade when he proudly asserts his link with Adam to deflate aristocratic contempt in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Pt. 2:

Stafford: Villain! Thy father was a plasterer;
And thou thyself a shearman, art thou not?


Cade: And Adam was a gardener.
(Act IV, ii,126-8).
[Lines 30-33] That half …upon his knees … wash your hands and pray…away! As has been made clear throughout the poem, Kipling’s call for people to sink to their knees and pray has little to do with conventional religious practice: he is simply asking that the same kind of devotion demanded by religious institutions be given to secular activities.

The gardener spends so much time on his knees not not because he is praying but because he is working in the garden. His devotion or dedication is to that work. Only thus can the glory of the garden of England be preserved. If people assume that they can rely on God to save the country, then it will swiftly and certainly decline. But if everyone works hard at the job, then 'the Glory of the Garden it shall never pass away!'


[P.K.]

©Peter Keating 2007 All rights reserved