First published in A History of England (1911) by C.R.L.Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling, and then in all subsequent editions of the book. It was placed at the end of Chapter XII, ‘George III to George V, 1815-1911,’ though it is not related specifically to this chapter, but serves rather as a summary of the whole book and a final exhortation to the reader. When the poem was reprinted in the Inclusive Edition of the Verse (1919), it was also used as the closing poem of the volume, even allowing two extraneous poems – “Philadelphia” and “When ’Omer Smote ’Is Bloomin’ Lyre” – to be inserted awkwardly between it and the rest of the items from the School History. It seems likely that in re-arranging the poems in this way Kipling was making a patriotic statement on the recent close of the First World War.
In addition to the Inclusive Edition, “The Glory of the Garden” was reprinted in D.V., 1940, when it reverted to its original position at the close of the group of School History poems; the Sussex Edition, vol. 34; and the Burwash Edition, vol. 37. For the Sussex two small textual changes were made: in line 18 double quotation marks were replaced by single quotation marks, and in line 20 the hyphen was removed from ‘gravel-paths.’
The image of a kingdom, state, or community as a garden, with all its accompanying connotations of natural growth and development, seasonal change, decay and rebirth, is ages old. The main literary traditions on which Kipling draws are those established by the Bible and Shakespeare. He is also obviously aware of the country-house poem which holds such a distinguished place in English literature, though in the main he stands aloof from it, largely for positive reasons. It is the garden itself that Kipling wants to focus on, not the grand architecture of a house or its social arrangements which feature so prominently in many country-house poems. In the opening stanza of the poem, Kipling seems to suggest that he might be writing just that kind of poem, and then discards the possibility.
As always with Kipling, his treatment of religious themes is ambiguous. In this particular poem, he is particularly interested in the view in Genesis that the first human community was a garden, and the first man a gardener. It’s hardly possible for a literary tradition to be more firmly established than that, and it is this ancient mythical nature of the Biblical story that Kipling is most drawn to. There is sometimes a vagueness about the language, here and elsewhere in Kipling’s poetry, but it is possible that in this particular case Kipling is using a tone of religiosity for his own purposes. The poem itself is far from being an expression of religious faith. Possibly quite the opposite.
Shakespeare’s presence in the poem is more oblique than that of the Bible. He is never alluded to directly (as the Bible is several times), but the political and social ideas being explored by Kipling are often unmistakably associated with the form they have been given by Shakespeare. They echo throughout Kipling’s poem.
The most detailed of Shakespeare’s comparisons between a garden and England comes in Richard II. Queen Isabel, unaware that her husband has been imprisoned, walks in the garden and stops to listen to the gardener and his assistants discussing Richard’s fate. In the process they advance a number of extended comparisons between the condition of England (over which they have no control) and the condition of the garden for which they are fully responsible. One of the assistants asks whether the rebels Wiltshire, Bushy and Greene are dead. The gardener replies:
‘They are; and Bolingbroke
Hath seized the wasteful king. O, what pity is it
That he had not so trimm’d and dress’d his land
As we this garden! We at time of year
Do wound the bark, the skin of our fruit- trees,
Lest, being over-proud in sap and blood,
With too much riches it confound itself;
Had he done so to great and growing men,
They might have liv’d to bear, and he to taste
Their fruits of duty. Superfluous branches
We lop away, that bearing boughs may live;
Had he done so, himself had borne the crown,
Which waste of idle hours hath quite thrown down.’
(Richard II, iii, iv, 54-66).
The condition of a nation-state, like that of a garden, depends on constant vigilance and work. Vegetation must be controlled, and weeds handled ruthlessly if they are not to destroy healthy plants. Richard II and Queen Isabel are forced to learn this lesson. So, in a very different Shakespearean context, is Hamlet:
‘How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t, ah fie, ’tis an unweed’d garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.’
(Hamlet, I, ii, 133-7)
Kipling’s view in “The Glory of the Garden” is little different from that of Shakespeare, except that he is writing for a newly democratic age. This understanding guides his whole approach. He is not in the position of a medieval King who can deal with the situation by lopping off the heads of a few rebellious ‘weeds.’ Nor is it necessary for him to act out the part of melancholy Hamlet because Kipling knows all too well what is to be done. If everyone in society, high or low – and it is soon clear that Kipling’s own view of English society in the poem remains firmly hierarchical – can be persuaded to play a part in making sure that the garden does not become over-run with weeds, then ‘things rank and gross in nature’ will be unable to ‘possess it merely.’ If not, then England could become as ‘weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable’ as Denmark was to Hamlet.
©Peter Keating 2007 All rights reserved