‘What wondrous life is this I lead…’

This week we have a guest blog from Harvey James, the Library Cataloguer here at Sissinghurst. Harvey has an intimate knowledge of Vita’s garden book collection and has observed how, for her, the garden, nature and poetry were all intertwined. Here, he gives us an insight into some of his observations.

‘What wondrous life is this I lead
Rye pappels drop about my head’

In her Observer garden column, dated October 15, 1959, Vita Sackville-West draws attention to the beauty of the autumn garden, “especially … with an old orchard attached”, the latter line misheard from a line of seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell’s The Garden. She recalls:

When I was very small, about four years old, I suppose, a line of poetry entered into my consciousness, never to leave it again:

Rye pappels drop about my head

I had no idea what rye pappels might be, but they held a magic, an enchantment for me, and when in later life I identified them as the ripe apples of Andrew Marvell’s poem they had lost nothing of their enchantment in the process of growing up.

 While cataloguing the books in Vita’s Writing Room in the tower at Sissinghurst, I always felt that the library and the garden somehow complemented each other. An understanding of Vita’s reading and literary world enhances our understanding of the garden. The passage above illustrates how literature certainly gave added meaning to the garden for Vita. Not only does the orchard in autumn call up a literary memory, but it recalls a sense of wonder in her awakening love for poetry, its magic and mystery, and a childhood delight in nonsense. As Jane Brown remarks in Vita’s other world , “she was at her best in bringing her literary past to bear upon her present.” Vita alluded to the “spirit of Marvell” elsewhere in her Country notes, an essay that appeared in 1939. She conjures up that spirit as she describes scything the grass in autumn, slicing an occasional apple, thinking of Marvell’s words while describing the scene in sensuous terms. Apples drop with “big thuds into the grass” and the scythe makes a “juicy sound”. As Brown says, “she has that wonderful literary ability, both in poetry and prose, to whisk us back into her past, our pasts” and then make it present.

Vita’s writing and her reading was informed by her knowledge and love of the natural world. She loved the natural imagery of Shakespeare, from the forest flowers of A midsummer night’s dream to Ophelia’s garland speech in Hamlet. She was fascinated by the language of flowers and the symbolism found throughout literature, mythology and folklore. She was fascinated by the potent natural symbolism to be found in the Bible. Her library includes not only a wide range of garden writing but also many items of literature that evoke the natural world in history and in many other lands. Vita’s boundless curiosity and passion for flowers, plants and nature was given back in her own writing and gardening.

In contrast to her receptive appreciation of Marvell’s poetry, her annotation in her copy of Laurie Lee’s The sun my monument (1944) shows how she takes exception to a clumsy use of nature imagery. Under the poem ‘The larch tree’, she suggests that the poem is “utter nonsense, without the suggestive magic” that nonsense could give.”(Vita always retained a love of the language and fanciful world of children’s nursery rhymes.) She dismisses the notion of a larch with red berries and ripe apples in September with snow lying in the field.

Vita's annotation of Laurie Lee's 'The sun my monument' (1944)

Vita’s annotation of Laurie Lee’s ‘The sun my monument’ (1944)

It seems that for Vita, poetic truth required a naturalistic truth also. Her love of beauty in the garden, its atmospheric evocation in literature and its historic setting, demand this truth is adhered to. Her childhood rendering of Marvell truly conjures up this spirit:

Rye pappels drop about my head.

Harvey James -Library cataloguer