Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Monday, December 28, 2009

Notes on Poe's "The Landscape Garden"

Aerial picture of flower fields. Carlsbad, California. By Alex Mac Lean.

The most popular E. Allan Poe’s tales are those psychologically thrilling, related to murder, maladies, anguish. But I came across with this story and found it wonderful in the main character’s point of view about landscape. As always, he dies young, but this time, what is important is the emphasis in the pursue of happiness under certain unusual immaterial conditions (the landscape interventions), and the discussion of how man can affect the landscape design throughout scales, even with a minimalist contribution.

Trees landscape. From

Romantic landscape, 1826

Poe tells us that his friend Ellison was a very handsome man, heir of a fortune, with a beautiful bride and ample possessions.
“He admitted but four unvarying laws, or rather elementary principles:”
Health: free exercise, specifically in the open air.
The love of woman.
The contempt of ambition.
“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.”

Ancient Chinese landscape painting. From

“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.”
Instead of engaging in extravagant expenses or involving in politics, or build great buildings, or bestowing his name in institutions of charity, he decided that none possibility was adequate for him.
“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.”
It means, he was not a poet indeed, but he understood the poetic sentiment:
“The proper gratification of the sentiment he instinctively felt to lie in the creation of novel forms of Beauty”.
This concept of beauty was supported by physical loveliness. Nevertheless, Ellison did not become a musician, or a poet, or painter, or sculptor.
“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….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.”

British landscape with a train. My (filtered) screen shot from the movie The Awakening

Esteros del Ibera, Argentina. From

Being a landscape gardener would fulfill his destiny as Poet; Poe argues that no Paradises are to be found in reality as have glowed upon canvasses; in real landscapes, there will always be found a defect or an excess; the artist, can arrange the parts that will always be susceptible of improvement. Regarding landscape, Ellison takes it as the supreme art, and at this point Poe agrees it has to be true, because the artist (Ellison)
“not only believes, but positively knows, that such and such apparently arbitrary arrangements of matter, or form, constitute, and alone constitute, the true Beauty.”
So, this particular inclination triggered between the friends a kind of discussion about how to proceed with nature: with its exaltation or its improvement.
“It was Mr. Ellison who first suggested the idea…….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."
It is interesting to see that a kind of “butterfly effect” is discussed here, together with the idea of change of scale and location for the observer’s point of view -one of the premises of design-, which in turn is involving collateral conclusions at the spatial scale where, supposedly, any former quasi-angels humans must exist:
“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”.

Patagonia Argentina. From

Central Park in Huntington Beach, CA. Photo by Myriam Mahiques

Ellison then quoted a writer who had 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……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 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.”
Ellison’s garden is a middle state between human art and Almighty design. Its beauty is an effect in human perception, something ethereal that cannot be expressed as in landscape paintings. It is clear that technique, in itself, is not art. Art, in Ellison’s opinion, has to be imbued of spirituality to correct the imperfections of what has been given to us.

Patagonia Argentina. From

The Landscape Garden. In "The Complete Tales of Edgar Allan Poe". Barnes and Noble, New York. 1999


  1. Thank you for the great post. "Garden" and its sequel "The Domain of Arnheim," are, I think, among Poe's most important works. I posted about "Arnheim" on my own blog awhile back--I sometimes think you and I are about the only ones to notice the story!

  2. Dear Undine, thank you for your comment. I agree with you. I supposed maybe I could find more opinions about this story, but found nothing, just a brief comment, mixed with other stories. I think this tale is great, for the discussion, imagine, the butterfly effect was discovered later, and the scaling issue, it is well involved with Complex Systems theory. Please send me your link to your posts about both stories. You'll find here more posts about Poe's spaciality. Regards

  3. I liked the content on this site. Would like to visit again.

    Garden Designer Cambridge & Garden Design Cambridge



Related Posts with Thumbnails