In the Artist’s Garden, Ronald Blythe, Canterbury Press.
The poet, novelist, historian, critic and garden writer Ronald Blythe has been collecting into books his columns published in the UK’s Church Times for some years now, and upon checking my bookshelves I note that In the Artist’s Garden is his at least ninth such collection. Much like diaries, they document what he self-deprecatingly calls his ‘routine of uneventfulness’, but out of such humdrum material he creates gold.
In a sense these books are quintessentially Anglican, mixing the goings-on in a quiet, rural congregation and his quiet, rural garden with musings on liturgy, history and literature. But within such warming, comforting surrounds Blythe continues to surprise with his sprightly observation, his dialogue with the past and his sense of a living faith.
The book’s title refers to the fact that Blythe does discuss his garden often. He refers approvingly to the poet George Herbert’s notion that in addition to Heaven, God created the Earth as a paradise. Blythe notes the apples in his orchard, the holly hedges and the rose branches banging the side of his house during a gale. He is forever raking wet leaves or scything, an almost lost art that he is quietly proud of possessing. He views all this through religiously tinted glasses. The dawn chorus of birds is compared to hymns. Tall flowers ‘swing like censers’. (This tendency leads to a lovely Freudian slip where he writes of his friend Roger Deakin as ‘Roger Deacon’.)
Being over ninety, it is inevitable that his age will be commented on, perhaps unfairly, but one does get the sense that his world is shrinking somewhat. He indicates he travels less, but that is in a physical sense only; his mind is constantly travelling. He refers to Herbert, to the poet John Clare, to Thomas Hardy and the clergyman diarist Francis Kilvert, to the painters Gainsborough and Constable (who painted where Blythe lives in East Anglia). Twentieth century names are more than distant figures – he personally knew Benjamin Britten and the painter John Nash, from whom Blythe inherited his farmhouse. He is a friend of Vikram Seth and Richard Mabey. He chats to Hilary Mantel at a function and makes a note to buy her novels. He writes abruptly, ‘Long ago I sat with [sculptor] Henry Moore’.
Although he can write critically, these diary entries are looser, mixing short, poetic sentences with dreamy diversions that one might be tempted to label ‘ramblings’ if he wasn’t such a good writer. One thing leads to another. ‘You see how one’s mind wanders’, he says. The description of floods leads him to think of Noah and rainbows, and then to Constable painting rainbows down the road from Blythe’s farm. He repeats himself but cheerfully admits that he has ‘stopped worrying’ about that. On a deeper level his repetition is entirely appropriate as he continually refers to the church year, where we are recalled to last year and the year before that, and our ancestors who have immersed themselves in the same rituals, which Blythe labels the ‘freshness of repeated actions’. Besides, we all have our familiar themes, and writers, more than most, says Blythe, have their sacks of memories, from which they draw favourite quotes or anecdotes.
Lest this all sound quaint, Blythe’s understanding of history is that there is ‘darkness in every age’. His familiarity with the Gospels means that he can come to no other conclusion than that Jesus, Mary and Joseph are the ‘everlasting refugees’. He watches with dismay the misery of Syria. Although he professes bemusement at our modern age (he doesn’t drive and uses a typewriter), he also notes with anger the failure of modern politics.
Although he is a capable literary critic he gets lovingly ‘lost’ in the creed. Of the biblical Proverbs he says that ‘Discourse dreads them’. The integration of faith and everyday life, at the level of the heart rather than simply the mind, makes these meditations delightful and insightful, and his repetitions are only to be welcomed.