Warning: this post is heavy on poetry and purple prose.
On the Bank Holiday Monday couple of friends and I set off to visit the Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. It was a cold, rather dreary day, the sky hanging low, and no amount of wishing and hoping on out part would make the clouds part. Still, we were at Sissinghurst, and had managed to get there before the crowds, and for few idle moments we could have the vegetable gardens all to ourselves, the neat rows of lettuce and rhubarb, gooseberries growing on vines (!), the Kentish landscape of gentle hills and lush green opening behind the hedgerows.
To me, any visit to a place with connection to Virginia Woolf is almost like a pilgrimage. Sissinghurst was the home of Vita Sackville-West, a poet, novelist, gardener, and Woolf’s lover. They were still in love with each other when Vita and Harold moved to Sissinghurst, and Vita’s poem about the place was dedicated to her. In the Elizabethan tower, a recording of the poem plays in a loop, Vita reading the lines in her squeaky old-woman voice, the words painted on the walls. The imagery is almost racy.
A tired swimmer in the waves of time
I throw my hands up: let the surface close:
sink down through centuries to another clime,
and buried find the castle and the rose.
Buried in time and sleep,
so drowsy, overgrown,
that here the moss is green upon the stone,
and lichen stains the keep.
I’ve sunk into an image, water-drowned,
where stirs no wind and penetrates no sound,
illusive, fragile to a touch, remote,
founded within the well of years as deep
as in the waters of a stagnant moat.
Yet in and out of these decaying halls
I move, and not a ripple, not a quiver,
shakes the reflection though the waters shiver–
Sisinghurst was labour of love for Vita Sackville West and her husband, Harold Nicholson; they bought it derelict in 1930, and built on the ruins – Harold designed the blueprint of adjoining garden rooms, Vita (who defined herself as lover of flowers) planted, planted, planted. First roses and rosemary and lavender, later yellow azaleas and white wisterias, violet flowerbeds, roses and irises, an entire room of just white. She created a fashion there – suddenly white gardens were all the rage. Friends visited – Lytton Strachey hated the place, thinking it was set in dreary country with no views; not only was he being typically miserable, but blind as well I guess, for his inability to see the beauty of the farmland surrounding the estate. Vita Sackville, an only child who had grown up with distant parents in an enormous house, loved places like other people love other humans; she sometimes worried about this, feeling that the feelings she had for physical places should have been reserved for other people, that nature should not have greater power to excite and to stir the soul than human nature. Yet the two great houses of her life, Knole and Sissinghurst, were probably greater loves in her life than either her husband or any of the women she had affairs with.
My tread is to the same illusion bound.
Here, tall and damask as the summer flower,
rise the brick gable and the spring tower;
invading nature crawls
with ivied fingers over rosy walls,
searching the crevices,
clasping the mullion, riveting the crack,
binding the fabric crumbling to attack,
and questing feelers of the wandering fronds
grope for interstices,
holding this myth together under-seas,
And here, by birthright far from present fashion,
as no disturber of the mirrored trance
I move, and go the world above the waters
wave my incognisance.
For here, where days and years have lost their number,
I let a plummet down in lieu of date,
and lose myself within a slumber
This husbandry, this castle and this I
moving within the deeps,
shall be content within our timeless spell,
assembled fragments of an age gone by,
while still the sower sows, the reaper reaps,
beneath the snowy mountains of the sky,
and meadows dimple to the village bell.
Sp plods the stallion up my evening lane
and fills me with a mindless deep repose,
wherein I find in chain
the castle, and the pasture, and the rose.
Beauty, and use, and beauty once again
link up my scattered heart, and shape a scheme
commensurate with a frustrated dream.
Vita had lost her childhood home of Knole to a cousin; she was the only child and as a girl couldn’t inherit. Virginia Woolf was seduced by this aristocratic background of hers; Vita resembled the 500 years of family portraits hanging on the walls of Knole, but also had the blood of her exotic Spanish grandmother. Vita was a poet and a novelist, and the construction of Sissinghurst’s garden made her a garden writer as well – she understood soil and plants like some people understand food or music, and while her reputation as an author has faded, her reputation as a gardener lives on.
The autumn bonfire smokes across the woods
and reddens in the water of the moat;
as red within the water burns the scythe,
and the moon dwindled to her gibbous tithe
follows the sunken sun afloat.
Green is the eastern sky and red the west;
the hop-kilns huddle under pallid hoods;
the waggon stupid stands within upright shaft,
as daily life accepts the night’s arrest.
Night like a deeper sea engulfs the land,
the castle, and the meadows, and the farm;
only the baying watch-dog looks for harm,
and shakes his chain towards the lunar brand.
In the high room where tall shadows tilt
For now the apple ripens, now the hop,
and now the clover, now the barley-crop;
spokes bound upon a wheel forever turning,
wherewith I turn, no present manner learning;
cry neither “Speed your processes!” nor “Stop!”
I am content to leave the world awry
(Busy with politic perplexity,)
if still the cart-horse at the fall of day
clumps up the lane to stable and to hay,
and tired men go home from the immense
labour and life’s expense
that force the harsh recalcitrant waste to yield
corn and not nettles in the harvest-field;
as candle-flames blow crooked in the draught,
the reddened sunset on the panes was spilt,
but now as black as any nomad’s tend
the night-time and the night of the have time blent
their darkness, the waters doubly sleep,
the years of childhood flown,
the centuries unknown;
I dream; I do not weep.
Sissinghurst is breathtakingly beautiful even in the dull light of a cloudy late May morning, full of tourists. It made me ache to go back on a sunny autumn’s day, wander through the rooms of the garden in the morning when the mist still lingers and the sun is rising, and the autumn roses are in bloom.
When little lights in little ports come out,
Quivering down through water with the stars,
And all the fishing fleet of slender spars
Range at their moorings, veer with tide about;
When race of wind is stilled and sails are furled,
And underneath our single riding-light
The curve of black-ribbed deck gleams palely white,
And slumbrous waters pool a slumbrous world;
–Then, and then only, have I thought how sweet
Old age might sink upon a windy youth,
Quiet beneath the riding-light of truth,
Weathered through storms, and gracious in retreat.
Couple days earlier I had been to Wigmore Hall, for the launch concert of Richard Stokes’ book The Penguin Book of English Song, a collection of English poetry that has been over the years, sometimes centuries, been set to music. For me the English landscape, the English poetry and – by natural continuation – English song are one fluid element; the literature that has come from this country has been shaped by the nature, the colours, the sky of it. Somehow the poets made this serene, cultivated land into something quite sexy. Just think of the drowsy, post-coital bliss of Rossetti’s Silent Noon, set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams – the lovers watching, in perfect, harmonious silence, the clouds sailing past as they lie on a field in May. There’s nothing wild about the imagery, yet the passion is there. It is the perfect song, the perfect image, the perfect evocation of a feeling. Sarah Connolly, the cool goddess, sang. The last time I saw her at Wigmore Hall, she was Virginia Woolf; somehow it was appropriate that the memory of her singing would still be fresh in my mind as I walked around the Sissinghurst garden, keeping that peculiar mental connection unbroken – it is amazing and lovely how the imagination sometimes works.
She was wearing the coral taffeta trousers
Someone had brought her from Ispahan,
And the little gold coat with pomegranate blossoms,
And the coral-hafted feather fan;
But she ran down a Kentish lane in the moonlight,
And skipped in the pool of the moon as she ran.
She cared not a rap for all the big planets,
For Betelgeuse or Aldebaran,
And all the big planets cared nothing for her,
That small impertinent charlatan;
But she climbed on a Kentish stile in the moonlight,
And laughed at the sky through the sticks of her fan.
All poems are by Vita Sackville West.
The National Trust wouldn’t let me photograph Vita’s writing room, so I borrowed the photos of it from their website. The garden photos are my own; I posted few more on my other blog.