The Genius of Place


Eighteenth-century gardener, poet, and acerbic critic Alexander Pope’s phrase “the genius of the place” is often quoted by garden writers, landscape architects, and environmental advocates to urge us to respect what Nature herself provides.

But, it’s important to understand Pope’s phrase in context: The context of the times, the context of Pope’s rebellion against the excesses of the wealthy, and even within the context of the larger poem. Those who’d like to read the whole, Epistles to Several Persons: Epistle IV To Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, can find an annotated version at Representative Poetry Online, http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/1632.html .
 

I’ve reproduced the 18 relevant lines here:

            To build, to plant, whatever you intend,
            To rear the column, or the arch to bend,
            To swell the terrace, or to sink the grot;
            In all, let Nature never be forgot.
            But treat the goddess like a modest fair,
            Nor overdress, nor leave her wholly bare;
            Let not each beauty ev'rywhere be spied,
            Where half the skill is decently to hide.
            He gains all points, who pleasingly confounds,
            Surprises, varies, and conceals the bounds.

            Consult the genius of the place in all;
            That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
            Or helps th' ambitious hill the heav'ns to scale,
            Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
            Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
            Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
            Now breaks, or now directs, th' intending lines;
            Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

Pope's own summary of the Epistle makes clear his intention:
"The chief proof of it is to follow Nature, even in works of mere luxury and elegance. Instanced in architecture and gardening, where all must be adapted to the genius and use of the place, and the beauties not forced into it, but resulting from it.”
 
He also said: "All the rules of gardening are reducible to three heads:-- the contrasts, the management of surprises, and the concealment of bounds ... I have expressed them all in two verses;..."

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