Wednesday, April 27, 2016

...ekphrasis of an enchanted garden...

   “The boundaries which divide Life from Death
are at best shadowy and vague.
Who shall say where the one ends,
and where the other begins?”
~ Edgar Allan Poe, “The Premature Burial”

The Enchanted Garden behind the Old Stone House, the oldest house still standing in the original city limits, hosts pansies, roses, violets, begonias, clematis, geraniums, hyacinths, hydrangeas, and tulips, all of which are significant if you understand the Victorian language of flowers. The walkways hold repurposed bricks and granite lintels lined with ivy taken from a nearby graveyard. This is a haunted garden from which stories are made; yet, it was stories and poems that inspired this lawn, and this was the topic of discussion at the recent literary salon.

The Richmond Literary Salons have returned thanks to the Poe Museum and the James River Writers. These events encourage local “writerly types” and “readers, thinkers, and artists” to meet, connect, and find inspiration amongst one another.  The recent theme, “Garden of Inspiration – Ekphrasis and the Language of Flowers” included local poet, Joanna Lee, who led the group through a guided practice of writing an ekphrasis poem, a description of a work of art. The evening also included landscape architect and self-proclaimed “plant nerd,” Drew Harrigan who captivated the crowd with his seven years’ worth of research of the Poe Museum’s Enchanted Garden.

The participant’s goal was to “paint with language, transforming works of visual art back into Poe’s own medium.” Local artists who paint in the museum’s garden brought their pieces to display. These paintings were visual descriptions of a work of art (the garden); the garden, itself, is a botanical ekphrasis of Poe’s works (e.g. the evening’s goal was to write a poem based on the paintings that were based on the garden, which was based on several gardeners’ visions, which were based on Poe’s poetry, which was based on his experience with gardens).  Without trying to be too self-referential, this article is an ekphrasis of all of it. One cannot help but imagine that each ekphrasis is haunted by that which it attempts to describe.

In true Richmond style, the literary salon is held in an actual salon at the Patrick Henry Pub and Grille. Advertised as a pre-Civil War Inn a block from St. John's Church, the location of the famous Patrick Henry speech "Give me liberty, or give me death," and where Poe’s mother is buried, the building was once the home of J. W. Fergusson, an assistant to Edgar A. Poe at the Southern Literary Messenger, the most important periodical published in the South and where Poe first began a career as an editor in 1835. Fergusson was also one of the few individuals who attended Poe’s wedding so even the location of the literary salon feels a bit haunted. There’s just something about walking on the same cobblestones where Poe once walked, and sitting in a salon where Poe’s contemporaries once sat.

Harrigan shared a brief history of the garden which was originally a junkyard until one woman had a vision to make it Virginia’s first memorial to Edgar Allan Poe. The gesture is fitting considering that Poe saw the landscape garden as the highest form of poetry. The name enchanted garden derives from Poe’s second “To Helen” (1848) poem. The layout of the garden derives from his poem “To One in Paradise” (1904) with the flowers, trees, and shrubs being pulled from the pages of Poe’s poems and short stories. Nearly everything in the garden has a bit of a backstory. The founders constructed the garden's pergola, walls, paths and benches from materials salvaged from a variety of buildings in which the author lived and worked including bricks repurposed from the Southern Literary Messenger building and stone benches brought from the boarding house where Poe once resided. The walkways are even lined with ivy that was allegedly taken from Poe’s mother’s grave at St. John’s Church. Of course, no one is quite sure where Poe’s mother is buried so unless the ivy completely took over the church at some point, which is completely possible, this is merely a legend.

Paranormal investigators believe a shadowy figure frequents the garden and favors the notorious walking stick and Poe’s wife’s hand mirror. Could this be Edgar Allan Poe visiting his possessions? He would have been quite familiar with the area; surprising to some, he would have been quite familiar with the layout of this garden. Aside from the landscape being taken from his works, a garden similar to this one had been part of Poe’s childhood and part of his adolescence where he courted his first love.

Gardens may not appear to be the most macabre setting but nature was very much a part of Gothic Literature. “It is also in the garden that we observe constant reminders that death follows life follows death in endless cycles” (Humphrey 5). Poe and his contemporaries would have been well-versed in the language of flowers; and, they would have understood that not all the plants held such positive messages. While pansies were considered merriment and violets were affection, clematis evoked deception and trickery; geraniums were read as stupidity, and yellow tulips were understood as hopeless love. Nothing says, “Beware of virtue” like a garland of roses!

Just as some believe that flowers convey messages, others believe that spirits are in the flowers. Paranormal investigators note that some hauntings include a residual energy of a person, animal, or even plant life that has been imprinted in the location, only to be replayed like a recording trapped in time. Perhaps the plants are haunted and carry their own messages. What do they whisper?

In addition, countless individuals over the generations have planted in the garden. In April 1922, the Enchanted Garden opened. In 1964, Charles Gillette, a nationally recognized landscape architect associated with the restoration and re-creation of historic gardens in the upper South, completed drawings of the garden. In 2008, our speaker, Harrigan, was commissioned to restore the property using the Gillette’s drawings. In 2014, the Garden Club of Virginia and Will Rieley and Associates continued this restoration work. On Saturday as an extension of the literary salon, volunteers gathered for a garden clean-up day. After generations of hands have touched the soil, the garden continues to be the heart of the museum. Perhaps each of the gardeners has left a little something of themselves to haunt the garden as well.
One of the volunteers getting her hands dirty!
Special thanks to the Poe Museum’s Jessica Stith for sending me notes from the garden tour that she had taken, and for being such a great volunteer coordinator during the gardening event!  


  1. How wonderful to learn about the garden! I would love to go to literary salons like that!

    1. They're becoming more and more popular for sure.