March 27th, 2019

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

"A poem," said Robert Graves, "Is never finished, only abandoned." At least I think it was him. His practice certainly conformed to the saying, because he was always tinkering with his oeuvre, changing a word here and there- and cutting out perfectly acceptable poems because something about them didn't sit right with his older self. The outcome is a final Collected Poems that is light on the better early work and heavy on later work which is repetitive and arrogant and sometimes rather silly. But that's by the by.

Most artists in any and every discipline share Graves' sentiment. If economics and the desire for reputation didn't militate against it they'd never let their work out of the workshop. Some have greater leeway than others. A poem- even though published- is always available for the poet to mess with whereas once a painting is sold and hung on the wall there's not much the painter can do about it- though legend says that Velasquez- who had free run of the Escorial- used to wander the corridors, paintbrush in hand, touching up pictures of his that no longer quite satisfied him. Perfection is always just out of reach. Let me have one more go at it- just one more go and then- I swear, I'll be satisfied.

Of no art form and set of artists is the above more true than it is of gardening and gardeners. They not only have their own second thoughts to contend with but also such things as seasons, droughts, high winds-and the wilfulness of the vegetable lives they're working with. A garden is never finished because it's always growing. And it can't be abandoned because it will immediately begin to lose its shape. Great gardens- like the one at Sissinghurst just down the road from here- which was initiated by Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson and is now in the hands of the National Trust- are the work of generations.

I look at our garden here and consider what can I do with the limited resources and labour available to me. This morning I mowed a path through the long grass of the back lawn, moved the bird feeder and started to demolish a jerry-built, wooden bird feeder that Matthew built for us. I'm undoing and doing, making tentative charcoal strokes- knowing that if I don't rub them out myself Nature will do it for me. I have no hope of finishing, but I'll do what little I can. It will always be a work in progress. I imagine Chaucer felt much the same way about The Canterbury Tales...