So my "experience" of the garden has been limited to illustrated articles in places like Architectural Digest & various books on contemporary landscape architecture, & to Yves Abrioux's sumptuous and indispensible Ian Hamilton Finlay: A Visual Primer. Jessie Sheeler & Andrew Lawson's Little Sparta: The Garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay, then, is a welcome & enlightening guide to Finlay's major life-work.
Like no other text I've yet seen, Sheeler & Lawson's coffee-table book manages to give one a sense of what it might be like to walk thru the garden, to experience it in situ, rather than as a series of snapshots. The pictures – Lawson, I gather, is a top-notch garden photographer – are uniformly beautiful, everything in eye-popping color and crisp focus. And Sheeler's text is doggedly informative, translating every Latin inscription into English & explaining every classical reference in the patient voice of a young person's Latin teacher (which, it turns out, she is*).
If anything, it's the coffee-table book aspect of Little Sparta that I find a trifle off-putting. On the one hand, among Lawson's beautiful photographs of various aspects of the garden – columns, inscriptions, statues, bridges – are a number of very pretty pictures of foliage & flowers: nice enough, but the sort of thing that could be slotted into pretty much any book about any garden in the British Isles. I'd have appreciated a few more close-ups of IHF's inscribed plaques. And Sheeler's text, while it's thoroughly informed & always informative (if sometimes irritatingly basic for this overeducated reader – I suppose somebody out there needs to have the story of Apollo & Daphne, or of Aeneas & Dido's cave, retold them), tends to render anodyne the more troubling aspects of IHF's ideological art. We're told time & again how Robespierre & Saint-Just were apostles of purity & order; there's all too little mention of how the primary agent of that order was the guillotine. IHF is not interested in aestheticizing the guillotine when he compares it to the classical column or the birch tree: rather, he underlines by shocking juxtaposition the coexistence, the imbrication of terror & the pastoral.
Sheeler's Little Sparta is Sparta as order apotheosized, drained of its concomitant terror. (For a dose of the latter, go watch 300 – which one of my students last semester called his "favorite movie," sending a chill down this 4-eyed wimp's spine.) Dig Sheeler's last sentence:
Those who come prepared to find in Little Sparta works whose essence is poetic, not decorative or horticultural, will find find subsequently that the way they see the world is changed and made more wonderful.The only word I would quibble with here is the last (& most important): Little Sparta changes the world, and makes it more unsettled, more terrible.
But the heart of this book is its wonderful photographs & interpretive commentary. Anyone interested in landscape architecture, in concrete & conceptual poetry, & in their intersection, should buy this volume posthaste.
*Keen eyes might recognize Sheeler as the Jessie McGuffie who was Finlay's companion in the early 1960s, & who co-founded the Wild Hawthorn Press with him. "Sheeler" is the surname of one of Zukofsky's Brooklyn Polytech students, who visited Finlay & McGuffie in Edinburgh at LZ's suggestion – but therein hangs a painful tale whose outlines can be read in my The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky.