Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Song of Songs 4) transports me to Misselthwaite Manor in Victorian era England, where an orphan girl, Mary Lennox, discovers the key to a secret walled garden. She also discovers Dickon, a Yorkshire boy from the moor who is something of an animal whisperer. The two of them spend hours in the secret garden, bringing it back to life, and in the process, bringing health to a bedridden boy, Colin, son of the manor’s absentee lord. On a surface level, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, The Secret Garden, is a children’s book that reinforces traditional politics of gender and class of a bygone era. That the book steadily grew in popularity in the changing class and gender political climate of the late 20th century tells us that there’s more to it than meets the eye. It is filled with rich symbolism, much of it sexual in nature; the walled garden, for example, represents the Victorian era feminine sexuality. So when Mary discovers the buried key and unlocks the garden, and when she discovers this nature boy, Dickon, and invites him to help her cultivate the garden, well, the interpretive possibilities are endless. After all, Dickon can make a flower grow out of a brick wall. Once the flowers of their secret garden did start growing, the two ran from one part of the garden to another and found so many wonders that they were obliged to remind themselves that they must whisper. He showed her swelling leaf buds on rose branches that had seemed dead. . .They put their eager young noses close to the earth and sniffed its warm springtime breathing: they dug and pulled and laughed low with rapture until Mary’s hair was as tumbled as Dickon’s and her cheeks were almost as poppy red as his. There was every joy on earth in the secret garden that morning. What makes Burnett’s novel even more interesting is how she not only used the earthy garden imagery to convey sexual discovery and delight, but she also wove spirituality into the mix. There was Magic in the garden work, a force that brought the dead to life, and brought healing to the infirm. Burnett was fascinated by the Christian Science writings of Mary Baker Eddy, and the motifs of natural healing are strong in the book. When Colin, the infirm boy, was bursting with joy at his healing and wanted to shout something but didn’t know what, Dickon obliged by teaching him the Doxology. Colin then understood that what he called Magic was the same as God.
Here’s one difference between Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel and the Bible’s Song of Songs – there’s no mention of God in the biblical text. And another difference – the author of the Song was not constrained by the sexual inhibitions of Victorian England, and is much more direct in his poetry celebrating intimate love. The song is similar in style and vocabulary to the erotic poetry of the Mesopotamian fertility cults, which makes it miraculous that it made it into the canon of biblical literature, given the Hebraic disdain for these cultic practices. But it’s here, ripe for allegorizing as a love poem between God and the covenant community. Allegory aside, it’s enough to make anyone with any residue of Victorian morality blush. How beautiful you are, my darling. . . Your breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies. . .Your lips drop sweetness as a honeycomb, milk and honey are under your tongue. These and other lines reveal a central similarity between the two books – the use of nature imagery to describe intimate love. The Message translation gives us the clearest example of this similarity: Dear lover, you’re a secret garden.
From the ancient fertility cults and the Song of Songs to The Secret Garden and a host of other poets and writers up to our time, the connections between nature and sexuality and spirituality have been drawn and explored. It makes me wonder about the connections Jesus and his associates might have made. When the Samaritan woman met Jesus at the well, that place long associated with romantic encounters, I wonder if a snippet from the Song of Songs came to mind: You are a garden fountain, a well of flowing water streaming down. And as Jesus spoke to her about God being a Spirit (ie, a Wind), I wonder if the end of our passage came to her mind: Awake north wind, come south wind, blow on my garden, that its fragrance may spread everywhere. Perhaps, given our culture’s ambivalence around sexuality, and the push by some to go back to a Victorian era sensibility, we would do well to spend more time reading the Song of Songs and The Secret Garden.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Fee free to comment.