The De Hortorum Libri IV by René Rapin S.J. [1620/21-1681] was one of the more popular items of seventeenth century Neo-Latin literature. Since its original publication in Paris in 1665, it has gone through no fewer than 21 printings (the most recent being the 1932 Worcester Mass. edition of Thomas McDonald), and has been translated into English (twice), French, and Italian in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In her study, Ruth Monreal subjects Rapin’s poem to a lengthy and thorough analysis, beginning by pointing out that it and Abraham Cowley’s De Plantis Libri VI belong to a lengthy tradition of Lehrgedichte that can be traced back as far as Hesiod’s Works and Days and Vergil’s Georgics, and that resurfaced in Neo-Latin literature in works by such writers as Pontanus, Vida, and Fracastorio. This one is a didactic poem about the design of gardens (Book I is about flowers, II about forests and glades, III about irrigation and decorative water features, and IV about orchards). She devotes most of her study to identifying literary influences, borrowings, and imitations, and to presenting us with a detailed breakdown of the poem’s contents.
This is all welcome, but her similar treatment of Cowley’s De Plantis Libri VI is much more so, because (as Monreal observes on p. 16) the scholarship devoted to Abraham Cowley’s plant poem is very scanty. This is one of those poems which, like Thomas Watson’s 1592 Amintae Gaudia, languishes in undeserved neglect because it was written in Latin; had these poems been written in English, they would be very familiar indeed, and some readers would no doubt love them and consider them minor masterpieces. Given the current state of play, it is almost impossible to write anything substantial about De Plantis without making a significant new contribution to Cowley scholarship, and any study that directs readers’ attention to Cowley’s work earns great gratitude. Monreal’s treatment of Cowley is very similar to her handling of Rapin: it is equally useful and only two objections can be made. First, it is a pity that she was unaware of the modern electronic edition and translation of this work http://www.philological.bham.ac.uk/plants/. Second, it is not fully clear that Monreal fully grasped the fact that Cowley’s conception of his work greatly changed over time. Books I and II were originally published independently as A. Couleii plantarum libri duo (London, 1662) and a footnote to its initial Ad Lectorem indicates that at least some of the writing had been done before the restoration of King Charles II in 1660. These Books certainly qualify as Lehrgedichte : they have a certain amount of seriousness of purpose and are even tricked out with side notes containing a storehouse of botanical lore. It is probably not irrelevant to note that Cowley wrote these books not long after earning an Oxford M.D., and contemporary physicians received a certain amount of training in botany because of its implication for materia medica. The other Books were published posthumously by Cowley’s friend Thomas Sprat in a 1668 volume called Abrahami Couleii Angli Poemata Latina. These are progressively different: the focus of interest in Book III and IV seems to be the poet’s bravura polymetric performance as much, if not more than, their botanical contents. When we get to Books V and VI the botanizing fades into the background, and largely exists only to provide a pretext for the introduction of decidedly off-subject set pieces. Book V contains a lengthy description of a kind of theological jamboree in which the Olympians get together with the gods of the Aztecs. In the course of this scene, we are presented with the remarkable picture of Huitzilopochtli teaching Apollo how to smoke a cigar. In Book VI we have similar digressions portraying King Charles aloft in his oak tree and the 1665 Battle of Lowestoft, with a colorful description of the explosion of Admiral Opdam’s flagship. By the time we reach these Books, we have left Lehrgedichte far behind. Clearly, we have a work written in installments over a lengthy period of time, which underwent a substantial evolution in the process, but Monreal tends to discuss the whole poem as if it were all of one piece.
Monreal’s study developed from a 2008 thesis. This, no doubt, accounts for the fact that it is over-lengthy and plodding, and contains a good deal of material, such as painstakingly detailed content-inventories, which many readers will probably regard as unnecessary. Worse, compiling a catalog of literary influences, borrowings, and imitations is no substitute for confronting the works themselves and attempting to come to grips with what their authors are trying to accomplish. There is, unfortunately, a general dearth of such analysis, with the result that one comes away from this book without having gained very much illumination about the poems themselves. Quellenforschung scholarship, at least when not combined with other approaches, is nowadays generally recognized as sterile and without point, and seems dreadfully old-fashioned. Monreal might, for example, have looked at contemporary French manuals on the subject (by Bernard Palissy and others) and tried to relate what Rapin writes to the current realities of French garden design, and even to larger philosophical issues regarding the relation of Man to nature standing behind them. Who knows? This might be a valid approach, it might not, and Monreal’s silence leaves us guessing. Katharine T. von Stackelberg’s 2009 The Roman Garden hints at the kind of things that might conceivably be accomplished working with a poem about garden-design.
In Monreal’s defense, I hasten to add that what she gives us is very much the kind of thing that dissertation directors like to see, and young scholars are under terrific career pressures to publish quickly, which discourages reflection when they go about recasting their dissertation into a book. But there is not, in sum, enough about Rapin and Cowley in this book and we are given little opportunity to encounter them as personalities or gain a feeling for their poems (there are few extensive quotations, so their authors are given little chance to speak to us in their own voices). Nor is there enough of Monreal herself, of what she actually thinks and feels about these poems. If she has any excitement or enthusiasm about them, she makes no attempt to communicate it to us (and in Neo-Latin studies one often has to serve as an advocate for the authors one studies). This may be appropriate in a dissertation, but not in a published book. I suspect that over time she will discover her own voice as a scholar-writer and develop a more modern and more personalized approach to discussing literature. If so, her future work may be very interesting indeed.