Arcadian Notes

Devon Johnston


Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006) was a Scottish poet, gardener, toymaker, and conceptual artist. Born in the Bahamas, he returned with his parents to Scotland at the age of six. After serving as an army sergeant during World War II, he tended sheep on the island of Rousay in Orkney; both military and pastoral concerns would prove central to his art. At once modernist and deeply traditional, his early lyrics include “folk, wild, witty things” (as Lorine Niedecker put it) and experiments in Glaswegian dialect. In the 1960s, Finlay’s work became increasingly associated with the international concrete poetry movement. Edging away from conventional books, he embraced widely diverse forms of publication, from broadsides and “kinetic booklets” (usually issued by his own Wild Hawthorn Press) to public monuments, often working in collaboration with visual artists and artisans. At the same time, he expanded his sense of what might constitute poetry to include classical inscriptions, captions, slogans, quotations, dictionary definitions, visual puns, iconography, architectural forms, and even landscaping. In 1966, Finlay and his wife Sue moved to Stonypath, an abandoned croft in southern Scotland. They immediately set about transforming its bare hillside into an elaborate garden called Little Sparta, the subject of this essay.


At the northern edge of the Scottish Borders, beyond the village of Dunsyre, a dirt track cuts through fields mottled with the shadows of clouds. Sheep have shorn fescue to a soft nap. Beside the road, a ram kneels on his forelocks to crop it close. Twenty miles southeast, a kestrel swoops along the River Tweed with a mouse in its beak; in a little glen to the west, two foxes intently hunt a hare. But the land itself is largely grazed and cultivated. Against its smooth contours, only the skyscape goes wild. Uphill, where the track leads, a cluster of trees form a knot of resistance to the open, undulating landscape of the Pentland Hills. Wind rustles like surf in the upper leaves of ash trees. Branches quietly click and creak, adding a nautical air to this inland island.

This is Little Sparta, a poet’s garden in the tradition of those designed by Alexander Pope and William Shenstone in the eighteenth century. For over thirty years, Ian Hamilton Finlay labored here, first developing gardens adjacent to his cottage, eventually extending outward over four and a half acres, planning and planting against the windswept moors. Its plots include a bright kitchen garden; a Roman garden; a heavily-shaded woodland of conifers; English parkland interspersed with silver birch, hornbeam, aspen, and plum trees; and a patch of cultivated wilderness opening into glades and groves. Drawing water from a nearby burn, Finlay engineered a pond, Lochan Eck, as well as several small pools and a running brook crossed by bridges and stepping stones. Throughout Little Sparta, one finds sundials, sculptures, memorials, inscriptions, emblems, and architectural ornaments. These include catalogues of fishing boats and warships, fragments of longing from the classical past, and monuments to the youthful “heroes” of the French Revolution. Some concern mortality, others invoke the sea, bringing home the billowing waves of hills, the rushing of wind in trees. Everything strikes the visitor as weethat favorite Scots wordyet masculine, playful yet Spartan, with moral emphasis and classical restraint. The presiding ethos of the garden is that of a boys’ game, with the same serious absorption of attention, only reluctantly abandoned at dusk.


At the top of the dirt track, a wooden field gate marks the entrance to Little Sparta. Once closed, the highest plank of the gate reads “das gepflugte landthe fluted land,” with both pasture and plowed fields visible beyond it. The German phrase literally translates as “the plowed land,” but “gepflugte” bears a punning resemblance to “flute.” As the inscriptions remind us, plowed furrows striate the earth like flutes on a classical column. In aestheticizing agriculture, we have passed from pastures into pastoralism.

On this wind-swept hillside, “flute” also invokes the wind instrument. Elsewhere in the garden, a fluted plinth reads “flautist, n. a stone-carver.” Throughout Finlay’s work, breath becomes stone, just as chance puns become monuments, transience permanent. Likewise, in “flute,” channels of stone converge with a column of air. Perhaps more significantly, an instrument of the pastoral tradition converges with a pillar of classicism and empire.


The flute has played a significant role in pastoral from its origins. Whether or not, as Virgil suggests, the genre began with shepherds entertaining each other while minding their flocks, the piping flute offers ever-present accompaniment in pastoral poems to sheep and hillsides. Virgil’s sixth eclogue begins:

Prima Syracosio dignata est ludere versu
nostra nec erubuit silvas habitare Thalia.
cum canerem reges et proelia, Cynthius aurem
vellit et admonuit: “pastorem, Tityre, pinguis
pascere oportet ovis, deduetum dicere carmen.”
nunc ego (namque super tibi erunt, qui dicere laudes,
Vare, tuas cupiant et tristia condere bella)
agrestem tenui meditabor harundine Musam.

The translation by Samuel Palmer—best known as an artist and follower of William Blake, but also a translator of Virgilruns as follows:

In these Hesperian pastures to commerce,
Disporting with the wild Sicilian verse,
First my Thalia deign’d, nor blush’d to tell
Our echoing hills their shade was loved so well.
A loftier vein too early I had tried,
Of battles won and heroes deified;
But Cynthius touch’d my ear and thus reproved;
“O Tityrus, whither has my shepherd roved?
‘Tis his to feed and fold the lusty sheep,
A gentler mean his Doric flute should keep.”

Harundo” (line 8 ) means “reed.” In rural life, it was used as a fishing pole and coated with sticky lime to catch birds on the wing. More pertinently, it refers to a simple flute or pipe of the sort played by shepherds, as well as to a writing pen. In describing the teed as “tenuismeaning “subtle,” “slight,” or “thin”Virgil contrasts pastoral pipings to the epic drums of politics and war. As a writing instrument, a harundo offers a humble alternative to a penna (quill). “Penna” suggests a poet taking flight as what Horace called a biformis vates or poet of double shape, traveling to every corner of the earth in immortal song. Meanwhile, the reed splits breath to produce a sweet sound, but that sound doesn’t carry far or last long. William Blake captures these pastoral qualities in his “Introduction” to Songs of Innocence. The speaker begins “Piping down the valleys wild” and ends, “And I made a rural pen, / And I stained the water clear.” The pastoral poem is written on water by wind. In an innocent state beyond the ravages of time, poetry requires no enduring monuments.

Pastoral Arcadia harmonizes nature with human culture in an Edenic state. The reed growing beside a pond provides the source of music and poetry. The land requires no cultivation, its contours softened by grazing. Even the shepherd’s work is largely indistinguishable from otium or leisure. Aesthetic principles of music and poetry, rather than principles of labor, organize Arcadia.


Tromping through the English parkland of Little Sparta, the grass damp with dew, one arrives at a small sheepfold of dry-stone walls. Its wooden gate reads “Eclogue,” and the remaining three walls have “folding / the last / sheep” inscribed on slate plaques. The word “eclogue” derives from the Greek for a selection or excerpt, a fitting analogue to an enclosure for sheep. As one stands within this empty sheepfold in the late afternoon, “the last” might mean not only the last of the flock but the end of a pastoral way of life. Of course, beyond the walls of Little Sparta, sheep graze on a hillside. But in this garden, the enclosure keeps company with fallen columns, broken pediments, and detritus of the past. In aesthetic terms, pastoral is always past, and Arcadia exists only in the murky recesses of time, an idyll invoked with longing.

Yet despite its retrospective nature, Arcadia entails a quest for renewal. As Erwin Panofsky writes of Albrecht Dürer, “For him antiquity was neither a garden where fruits and flowers still bloomed, nor a field of ruins the stones and columns of which could be re-used: it was a lost ‘kingdom’ which had to be reconquered by a well-organized campaign.” Finlay quotes the passage approvingly in his “Footnotes to an Essay.” The military metaphor of an Arcadian “campaign” may have appealed to his sense of gardening as a revolutionary act (a seasonal reclamation, an overturning of the earth). Provocatively, it implies a force, even violence, lurking behind peaceful pastoral landscapes. As Finlay asserted, “Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.”


Where the Wild Garden opens onto Lochan Eck, a moss-covered column lies fallen in the grass, its base partly sunk in the soil. An inscription on the base quotes from Louis de Saint-Just, a young leader in the French Revolution: “The world has been empty since the Romans.” Saint-Just looked back longingly to Roman Republican virtues, eclipsed by monarchies in the intervening centuries. Yet in the geographical context of Little Sparta, the inscription has other resonances as well. Beyond the black surface of the water, the bare moorland of Strathclyde rolls north to the Antonine Wall, which ran from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde. It was abandoned around A. D. 185 when the Romans pulled back to Hadrian’s Wall. For a scant and contentious twenty years, the land under Little Sparta lay within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Ever since the tide of empire receded, Little Sparta has lain on its wrack line. From such a vantage, Finlay collected the cultural jetsam of empires and revolutions, piecing together pithy historical lessons from epigrams and inscriptions.

In the southeast corner of Little Sparta, another marble column lies in the grass, broken into four pieces. An inscription along it reads, “Arcadia n. a kingdom in Sparta’s neighbourhood.” In the middle of the mountainous Peloponnese peninsula, the real Arcadia remained largely remote and pastoral, leading to its mythical identity as an idyllic utopia. Arcadocypriot never became a literary dialect, though it has been partly reconstructed through its use in inscriptions. Just to its south lay the city-state of Sparta. By decree of Lycurgus, Sparta had no literature, leaving us no written record (in this respect it resembles Arcadia). Whereas small bronzes from Arcadia depict shepherds playing flutes, Spartan military dances were accompanied by fife and drum.

According to Finlay’s imaginary geography, his garden figures variously as Sparta and Arcadiamilitary attack and pastoral retreat, austerity and leisure, flutes and drumseach in the neighborhood of the other.


Below the entrance to Little Sparta, where the dirt track crosses a cattle guard, there stands a bronze plaque set in brick. It bears the inscription, “Flute begin with me Arcadian notes,” from Virgil’s eighth eclogue, above the image of a machine gun, as well as the date February 4, 1983. It has the staid symmetryeven stoliditycharacteristic of public memorials. But that presentation only deepens the polemical dissonance between text and illustration.

The date commemorates what Finlay called “the First Battle of Little Sparta.” Finlay had converted one of the stone farm buildings into a temple dedicated to Apollo. It housed an altar, stone texts on the walls, and a small statuary. Finlay applied to the Strathclyde Regional Council for tax exemption, claiming that his temple was a religious building, but his petition was denied. When he subsequently refused to pay taxes, a sheriff was dispatched to confiscate works of art from the temple as compensation. Finlay and a group of supporters calling themselves the Saint-Just Vigilantes successfully defeated the sheriff’s attempt to enter Little Sparta.

The skirmishinvolving water pistols, garden hoses, and an old horsewas partly absurdist political theater. In its aftermath, Finlay developed an extensive iconography around the First Battle of Little Sparta, including plaques, medals, and broadsides. Drawing on eighteenth-century models, these commemorations of military victory are largely mock-heroic. In “The Rape of the Lock,” Pope depicts a round of ombre (a trick-taking card game) as an epic battle: “Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, in wild disorder seen, / With throngs promiscuous strow the level green.” Here, along similar lines, a local dispute over tax status inflates to revolutionary grandeur. But for Finlay it dramatized a significant question of religious freedom by challenging the boundaries between religion and art. In dark times, Arcadia must be defended.


How can a machine gun substitute for a flute? Historically, the word “flute” has included reference to a pistol or a vessel of war. A card accompanying a medal to commemorate the First Battle of Little Sparta suggests a visual resemblance as well: “The machine-gun is a visual pun (or play!) on Virgil’s flute, with the vents in the barrel-sleeve as the finger-stops. But—Et in Arcadia ego—is the flute to begin, or the gunor is the duet in fact to be a trio: does the singer (if he is to continue in his pastoral) need both?”

The phrase “Et in Arcadia ego” appears in two of Poussin’s pastoral paintings, depicting shepherds gathered around a tomb. As Panofsky established, the “I” in question is death. Even in the Arcadia of Virgil’s Eclogues, Poussin’s paintings suggest, death holds sway. Indeed, shepherds in the Eclogues pipe their tunes against a background of war and displacement. The Eclogues open with Meliboeus despairing that he has been dispossessed of his land (which Octavian had given to discharged soldiers). As he explains, “undique totis / usque adeo turbatur agris” (“such unrest is there on all sides in the land”). The eighth eclogue, from which Finlay draws his inscription, is dedicated to a public figure returning from military expeditions abroad. We are reminded at what cost pastoral otium is bought.

A burst of gunfire and a flute’s trill, Finlay suggests, are both aspects of Arcadia. Likewise, bow and lyre are complementary attributes of the same god, Apollo. It is worth remembering that the temple under dispute during the First Battle of Little Sparta was dedicated to Apollo, with the words “His Music, His Missiles, His Muses.” Extending these conceptual puns, Finlay installed an Oerlikon cannon in Battersea Park, London, and titled it “Lyre.” The harundo or reed that formed a flute might also be used for the straight shaft of an arrow.

Despite the visual pun between “the vents in the barrel-sleeve” and “finger-stops,” the rapid fire of a machine gun sounds more like a snare drum than a flute. If the flute is a lyric instrument, drums are epic, associated with the great epic subject of war. However, their proximity in pastoral life might be illustrated by returning to the classical column: If fluting decorates the exterior, drums compose sections of the column itself. For Finlay, the lyrical surfaces of pastoral hide violence at the core. An Illustrated Dictionary of the Little Spartan War offers the following definition: “Small-arm, n. a percussion instrument purporting to be a flute.” Elsewhere, in keeping with this definition, Finlay explains, “To camouflage a tank is to add what Shenstone calls ‘the amiable to the severe’the beautiful to the sublime, flutes to drums.” Where camouflage disguises the machinery of war as natural foliage, pastoral beauty covers sublime depths.


A path circles through rushes and dark stands of saplings around the edge of the Upper Pond. In a shady grotto, past the broken pediment of a column and a fragmentary frieze, a large gilt head of Apollo gathers late afternoon light. It sits upright on a mossy stone, as if abandoned after the destruction of an ancient temple. Across the forehead, an inscription reads “Apollon Terroriste.”

Apollowho carries both bow and lyreserves as patron of Arcadia and shepherds. Like other Greek and Roman gods, he was often a figure of terror. Ovid briefly recounts the story of a satyr named Marsyas, who challenges Apollo to a competition on the flute. Having lost, he is subject to horrific torture:

“quid me mihi detrahis?” inquit;
“a! piget, a! non est” clamabat “tibia tanti”
clamanti cutis est summos direpta per artus,
nee quicquam nisi vulnus erat; cruor undique manta,
detectique patent nervi, trepidaeque sine ulla
pelle micant venae; salientia viscera possis
et perlucentes numerare in pectore fibras.

Arthur Golding’s translation runs:

Why flayest thou me so,
Alas, he cried, it irketh me. Alas a sorie pipe
Deserveth not so cruelly my skin from me to stripe.
For all his crying, ore his eares quight pulled was his skin.
Nought else he was than one whole wounde. The grisly bloud did spin
From every part, the sinews lay discovered to the eye,

The quivering veynes without a skin lay beating nakedly.
The panting bowels in his bulke ye might have numbered well,
And in his brest the shere small strings a man might easly tell.

In pity for Marsyas, the fauns, satyrs, and nymphs of the region all wept. Their tears formed a river, afterwards called the Marsyas. The stream descending from the Upper Pool might recall his fate.

Apollo’s treatment of Marsyas corresponds to our modern sense of terrorism in its overzealous pursuit of justice without pity. As the French inscription on Apollo’s forehead implies, modern terrorism can be traced to la Terreur of the French Revolution. In Finlay’s iconography, Louis de Saint-Just appears as the modern avatar of Apollo. After all, in the First Battle of Little Sparta, it was the Saint-Just Vigilantes who protected the Temple of Apollo. Elsewhere in the garden, a small shrine set against a garden wall houses a statuette of Apollo, mid-stride with a machine gun in his hand. The inscription on his plinth reads “A SJ,” or Apollo Saint-Just.

Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac described Saint-Just as having “A brain of fire, a heart of ice.” Barère adds, “He spoke like an axe.” Finlay reproduces the phrase on a folding card, across the silhouette of an axe-handle, reminding us that Saint-Just’s words had violent consequences. (Prior to 1792, the axe served as the primary weapon of execution for nobility in France.) In his ruthless zeal as a member of the Committee for Public Safety, Saint-Just shares responsibility for the death of thousands by the guillotine, including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Like the Apollon Terroriste, whose head lies broken from its body, Saint-Just was himself beheaded in the end.


Reed becomes arrow, lyre becomes bow, flute becomes machine gun, pastoralism becomes terrorism. “In revolution, politics becomes nature,” Finlay adds. Jean-Jacques Rousseau looms behind such a statement, as he often discussed the natural roots of human rights. Rousseau, and particularly his Social Contract, proved a great inspiration to the central actors in the French Revolution. At the height of the Terror, the National Convention decided to transfer Rousseau’s remains to the Pantheon, an open recognition of his influence. Rousseau suggests that our morality derives from compassion, the only remnant of our innate goodness (though muted by the competitive demands of society). Robespierre and Saint-Just followed him in adopting a fierce rhetoric of compassion, going so far as to suggest that the Terror was a necessity borne of compassion. Everywhere in Saint-Just’s flinty, aphoristic statements, one finds recourse to the authority of nature: “Legislators who are to bring light and order into the world must pursue their course with inexorable tread, fearless and unswerving as the sun.”

As politics becomes nature, the sublime experience shifts from awe at the power of peaks and vast spaces to an equivalent experience of force in the political landscape. It is hardly incidental, in this respect, that Edmund Burke wrote both A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful and Reflections on the Revolution in France. Finlay’s ironic commentary on this relationship can be found in a lithographic print titled Two Landscapes of the Sublime. It shows the vertical drop of a waterfall on the left, transformed into the vertical drop of a guillotine on the right. The images (by Gary Hincks) are Romantic, shadowy and moonlit. In a little booklet called Jacobin Definitions, Finlay returns to the sublime role of the guillotine, defining it as “the highest peak of The Mountain; and its deepest ravine.”


On a card titled A Flute for Saint-Just, the words “ice” and “dust”—centered and in small capsalternate down the page between “flute” and “Saint-Just.” Beyond their close phonemic play, these words suggest the revolutionary pride and bleak insistence of their subject. A footnote to the first instance of “ice” quotes from Camille Desmoulins: “He carries his head like the Holy Sacrament.” A footnote to the first instance of “dust” quotes from Saint-Just’s own Republican Institutions: “I despise the dust of which I am made and which is speaking to you; this dust can be persecuted and put to death! But I defy anyone to wrench from me the independent life I have given myself through the ages and in the heavens. …” Together, these statements characterize the individualism of Enlightenment thought at its most extreme: Free of God, we give ourselves life, and the human brain becomes our only source of sacrament. Ice and dust; a brain of fire, a heart of ice.

A further footnote, to the word “flute,” draws from Geoffrey Bruun’s Saint-Just: Apostle of the Terror. “Among his personal effects, an ivory flute hints at an accomplishment otherwise overlooked.” In the context of Bruun’s biography, this human detail holds “a melancholy interest” and pathos, softening the revolutionary’s iron edge. Yet for Finlay, the ivory flute illustrates a close connection between pastoralism, Roman Republicanism, and political violence. In Finlay’s iconography, this bucolic musical instrument becomes an instrument of terror. In Republican Institutions, Saint-Just anticipates a pastoral resting place for himself and all patriots: Their burial site “shall be set in a laughing countryside, and their graves covered with flowers to be sewn each spring by the hands of children.” In fact, Saint-Just was buried in an unmarked grave in the cemetery of Errancis (in the eighth arrondissement). If his tomb had borne any inscription, it might well have read, ”Et in Arcadia ego.” According to Bruun, a public dancehall was later built over the cemetery.



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Publisher & Editor: Herbert LEIBOWITZ
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