Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Sunny thoughts on lawns


Notwithstanding their love of travel, Englishmen are, of all nations, most fond of home. The feverish hotel-life of America finds no favour in their eyes; and the continental mode of passing the evening outside a café, beside tubs of shady oleanders, is very well once in a way, but soon sends them home more enamoured than ever of their own institutions. The fireside forms the centre of an Englishman’s idea of home during winter, and in summer his garden, and undoubtedly the largest share of his affections is there given to his lawn. The hotbeds belong to the gardener, the flowers to his wife, but his special delight is to survey the smooth-shaven expanse of turf from his window, and saunter over its soft surface lord of all he surveys.

A well-kept lawn is a peculiar feature of our domestic life. In no other country can a few yards of turf be kept green and soft so beautifully as in England, where the humid climate, equable summer and short winter, combine to produce constant verdure and steady increase of elasticity. To go no further from home than the Tuileries, how melancholy is it to see the gardeners there daily directing their hose over the sun-dried plots! What poor results follow, although il est défendu to tread them. Terraces and orange-groves, boulevards and lime alleys, are poor substitutes for the emerald freshness of our own dewy lawns.

What can surpass the peacefulness of the lawn surrounding a country-house, when you draw up the blinds early on the first morning after your arrival? From the proud parading of the chaffinches over it, to the distant clang of the gardener sharpening his scythe, all is home-like. It seems to span the whole of life in an instant. Memory flies back to the days when, as a child, you sported on such a lawn, and looks on to the time when, seated old and feeble by its edge, some one who may be slumbering all unconscious as yet in the neighbouring wing, shall catch your lightest fancies and forestall your every wish. And, last scene of all, the level turf before you is inseparably connected with final rest. The mind halts by the

Two graves, grass-green, beside a gray church-tower,
Wash’d with still rains, and daisy-blossomed.

None of the ancients seem to have appreciated the luxury of a lawn. Homer praises the fabulous gardens of Alcinous, but they were more what we should call orchards. The Grecian idea of a garden was a sacred grove planted with flowers to supply garlands for the deities, while the Romans thought less of lawns than of fountains and rows of stately trees shading terraced walks. It was only in the Elizabethan era with ourselves that grass began to be considered a component part of a garden. The tilt-yard passing insensibly into the bowling-green, as the days of chivalry died out, left us the lawn; the word as well as the thing being thus comparatively modern.

Even Milton knows “lawns or level downs” only as sheep commons:

Russet lawns and fallows gray,
Where the nibbling flocks do stray.

And Lord Bacon, when laying out his “prince-like” garden, out of thirty acres, assigns four to the “green in the entrance.”

There are several kinds of lawns, each of them suitable to the rank and appearance of the building to which they belong. There is the palatial lawn, edging such a place as Belvoir Castle for instance; very large and magnificent, and withal little used save by the peacocks. It is generally fringed with rows of vases, shut in by noble avenues of spreading sycamores, and dotted with cedars or mulberry-trees of unknown antiquity. Sunshine and brilliant flowers seem part of its very nature; the massive octagonal sun-dial in one corner, echoing its key-note in the motto running round it—’Tis only sunny hours I note.” It seems a desecration to tread on its springy verdure, and you feel, if you were called upon to mow its dignified precincts, that you ought solemnly to enclose the first crop in an ivory box, as Nero did his beard on shaving for the first time.

France has a good type of this lawn at Versailles, and the aged carp in the pond there are adjuncts exactly suited to the locality. We pitched a few fragments of gravel at them once to quicken their lazy movements, and were immediately attacked by a sentinel with fixed bayonet, just as we should deserve were we barbarians enough to plant unholy feet on such a lawn as we have described, sacred to coronets and strawberry leaves, and summer dances of the haute noblesse.

Another kind of lawn is that surrounding some ivy-covered mansion (once perchance a religious house), shaded by lofty elms, and falling gently to a sluggish river. If the former is the type of magnificence, this signifies repose. You shall seldom see merry groups of children playing on it. No Edwin woos his Angelina by these time-honoured precincts. Quaint treasures of the topiarian art guard its ancestral sanctity. The turf is softer than a Turkey carpet, and (broadly contrasting with the palatial lawn) yields till the foot is ankle-deep in moss. A runlet, overgrown with hart’s-tongues and the feathery lady-fern, generally splashes into the boundary stream, and the chargers dear to the proprietor’s youth, “donati jam rude,” graze calmly on the further side. “The family are often away,” the custodian tells you, himself most likely a canny Scotchman, like Andrew Fairservice, who is passing a green old age round the lawn. The deep oriels opening on to it are closed, no wheel-marks line the gravel; a general air of melancholy pervades the place. The very birds do not care to sing there; the trout are too sullen to rise at the May-flies between the water-lilies. It will probably soon be sold by the young squire, for no modern bride could endure such a dismal domain. Still it is a fine lawn in its way, and one not unseldom seen in retired corners of Old England.

Again, there is the college lawn, edged maybe by patriarchal horse-chestnuts, the pride of a University, as at St. John’s, Oxford. Read “The Princess” if you would realise its learned delights, roses and conic sections, nightingales and the Ethics, its very gravel walks reminding you of Differential Calculus. Defend us from the villa lawn, which is best described by the word “trim!” Its half-grown shrubs, and painfully new seats flanked by the staring red bricks and stone facings of Belle Vue or Prospect Place, may be seen on all sides as the railway dashes through the suburbs of London or any large town. What sense of home associations do the people possess who live in such places? They naturally skirt the railroad, for that is best suited to their constant bustle. Could you read “the Tempest” or “the Faëry Queene” in that pretentious bow-window? “Bradshaw” and the “Times” are the literature for it. As for lying on that sickly lawn, full of knobs, like a couch innocent of feathers, and enjoying Milton or Shakespeare, it is an impossibility! As soon lie down under a street lamp and fancy oneself Endymion!

Most love we the parsonage lawn, emblem as it is of all that is most sacred in English domestic life. It may not always be as closely shaven as might be; for John has much to do, and its turn only comes with planting cabbages, ringing passing bells, and “sarving the pigs.” Daisies may fleck it here and there, but we forgive them, because they recall sundry scraps of Burns and Wordsworth. It is probably even trampled down in an unseemly manner at one corner, but “boys will be boys,” and sometimes cattle find the gate carelessly left open. At all events it is a thoroughly useful lawn, and thoroughly enjoyable at all times and seasons; whether in June, when the parson meditates on the bench under the limes, and the children play croquet, mingling their merriment with the cawing of sage jackdaws from the tower behind the shrubbery; or in January, when he walks on its sunny side, and catches the windy clamour of the rooks returning to their nesting trees; in grey dawn, when each blade of grass glitters with dew; in moonlight, when a hedgehog gloomily perambulates it, or rabbits skip across it to the pinks. The more it is studied, too, fresh delights reveal themselves. Are you in a serious mood?—pass over it to the rustic gate opening on the churchyard. There even the moss-grown sun-dial, with its homely motto, “pereunt et imputantur,” is in harmony with your thoughts. Are you glad?—skirt those cunningly-arranged tree stumps to the laburnums and lilacs, the roses and honeysuckles, of the inner garden; there the humming-bird hawk-moth poises itself over the blossoms like its tropical namesake, the pipit flits about from tree to tree, and all is life and animation. Would you moralise on the lawn’s green expanse with the great modern interpreter of nature?—learn, then, the secret of humility from the grass before you. Its very end is to be trodden under foot, and yet it rises stronger after it. Mow or roll it as much as you will, and it only sends up thicker shoots. Even in winter it is always green, always cheerful; type of perpetual youth and perpetual freshness, its very uniformity like a reflection of the unclouded sky above. Truly they were wise men, those old monks, who loved so much a spacious courtyard of grass!

A naturalist may spend many pleasant moments on his lawn. If an entomologist, he may find larvæ amongst the grass, or capture numerous moths and butterflies attracted thither by the neighbouring flowers. Thoroughly to enjoy a lawn, we should have bee-hives by it, for the sake of the perpetual murmur.

Much may be learnt from observing the habits of the earthworms which inhabit it, their seasons of appearing, &c. If vexed at the unsightly casts they leave on the turf, we can reflect how useful they are in dragging dead leaves underneath which would otherwise litter the grass. As if to compensate for the havoc they make with tender plants, they are admirable fertilisers of a lawn, constantly withdrawing the surface-earth and piercing the soil in all directions, so much so as in a few years entirely to change its surface.

Without worms in our lawns we should have no blackbirds or thrushes haunting them, and to most people birds are peculiarly associated with lawns. Watching their strange ways is an untiring source of quiet pleasure. You may sometimes observe in the West of England the green woodpecker fly flapping to your lawn (as the parrots fly in other lands), and watch its awkward movements on the unusual surface amongst its queer-looking brood, which have just lighted on the earth, for the first time, from the hole in the aged elm. Alarm them, and they are up the nearest tree in a trice, chattering with the squirrels.

it is on the lawn we welcome the redbreast in winter, and it is a favourite resort of many summer birds. A pair of chimney-swallows initiated their tender nestlings into the mysteries of fly-catching over our lawn, last summer. They took literally short “swallow-flights of song” over its surface, and then alighted altogether on the grass to rest a moment, and prevent the tyros feeling weary. It was a beautiful sight to see the old birds proudly puffing out their chestnut-coloured throats in the sunshine, and flirting their tails admiringly round their young hopefuls, evidently too scared on their part to enjoy it, much like small boys just emerging from a first swimming lesson, who shiver afterwards on the brink. At this moment we have a pet blackbird with white-barred tail-feathers hopping over it. Last winter a pair of magpies haunted it. Our Skye came trotting up it one morning with a large bone in his mouth, and (though he did not see us) with that downcast eye and hanging tail which unmistakably showed that he had stolen it from some housewife while salting her pig at the village. He was evidently not hungry, but (like every prudent dog) had an eye to next day: so, looking all round very cautiously, he slunk off to the edge and concealed it at a tree-root, scratching soil all over it, and then departed at his usual jaunty pace. But Nemesis was at hand. One of the magpies sat overhead, cunningly marking all his proceedings, and, directly he had turned the corner, summoned his mate. The two then descended, exhumed the dainty morsel, and picked it clean, while we sat in our study-chair thinking, “set a thief to catch a thief.” No one but Sir E. Landseer could do justice to the dog’s look on returning, and awaking to the foul treachery that had been done in his absence!

But here we must stop, and, to propitiate the reader, will end with a moral, which is that the common-place objects of daily life are just those which often sweeten it most. Homely enough, perhaps, but anything which attaches people more to home in these restless days is so much additional happiness. It is on the lawn in summer that

Wisdom doth live with children round her knees,
Books, leisure, perfect freedom, and the talk
Man holds with week-day man in the hourly walk
Of the world’s business.