Archive for ‘Walafrid Strabo’


“I say, Charles, don’t you ever crave…”

Twelve hundred years ago tomorrow—January 28, 814—the Franks lamented the death of a tall, paunchy, mustachioed king whom they already knew was one of the most important people in European history: Karl or Charles the Great, Karolus Magnus, Charlemagne. His biographers cataloged the omens that presaged his death, and poets insisted that all the world wept for him. But they mourned too late; the old man they interred in the cathedral had long been lost to legend and myth.

The Charlemagne most of us know is a literary creation: a chivalric ancestor, an Arthur-like figure encircled by heroes, an enigma whose name legitimizes fundamentalist prophecies, spurious movie quotes, heavy-metal concept albums, and (mirabile dictu) overpriced shower gel. Across centuries, Karl’s propagandists can rightly claim victory—but as someone suspicious of power, I’m interested in a different judgment of the man, one that shows how some people felt about him when he wasn’t yet cold in his tomb.

In 824, on the island of Reichenau, a book-obsessed monk named Wettin fell ill. He crawled into bed and suffered terrifying visions: First, he saw an evil, robed spirit looming over his bed with torture devices; then he went on a vivid tour of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven led by his own guardian angel.

From his deathbed, Wettin recounted his revelations to a monk named Haito. Two years later, one of Wettin’s former students, Walafrid Strabo, rewrote the account as a long poem, “The Vision of Wettin.” Walafrid later tutored Charlemagne’s grandson and served as abbot of Reichenau. His flair for poetry and his love of gardening have earned him a tag on this blog and a poem in the gargoyle book, but when you’re assessing Charlemagne, one scene from his “Vision of Wettin” really stands out.

Here it is, hastily translated (by me) from Latin into metrical, alliterative lines:

 Casting his eyes over the landscape,
 He beheld the late king of the high-born Romans
 And all of Italy unable to move,
 Rent by a beast that ravaged his genitals;
 Left free of ruin was the rest of his body.
“Explain this!” cried Wettin, witless with horror.
“Many things fell to this man in his life:
 Attempting to nourish a new age of laws,
 Goading the teachings of God to prosper,
 Nobly protecting his pious subjects,
 Eventually reaching that rare summit
Where upholding virtue invites sweet praise,
But here he is held under horrid conditions,
Enduring great pain and punishment. Why?”

“This torment engulfs him,” his guide replied,
“Because he disfigured with filthy pleasures
His noble deeds, and doubted not
That his sins would be subsumed by his goodness,
Ending his life in the usual sordidness.
Even so, he will toil to attain splendor
And delight in the honor his Lord has prepared.”
               (MGH Poetae II 318–319, ll. 446–465)

Make what you will of the prospects for Charlemagne’s soul; after his death, people grew comfortable recording in writing what they’d likely been saying for years. Heirs and hangers-on had reasons for praising or damning the actual man—but before long, medieval people were more interested in letting the real Karl rot while recasting “Charlemagne” to suit their own needs. In the year ahead, we’ll rediscover how true that still is.

Tomorrow’s anniversary kicks off the “Karlsjahr,” a flurry of Karolocentric commemorations, exhibitions, symposia, and other events coinciding with the septennial Catholic pilgrimage to Charlemagne’s cathedral at Aachen. The city will host three major exhibitions of artifacts and art; an artist will install 500 Charlemagne statues in a public square; and a new Aachen Bank card will show off the famous reliquary bust. The town of Ingelheim will host an exhibition, and the abbey church in the Swiss village of Müstair will serve up a display about Carolingian architecture, a “collage-opera” about Charlemagne’s imperial coronation, and a comedy performance, “Karl and the White Elephant”—and these are only the events I’ve discovered so far.

For 1,200 years, Europeans have crafted a Karl for all seasons. Later medieval kings grafted him to their family trees, Crusaders invoked him, the French made him an icon of education, and Napoleon and Hitler believed they were continuing his work. His latest incarnation is also explicitly political: When the 1957 Treaty of Rome created the European Community, the six signatory nations covered almost the exact same territory as his empire. The EU’s headquarters in Brussels, the dull Charlemagne Building, enshrines him as the patron saint of European unity—and someday, perhaps, of murky bureaucracy. Statues rise, stained glass dazzles, and the source of the legend is lost.

In Becoming Charlemagne, I likened Karl’s tiny capital to the king himself: “almost civilized and unexpectedly alive: ambitious, forceful, clearly Christian, slightly cruel.” He once slaughtered helpless Saxon captives, an atrocity that shocked his contemporaries, and it wasn’t always propitious to be his relative. His failings, both personal and political, were as great as his ambitions.

But take a second look: There’s a remarkable, complex person beneath centuries of rhetoric and legend. It’s the rare leader indeed who can smile at endless flattery, enjoying obsequious poems praising him as a second David, yet still demonstrate, through his actions, that he knows he isn’t the apotheosis of his civilization—that the future needs books, buildings, and institutions that endure.

At this, Karl failed—but 1,200 years later, individuals, nations, and vast institutions still clamor for a piece of him. This summer, through music, theater, religion, and art, his heirs will convene in the shadows he cast. The Christian emperor, the lustful king, the cold-hearted brother, the egomaniac, the mourning father, the blood-spattered warlord, the pragmatic diplomat, the debatable saint, the barely literate patron of learning—there are myriad Charlemagnes to remember, and nearly as many we choose to forget. The story goes on, and the “Karlsjahr” in Europe is about more than the past, so look closely: Amid all the tourists, new Charlemagnes rise.

“Sitting in the valley, as I watch the sun go down…”

As Charlemagne’s successor, Louis the Pious was the ninth century’s Julian Lennon. He may have done interesting work, but who remembers? Historians do, of course, but the emperor who supposedly never cracked a smile doesn’t rule the layman’s imagination the way his father always has.

Even so, the reign of Louis was a great one for poetry. Walafrid Strabo—the abbot, scholar, and gardener who often pops up on this blog—wrote a short poem that strikes me as appropriate for the end of a week that began with Election Day hubbub:


DE OSSE DAMMULAE,

PER QUOD ARBUSCULA CREVIT AD
IMPERATOREM HLUDOWICUM

Arboris et altrix quondam vagina medullae,
Tibia germen habet—nempe bonum omen erit.
Quod cortex humore caret, quod durior ipso est
Robore miramur: talis in osse vigor.
Nil, Caesar, tibi, magne, vacat: venabere dammas,
Ossibus ex quarum silva orietur, ave.

Latin poets, whether ancient or medieval, used long and short vowels where we use stressed and unstressed syllables, so their work is tricky to translate into English—but I like to acknowledge the nature of the original by rendering it into some sort of recognizable form. Walahfrid was a Germanic kid from Alemannia who jokingly called himself a “barbarian,” so let’s assume that Anglo-Saxon metrical, alliterative half-lines, like the verses of Beowulf but with more liberal use of anacrusis, resemble something the poet himself might have heard:
 

ON THE BONES OF A LITTLE DEER,
THROUGH WHICH GREW A SMALL TREE
FOR THE EMPEROR LOUIS

Now a marrow-sheath nurses a tree:
From shin-bone to sapling—surely well omened.
That its bark is dry and bound tougher
Than hard wood, we marvel: such might in the bone.
Great emperor, nothing is ever beyond you:
You merely have to go hunting for deer
And from their relics, forests grow. Hail!

Does my translation capture the sense of the original? One major scholar of Carolingian poetry isn’t even certain what Walafrid’s tone was:

Does the black humour of the hyperbole applied to this faintly ludicrous subject reflect back on Walahfrid himself, in an elegant mockery of the excesses of his own panegyrical style? Or does genuine virtuosity combine here with ambiguous flattery in a measure intended to create a residual doubt as to the sincerity of the compliment? Walahfrid, deliberately, never reveals whether the humour of his epigram is merely self-reflexive or really risqué. Irony, in the hands of an imperial panegyrist, is a two-edged weapon.

Charlemagne’s poets praised him to a ludicrous extent, and I’ve often wondered how seriously he and his heirs took the verses that served as politically useful flattery. It’s all too likely that they loved what they heard.

The subjects of Frankish kings weren’t free to write what they felt, but by studying them, we can ensure the promise of the liber in the liberal arts they bequeathed us. Behold the benefits of the thousand-year perspective: being unsurprised when leaders, by nature, believe their own hype, and being less inclined, sometimes, to fall for it yourself.

“With a torch in your pocket, and the wind at your heels…”

Disentangling sickly cucumber vines, dispatching peppers that chose not to thrive—the maudlin side of late summer gardening got me thinking this week about Walahfrid Strabo, the 9th-century abbot and gardener who tutored Charlemagne’s grandson. Walahfrid was famously unafraid of hard work, so perhaps I cheapened his memory when I sat down to translate his poem “To a Friend.”

Because the poem is only 10 lines long and grammatically compact, I made the same careless assumption as the day I broke ground in my garden: “How hard can this be?”

AD AMICUM

Cum splendor lunae fulgescat ab aethere purae,
Tu sta sub divo cernens speculamine miro
Qualiter ex luna splendescat, lampade pura,
Et splendore suo caros amplecitur uno
Corpore divisos, sed mentis amore ligatos.
Si facies faciem spectare nequivit amantem,
Hoc saltem nobis lumen sit pignus amoris.
Hos tibi versiculos fidus transmisit amicus;
Si de parte tua fidei stat fixa catena,
Nunc precor, ut valeas felix per saecula cuncta.

I haven’t been in a Latin classroom for 15 years, so when I try to translate verse, I get that Flowers for Algernon feeling—but it’s not hard to render this poem into clunky English prose:

“TO A FRIEND: When the splendor of the moon glitters from the pure heavens, stand under the sky and behold with wonder as you see the pure light shine from the moon, see its brilliance embrace dear ones divided bodily but connected by love in their minds. If face may not gaze on beloved face, then at least let this light be proof of our love. Your faithful friend has sent these little verses. If, for your part, your bond of loyalty stands firm, then I pray you be happy and well forever.”

Translating Latin poetry into English is a nasty job; you’re duty-bound to smother some gasping aspect of meaning or form and bury it deep in your notes. Lines of Latin verse don’t rhyme at the ends; they’re ruled by vowel quantity, using long and short vowels where we use stressed and unstressed syllables. Walahfrid composes hexameter lines: the first four feet have to be dactyls or spondees, the fifth foot is usually a dactyl, and the sixth foot is always spondaic—but there are also three places where a good Latin hexameter line ought to have a caesura, and at least two places where it’s verboten to break up a word across different feet.

Ever versatile, “Hexameter Hank” Longfellow adapted the form for English metrical verse in the 1,400-line Evangeline: “This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks.” (I’ve tried it too by adapting elegiac couplets, which alternate hexameter and pentameter.)

So I sat down to translate Walahfrid’s poem, expecting to be done in a day.  I stumbled first on the diction: A poet who varies his language is a translator’s dream, so I frowned to realize that Walahfrid twice uses both pura (“clear, pure, simple, plain”) and splendor (“brilliance, brightness, luster”).

Using the same word twice (and then doing it twice) emphasizes a bond between two friends, but that’s just a small part of what’s going on in this poem. You don’t need to know a word of Latin to see it:

Cum splendor lunae fulgescat ab aethere purae,
Tu sta sub divo cernens speculamine miro
Qualiter ex luna splendescat, lampade pura,
Et splendore suo caros amplecitur uno
Corpore divisos, sed mentis amore ligatos.
Si facies faciem spectare nequivit amantem,
Hoc saltem nobis lumen sit pignus amoris.
Hos tibi versiculos fidus transmisit amicus;
Si de parte tua fidei stat fixa catena,
Nunc precor, ut valeas felix per saecula cuncta.

Rhyme! Medieval Latin poets often played with internal rhyme, but one German scholar in 1965 spotted Walahfrid doing something special: Each line has two rhyming syllables, one on a rising, stressed syllable, the other on a falling, unstressed syllable. Like Walahfrid and his friend, they’re distant, and a little bit different, but share a bond. At the end, the tenth line brings them as close as can be in an idiom that means “forever.”

Are there artful ways to render this in English? I tried:

“When the pure moon sends forth its brightness in splendor from the heavens…”

Bleah. Even if I pretend that’s a proper rhyme, the hexameter is lifeless, and the diction is novice, pocket-dictionary stuff. Walahfrid may have bonded by moonlight with his long-distance friend, but I won’t be the one to craft an English translation that illuminates modern readers with a medieval truth: that the body and soul of a poem are one.

“When I’ve walked in the garden, when I’m walking offstage…”

Spring is a time to remember Walahfrid Strabo: abbot, scholar, tutor to Charlemagne’s grandson, and the best known gardener of the Carolingian age. He’s memorialized at the National Cathedral garden (and got a poem of his own in Looking Up), and his 444-line poem De Cultura Hortorum, “On the Cultivation of Gardens,” intermingles plant lore, political allegory, practical advice, and philosophical musings with an exhortation to get out there and work:

For whatever the land you possess, whether it be where sand
And gravel lie barren and dead, or where fruits grow heavy
In rich moist ground; whether high on a steep hillside,
Easy ground in the plain or rough among sloping valleys—
Wherever it is, your land cannot fail to produce
Its native plants. If you do not let laziness clog
Your labor, if you do not insult with misguided efforts
The gardener’s multifarious wealth, and if you do not
Refuse to harden or dirty your hands in the open air
Or to spread whole baskets of dung on the sun-parched soil—
then, you may rest assured, your soil will not fail you.
(trans. Payne)

In the March and April dankness, I followed Walahfrid’s example—and today I reaped the year’s first harvest from my little realm of dirt.

 

I checked to see if Walahfrid had anything to say about radishes. Indeed he did:

RAFANUM

Hic rafanum radice potens latoque comarum
Tegmine sublatum extremus facit ordo videri
Cuius amara satis quatientem viscera tussim
Mansa premit radix, triti quoque seminis haustus
Eiusdem vitio pestis persaepe medetur.

Here’s a loose and hasty translation into pseudo-Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse:

THE RADISH

Powerfully rooted,   it raises the vaults
Of its broadening leaves    and lies waiting,
The radish you find   in the final row.
Its flesh-root shortens    that shattering cough,
Or grind up a draught    and drink the seeds:
That dose often    will do the trick too.

Walahfrid died in A.D. 849 while trying to cross the Loire. He was only in his early thirties, but he seems to have grown to prefer plants to politics—an insight rare in places of power, then and now.

(The garden in June 2012.)

“You can’t plant me in your penthouse, I’m goin’ back to my plough…”

It’s a sluggish season for blogging, but here at “Quid Plura?,” we’ve been called away from things online by the ageless yawp of agriculture.

Two weeks ago, I inherited a local garden plot. Although abandoned by humanity, this desperate parody of circumcrescence was dearly beloved of weeds, roots, seashells, rotten bamboo, and countless plastic shards. The very sight, especially so late in the summer, was dispiriting; even Gerard Manley Hopkins might have let fly a guilty dream or two about the glorious symmetry of the lawnmower.

So I turned for inspiration to Walahfrid Strabo, the 9th-century abbot and scholar memorialized at the National Cathedral garden (and remembered there by at least one gargoyle). In De Cultura Hortorum, his famous gardening poem, Walahfrid recounts the nettled disaster he faces each spring, then calmly resolves to tame it:

So I put it off no longer. I set to with my mattock
And dug up the sluggish ground. From their embraces
I tore those nettles though they grew and grew again,
I destroyed the tunnels of the moles that haunt dark places,
And back to the realms of light I summoned the worms.
(trans. Raef Payne)

And so, ten days ago, buoyed by the spirit of Walahfrid, I set about turning this…

…into this.

In his little garden, Walahfrid raised bountiful herbs alongside vegetables, flowers, and fruit. While cautioning that hard work trumps book-learning in these sorts of labors, he offers, across twelve centuries, a mote of hope:

If you do not let laziness clog
Your labor, if you do not insult with misguided efforts
The gardener’s multifarious wealth, and if you do not
Refuse to harden or dirty your hands in the open air
Or to spread whole baskets of dung on the sun-parched soil—
Then, you may rest assured, your soil will not fail you.

We’ll soon see if this modern hortulus can bring forth plants that a sensible human will want to smell, admire, or eat. If so, I’ll be thankful for Walahfrid, and grateful, too, for the promise of applied medievalism.

“A garden full of food will be my final contribution to the world…”

Regular readers of this blog may recall that part of the Bishop’s Garden is devoted to Walafrid Strabo, the Carolingian abbot and teacher best known today for De Cultura Hortorum, a poem about his garden at Reichenau. Walafrid was only in his early thirties when he drowned in 849 while trying to cross the Loire. This goat, apparently a medievalist, looks out over the garden and remembers him yet.

WINTER CANTICLE

Seminibus quaedam tentamus holuscula, quaedam
Stirpibus antiquis priscae revocare iuventae.
— Walafrid Strabo, Hortulus

As frozen fingers blunt the thorn,
So Walafrid was barb’rous born

But to that noble island brought.
There Walafrid a vision wrought

With falt’ring eye, but steady feet;
Yet Walafrid would fast retreat

To fertile slopes that front the east.
To Walafrid, to tend the least

Of bitter twigs was sweetest toil,
So Walafrid provoked the soil

To summon worms, and banish moles.
Ere Walafrid the care of souls

Attended, first he fathered roots;
So Walafrid, when bade by brutes

To court, would wall his fruitful mind.
There Walafrid was wont to find

That princelets spire like grasping vines;
And Walafrid tracked fraying lines

Of maidens’ woolspun, wound like gourds;
And Walafrid, when fraught by swords

Saw iris weigh her windblown blade;
And Walafrid left kings afraid

That striplings choke the root, like sage;
And Walafrid foresaw how rage

In bitter plots like wormwood grows;
Then Walafrid perceived in rows

Of scrabbled verse the reek of rue,
Which Walafrid perused, and knew

A soul his faith and friendship scorned.
Then Walafrid in silence mourned

Their idyll dawns, with leaf-light strewn;
But Walafrid prayed God the moon

Shone ghostly, sometime, on his face.
Lest Walafrid despair of grace,

He starved the flame, like seeds to drought;
And Walafrid dreamed long about

The flood, the torrent, murm’ring death;
Then Walafrid would gasp for breath…

Now wait, and watch the snow-bed yield
To branch and bramble unconcealed

That ache for thirst, but must bow down
To seed that drinks, but does not drown

As sprigs and spindrels long unseen
Entwine the font, and blinding green

And purple flash from wing to tree
And sepals spread to greet the bee

And raindrops burst in thick bright beads
And sun alights on lazing weeds

Where column-bright, the lily grows
And raises morning o’er the rose

That marks the day when winter dies;
Then Walafrid, refreshed, will rise.


(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tab, or read the gargoyle FAQ.)

“…so you run down to the safety of the town.”

In 825, when Walahfrid Strabo was a teenager at the monastery of Reichenau, he started a notebook. The notebook went with him when he left to study at Fulda, and it followed him home when he came back to Reichenau as abbot. Walahfrid wrote a lovely poem about gardening, so it’s tempting to think that even when the abbot was traveling on a royal mission or tutoring the emperor’s son at Aachen, his heart was deep in the weeds—but his notebook, now in the abbey library at St. Gall in Switzerland, offers a sense of the learning that ran through his mind as he tended his wormwood and fennel.

Across 394 pages, Walahfrid copied mathematical tables, medical texts, and excerpts from chronicles and calendars. He transliterated runes, and he doodled a labyrinth, but he filled nearly half of his notebook with grammatical texts: examples of Latin usage, excerpts from the works of great writers, and guides to poetic meter. Many of these texts were centuries old, but Walahfrid copied them into his vademecum and went about his business, presumably delighted by the access to education and technology that allowed him to take Priscian, Seneca, Isidore, and Bede with him wherever he went.

I thought of Walahfrid’s notebook when Books, Inq. pointed readers to “Resisting the Kindle,” a piece by Sven Birkerts in The Atlantic. Birkerts imagines printed books disappearing, which I don’t think will happen, and he describes the advent of e-books as “apocalyptic,” which I don’t think it is. Although he makes a reasonable case, Birkerts can’t help but panic about the impending “decimation of context”:

So if it happens that in a few decades—maybe less—we move wholesale into a world where information and texts are called onto the screen by the touch of a button, and libraries survive as information centers rather than as repositories of printed books, we will not simply have replaced one delivery system with another. We will also have modified our imagination of history, our understanding of the causal and associative relationships of ideas and their creators. We may gain an extraordinary dots-per-square-inch level of access to detail, but in the process we will lose much of our sense of the woven narrative consistency of the story. That is the trade-off. Access versus context. As for Pride and Prejudice—Austen’s words will reach the reader’s eye in the same sequence they always have. What will change is the receiving sensibility, the background understanding of what this text was – how it emerged and took its place in the context of other texts—and how it moved through the culture.

The change Birkerts predicts isn’t “apocalyptic,” nor is it even new; multidisciplinary conversations about context occur every time someone studies or teaches a medieval work. When medievalists read a text, they often don’t know who wrote it; its original audience may be unknown; and it may be an edition based on a manuscript that was decades or centuries older than any copy the original author saw or touched.

Birkerts frets that e-books “will also have modified our imagination of history, our understanding of the causal and associative relationships of ideas and their creators,” but this semester, my bright students discerned, all on their own, that layers of context support the translations we read. They grasped that the Penguin Classics Mabinogion is a translation of an edition of a copy of a manuscript that the anonymous author or authors may never have handled or seen—and that the translation is also a conscious response to earlier translations, which are themselves products of their times. What Birkerts finds so terrifying—authors “no longer cohering in historical imagination but fragmented into retrievable bits of information”—is already a normal part of dealing with the ambiguity of any pre-modern work.

Twelve centuries ago, Walahfrid himself faced the question of context when he came across a copy of Einhard’s biography of Charlemagne. He didn’t panic; instead, he wrote a prologue that offered his own take on the historical background, and he alerted posterity to the handy section headers he’d inserted. In Walahfrid’s day, monks were copying texts in an innovative new handwriting, saving ancient works like Cicero’s Philippics for future scholars to contextualize—while happily copying, and thus making portable, the texts they also found vital for personal use.

My hunch is that the young abbot of Reichenau would have been more confused by our modern cult of the author than by devices like the Kindle, which promise to be a fancy codex, scroll, reference library, and vademecum all packed into one. Of course, Walahfrid knew what medieval monks knew, and what medievalists have learned from them: that the uncertainty ahead of us is nothing compared to the fog that we face when we turn to the past.

“When everything’s quiet, will you stay?”

Walahfrid Strabo is always at work on the grounds of my local cathedral. The ninth-century abbot who tutored Charlemagne’s grandson is remembered in the garden, where a stone baptismal font is surrounded by plants he described in a poem. Gardening gave Walahfrid the metaphors he needed to talk about the world. Plurima tranquillae cum sint insignia vitae was the sum of his teaching: “A quiet life has many rewards.”

More than eleven centuries later, Walahfrid would probably be as troubled as today’s neighbors were when they learned the cathedral is closing its greenhouse.

In “On the Cultivation of Gardens,” Walahfrid wrote that a plot full of flora was evidence of hard work repaid, a notion that made him an optimist:

True, that part there
Below the high roof is dry and rough from the lack
Of rain and the heaven’s benison; true, this
Part here is always in shade, for the high wall’s
Solid rampart forbids the sun to enter.
Yet of all that was lately entrusted to it, the garden
Has held nothing enclosed in its sluggish soil
Without hope of growth.

Friends of the greenhouse aren’t nearly as hopeful; the cathedral insists its decision is final. Walahfrid, who found poetry easy but gardening hard, would likely see metaphors here.

The closing will make us one metaphor poorer. In a city that thrives on ephemeral matters, it’s a pity to lose a place that hints at the timeless rewards of a quiet life.

“I will walk in the garden, and feel religion within…”

On Sunday mornings, the ringing of church bells rolls right down the side-streets and echoes through the bushes and trees. Heed their call and hike up the hill; at the top you’ll find a gothic cathedral. Stunning in its own right, it also looms over one of Washington’s prettiest places: the Bishop’s Garden, a thriving reminder of 14th-century monastic life.

In one corner of the garden is something even older: an anachronism within an anachronism, a massive stone baptismal font encircled by special plants. This little “garden room,” a small sign explains, is here to evoke the ninth century, with each leaf and shoot a living monument to the era of Charlemagne. The emperor might have approved, in passing, of this collection of flowers and herbs. But twelve centuries later, its existence owes less to Charlemagne and more to the legacy of a mostly forgotten man, a monk named Walahfrid Strabo.

Walahfrid first beheld Reichenau at the age of eight. His parents were humble and poor, but the brothers on the island in Lake Constance saw promise in this strange little boy, this strabo—this “squinter”—who readily took to the life of the mind. In his later writings, he wryly recalled his barbaric roots, but the library at Reichenau was truly where Walahfrid Strabo was born.

Walahfrid’s heart never left that quiet island, not even after he was sent to Fulda for further study, nor during his nine years at Aachen, where he tutored Charles, the son of Emperor Louis. In 838, when Louis rewarded Walahfrid with an abbacy, the monk, then thirty, went home to Reichenau at last. Except for two years of political exile and the occasional diplomatic mission, Walahfrid spent the rest of his brief life there. In the decade left to him, he polished his poems, he wrote to a scandalous friend, and he worked, when he could, in his garden.

We know about the garden because of one poem: Walahfrid’s 444-line De Cultura Hortorum, “On the Cultivation of Gardens,” now more commonly known as his Hortulus, “the little garden.”

In a lively preface, Walahfrid exhorts others to share his commitment to gardening:

For whatever the land you possess, whether it be where sand
And gravel lie barren and dead, or where fruits grow heavy
In rich moist ground; whether high on a steep hillside,
Easy ground in the plain or rough among sloping valleys—
Wherever it is, your land cannot fail to produce
Its native plants. If you do not let laziness clog
Your labor, if you do not insult with misguided efforts
The gardener’s multifarious wealth, and if you do not
Refuse to harden or dirty your hands in the open air
Or to spread whole baskets of dung on the sun-parched soil—
then, you may rest assured, your soil will not fail you.

Although bookish by nature, Walahfrid makes clear that he is not merely transmitting found knowledge:

This I have learnt not only from common opinion
And searching about in old books, but from experience—
Experience of hard work and sacrifice of many days
When I might have rested, but chose instead to labor.

With quiet joy, Walahfrid walks the reader through his garden, a former mess of nettles and weeds now made useful and neat through careful springtime tending. His tour leads past rows of long-necked poppies, brilliant purple irises, pungent rue, and sprigs of fragrant mint. At every step, he catalogs the practical uses of his garden plants: wormwood, he claims, can cure a headache; fennel loosens the bowels, and it cures a cough when added to wine.

But Walahfrid’s thoughts range far beyond his humble garden, and his Hortulus is a fertile bed of budding notions. In sage, when new growth chokes its old leaves, Walahfrid sees “the germ of civil war.” Gourd-vines remind him of shields, ladders, and girls spinning wool; he admires their tenacity in a storm, and he marvels at how they aspire “to grow high from a humble beginning.” He points out that horehound counteracts the poisons of an evil stepmother, while pennyroyal lets him marvel at God’s bounty and contemplate the economics of scarcity. In a fit of Virgilian whimsy, Walahfrid even invokes the Muse, “who in sacred song / Canst stablish monuments of mighty wars / And mighty deeds,” all so he can more eloquently praise the heartburn-reducing properties of chervil.

Practical advice and classical flourishes, political allegory and good humor, philosophical musings and mock-epic—here and there, modest ideas and tender allusions break through the surface of the Hortulus, intertwine a little, and grow toward nothing in particular. In the end, Walahfrid’s garden path leads to the lily and the rose, Christian symbols both, each leaning against the other; he spots them just as he begins to tire. It would be odd indeed if a ninth-century abbot did not end his gardening book in this way—but it is odd already that Walahfrid has left this literary garden, in which he glimpses all creation, at fewer than 500 lines.

To understand Walahfrid’s brevity, close his Hortulus. Tuck it under your arm, pass beneath the open archway, and visit the real hortulus, which blooms in the shadow of a cathedral that Walahfrid never could have imagined. Here grows rosemary; here grows the fleur de lys; here grow fennel, black cumin, and green-leafed Gallic rose. In patches, bowing in their raised beds, the flowers and herbs surround the baptismal font, while around them grows a larger garden still.

Tourists and pilgrims walk its stone-paved paths. Beautiful women lounge on benches and bathe in the sun. Toddlers rush for the goldfish pond, while clergy lead visiting dignitaries beyond the bushes and bees. Across the lawn, and frozen in stone, a father forgives his lost son.

Sit and sweat in the swampy heat. Relish this riot of flowers and bushes and vines. Savor every scent. And look, if you can, for the gardener.

Squint, and you’ll see him; he peers back at you across twelve hundred years. He lives in the dear freshness of this garden, where his work is remembered by those who now spend their mornings exactly as he did: spreading dung, contending with vermin, and tending to fistfuls of moist, fragrant soil.

He wonders why your hands aren’t hardened by labor; then he glimpses his book. His smile is kind, but his glare is reproachful. He is, after all, an abbot.

“A poem is only a poem,” he tells you, his voice made tender by time, “but a garden, dear brother, is art.”