A Visit to Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Poetic Garden

Little Sparta formerly known as Stoneypath, is a work of art and a garden—seven acres set in the rolling Pentland Hills about forty kilometers outside of Edinburgh, near Dunsyre, Scotland. It was a long-term project of Ian Hamilton Finlay, the reclusive Scottish artist and poet, who died in 2006, and it now lives on through the Little Sparta Trust. The garden combines tended and wild grasses, plants, and water with what can only be described as language events—poems, names, citations, and images set on or into physical structures and sculptures large and small. Artistic, poetic, moral, historic, and philosophical themes run through the garden landscape as readily as the streams and ponds that flow and ripple across the countryside. More than 275 artworks blend with the landscape and create a multi-dimensional experience. The visitor’s eyes stir with the views, and the mind resonates with meanings and associations evoked by shape and language in this intersection of words, sculpture, and horticulture. It is an all-natural, awe-inspiring experiential poem.

Finlay created this garden over twenty-five years after moving there with his wife, Sue, in 1966. His vision of the place was realized in collaboration with Sue who was the garden’s planter, and with stonemasons and letter-cutters. Within the site there are ten distinct areas, including the Roman Garden, tree-shaded and with six stone works on plinths; the Temple Pool Garden, with two stone temple buildings, and Finlay’s former residence, and a nearly still pool that mirrors the foliage and the art works surrounding it; and the wilder Lochan Eck Garden which edges on the pond where Finlay’s white dinghy still sits among the shore grasses – along with a wooden rail inscribed with the word “PICTURESQUE.”

I wander the natural paths and come upon a stream. I cross it on a pair of parallel wooden planks, each about six feet long, and each with the words “THAT WHICH JOINS AND THAT WHICH DIVIDES IS ONE AND THE SAME” running in opposite directions. I come up over a rise to encounter a series of six stone walls, each about six feet long and waist high, with a line of a metamorphosing poem embedded into each one. The poem ends with “HORIZONS LONG” and “FOR LITTLE FIELDS.” I discover a low white-clapboard beehive inscribed with “SWEET PROMISE” on a top board beneath its low-peaked roof. I find a flat slab of smooth square gray stone set in the grass inscribed with a lovely sonic verse: “THEY LIGHTLY SKIM / AND GENTLY SIP THE / DIMPLED RIVER’S BRIM.” These are just a few of the discoveries that await the visitor on this transcendent afternoon – moments of peace, awe, wit, and wonder, and moments beyond verbal description.


This excerpt is from “Growing in a Poet’s Garden: A Visit to Little Sparta” by Steven Ross Smith, was first published by Poets & Writers Magazine (January/February, Volume 43, Issue 1, 2015). Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Poets & Writers Inc., 90 Broad St., New York, NY, 10004. www.pw.org


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Steven Ross Smith, poet, performance poet, fiction and non-fiction writer has published twelve books and appeared on several performance recordings. 'Fluttertongue 3: disarray' won the 2005 Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award. 'Pliny’s Knickers,' a chapbook collaboration, won the 2006 bpNichol Chapbook Award. 'Emanations: Fluttertongue 6' was published by BookThug in 2015. Smith has performed and/or published in Canada and abroad. He also writes reviews and features on visual and book arts, artist profiles and personal musings relevant to writers. He lives in the Canadian Rocky Mountains in Banff, Alberta, and can also be found kayaking near Galiano Island, British Columbia.

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