No traces of a garden have been found at Kilcolman. Very little of its bawn area has been excavated, however, and so something may yet be found comparable to what exists at Barryscourt, Co. Cork; Rothe House, Kilkenny; and Drimnagh Castle, Dublin (minus the moat). It is almost certain that Spenser had some form of kitchen garden for growing fruit, vegetables and herbs (see Bawn area: kitchen, Tower House Parlor: apples).
This garden has symmetrically designed, interlaced or “knotted” hedges according to Elizabethan patterns. The small, vine-laden arbor (or bower) for sitting and admiring the view of the garden, with its central sundial, is modeled on that at Kenilworth in England (the lavish estate of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, Spenser’s sometime patron). Some details are taken from the garden-arbor structures in the weird dream-allegory Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499) of Francesco Colonna.
As was conventional, the garden is situated so that its patterns can also be appreciated from above, by those standing on the bawn wall or looking out of the north-facing windows of the tower house, or from its ramparts.
Spenser in his literary works is clearly enamored of gardens, which were places of great beauty and status in Elizabethan England, as they are in The Faerie Queene. They are places of art and contemplation, for thinking in and on. The deeply philosophical and mythological “Garden of Adonis” is the centerpiece of Book III of The Faerie Queene, the Book of Chastity. [“Chastity” for Spenser did not indicate virginity only, but rather the virtues of fertility under proper, loving (including wedded) circumstances.] A decadent and licentious garden with fountains in it, the Bower of Bliss, appears at the conclusion of Book II and is destroyed by Guyon, the hero of Temperance.
Both the Garden of Adonis and the Bower of Bliss (as well as others) have been read by critics as having Ireland-related allegorical significance: in the former, we see an emphasis on seeding, the life-cycle and creative fertility, which may reflect Spenser’s own ideals as a “genius” creating art on his newly won plantation. In the latter, we see the sad consequences of trading heroic action for sensual, enervating ease: of living for the moment and enjoying your surroundings (including love poetry) far too much. Doughty knights must remain virtuous, armed and vigilant.
In Spenser’s Amoretti #89, the final sonnet in the sequence, the poet imagines himself as a dove (a “Culuer“) missing its mate. She is beautiful and he longs for sight of her. Her “sweet aspect“ inspires both God and man to be with her: “Whose sweet aspect both God and man can moue,/ In her vnspotted pleasauns to delight.“ A “pleasauns“ in this case signifies both the pleasure area of a garden and “pleasantness“ more generally. Should the poet not have the sight and use of his love’s figurative pleasure garden, he complains, “Dark is my day, whyles her fayre light I mis,/ And dead my life that wants such liuely blis.“ (Amoretti 89.11-14).
In Amoretti 64, dubbed the “garden sonnet” by critics, Spenser in a blazon, or poetic catalog on his mistress’ fair parts (a trope familiar also from the Song of Solomon in the Bible), compares his new bride, Elizabeth Boyle, to a garden:
Comming to kisse her lyps, (such grace I found)
Me seemd I smelt a gardin of sweet flowres:
that dainty odours from them threw around
for damzels fit to decke their louers bowres.
Her lips did smell lyke vnto Gillyflowers,
her ruddy cheeks lyke vnto Roses red:
her snowy browes lyke budded Bellamoures,
her louely eyes lyke Pincks but newly spred,
Her goodly bosome lyke a Strawberry bed,
her neck like to a bounch of Cullambynes:
her brest lyke lillyes, ere theyr leaues be shed,
her nipples lyke yong blossomd Iessemynes:
Such fragrant flowers doe giue most odorous smell,
but her sweet odour did them all excell.
The sonnet immediately precedes #65, wherein Spenser compares his bride to a “gentle birde… within her cage” that “singes and feeds her fill,” once she has entered into her engagement “bands” with him. The “cage” brings his house or tower to mind. Birds are also attracted to gardens, and some gardens, like Kenilworth, had aviaries in them. The same “bondage” has captured the poet and tied him to her. They are a pair of love-birds.
Spenser closes Sonnet 65 with a rhyming couplet, wherein a reference to a “brasen towre” is rhymed with “sacred bowre”:
There fayth doth fearlesse dwell in brasen towre,
and spotlesse pleasure builds her sacred bowre. (Amoretti 65.13-14)
Spenser envisions both tower and bower side by side: a “bower” could refer to an inner apartment in a mansion, including bedrooms and boudoirs (see Oxford English Dictionary q.v. “bower”), or to a place in a garden, such as an “arbor” or “place closed in or overarched with branches of trees, shrubs, or other plants” (Oxford English Dictionary q.v. “bower”; see also the reference to the “bowre” in 64.4, above, and to the “Bower of Bliss,” the pleasure garden in The Faerie Queene II.xii). Tower and bower here function as a mutual unit, like man and wife: the sonnet couplet brings the couple to mind. Similarly, Sonnet 64 (the garden sonnet) appears adjacent to Sonnet 65 (the tower sonnet): another coupling. Figuratively, the poet would himself correspond with the strong, masculine and sheltering hard tower (“brasen” connotes both bold and brassy), which is full of “fayth” that is “fearlesse.” His bride, correspondingly, would be the chaste or “spotlesse” and “sacred” “bowre” of “pleasure” that he anticipates enjoying on his wedding night. In that garden-room he and she will grow children.
Alternatively, it could be that Spenser sees his bride as the tower as well as the bower. In “Epithalamion”, the wedding poem that follows Amoretti, the poet returns to the use of the blazon to describe his bride. He compares her features to jewels, fruit [“Her cheekes lyke apples which the sun hath rudded,/ Her lips lyke cherryes charming men to byte” (“Epithalamion” 173-4)] and flowers, and her “snowie necke” is
...lyke to a marble towre,
And all her body like a pallace fayre,
Ascending vppe with many a stately stayre,
To honors seat and chastities sweet bowre. (Epithalamion 177-80)
The poet follows Song of Solomon 7.4 in comparing her neck to a tower. The “bower” here in turn is clearly a room at the top of the tower. As in Sonnet 64, it could easily be perfumed with garden flowers, since it is the “sweet” “seat” of her “honor” and “chastity.” It is her mind, but also, in the poet’s mind, quite possibly a bedroom (see Tower House Bedroom). In Spenser’s poetry, towers and garden bowers, like bride and groom —all sites of fertility and creativity— accompany and blend into one another.
Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980): 173ff.
Andrew Hadfield, Edmund Spenser: A Life (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012): 221, 305, 325-6.
John Dixon Hunt and Michael Leslie, “gardens.” The Spenser Encyclopedia (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990), 323-5.
Benjamin Myers, “The Green and Golden World: Spenser’s Rewriting of the Munster Plantation.” English Literary History 76 (2009), 473-490.
—. “Pro-War and Prothalamion: Queen, Colony and Somatic Metaphor Among Spenser’s ‘Knights of the Maidenhead.’” English Literary Renaissance 37.2 (2007), 215-49.
Anne Lake Prescott and Andrew Hadfield (eds), Edmund Spenser’s Poetry, 4th edition (NY: Norton, 2013): 652n.
Amy Tigner, Literature and the Renaissance Garden from Elizabeth I to Charles II: England’s Paradise (Burlington, VT: Ashgate 2012).
(both accessed 12/6/12)
[Wikipedia entries with illustrations for Colonna’s text]
[English Heritage website for Kenilworth Castle, including recently restored Elizabethan Gardens there]