What are the garden days the speaker is referring to in "The Gardener"?
An allegory is defined as a story or a poem which has a hidden meaning. Writers like Robert Louis Stevenson sometimes use allegory to convey abstract ideas through real, concrete images. If we examine Stevenson’s poem “The Gardener” as an allegory for life itself, the meaning of the phrase “garden days” becomes clearer.
Taken from his book of children’s poems A Child’s Garden of Verses (1905), on the surface, “The Gardener” is about a child entreating an old, strict gardener to play with him in the garden. It is summertime, and the garden is in full bloom and is very inviting to the child. But the gardener “old and serious, brown and big,” locks up the garden after his work and keeps the child away, confined to the “gravel walk.” Busy in his labor, the gardener does not have the time to pause and talk to the child. The child is afraid that soon summer will give way to winter and the garden will lose its flowers:
Well now, and while the summer stays,
To profit by these garden days,
O how much wiser you would be
To play at Indian wars with me!
The child seems to be asking the gardener: What is the point of keeping such a beautiful garden when they cannot enjoy it? Wouldn’t it be much wiser to profit by these garden days and play in the garden when it is so beautiful out?
In the allegorical sense, the garden in "The Gardener" represents life and time. The gardener, representing the world of adults, is too busy with his work and worries to enjoy the present moment or "these garden days.” The child represents the present, which is the only time in which we are alive. The gardener spends life lost in the past and the future, whereas the child lives in the now. The message of the poem is “carpe diem!” or to seize our garden days.
At another level, “The Gardener” is also a warning about not savoring life while there's still time. The pleasures of the garden are not available to us indefinitely: high summer gives way to winter with its “pinching toes,” leaving the garden “bare and brown.” The child’s entreaty acts as a solemn reminder of the gardener’s own advancing age. Everyone’s garden days, or the days of their prime, are numbered, so they must enjoy them while they last. What's more, garden days may not just refer to the days of one’s prime but to one’s days on earth itself. With barren winter or death a certainty, it makes even more sense to live each garden day to the fullest.
However, if we look at the poem from the lens of class, we can interpret it in a whole new light. Time or leisure can also be viewed as a luxury mostly enjoyed by people from higher economic classes. As a house worker in the late-nineteenth- or early-twentieth century, we can assume the gardener is not well-off. He may not have the privilege of stopping his work and taking time off to relax.
In this sense, garden days for the gardener represent his productive days, the days in which he can do the most work and make a living. Probably, he may not find as much work as a gardener during the winter. Therefore, he too has to seize his garden days, but in a way the child cannot comprehend. Thus, garden days are viewed very differently by the child and the adult, and by the privileged and the non-privileged. For instance, it is easier for the privileged to “follow their hearts” and “just take a break.” These options may not be available to others, like the gardener, who has to labor to fulfill his responsibilities as an adult.
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