‘Au Jardin des Plantes’ is a botanical garden in Paris which also contains a zoo. Within this zoo is a gorilla, which becomes the subject of Wain’s poem. He likens the idle gorilla, bored in captivity, to a prisoner locked away in a cell. Some critics argue that the gorilla is actually a representation of the one prisoner who didn’t escape on Bastille Day on July 14th, 1789. The Bastille was designed to protect the eastern entrance to the city of Paris from the English during the Hundred Years’ War. It was also used as a prison, holding political dissidents who were often locked away without trials. ‘Au Jardin des Plantes’ draws together two similar concepts: prison and a zoo.
John Wain’s ‘Au Jardin des Plantes’ uses the extended metaphor of a gorilla locked in captivity to explore the idleness of the prison system. Drawing parallels between the trapped animal and the idle man. Within this idea also arrises ideas of dehumanisation, with the imprisoning of a person stripping his fundamental rights as human – leaving him, in Wain’s words, an animal. You can read the full poem here.
Au Jardin des Plantes Analysis
The gorilla lay on his back,
Like a man.
‘Au Jardin des Plantes’ begins with the focus on the gorilla itself. Its posture is lazy, ‘lay’, with the posture suggesting idleness to the creature. This is furthered in the second line, with the nonchalance of ‘one hand’ compounding this image of the unmoving creature.
The shorter third line is one that continues as a repetition throughout the poem. It is instantly striking to the reader due to its length and the connotations of what Wain is discussing. Instantly, this idle ‘gorilla’ is likened to ‘a man’, suggesting the dehumanisation of the man and the similarities between the two creatures. It is here that we begin to question if Wain really is writing about the zoo, or is merely using this as a political guise to talk about imprisonment.
Stanzas Two and Three
Like a labouring man tired with work,
All burnt away by prodigal idleness.
Again the idea of the man is supplanted within ‘Au Jardin des Plantes.’ During these stanzas, ‘man’ is repeated twice and the pronoun is a consistent ‘he’, opposed to the expected ‘it’ of the gorilla. The phrase ‘burnt away’ is also repeated twice, with the searing speed in which the man loses his strength within the prison system elevated as an idea. Yet, as the poem states, it is not ‘work’ which ‘burns’ the man’s strength, it is ‘boredom’. Wain is commenting on the ‘prodigal idleness’ of the man, sitting and waiting for a far off day of release.
A thousand days, and then a thousand days,
He having no need to earn a living.
Repetition plays a large part within this poem, with the cyclic nature of the similar days bleeding into each other. ‘A thousand days… a thousand days’ illustrates this point, with the quick succession of the repetition showing how much time is taken up within the prison. The only slight separation of these two periods shows the mind-numbing length of the sentence, when a thousand days is barely worth mentioning, we can see the endlessness of the imprisonment.
The adjectives ‘terrible’ and ‘beautiful’ both describe the gorilla’s ‘strength’. This magnificence drives the tragedy of the imprisonment further, as the strength is ‘licked away’ by idleness. Wain mourns the loss of purpose, ‘no need to earn a living’, as the gorilla is removed from its habitat. Similar to how the imprisoned man has no task to fulfill, and so ‘lay[s]’ in silence.
Stanzas Five and Six
It was all laid on, free of charge.
One hand cupped under his terrible hard head.
The constant repetition of ‘like a man’ works on two fronts. The first it illustrates the similarities between the gorilla and the projection of man. Yet, another meaning is that the ‘like’ could be an adjective describing the man, suggesting that he is not a full man, but less than man. This dehumanization of the prisoner further feeds back into the narrative of incarceration sapping the life of the man. He is now unable to move freely or have a role, he just is ‘being’.
The reference to the ‘lay[ing]’ of the gorilla is again a spatial image that quite literally grounds the gorilla. It is easy to picture this gorilla lying in a small enclosure, waiting for something to do. But the zookeepers/guards simply ‘maintained him’, indeed they don’t want him for a certain role, but for simply ‘being’. This imprisonment for ‘being’ works both within the context a zoo, but also again could be a reference to prison, with the man being kept simply for ‘being’ a criminal.
The subtle change in the noun which ‘Terrible’ is describing occurs within stanza 6. We see in stanza 3 ‘terrible strength’, whereas now it is ‘terrible hard head’. This slight change again shows the deterioration of the animal. Whereas at the beginning of the poem the gorilla still maintained elements of strength, this has now wasted away as it lies incarcerated.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
Like a man, like a man,
They cup their heads in prodigal idleness.
‘Au Jardin des Plantes’ echos in cyclic sterility with the haunting chime of ‘a thousand days’ repeated again. This constant idea of time passing in huge chunks of a thousand shows the slow life of the captive. There is nothing to do, apart from lie and waste away year after year. It’s an incredibly depressing poem. This is similarly explored through the repetition of the degrading ‘like’, the constant dehumanization culminating strongly within this stanza.
The pronoun change from ‘him’ to ‘they’ finally unites completely the two ideas of gorilla and man. At this moment they have become one, ‘like man’ and like ‘gorilla’, both fading away into their own incarceration. The unification of the two is demeaning to both. Both man and gorilla lose their identity and become less than they are, suffering silently in a never-ending sentence. The cyclic nature of ‘Au Jardin des Plantes,’ returning to the idea of ‘cup[ping] their heads’ shows how the poem will begin again. The seemingly endless fate of boredom.
About John Wain
Born in 1925, John Wain spent the majority of his life as an academic. Teaching in both Reading and Oxford University over a span of almost 30 years. He published 7 collections of poetry and is renowned for his wit and cleverness. During the 1950’s he became a part of the poetry group known as ‘The Movement’. The movement was a rejection of imagistic poetry written both authors such as T.S. Eliot, W.H.Auden, and Ezra Pound. Another poet closely related to John Wain within ‘The Movement’ was Philip Larkin. Wain was also known to publish a range of novels and literary criticisms. He was made an OBE in 1983 for his commitment to the arts.