The Humble Administrator’s Garden

The Humble Administrator’s Garden
Image source: Google

Rating: 3.7/5

Author: Vikram Seth

Publisher: Carcanet Press Ltd., Viking Books

Publishing Date: 1985, 2005

Language: English

Genre: Poetry

ISBN-10: 0143418149

ISBN-13: 978-0143418146

Format: Paperback

Pages: 80

Cost: Rs. 3,333 (Hardcover), Rs. 131 (Paperback)


In this collection of poems, Vikram Seth reflects on three cultures he knows well: India, California and China. This collection defines everything that the poet Donald Davie writes: “Vikram Seth’s poems have an impact far beyond much noisier pieces; for when did we last see a volume in which the poet’s eye is on what is objectively before him, rather than on the intricacies of his own sensibility?”

Seth knows (not as a tourist, but from the inside) four cultures: his native India; England; California; communist China. “Here he inspects them all respectfully and eagerly, and without partisanship or facile ironies balances each of them against the others.”- Donald Davie


The Humble Administrator’s Garden in reality is the largest and widely-believed to be the most beautiful of all the classical gardens in China. Dating back to the sixteenth century, it was originally built by a minor bureaucrat (hence the name) who, after retirement, devoted himself to building this garden. The garden covers an area of almost 13 acres and it took 16 years to complete. One of its most striking features is that the central section is said to replicate the scenery of the ‘Lower Yangtze’.

The book has three sections, each containing works on geography of Seth's life.

  1. The first section, titled Wutong, is inspired by his years of study and travel in China. 
  2. Neem, the second section, has poems with themes from his native India, and
  3. the last is Live-Oak, with California-based topics.

The craftmanship of Seth and his poetic genius in ‘The Humble Administrator’s Garden’ (1985) suggest the fine reformation of The Golden Gate, a novel of the popular culture of California’s Silicon Valley, written entirely in metred, rhyming 14-line stanzas and based on Charles Johnston’s translation of Aleksandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

In the work Seth carefully and pleasantly straps the current situations to a challenging and formidable 19th-century form. The book talks about the young professional characters discussing nuclear weapons, Roman Catholic teachings on homosexuality, and the dangers of over-working. To some extent, it also portrays the bitter reality of ‘life’ disguised in beautiful poetic embrace: 

“Whoever tastes the feast of life must drink
The cup of death. The traveller at the inn
Of mortality sooner or later leaves
That house of sorrow, the world…”

In this collection, Vikram Seth has poetry and imagery from China, India and America. The poetry is heartfelt and marked by Vikram Seth's preferable appetite for using simple words to recreate truth, beauty and magic!

About the Author:

Born in 1952 in Calcutta, India, Vikram Seth was educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, Stanford University and Nanjing University.

He has travelled widely and lived in Britain, California, India and China. His first novel, The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse (1986) describes the experiences of a group of friends living in California. His acclaimed epic of Indian life, A Suitable Boy (1993), won the WH Smith Literary Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best Book). An Equal Music (1999) is the story of a violinist haunted by the memory of a former lover. Vikram Seth is also the author of a travel book, From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet (1983), an account of a journey through Tibet, China and Nepal that won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, and a libretto, Arion and the Dolphin: A Libretto (1994), which was performed at the English National Opera in June 1994, with music by Alec Roth. His poetry includes Mappings (1980), The Humble Administrator's Garden (1985), winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Asia), and All You Who Sleep Tonight: Poems (1990). His children's book, Beastly Tales from Here and There (1992), consists of ten stories about animals told in verse.

Vikram Seth's latest works include Two Lives (2005), a memoir of the marriage of his great uncle and aunt, and Summer Requiem (2015), a book of poems.