A Lodge in a Garden of Cucumbers
in Dorothy Sayers, from Isaiah


Tracing by
Robert Wilfred Franson
May 2011


Years ago — before the Internet developed some general usefulness as a research tool — I resolved to look up more things: questions want answers, curiosities deserve data, dubious interpretations beg for crystallizations. It's too easy to use a fair general knowledge to make reasonable assumptions, educated guesses, and continue on. But with some dictionaries and other references ready to hand, why not take a few minutes to trace the uncertainty to its knowable lair, and get it right? — With the Internet, we have even less excuse for not knowing.

A lodge in a garden of cucumbers

Just the other day I was re-reading Clouds of Witness, the second of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels by Dorothy Sayers, and I was brought up short by an odd statement. Now, Wimsey is characterized (and in the early novels rather caricatured) as a fountain of humorous allusion, often literary or erudite; frequently annoying to Wimsey's listeners and occasionally to the reader. Here's this one — Wimsey is speaking to Parker:

Legally, it's enough to prove Jerry innocent, but ... it doesn't do us credit in a professional capacity. ... — as a sleuth I am cast down, humiliated, thrown back upon myself, a lodge in a garden of cucumbers.

Dorothy L. Sayers
Clouds of Witness, Chapter 13  (1926)

An odd phrase to apply to a mystery, even for a deucedly odd amateur detective.

My first impulse was to ask Jennifer M. Franson, a great fan of Dorothy Sayers and who happened to be nearby, if a lodge in a garden of cucumbers rang any bells for her. She thought it was Biblical, probably from Isaiah. She added that Sayers also uses the phrase elsewhere.

When I think of a lodge, I'm likely first to visualize a resort or remote-getaway hotel, perhaps the beautiful Timberline Lodge in Oregon. Or a small hunting lodge — even a rustically comfortable two-story building such as the scene of the crime in Clouds of Witness. And I've raised cucumbers in backyard gardens. Hmm.

Strong's Concordance

My chapter-and-verse recall is as a dry river in the desert, so following Jennifer's suggestion, I went to the bookshelves for my copy of Strong's Concordance. Sure enough:

Isa 1:8 — as a lodge in a garden of c, as a besieged

James Strong
Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible  (1894)

edited & revised by John R. Kohlenberger III & James A. Swanson
The Strongest Strong's ...  (2001)

The above is the King James Version (KJV); we've found the source, but not yet a context.

Revised English Bible

Pulling out one of my modern translations, we see:

Your country is desolate, your cities burnt down.
Before your eyes strangers devour your land;
it is as desolate as Sodom after its overthrow.

Only Zion is left,
like a watchman's shelter in a vineyard,
like a hut in a plot of cucumbers,
like a beleaguered city.

Isaiah 1:7-8
Revised English Bible  (1989)

So here we have a plainer and more humble hut in a plot — perhaps a small shed where the workman may shelter in the heat of the day, or a watchman by night. A footnote in the Oxford Study Bible edition we are using here says that these verses probably refer either to the invasion of Tiglath-pileser III or that of Sennacherib, around seven centuries B.C.E.

Geneva Bible

An older translation, from the version that I increasingly appreciate as the inspiration of so much of the greatest English literature:

Your land is waste: your cities are burnt with fyre: strangers devour your land in your presence, and it is desolate like the overthrow of strangers.

And the daughter of Zion shall remain like a cotage in a vineyarde, like a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, & like a besieged citie.

Isaiah 1:7-8
Geneva Bible  (1560)

Footnotes in the 1560 edition:

[strangers:] Meaning, of them, that dwell far off, which, because they look for no advantage of that, which remaineth, destroye all before them.

[daughter of Zion:] That is, Jerusalem.

Matthew Henry's Commentary

For expository detail I then turned to my set of Mathew Henry (1662–1714). I'll quote only a part of what he writes on these verses:

... Jerusalem itself, which was as the daughter of Zion (the temple built on Zion was a mother, a nursing mother, to Jerusalem), or Zion itself, the holy mountain, which had been dear to God as a daughter, was now lost, deserted, and exposed as a cottage in a vineyard, which, when the vintage is over, nobody dwells in or takes any care of, and looks as mean and despicable as a lodge or hut, in a garden of cucumbers; and every person is afraid of coming near it, and solicitous to remove his effects out of it, as if it were a besieged city, v. 8.

Matthew Henry
Isaiah 1:2-9
Commentary on the Whole Bible, six volumes
  (1706-1721; the prophetical books: 1712)

Matthew Henry goes on to add here, "Note, National impiety and immorality bring national desolation." — but this takes us into larger and more serious considerations than even Wimsey's rhetorical flight, and hence our little tracing, may now follow.

Afterthoughts & follow-ups

Strong's points out over sixty references for the important homely and metaphorical concept of garden, as well as two for the humble cucumber. Nave's Topical Bible references garden seven times, and cucumber once: none of these for our target phrase.

Jennifer Franson also points out that Lord Peter Wimsey most likely had this phrase at his fingertips not from studying the Bible but from recurrently hearing in church The Book of Common Prayer, where it is part of the "Proper Lesson" for the first Sunday in Advent.

An illuminating, and I think entertaining, tracework.


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson

Thanks to JMF.


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