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Andrew Marvell's 'The Garden'


I lived for some years on Highgate Hill in North London. A small statue of a black cat, protected from passers-by by a cage, supposedly marks the spot where Dick Whittington’s pet lingered, urging his master to turn back to become Lord Mayor of London - but further up the hill, I noted in my many walks to nearby Waterlow Park, there is set in the brick wall a bronze plaque that bears the following inscription (pictured above):

Four feet below this spot is the stone step, formerly the entrance to the cottage in which lived Andrew Marvell, poet, wit, and satirist; colleague with John Milton in the foreign or Latin secretaryship during the Commonwealth; and for about twenty years M.P. for Hull. Born at Winestead, Yorkshire, 31st March, 1621, died in London, 18th August, 1678, and buried in the church of St. Giles-in-the-Fields. This memorial is placed here by the London County Council, December, 1898.

Lauderdale House, on the other side of a wall from this plaque, contains a garden in which a stone bears an inscription quoting the last few lines from Marvell’s poem ‘The Garden’.

About a hundred years after Marvell's death in 1678, in 1779, Dr. Samuel Johnson coined the phrase ‘metaphysical poets’, for a group including Marvell, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, and Henry Vaughan, who developed a self-conscious relationship to tradition, and focused on craftsmanship and new ways of alluding to Classical and Biblical sources. With hindsight, it can be seen that these poets were attempting to re-orientate themselves mentally and spiritually in a rapidly changing world. John Donne is normally named as one of the first of this unofficial group, who were accused of over- intellectualizing love, amongst other things. Johnson criticised these poets for their unruly versifying, distorted and extended metaphors and over-elaboration. It wasn’t until T.S. Eliot, in the early twentieth century, began to value the metaphysicals' work for being anti-Romantic and intellectual that their worth began to be recognised by others. Their irregular versification, extreme emotional imagery, the use of paradox, and unusual use of extended metaphors, formerly considered flaws, now became attributes of quality. What was happening with the Metaphysical Poets was a profound re-adjustment, a use of poetic tools to re-assess intellectual and spiritual experiences.

In the seventeenth century a cultural transition was taking place from what was still largely a medieval, Christian tradition into something which we now recognise as a modern, secular society. Thinking itself was changing: instead of a set of external verities, mainly based on the religious framework, regarded as touchstones by the population, ideas were now being examined in subtle, ironic, and sometimes paradoxical ways. Marvell’s poem ‘The Garden’ gives us a good example:

How vainly men themselves amaze

To win the palm, the oak, or bays,

And their uncessant labours see

Crown’d from some single herb or tree,

Whose short and narrow verged shade

Does prudently their toils upbraid;

While all flow’rs and all trees do close

To weave the garlands of repose.

Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,

And Innocence, thy sister dear!

Mistaken long, I sought you then

In busy companies of men;

Your sacred plants, if here below,

Only among the plants will grow.

Society is all but rude,

To this delicious solitude.

No white nor red was ever seen

So am’rous as this lovely green.

Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,

Cut in these trees their mistress’ name;

Little, alas, they know or heed

How far these beauties hers exceed!

Fair trees! wheres’e’er your barks I wound,

No name shall but your own be found.

When we have run our passion’s heat,

Love hither makes his best retreat.

The gods, that mortal beauty chase,

Still in a tree did end their race:

Apollo hunted Daphne so,

Only that she might laurel grow;

And Pan did after Syrinx speed,

Not as a nymph, but for a reed.

What wond’rous life in this I lead!

Ripe apples drop about my head;

The luscious clusters of the vine

Upon my mouth do crush their wine;

The nectarine and curious peach

Into my hands themselves do reach;

Stumbling on melons as I pass,

Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,

Withdraws into its happiness;

The mind, that ocean where each kind

Does straight its own resemblance find,

Yet it creates, transcending these,

Far other worlds, and other seas;

Annihilating all that’s made

To a green thought in a green shade.

Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,

Or at some fruit tree’s mossy root,

Casting the body’s vest aside,

My soul into the boughs does glide;

There like a bird it sits and sings,

Then whets, and combs its silver wings;

And, till prepar’d for longer flight,

Waves in its plumes the various light.

Such was that happy garden-state,

While man there walk’d without a mate;

After a place so pure and sweet,

What other help could yet be meet!

But ’twas beyond a mortal’s share

To wander solitary there:

Two paradises ’twere in one

To live in paradise alone.

How well the skillful gard’ner drew

Of flow’rs and herbs this dial new,

Where from above the milder sun

Does through a fragrant zodiac run;

And as it works, th’ industrious bee

Computes its time as well as we.

How could such sweet and wholesome hours

Be reckon’d but with herbs and flow’rs!

In a sense, the whole meaning of this poem is encapsulated in its title. Customary use of the word ‘garden’ would conjure in the minds of a contemporary audience the Biblical Eden, with all the allusions and images which that would bring with it. In typical metaphysical fashion, though, this expectation is ‘upbraided’ - Marvell’s garden is, initially, just that: a garden, full of plants, in which ‘the palm, the oak, or bays’ are abstractions which human beings have made of organic life. That is the point of the opening stanza - it is a reflection upon the vanity of man’s devotion to public life in politics, war, and public service. The poet’s garden is presented as a retreat from ‘society’ and all its falsity. Human passions, including those of romantic love, are inferior to the simplicities of solitude found in a private garden: ‘No name shall but your own be found’ says the poet on contemplating what he will find within if he wounds a tree.

Again in typical metaphysical style, allusions to classics are given a new ‘spin’:

When we have run our passion’s heat,

Love hither makes his best retreat.

The gods, that mortal beauty chase,

Still in a tree did end their race:

Apollo hunted Daphne so,

Only that she might laurel grow;

And Pan did after Syrinx speed,

Not as a nymph, but for a reed.

Instead of seeing traditional meaning and value in the classic Greek legends, it is the tree as a tree that dominates the stanza and the classical image serves it, not the other way round. But in the next stanza, it is as though Marvell is playing with us: the overall image is comic, almost slapstick:

What wond’rous life in this I lead!

Ripe apples drop about my head;

The luscious clusters of the vine

Upon my mouth do crush their wine;

The nectarine and curious peach

Into my hands themselves do reach;

Stumbling on melons as I pass,

Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.

The picture is one of buffoonery and the intention satirical: a paradisical garden, which provides everything without effort, is one which trips the poet up as soon as he moves.

But the poet doesn’t plan to leave us smiling for long. Making use of a mediaeval idea whereby the sea was alleged to contain creatures paralleling those on land, Marvell devises a precision image for the mind’s function,

The mind, that ocean where each kind

Does straight its own resemblance find

until we are led into the heart of the poem, the powerful image of ‘a green thought in a green shade’ into which everything else has been ‘annihilated’ (reduced to nothing). No longer comic, the poem here makes its main point: that the superficiality of mental constructs and social patterns are as nothing before the innermost solitude obtainable by withdrawing into nature and into oneself in the way described. The ‘green thought in a green shade’ produces a spiritual epiphany:

Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,

Or at some fruit tree’s mossy root,

Casting the body’s vest aside,

My soul into the boughs does glide;

There like a bird it sits and sings,

Then whets, and combs its silver wings;

And, till prepar’d for longer flight,

Waves in its plumes the various light.

Now on spiritual ground, Marvell explicitly refers to the Garden of Eden and relates his meaning - the profound joy and peace of a restored communion with nature - to that Biblical state of early innocence with all the cultural associations which that would have for his audience.

In its final stanza, the poem paints the garden as its own cosmos, with a sun running through a ‘fragrant zodiac’ with an ‘industrious bee’ whose computation of time is as good as that of humanity’s.

It’s easy to extrapolate from this, based on a knowledge of the poet’s life, that this poem’s subject matter is simply the tranquility of retirement from public life, especially associating it with Marvell’s retirement from his position as tutor to Mary Fairfax, daughter of Thomas Fairfax, a General in Cromwell’s army during the English Civil War. But the metaphor of withdrawing into a garden is so much more suggestive than that. Yes, Marvell takes pains to reject the outer world of society with its temporary rewards, but there is the suggestion of something mystical occurring at the heart of the place. The Renaissance doctrine of signatura rerum, or ‘signature of all things, stated that God had imprinted each thing that he had created with its proper name, and had given Adam the power to recognise these names. When the poet looks into the form of things, he will find their essence: ‘Fair trees! wheres’e’er your barks I wound,/No name shall but your own be found.’ Things have been named by society, but named falsely or superficially; what the poet is seeking is a connection or re-connection with the inner heart of Creation. Instead of the mind being used for an artificial or synthetic ‘naming’, its proper purpose is to absorb ‘all that’s made’, reducing it to the ‘green thought in a green shade’ which is its true essence.

While Marvell can play with us and entertain us with a variety of images, his point is a serious and profound one: a connection has been lost, the world has become superficial. We need to find for ourselves again that ‘green thought in a green shade’ and that world in which time is ‘reckon’d but with herbs and flow’rs’.

#Marvell

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