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