“The Garden” is a poem in praise of the gardens and the relief they bring, somewhat contrasting in “The Mower against Gardens”. The speaker starts by ridiculing people who strive for “the palm, the oak or bays” (the signs of honour in the academia, military or poetry) when they can have the whole real garden. This is the place of solitude and repose. No white or red (the colours used by poets when describing the beauty of their ladies) can equal this beautiful green. Lovers often hurt trees by carving in their bark the names of their beloved, but the poet promises to carve only the names of the trees themselves (I don’t think it’s going make a difference to the trees). Even some mythological love chases ended with trees, such as those of Daphne and Syrinx (not a tree, but a reed, but close enough). The imaginary garden turns into a real cornucopia of various fruit, which are so abundant that finally the poet stumbles on some melons and falls on the grass (which may foreshadow the Fall, described in the following stanzas). He also falls into a kind of meditative state, where he cuts himself off from everything in the world except “a green thought in a green shade” and his soul soars upon a bough, like a bird. This is what paradise was like when man was there alone, but unfortunately, it could not last: “Two paradises ’twere in one /To live in paradise alone.” The poem ends, a bit abruptly, with the description of the garden dial – a sundial where various hours are marked with different flowers, which is quite appropriate, because “How could such sweet and wholesome hours /Be reckon’d but with herbs and flow’rs!”
The last two poems in the “Mower” cycle are beautiful and rather melancholy. In “To the Glowworms”, the speaker addresses the glowworms directly, praising them for their usefulness. They are like night-lamps to the nightingale, who can compose new songs by their light. They are like comets, but they do not portend anything more serious than the death of grass. They guide the straying mowers home, who otherwise would be led astray by will-o’-the-wisps. But alas, they are no help to him, because Juliana distracts him so much he will never find his way home.
While the previous poem was very simple (four stanzas, with lines of similar length, rhyming abab), “The Mower’s Song” is very elaborate. The first five lines of each stanza are tetrameters (eight-syllable), while the last one is alexandrine, a rare line in English poetry, twelve one-syllable words, which are repeated in each stanza like a refrain (as the helpful notes inform us, the only refrain in Marvell’s poetry). The main theme of the poem is the discrepancy between the happy summer meadow and the unhappiness of the speaker, suffering from his unrequited love. Once the greenness of the meadow reflected the hopeful state of the speaker’s mind. But now, as he grows more desperate, the meadow grows more lush with flowers. He considers the meadow to be ungrateful and he is going to have his revenge by cutting down all flowers and grass, but that’s just the prefiguration of his fall, because, as the refrain says “When Juliana came, and she/What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me”. All these flowers and grass are going to be “heraldry for my tomb”, thus the Mower becomes both the figure of personified Death and the dead himself.
This poem is for the most part the complaint of the scorned lover, the title Damon. He compares his love to the scorching summer heat. I must say it’s kind of nice to read such a summery poem in late November. It’s so hot that all the animals are hiding, only snake “glitters in its second skin” But he believes the heat is not caused by July sun, but by Juliana’s scorching contempt. He can find no coolness in any fountain but on her icy breast. He brought her various presents, such as a snake “disarmed of its teeth”, chameleons and “oak leaves tipped with honeydew”, but she paid no attention to them. I have to say, these are weird presents, and although I am not spoiled with too much male attention, I would not be impressed either. I’ve read that the snake is a metaphor for Damon’s erection, because he gets excited when he thinks about Juliana, but in the presence of his beloved he can’t perform, which sounds to me a bit overwrought, but perhaps it makes sense. But what sexual metaphors are hidden behind chameleons and oak leaves? The mower says there is no reason for Juliana to refuse him, because he is rich in hay and when he looks at his reflection in his scythe’s blade, he can see he is not deformed. As he is cutting the grass, he makes a slip (because he is so distracted with love) and cuts his ankle. Fortunately it seems he did not cut off his foot, because he says he can heal his wound with popular herbs such as shepherd’s purse and clown’s heal-all (woundwort), but the wound of his love is going to be healed only by Death, who is also a mower. This is a very neat conclusion, tying a bow on the Love/Death theme.
wouldn’t kick him out of bed…
There were attempts to identify the little girl who is the “T.C.” in the first poem, but without any definite results. The first part of the poem is a poetic variation of the popular compliment “when she grows up, she is going to break a lot of hearts”. I must admit that when this compliment is extended to several stanzas, it starts to creep me out a bit, but maybe it’s just my 21-st century sensibility speaking. And fortunately, the poet envisages the little girl to become a young woman who is going to make Love break his bow and be this “virtuous enemy of man”, so a kind of Diana -like figure. He hopes he is going to then enter some kind of peace negotiations with her conquering eyes, or hide in some shade before they can wound him. But before this happens, the young nymph communicates with flowers and lies in the grass. The poet imagines her to have some kind of magical power and asks her to make roses lose their thorn, tulips smell and violets live longer. And then comes the chilling reminder about the reality of 17th century, when child’s death was not a tragic exception but happened in practically every family: he asks her not to pick any buds, lest angry Flora is going to have her revenge and kill her in her youth.
“The Mower against Gardens” is the first of the cycle of poems, which are a kind of pastoral, but refreshingly original. First of all, the speaker is not some boring shepherd, but a mower. And the monologue he apparently delivers in this poem is also quite original, as he contrasts unfavourably man-made gardens with wild meadows. The air in the garden is “dead and standing” because it is enclosed with walls. The tilled earth, more luscious than the regular one, makes the plants “stupefied”. Regular pinks became in his hands “double-pinks” (carnations), as double as his mind. Roses smell much stronger than the wild ones and tulips are not only white, but in different colours. People are capable of selling one onion for the price of the whole meadow, writes Marvell, alluding to the contemporary tulip fever in Holland. They send ships overseas to bring new flowers like the marvel of Peru. Even worse, they interfere in the natural reproduction of plants, coming “between the bark and tree”, as Marvell writes, punning both on the popular saying about people who interfere between husband and wife and the process of grafting. So now tame plants are grafted upon tame, while others like cherries are made eunuchs and procreate without a sex. There are even fake fountains and grottos in human gardens, and the statues of fauns and nymphs. In contrast, in the sweet fields there is “a wild and fragrant innocence” and real fauns and nymphs tend them. I know the English landscape garden emerged in the 18th century, but I wonder if this poem could be interpreted as an early harbinger of the trend (although the English garden is under its veneer of naturalness quite artificial too). Although it’s kind of strange that this defense of nature should be spoken by a mower, who in fact also interferes with nature, in quite a brutal way.
I am kind of wary about writing about “To His Coy Mistress” because this is the poem I discuss almost every year with my students. So, the poem begins with an extravagant “what if” – if we lived forever, I could court you for hundreds of years and you could keep on playing hard to get for however long you wanted, even until “the conversion of the Jews” (which was believed to happen just before the Second Coming). But the warm and fuzzy fantasy is interrupted by the reality – the poet always can hear “time’s winged chariot” and tries to scare his mistress into sleeping with him by presenting her with the image of grave where worms are going to eat her with all her virginity. And then another change of gears – in order to prevent it, we need to have sex and possibly make babies (that’s how the phrase about rolling “all our strength and alOur sweetness up into one ball,/And tear our pleasures with rough strife /Through the iron gates of life:” is usually interpreted). Therefore, if they can’t stop the sun, they can at least make it run, i.e. spend the time in such a way it seems to fly.
“The Definition of Love” is, in contrast, a poem about love which is not meant to be consummated. It starts with lots of personifications: the speaker’s love was “begotten by Despair/upon Impossibility” and only Despair could show him such a wonderful view, to which Hope could never fly on its weak wings. He keeps on stretching his arms towards her but Fate keeps on intruding between them. The Fate won’t let them be together because their union would be perfection and thus depose its tyrannical power. They are like two poles, always apart, even though the love’s world revolves around them. The only way to bring them together would like flattening the globe into one map (imagine the map of the Arctic or the Antarctic, with the pole in the middle). Their loves are perfect like parallel lines, but for this very reason they cannot meet. So their love is like “the conjunction of the mind, /And opposition of the stars.”, i.e. their minds are united but their horoscopes keep them apart.
This is on the surface an awfully cute poem – the nymph witnessing the last moments of her pet deer and mourning its death – but there are from time to time some points which indicate it’s something more than just cutesy. In the very first line the nymph identifies the killers of her fawn as “the wanton troopers”. The word “trooper” meaning “soldier” appeared in English in the 1640s and it referred first to the Scottish Covenanters, and then later to Cromwell’s New Model Army soldiers. So these soldiers are not just some abstract entities existing out of time and place but members of one of the armies moving through Britain during the stormy years of the Civil War. The nymph promises to pray to Heaven for forgiveness to them but she thinks it cannot forgive the acts of such useless cruelty, because even animals need to be killed for a reason. I am not sure how seriously to treat that claim (because, again, so cute), but I’ll give Marvell the benefit of a doubt and interpret it as a heartening pro-animal sentiment in the times full of cruelty both towards animals and people.
The nymph explains that the fawn was a gift from her lover Silvio, who unfortunately later left her. There is a lot of punning on dear/deer and heart/hart. When the unconstant lover left, she found solace living alone with the fawn and playing with it. Would it have left her had it lived longer, just like Silvio? The speaker thinks it wouldn’t have, because its love was much better than the love of cruel men. She nursed it with her own hands, feeding it milk and sugar, and she swears its feet were softer and whiter than those of any lady. It loved best to hide in her overgrown garden of lilies and roses, feeding itself on roses and wrapping itself in lilies. Now she can see it dying and, according to the popular lore, crying two big tears. She is going to collect them in a crystal vial and fill it up with the tears of her own. The fawn is gone to a kind of Elysium where only cute animals go (she mentions turtle-doves, swans, lambs and ermines, so it looks like its whites-only? but then the fawn would have to be an albino), and she hopes to join it there very soon. Her last words are directions for her grave, which is going to be decorated with her statue, portraying her as weeping. But actually the sculptor doesn’t need to bother, because she imagines her stone effigy is going to cry out of its own accord (like Niobe). And at her feet there is going to be the white figure of her fawn.
“Bermudas”, inspired probably by the stories Marvell heard from his friend John Oxenbridge, who visited Bermudas and was made their commissioner under Cromwell, describes the islands as a tropical paradise. The poem begins with a short introductory passage, explaining that what is going to follow is the song sung by the Bermuda settlers when they saw the islands. The song describes Bermudas as a place where God, in his special providence, gives all fruit in abundance, and not only that, but also the precious ambergris can be often found on its shores. Now safe both from the storm and religious persecution, the settlers can enjoy the eternal spring of the beautiful islands. But what is even more precious is the knowledge that God gave them his Gospel, a pearl more precious than any other. The poem ends with a coda saying that this was “an holy and a cheerful note” they sang as they were rowing towards the shore, keeping the time with their oars. The idyllic description of Bermudas does not have much in common with reality, but it is worth noting, I think, that the settlers sing the praises of this new land even before they see it. So maybe one should read it not as an attempt at any sort of actual description, but the expression of the pious hope that God is going to take care of them.
“A Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body’ is based on a very old tradition, going back all the way to the Middle Ages, but the difference is at the end we do not know which participant wins this dispute. The Soul starts by complaining that she is imprisoned in the body and in a nicely paradoxical turn of phrase, all the senses rather confuse her that give her information: she is “blinded with an eye” and “deaf with the drumming of an ear”. It is hung up in the body’s “chains/Of nerves, and arteries, and veins”. This precise anatomical description reminds us that Marvell’s era was actually the great age of the development of anatomy, with William Harvey and other doctors making new discoveries. The Body, in turn, complains that the soul forces it to stay upright and thus puts it in danger of falling any time. The soul warms the body, but a fever could do just the same. The soul then again argues that even though she can’t feel physical pain, she is forced to feel sympathy every time the body suffers, and the body answers the pain inflicted on it by the soul – cramps of hope, palsy of fear, pestilence of love – hurts it even worse than any actual physical symptoms. Its final argument (the body is given the final word in this exchange, so maybe it’s Marvell’s subtle way of indicating which side he is on) is that it is actually the soul which makes the body capable of sin, just like architects hewing green trees to make them fit their purpose.