Andrew Marvell – “The Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers”, “The Mower against Gardens”

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.

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