A Short Analysis of Marvell’s ‘The Mower to the Glow-Worms’

A brief summary and analysis of the Andrew Marvell poem ‘The Mower to the Glow-Worms’

Andrew Marvell’s poem ‘The Mower to the Glow-Worms’ is one of the little jewels in the crown of seventeenth-century poetry. Marvell (1621-78) was one of the Metaphysical Poets and ‘The Mower to the Glow-Worms’ is one of his finest poems. Here is the poem, followed by a short summary, along with an analysis of its language and imagery.

Ye living Lamps, by whose dear light
The Nightingale does sit so late,
And studying all the Summer-night,
Her matchless Songs does meditate;

Ye Country Comets, that portend
No War, nor Princes funeral,
Shining unto no higher end
Then to presage the Grasses fall;

Ye Glo-worms, whose officious Flame
To wandring Mowers shows the way,
That in the Night have lost their aim,
And after foolish Fires do stray;

Your courteous Lights in vain you wast,
Since Juliana here is come,
For She my Mind hath so displac’d
That I shall never find my home.

As the title of the poem suggests, ‘The Mower to the Glow-Worms’ is spoken by a ‘mower’ (traditionally, one who cuts the grass with a scythe), who addresses the glow-worms lighting the mower’s way through the field. He praises them for providing light, but laments the fact that their light is wasted because the speaker’s mind is not on the task of mowing the grass – his mind is distracted or ‘displac’d’ by thoughts of Juliana, the woman he loves. (Presumably, although the poem doesn’t say this, Juliana does not return his love.)

by Unknown artist,painting,circa 1655-1660
by Unknown artist,painting,circa 1655-1660

It is in this context of unrequited love that the ‘foolish Fires’ in the third stanza need to be seen: the burning passion of unrequited love? Similarly, the ‘matchless songs’ of the Nightingale in that first stanza can refer to the peerless beauty of the bird’s song, but ‘matchless’ also allows for the secondary meaning of ‘lacking a pair’ or ‘without a mate’. (This meaning of ‘match’ is in fact the oldest sense of the word, dating back to the Middle Ages.) That reference to ‘home’ that concludes the poem needs to be understood mentally or emotionally, then, rather than as referring to a literal home. (Compare George MacDonald’s use of the word in perhaps the shortest poem ever written.)

The language of the poem cleverly reflects the play of light and dark, which is meant to be understood emotionally as well as literally, given the mood of the mower himself. Look at the words used in the first stanza:

Ye living Lamps, by whose dear light
The Nightingale does sit so late,
And studying all the Summer-night,
Her matchless Songs does meditate;

Note how ‘light’ turns into ‘night’ in the first pair of rhyming words – but observe how it does so via ‘late’ – a twisting of ‘light’ which ushers in the dusk that heralds the coming of night. (Similarly, look how ‘Nightingales’ in the second line similarly prepare us for ‘night’ in the next line. And, for that matter, see how the accumulation of ‘ing’ words near the beginnings of the first three lines creates a sense of moving towards something, i.e. darkness: ‘Ye living‘, ‘The Nightingale’, ‘And studying‘ – although the ‘ing’ of ‘Nightingale’ is obviously working somewhat differently.) We don’t know whether ‘come’ and ‘home’ – which provide the final rhyme of the poem – would have rhymed in Marvell’s time (perhaps ‘home’ was pronounced more like ‘hum’ in the seventeenth century?), but if they are off-rhymes (that is, they look as if they rhyme but don’t sound like it when you say the words), that is oddly fitting anyway, given the fact that the mower’s mind is ‘displac’d’.

If you liked Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Mower to the Glow-Worms’, you can read our summary of another classic Marvell poem, ‘The Definition of Love’, here. For more poetry analysis, see our analysis of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s astounding sonnet ‘Whoso List to Hunt’. We also strongly recommend The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics), which contains all of Marvell’s poetry along with extensive notes.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

Image: Andrew Marvell (c. 1655-60; author unknown), via Wikimedia Commons.

One Comment

  1. Lovely! Thank you!