A summary of a classic Marvell poem
‘The Coronet’ is a poem by the English Metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell (1621-78). In this post, we offer a brief summary and analysis of ‘The Coronet’, focusing on its language and meaning and suggesting some ways of interpreting this challenging poem.
When for the thorns with which I long, too long,
With many a piercing wound,
My Saviour’s head have crowned,
I seek with garlands to redress that wrong:
Through every garden, every mead,
I gather flowers (my fruits are only flowers),
Dismantling all the fragrant towers
That once adorned my shepherdess’s head.
And now when I have summed up all my store,
Thinking (so I myself deceive)
So rich a chaplet thence to weave
As never yet the King of Glory wore:
Alas, I find the serpent old
That, twining in his speckled breast,
About the flowers disguised does fold,
With wreaths of fame and interest.
Ah, foolish man, that wouldst debase with them,
And mortal glory, Heaven’s diadem!
But Thou who only couldst the serpent tame,
Either his slippery knots at once untie;
And disentangle all his winding snare;
Or shatter too with him my curious frame,
And let these wither, so that he may die,
Though set with skill and chosen out with care:
That they, while Thou on both their spoils dost tread,
May crown thy feet, that could not crown thy head.
Like much poetry written by the Metaphysical Poets, ‘The Coronet’ uses an extended metaphor – here, that of the crown, or garland, or ‘coronet’ – to discuss the poet’s attitude to Christ. The garland of flowers which the poem describes also serves as a metaphor for the poem itself: Andrew Marvell the poet is writing a poem about the act of making a garland, both acts of creativity, both designed to glorify God. Of course, Marvell’s poem is called ‘The Coronet’, and so shares its name with the very thing it describes. (It might also be noted that gathering flowers has long been associated with the act of writing poetry, as the etymology of the word for a book of poems, ‘anthology’ – literally, a ‘collection of flowers’ – attests.)
In summary, ‘The Coronet’ sees Marvell wishing to make a garland (a wreath or crown to be worn on the head) to make amends for the Crucifixion. The poet is aware that, being a sinner, he has contributed to the crown of thorns worn by Christ during the Crucifixion. Because the sins of the poet, and every other person, fed into the sacrifice that Christ had to make on behalf of mankind, Marvell feels partly responsible, and wishes to honour and atone for Christ’s sacrifice by making another crown to adorn Christ’s head.
Marvell tells us that he fashions the garlands or crowns from flowers, which he plucks from the head of the shepherdess (a symbol for the pastoral tradition in poetry). Once he has gathered together enough flowers, he mistakenly thinks that he has enough to make a ‘chaplet’ (i.e. garland) that will surpass any crown that Christ (described as ‘the king of glory’) has previously worn.
But unfortunately, as he weaves the garland, Marvell finds the serpent – the same one that entered the Garden of Eden and tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, thus bringing about the Fall of Man – concealing itself among the flowers of the garland. The serpent represents ‘fame and interest’, the implication being that Marvell may think he is doing something humble and self-effacing in fashioning a poetic garland for Christ, but he is actually opening himself up to charges of self-glorification (because he is trying to show off how beautiful a garland he can create – i.e., how fine a poem he can write). He accuses himself of debasing the glory of God by seeking earthly glory or fame.
Marvell calls upon Christ – the one person who has the power to vanquish the evil serpent – to remove this symbol of worldly self-glory from the crown Marvell is attempting to fashion. He asks Christ to disentangle the snake from the coils of the wreath, or else to destroy both him and the serpent – in offering himself up for sacrifice, Marvell proves that he is not creating this coronet for his own self-interest. Then, although the coronet would be imperfect and not fit to adorn Christ’s head, Christ might let the garland adorn his feet (i.e. tread all over it as it has been corrupted by the serpent’s presence and is not worthy of anything better – this final image imagines Christ as a conqueror, having vanquished the satanic serpent from the coronet).
Andrew Marvell’s choice of the serpent as a symbol tells us at least two things. First, it is a natural fit for the coils of the coronet or garland that he is seeking to fashion: like the flower stalks he uses to weave the garland, the snake can coil or wind itself round and round, and thus disguise itself among the flowers, as indeed it does in Marvell’s poem. Second, the serpent, in calling to mind the serpent in the Garden of Eden, reminds us of the Christian theme of ‘The Coronet’: namely, that according to the Bible man is fallen and sinful, and Christ is the only one who can save us. The only reason Christ had to redeem mankind was because man had fallen, and the Fall began in the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve’s temptation, masterminded, of course, by Satan in the form of a serpent.
One final word of analysis concerning this poem. There is also a third, more stylistic or technical reason why we may applaud Marvell’s choice of the serpent in this poem. Many Metaphysical poems are structured around a central conceit or extended metaphor, and ‘The Coronet’, with its image of the woven garland, is no different. But we might analyse the serpent’s significance in terms of the poem’s structure, building on the poem-as-coronet idea that we mentioned earlier. The serpent, coiled around, is intricate and involved, almost self-consuming in its circularity (and is often so depicted, such as in the worm Ouroboros, shown devouring its own tail). The circularity of the serpent and the wreath are both metaphors for the kind of poem Marvell is writing, too: cunning, clever, artful, designed – potentially deceitful (or self-deceiving).
It’s worth comparing Marvell’s ‘The Coronet’ with a similar, though slightly earlier, poem by another Metaphysical Poet, George Herbert, whose ‘A Wreath’ also uses the metaphor of the garland or wreath to suggest that poetry can be used to honour God. The two poems are worth analysing side by side.