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A Short Analysis of Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’

A summary of Marvell’s classic poem

‘The Garden’ is one of Andrew Marvell’s most famous poems, and takes the form of a meditation in a garden; this setting has led critics to interpret the poem as a response to the original biblical garden, Eden, while other commentators have understood the poem as a meditation about sex, political ambition, and various other themes. Its celebrated lines about ‘Annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade’ are especially memorable and evocative. Below is ‘The Garden’, followed by a brief summary and analysis of this major Marvell poem.

The Garden

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
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all flow’rs and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence, thy sister dear!
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy companies of men;
Your sacred plants, if here below,
Only among the plants will grow.
Society is all but rude,
To this delicious solitude.

No white nor red was ever seen
So am’rous as this lovely green.
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees their mistress’ name;
Little, alas, they know or heed
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair trees! wheres’e’er your barks I wound,
No name shall but your own be found.

When we have run our passion’s heat,
Love hither makes his best retreat.
The gods, that mortal beauty chase,
Still in a tree did end their race:
Apollo hunted Daphne so,
Only that she might laurel grow;
And Pan did after Syrinx speed,
Not as a nymph, but for a reed.

What wond’rous life in this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,
Or at some fruit tree’s mossy root,
Casting the body’s vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide;
There like a bird it sits and sings,
Then whets, and combs its silver wings;
And, till prepar’d for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Such was that happy garden-state,
While man there walk’d without a mate;
After a place so pure and sweet,
What other help could yet be meet!
But ’twas beyond a mortal’s share
To wander solitary there:
Two paradises ’twere in one
To live in paradise alone.

How well the skillful gard’ner drew
Of flow’rs and herbs this dial new,
Where from above the milder sun
Does through a fragrant zodiac run;
And as it works, th’ industrious bee
Computes its time as well as we.
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckon’d but with herbs and flow’rs!

In summary, ‘The Garden’ is a classic example of something that Andrew Marvell explores in many of his poems: the idea of discussing two extremes or opposites and putting forward a balanced and poised ‘argument’. Marvell depicts the garden as a retreat, as a place of repose and restfulness – an escape from the more frenetic world of public life that lies beyond the boundaries of the garden. We’ve probably all dreamed of chucking up into the air whatever we’re doing – our job, in particular – and retreating to some quiet and tranquil place where our soul or mind will know some rest. When our passions have run their course, love – which is more steady and subtle than the lust and heat associated with passion, which burns out – can blossom in the space of the garden.

And yet, at the same time, a clear line between the garden and the world beyond cannot be drawn. If the garden is the place where we can retreat ‘When we have run our passion’s heat’, then all that fruit flying about the place (passionfruit, we might say) in the poem’s fifth stanza is surely meant to suggest voluptuous passion rather than pure, ascetic love:

What wond’rous life in this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.

Those ‘luscious clusters’ (the alliteration and assonance are themselves lusciously sensual to say), ‘curious peach’, and ‘melons’ (with or without the Carry On-style punning on mammary glands) are all suggestive of lust, of physical pleasure, and yet are in the garden – the place we supposedly retreat to when our passions are spent. A different kind of passion can be found in the garden, but it is passion nevertheless.

And dig deeper into the garden (to proffer the perhaps inevitable metaphor), and we unearth (again, inevitable) more local details which bloom into new life in Marvell’s poem with closer analysis. Consider his reference to ‘the palm, the oak, or bays’ in the first stanza: these are allusions to, respectively, military honour, civic virtue, and poetic achievement (‘bay’ is another word for ‘laurel’, as in the laurels that great poets were garlanded with).

Christopher Ricks, in a stimulating essay on Andrew Marvell (in Ricks’s The Force of Poetry), discusses Marvell’s fondness for using something which William Empson, discussing Shelley’s poetry, had called the ‘self-inwoven simile’ or the ‘short-circuited comparison’. It’s also sometimes known as ‘reflexive imagery’. Things are frequently compared to themselves in Marvell’s poetry; something is ‘its own’ likeness. Consider these lines from the sixth stanza of ‘The Garden’:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,

The mind withdraws into its own happiness, and the mind finds its own resemblance within the ‘ocean’ of the garden – just as the green waters of the sea echo the rich verdant lawns of the garden. (As Albert Guinon once observed, ‘People who cannot bear to be alone are generally the worst company.’) The true mind needs nothing more than itself and its own thoughts for happiness; its sober contemplative nature is matched by the sober, contemplation-inducing natural scene of the garden. But Ricks suggests that Marvell’s fondness for the ‘self-inwoven simile’, in ‘The Garden’ and in other poems, is a symptom of the English Civil War, which saw a nation at war with itself, much as the two images in Marvell’s similes are often of the same kind, and one image is pitted against itself. Given that ‘The Garden’ can be analysed as a poem in praise of retreat from public life in the wake of a recent and bloody Civil War, such self-reflexive imagery becomes even more pertinent.

And Marvell’s patron when he wrote ‘The Garden’ is also relevant here. In 1650, Marvell entered the service of Sir Thomas Fairfax, who had been commander of the New Model Army under Cromwell during the English Civil War. Fairfax had just retired from this role, turning down the offer of leading the army into Scotland; and it may be that Marvell wrote ‘The Garden’ in order to show his patron that withdrawal from public life is noble and grand.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on July 27, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Marvell= hugely underestimated

  2. cool

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