Analysis of Andrew Marvell’s The Garden

Andrew Marwell’s The Garden (1681) remains a favorite among critics of poetry by Andrew Marwell. Although he most probably wrote it during retirement between 1650 and 1652, some critics have argued convincingly it may have been produced earlier in his career. Because of Marvell’s lack of comment regarding his work, questions linger as to the dates of origin of his various poems. Most appeared in print for the first time in the posthumous 1681 collection titled Miscellaneous Poems.

Marvell drew on a rich tradition of garden writing for this work, including that by classical poets. One of the poets most imitated by Marvell was Horace, who associated gardens with epicurean delights and the contemplative life. In addition, Virgil’s ideas of the garden as a source of themes of wisdom and philosophy in poetry, rather than of public virtue, surface in The Garden. The reader may also recognize echoes of Ben Jonson’s amplified description used to persuade readers to his point of view in the country house poem To Penshurst; of Abraham Cowley’s early lyric poetry; and of the biblical Song of Solomon in which the bridegroom (an allegory for Christ) compares his bride (the church) to a garden. He employs the familiar octosyllabic meter of iambic tetrameter seen also in his The Definition Of Love in nine eight-line stanzas with rhyming couplets.

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Marvell’s speaker begins by indicting “vainly men” who seek recognition from “uncessant labours,” which earn them a crown “from single herb or tree, / Whose short and narrow vergèd shade” produces an insult to their efforts. He suggests the paucity of their reward when compared to the lush “garlands of repose” woven by “all flow’rs and trees.” This fixes attention firmly on the garden to begin the second stanza, in which Marvell uses the figurative language of personification, writing “Fair Quiet, have I found thee here, / And Innocence thy sister dear!” By converting the advantages of the garden setting into female figures, he suggests a greater reward for the men described in the first stanza, in whose company the speaker had mistakenly sought the garden figures. He also suggests that the company of plants are preferable to the company of women, a suggestion he extends throughout the poem. The garden holds “sacred plants,” while human “Society is all but rude, / To this delicious solitude.” Rude meant not only injurious or insulting actions or language, but was also defined as “uncultivated,” suggesting potential lack of attention and sophistication. Marvell’s critical attitude toward the meaningless activity rewarded by society remains clear.

The third stanza describes the “white” and “red,” meaning the lily and rose, of the “green” garden as “am’rous.” These are positive images of love, whereas the names cut into the bark of the trees by lovers “cruel as their flame” is by comparison a waste of time as an attempt to cultivate love. The passion’s flame is destructive, rather than constructive. The speaker issues an indictment of such thoughtless lovers through a selfcomparison, concluding that stanza with “Fair trees! Wheres’e’er your barks I wound, / No name shall but your own be found.” Marvell continues his comparison of man’s errant expression of passion to the preferable quiet contemplative life offered by the garden. He extends his metaphor of passionate love by noting that when Apollo loved Daphne, he hunted her purposely to cause her transformation into a laurel, and Pan did the same with Syrinx, whose nymph form would become a reed. The plant forms are obviously superior to the female beings’ original forms in Marvell’s new version of the mythological stories. The speaker is so caught up in the garden that its various fruits force their pleasures upon him, the “ripe apples” dropping around his head, grape clusters crushing wine “Upon my mouth,” and “The nectarine, and curious peach, / Into my hands themselves do reach.” The body reaps great bounty from the garden scene.

After noting the physical benefi ts of the garden, the speaker notes benefi ts to the mind as well, including withdrawal “into happiness” as Marvell shows the value of the contemplative life. He also projects onto the mind creative powers, like those God exercised in the Garden of Eden. The mind may transcend earthly bounds, as Marvell adopts an extended metaphor of the ocean to demonstrate the mind’s far-reaching powers:

The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas.

The mind’s creative activity engages in “Annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade.” Marvell’s age sometimes employed the term annihilation in a religious sense, to indicate obliteration of self in order to unite with God. His speaker notes the mind annihilates in order later to resurrect everything not connected with a garden into “green” entities or thoughts, to unite with the garden’s life.

Stanza 7 considers the soul’s benefit from the garden, where “like a bird it sits, and sings, / Then whets, and combs its silver wings.” The soul draws sustenance from the garden, which prepares it for “longer flight,” and “Waves in its plumes the various light.” The imagery suggests the flight the soul will take to heaven when it later joins the deity, often compared to light in biblical imagery. Marvell extends the biblical imagery into stanza 8 with a consideration of the original “happy garden state” of man. Feminist critics fi nd of interest that Marvell characterizes man’s state as happy when he “walked without a mate,” suggesting that he might have been better off without the helpmeet, or female partner, promised to him in the biblical rendition found in Genesis. However, the speaker notes that man could not bear “To wander solitary there” and enjoy the double paradise of the garden and solitude. As Marvell previously suggests, the plants prove superior to women, their company more comforting than that of the female. His tone remains humorous, and he does not expect readers to take that suggestion seriously.

The final stanza references the passing of time by noting that the “skillful gard’ner” fashioned “Of flow’rs and herbs the dial new,” suggesting God as the ultimate gardener and timekeeper and the world the ultimate clock. The sun’s movement causes “the milder sun / . . . through a fragrant zodiac [to] run,” where flowers represent the belt in the celestial sphere around which the planets organize. The speaker concludes with a classical reference to the presence of bees and a recommendation that man reckon “sweet and wholesome hours” not with a time piece of metal and springs, but with “herbs and flow’rs!”

Critical consideration of the poem has varied, including that of psychoanalytical theories that see the ocean in a Freudian sense, suggesting a return to the womb. Many consider it humorous and reject theories that it reflects serious philosophical or religious thought.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Kermode, Frank, ed. English Pastoral Poetry: From the Beginnings to Marvell. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1952.
Ray, H. Robert. An Andrew Marvell Companion. New York: Garland, 1998.
Smith, Nigel, ed. The Poems of Andrew Marvell. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2003.
Whitaker, Curtis. “Andrew Marvell’s Garden—Variety Debates.” The Huntington Library Quarterly 62, nos. 3–4 (summer–fall 2000): 297–311.

 



Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Poetry

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