Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Garden by Andrew Marvell

Yesterday's poem, "The Song of Wandering Aengus", about a love-god's quest to find the bewitching woman who had attracted his attention, made me think of Apollo, chasing Daphne, who turned into a tree. And all the mention of the long-dappled grass in the final stanza made me think of a garden, bringing us to today's (rather lengthy) selection. Although this poem is rather long, it is by no means a difficult read. Marvell invokes both Apollo and Adam in this poem about the benefits of a solitary life, entitled "The Garden." I believe the poem's sentiments and even the way many of them are expressed feels incredibly modern - a bit of a surprise when one considers that Marvell lived during the 17th century.

The Garden
by Andrew Marvell

How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays*;
And their uncessant labors see
Crowned from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow-vergèd shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all the flowers and 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 amorous 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! wheresoe'er your barks I wound
No name shall but your own be found.

* the palm, the oak, or bays:

Overly simplified, the three branches represent war (palm), public life (oak), and the arts/poetry (bay), but I think Marvell was being subtler than that.

Palm: Romans awarded palm branches to victorious combattants (in games or war) - the palm was a symbol of Apollo, but is in Christianity associated with Christ's entry into Jerusalem, and is seen as a triumph of the soul over its enemies

Oak: The oak is seen as a symbol of virtue, strength or endurance, both personal and military (and was associated with the Norse god, Thor, as well as with the Greek god, Zeus). It was also adopted by the Christians as a symbol of worship, and in nearly all cases is related to the notion of rebirth.

Bay: "Bays" is a reference to the bay laurel, a wreath of which was awarded to champions in the ancient Pythian games - the bay laurel is related to Apollo based on his pursuit of the nymph Daphne, who was transformed by Zeus into a tree, and to the Christian religion as a symbol of Christ's resurrection.

It was terribly clever of Marvell to invoke these three symbols, relating as they all do to ancient traditions (Greek, Roman, and Norse) as well on Christianity. Doing so subtly underlines his coming reference to Apollo (who is specifically associated with the palm and bay), while allowing those readers of his time (in Reformation England) to read them as being almost purely Christian references, should they so choose.

When we have run our passion's heat,
Love hither makes his best retreat:
The gods who 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 wondrous life is 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,
Insnared with flowers, 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 prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Such was that happy garden-state,
While man there walked 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 flowers 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 reckoned but with herbs and flowers!

Form: The poem is written in iambic tetrameter using rhymed couplets (AABBCCDD), organized into eight-line stanzas (each stanza containing four couplets).

Discussion: Marvell begins the poem with a stanza about how men rush around pursuing fame and glory, then moves to the second stanza, in which he discusses the garden he's in: he has turned his back on society, and is enjoying the quiet and solitude and finer aspects (such as innocence) found in the garden. He discusses the lushness of the garden, and turns his observations to romance, starting first with the carving of women's names into trees, and observing that nature (and its trees) are far more beautiful than (and preferable to) the company of any woman.

In the fourth stanza, he says that when love's passion has run its course, men find solace in nature. He then specifically references Apollo's pursuit of Daphne as well as Pan's pursuit of Syrinx, both of whom were transformed into a piece of nature in order to avoid the amorous attentions of the beings giving chase. In the fifth stanza, he speaks as if he is himself Adam, alone in the Garden of Eden with apples dropping about him - but he doesn't stop there. He provides a rather erotic description of the ripened juicy fruit available to him in a pre-Eve garden, and moves in the sixth stanza to discuss the pleasures of time spent alone in thought. I especially love the second through eighth lines of the stanza:

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.

In the seventh stanza, Marvell enters a transcendental sort of state involving, perhaps, astral projection, as his soul leaves his body and revels in the boughs of the trees in the garden. In the eighth stanza, he says, in essence, "See how wonderful the Garden was before Eve turned up?" First, there's a play on the word "helpmeet", a word used at the time to refer to a wife, saying "What other help could yet be meet!" - (why did he need anything else?) He says in the final four lines of the eighth stanza that being in the garden was one form of paradise, and being alone was another, but that having a double helping of good things was too much for mortals; the implication is that the addition of Eve to the mix was a sort of punishment or burden, removing one of the states of paradise. Given that Marvell was a close friend of Milton's, who had a decidedly unusual vision of paradise that was not squarely within Christian parameters, the use of the word paradise in this stanza (and the reference to the winged soul in the prior stanza) are quite likely nods to Milton and his philosophies.

In the ninth and final stanza, Marvell steps back from his closer association with Adam, closing the poem by saying that the creator ("the skillful gard'ner") established the plants in the garden as a way of marking time. To my way of thinking, the zodiac of flowers represents the turning of the seasons, and the industriousness of the bee is a reference not only to nature, but to the need for man to engage in labor now that he has been cast out of the garden.

The entire poem is a Platonic celebration of a hermetic life, a life lived alone in contemplation of nature and poetry, really, and perhaps that's what Marvell would have preferred for himself. For a bit of Marvell's biography, I refer you to my post from last year, in which I discussed his poem "To His Coy Mistress". Suffice it to say that Marvell lived his life as if poised on a knife-edge: he was involved in the bureaucracy of Cromwellian England, all the while writing sly poems about those he observed around him. He was a close friend of John Milton's, and a life-long bachelor. Whether he was straight or not is debated. Interestingly, after his death, some of his poems were published by his "wife", Mary Marvell, who turned out to be his long-time housekeeper. They were not, in fact, married; she pretended to be his wife, however, to keep his estate out of the hands of creditors.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

These interpretations are great. I like how the palm/oak/bay interpretation is based on fact. Thanks!