In the Garden with Andrew Marvell

This was the year when I should have become a Marvell completist, I had planned to read the letters and the Nigel Smith biography and reacquaint myself with the finer points of the mission to Moscow and the second Dutch war. Instead I’ve written about ‘Appleton House’ but nothing else.

I have several excuses that I won’t bore you with but recently I’ve come across bits and pieces of criticism (whilst looking for other things) and most of these have focused on ‘The Garden’ which I’ve since re-read and am beginning to appreciate how exceptional and odd this poem is.

In previous readings I’ve taken it to be a poem about the value of retreating to the countryside away from the pressures of urban life but with a bit of bite, a kind of ironic take on this well-worn theme but now I think it’s a bit more than that. This thinking has incorporated the various and wildly divergent readings promulgated by the academy which has brought to mind Geoffrey Hill’s recent comment about the frequent folly of seeking out a single unified ‘meaning’. Having said that I must confess that these attempts to crystallize a variety of elements does cause me to reconsider my own take on things. For example, in her essay ‘Marvell’s Amazing Garden’, Mary Thomas Crane makes a strong case for ‘wonder’ as a central, unifying theme:

“The physiology of wonder takes a central role in Marvell’s “Garden,”
linking wonder and amazement to images of attempted escape, entrapment
and enclosure that recur throughout the poem and which
contribute to Marvell’s sense of wonder as a state of suspension. The
poem begins with the potentially surprising idea that ambitious men
“amaze” themselves in a vain quest for earthly recognition and reward.”

I don’t want to discourage this kind of stuff because it gives the rest of us more to think about and often to return to a poem with a fresh pair of eyes but this worry about theme, intention and meaning does tend to detract from the enjoyment of the poem as poem- in the way that Marvell augments and intensifies ordinary language to do complex things. As a reader it is what the poem does that gives me far more satisfaction than working out what it might mean. In this instance there’s many things being done in relatively few lines. The first thing to note is that the poem can be read as a sequence of numbered (they are numbered in the first published version in 1681 and in the Longman edition but not on the luminarium site) eight-line poems each of which stands in its own right in that it makes sense without reference to the poems that precede or follow it. I’m finding that thinking in this way and avoiding a ‘panoptic’ overview is the most effective way of getting down to the detail.

I also need to confess an interest in the garden and the idea of gardens in the 17th century which I find fascinating as to how this ‘place’ developed and underwent several transformations within the national psyche. So, i have a bias too but I hope it doesn’t prevent me from demonstrating that there doesn’t need to be a unifying meaning other than the title of the sequence.

This is the third poem:

Nor red nor white 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! Wher'se'er your barks I wound,
No name but your own shall be found.

I need to say here that Nigel Smith’s commentary in the Longman edition of the poems is exemplary. I know that some have commented that the notes are too detailed but, because the 17th century is so utterly different from our own, I don’t think that you can have too much context. With regard to the above, which seems reasonably straightforward, I didn’t know about the “occult writings and nature mysticism” that holds that at the time of creation God placed the name of each created thing within that thing and that he placed in Adam all these ‘signatures’, hence the greater significance of the last two lines.

The other stuff that these lines kick off for me is the contrast between the lovers’ unheeding zeal and the cool detachment of the speaker together with his intent to do the right thing, i.e. only to place in the tree what was initially placed their by God. I think we then might want to consider what it is about love and lovers that causes them to inscribe things in this way. It might be an indication and expression of ‘cruel’ sexual passion but it’s also about memorialising the relationship by creating a mark or a trace that will last for a long time. There’s also the business of signing and the competition for a kind of ownership- as in ‘this is our tree because we placed out names in it as evidence/symbol/mark of our love for each other’ which might be contrasted with the eternal ownership marked by God’s initial writing of the name.

We then come to the thorny question of who is speaking here, Smith refers to this as Marvell’s persona but this particular voice seems different from the other authorial voices in the poem and we also need to ask why he should be signing the trees in this if they have already been signed by God- isn’t this more than a little presumptuous or an example of what Prynne would describe as ‘self-vaunting’?

Smith also points to the subversion of ‘traditional’ colour theory that occurs in the opening lines and others have commented on the wonderfully complex notions of green that held sway in the period, noting that the brilliant “Annihilating all that’s made / to a green thought in a green shade” occurs at the end of the sixth poem. I don’t intend to go any further with this here but to flag it up as a further example of just how much is going on in these eight lines.

So, this particular poem is one of the less complex in the sequence but is satisfying and successful in its own right in that it uses plain language in a way that manages to make us think again about things that we might take for granted. In just eight lines it has managed to broaden my understanding of the fitful and stuttering formation and growth of our cultural landscape. It’s also what Geoffrey Hill would describe as technically efficient, although it might not be beautiful.

2 responses to “In the Garden with Andrew Marvell

  1. He doesn’t quite say that he’s signing the trees, but that he’s wounding them. My read is that he’s asking the motives of gardening in general. What is the purpose of trimming, pruning and grafting trees and plants (not to speak of selecting and planting them in the first place)? And his answer is that he’s bringing out their nature — the pear tree is not espaliered to make it like a vine, but to make it more like a pear tree. You don’t have to find this reasonable to find it familiar.

    • Vance, thank you (as usual) for making me think a bit harder about this. I’d like to think that both are going on- that he’s wounding in order to inscribe their original names as God did at the point of creation. This violence is in direct contrast to the lovers and their cruel flame, intent on inscribing themselves. What I love about Marvell is that he does radical ambiguity really well. I’m now going to have a think about what Derrida says about the wound caused by the first stroke of the pen on the page..

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