Back in the Garden with Andrew Marvell’s soul and the colour green

This is going to appear more than a little disjointed but there is (trust me) some method in the confusion that follows. I’ve been re-reading Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ and trying to follow Nigel Smith’s logic with regard to a Neoplatonic reading of the sequence and giving further consideration to Bruce R Smith’s gloriously ambitious ‘The Key of Green, Passion and Perception in Renaissance Culture’ in order to try and get this particular poem a bit clearer in my head.

There are a number of things that I think need to be established before getting into the specifics:

  1. the middle of the 17th century is very far removed from and foreign to the early part of the twentieth century, the religious groups of the Interegnum and beyond were not the Taliban, John Evelyn was not our first ecologist regardless of what Simon Schama might say;
  2. the appearance of the word ‘soul’ in a poem does not automatically imply the presence of all things Plotinus hovering benignly (or otherwise) over the text;
  3. poetic influence, especially from one poet to another, is hugely complicated and should not be treated as a simple ‘given’;
  4. Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ may not be a single poem but a sequence of nine self-contained and coherent poems grouped around a single theme just as Hill’s Oraclau has Wales and the Welsh as its unifying link;
  5. work on the development of gardens and the place of the garden in the 17th century mindset / cultural landscape is only now beginning to produce results and these currently cover a very broad range of perspectives;
  6. as with ‘soul’, the use of the word ‘green’ should not be automatically be taken to refer to all things natural and wholesome.

I feel that I can now turn to the poem and start with what Nigel Smith has to say about the Neoplatonic basis for the poem/sequence- “In effect, M. transfers the metaphors of Neoplatonism from the cosmic to the human scale, almost parodying Neoplatonic language: Should not abide unchanged when it produces: it is moved and so brings forth an image. It looks to its source and is filled, and going forth to another opposed movement generates its own image, which is sensation and the principle growth in plants…. The part before this, which is immediately dependent upon Intellect, leaves Intellect alone, abiding in itself.'” The quote is from Book III of the Enneads and Smith refers us to the first 6 line of stanza / poem VI:

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

To back up his claim, Smith quotes at some length from Nathaniel Culverwel’s ‘An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature’ and concludes with “Again, the broad patterns of thought M.’s thought are evident.” It so happens that I know a little of Plotinus and the Neoplatonic thread in English verse and it is this sort of opportunistic reading that really doesn’t do attentive readers any favours. Before proceeding with this I think I need to say that Nigel Smith’s work on Marvell (especially in the Longman Collected) is a model of what scholarship should be about- it’s just that here he does overreach himself. If we treat ‘The Garden’ as a single poem then it is clear that it is saying a number of quite different things and that these things are not easily compressed into one particular school of thought. We might also want to suggest that the poem deliberately resists a single, unified reading. This is not a radical insight about Marvell, people have been complaining about the unresolvable ambiguity in his work since 1681. The quest for a single coherent meaning or viewpoint is very attractive, some time ago I posted something on this blog which proposed to make complete sense of ‘An Horation Ode’ purely on the strength of its closing lines.

Before going on to the next stanza / poem, I’d like to draw attention to Smith’s “In effect” and “almost” in the above quote which might just indicate that he knows that he’s on a slippery slope.

We now turn to the next stanza which brings us to Edmund Spenser and the soul:

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 it like a bird it sits, and sings,
Then whets, and combs it sliver wings;
And, till prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Smith states that Spenser’s ‘Hymne to Heavenly Beautie’ is the source for the third and fourth lines and cites most of stanza 4 of that poem. However, the Yale edition of Spenser’s shorter poems is of the view that this sense of ascent is a reflection of Plato rather than Plotinus. Smith also quotes Alistair Fowler’s view that Boethius, Jeremy Taylor and George Herbert are also sources. I don’t have access to the 2003 Times Literary Supplement article that this is taken from but, as a general rule of thumb, anything that Fowler says must be correct because he is better than anyone else and writes with superb elan and authority.

Coincidentally, I know nothing of Boethius but I am now in possession of Prynne’s ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ which includes Boethius in its ‘Reference Cues’ list so I may have to read this before I get to the rest. I don’t wish to minimise the various threads that Marvell may be making use of here but I think my point is that influence isn’t just about mimesis or imitation, the strongest type of influence is that which gives the influenced permission to act or create in a certain way. For example, Pound gave Charles Olson permission to write a very long poem about many apparently disparate things just as James Joyce gave David Jones permission to write about the thought patterns of troops in WWI.

In this way Spenser gives permission to Herbert and they both give permission in turn to Marvell to write about the soul in a way that may contain elements of the Neoplatonic whilst not embracing the whole philosophy. It is eminently possible, for example, to draw a parallel between Ficino on the One and the structure of Book I of the Faerie Queen but that doesn’t mean that Spenser is putting forward a specifically Neoplatonic position.

With regard to green, this occurs twice in the poem / sequence, in addition to the above, stanza / poem 3 begins with this-

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.

When I last wrote about this, I observed that green could be read in a number of different ways. Bruce R Smith has these-

  • leaves, especially bay leaves, especially bay leaves wound around a
    poet’s brow,
  • greenwood, greensward, greenhouse,
  • the village green,
  • verdigris, litharge of lead (PbO), and quicksilver “ground with the pisse of a yong childe” to make an emerald-green dye,
  • the suit of “flaming greene like an Emerald” that St. George is supposed to have worn when, en route to England, he stopped off in Egypt and was crowned king there,
  • a table covering for conducting legal business (the Board of Greencloth,
  • the green baize of the House of Commons), playing card games, and shooting pool,
  • green phantasms in “Perspective-Houses,” where, according to Francis Bacon, the inhabitants of New Atlantis produce “all Colourations of Light. All Delusions and Deceits of the Sight, in Figures, Magnitudes,
    Motions, Colours: All Demonstrations of Shadows,”
  • greenhead and greenhorn,
  • “the greene-ey’d Monster,” and
  • “Good is as visible as greene.”

Smith contiues with- “The last of these greens is John Donne’s in “Communitie,” a poem printed with Donne’s amorous verse in 1633. Donne’s speaker begins with the commonly held proposition that we must love good and hate ill. But what about “things indifferent”? These we have to “prove” or try out, “As wee shall fi nde our fancy bent.” Take women. Nature made them neither good nor bad, so we must use them all: “If they were good it would be seene, / Good is as visible as greene, / And to all eyes it selfe betrayes.” Green is so visible, it turns out, not just because it is everywhere to be seen in greenwood and greensward or because the speaker is a greenhead full of youthful desire but because women are green goods, pieces of ripening fruit that the speaker can devour one after another.”

I’ve quoted the above at length because I want to make a more general point about the occasional need to accept that we don’t actually know and will never know what certain things mean or refer to and that this is especially the case with Marvell. Perhaps it might be more appropriate to celebrate this multiplicity than contributing to sterile and unresolvable debates over precise intention and meaning….


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