Three Famous Lyrics
- Pages: 32
- Word count: 7908
- Category: Poems
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IN the first chapter we saw how the mythic view of nature enabled Marvell to discuss human feelings and values in terms of grass, fruit, and flowers. Therefore, even when the poems were pastoral in their setting, they revealed the same conflict between innocence and passion, withdrawal and action, as did the more conventional love poems. The strong desire for love was accompanied by an equally strong fear of the sexuality that is inherent in love and which Marvell felt would eventually destroy it. Both the natural and the sexual meanings of the word “die” were often used to bring together the wages of sin and the consummation of human passion.
Just as the sin would destroy life, so Marvell felt the very fulfillment of passion would bring about the destruction of the innocent love. In the next chapter the same conflict was traced in the religious poems. The desire of the body to participate actively in the world was balanced by an equally strong impulse to withdraw the soul from the corrupt world. More success in the effort to reconcile the impulses was seen in these poems. And, in at least one poem, the ascent of the soul into heaven, completely free of the corrupt world, was made into an experience as beautiful as it was inevitable. But in an equally moving poem, “The Coronet,” the body and soul were felt to be inseparable and irreconcilable.
Only when immersed in a mystic garden, as in the last section of “Upon Appleton House,” could the body and soul be reconciled. For, as was pointed out, the piercing of the body by “Briars” was transformed into a state which gave pleasure to the body while releasing the soul. This theme is developed with greater skill and intensity in “The Garden,” the poem which will occupy the main section of this chapter. But Marvell is equally well known for his attempts to carry both poles of sensibility to their separate limits.
In “The Definition of Love” the mathematical imagery enables him to remove the pure soul into an abstract realm of perfection. And in “To his Coy Mistress,” the momentary intensity of sexual passion is carried so far that it almost reaches its opposite–the eternality of ideal love. Although poems so well known hardly need any explication, even those to whom the poems are quite familiar will find an added interest in seeing them as a development of themes which run throughout Marvell’s poetry. And in their different ways, all three poems can be read as ultimate lyrical expressions of Marvell’s most deeply rooted impulses.
We have no basis, of course, for assigning any chronological order to the lyric poems. But few readers have found greater power in any of Marvell’s love poetry than can be found in these three. I “Definition of Love” The “Definition of Love” is in one sense more difficult to follow than the previous love poems. The human values are expressed, not by such objects as flowers and fires–which even today carry some of their traditional associations with human feelings–but by geometrical and astronomical terms. To see the human meanings that are implicit in these geometrical forms and celestial bodies, it is necessary to turn once again to the same neo-Platonic tradition described in Chapter Two.
When Plato examined an object mathematically, he not only found that it had a certain length and shape but that it had certain values. In this living, purposive universe, the curvature of a line and the rules of geometry were not cold, abstract terms which were useful only in calculating distance. They revealed the true nature of the object. For Plato, as for Pythagoras, the true distinction between one object and another depended on the differences in their structure and their form. It was a true distinction because, unlike the color and temperature of an object, form the number were not subject to change. In The Republic Plato attributes to geometry the knowledge of what is eternal, as distinguished from what is sensible and perishing.
Arithmetic is praised not so much for its practical uses, but “because this will be the easiest way for her [the soul] to pass from becoming to truth and being.”1 Ethical forms were thus only a higher form of mathematical forms. This aspect of Plato’s philosophy was developed with great ingenuity and with even greater thoroughness by his successor Plotinus. And it is to the Enneads of Plotinus, as well as to the works of Plato, that we refer to make clear the ethical meanings implicit in Marvell’s geometrical terms. The Platonic and neo-Platonic belief that mathematics was a key to the essential nature of the universe persisted through the Middle Ages and was revived in the Renaissance. Marsilio Ficino’s translations of Plato and Plotinus were widely read; and, by the middle of the seventeenth century numerous translations were available in English.
Pythagorean and Platonic mathematical theories were revived by Giordano Bruno. Even such scientists as Copernicus and Kepler were firmly convinced that mathematical forms and human values. The circle was the perfect figure for Copernicus as well as for Aristotle. One of the reasons for his dissatisfaction with the Ptolemaic system was that the Ptolemaic universe was not a perfect circle. Kepler preferred the Copernican to the Ptolemaic universe because he felt that the sun, as the divine body, should be the center. In the seventeenth century no branch of mathematics was as highly developed as geometry, and in no field was geometry more important than in dealing with the heavenly bodies.
As one historian of this period has said: Astronomy “was the geometry of the heavens.”2 The images that Marvell uses in this poem, therefore, are not far-fetched: they are perfectly appropriate means of reaching beyond the outward appearance of love to its eternal essence–or in his own words, of giving us the definition of love. The discussion of “The Definition of Love” will be made clearer if the reader will diagram the images drawn from geometry and astronomy: My Love is of a birth as rare As ’tis for object strange and high: It was begotten by despair Upon Impossibility. 1-4 The lover and the “object strange and high” can be represented by two points, A and B: A …………………… “object strange and high” B …………………… lover And yet I quickly might arrive Where my extended Soul is fixt, But Fate does Iron wedges drive, And alwaies crouds it self betwixt.
9-12 The “extended Soul” can be represented by a circle connecting points A and B, and the “Iron wedges” by a heavy line between A and B: And therefore her Decrees of Steel Us as the distant Poles have plac’d. (Though Loves whole World on us doth wheel) Not by themselves to be embrac’d. 17-20 The lovers are “distant Poles”; “Loves whole World” is the earth; “the Decrees of Steel” are the “Iron wedges,” and, therefore, the axis of the earth. By extending the points, we have parallel lines: As Lines so Loves oblique may well Themselves in every Angle greet: But ours so truly Paralel, Though infinite can never meet. Therefore the Love which us doth bind. But Fate so enviously debarrs Is the Conjunction of the Mind, And Opposition of the Stars.
25-32 In seventeenth-century astronomy (and this is also true in the Timaeus), two heavenly bodies were in conjunction when they were in a line with the observer. Since the loved object and the “extended Soul” of the lover are in an identical position, they are obviously in a line to any observer. The body of the lover and the loved object, however, are–as poles of the earth (A and B in the diagram)–180 (Degrees) apart. True love can be attained by the soul but not by the body. We therefore have a “Conjunction of the Mind” (soul and mind can here be considered identical) and an “Opposition of the Stars.”
Just as the visual image develops as logically as the geometrical theorem, so the action of the poem can almost be said to develop logically out of the first stanza: My Love is of a birth as rare As ’tis for object strange and high: It was begotten by despair Upon Impossibility. 1-4 The word “birth” can mean “origin,” since the origin is one of the elements of a definition. But the union between the abstractions in lines three and four points back and gives the word “birth” its more literal and more concrete value as well. Lines three and four also point forward to the last lines of the poem. A love born from a union of abstractions results, appropriately enough, in a “Conjunction of the Mind.” In the seventeenth century, “strange,” besides its meanings of “unaccountable” and “surprising,” meant “coyness . . . unwillingness to accede to a request or a desire,” (OED).
The qualities “strange” and “rare” are given geometrical form in the parallel lines: “strange” because they never meet; “rare,” because one, and only one, line can be drawn through a given point parallel to a given line. The last two stanzas are, therefore, not an isolated flash of wit but the logical culmination of all that has gone before. The brilliance of the parallel-line image has often misled readers into underestimating the force of the final stanza and into regarding “the Conjunction of the Mind” as a mere consolation prize. Actually, however, this “Conjunction of the Mind” is a higher form of the relationship given by the parallel lines. This is made explicit in Plotinus: “. . . the forward path is characteristically of body” II.2.2 and “. . . sensation is symbolized by a line, intellection by a circle . . .” IV.1.7.
The straight line can only become perfect when extended into a circle. “For the soul is a circle in motion, moved by its aspirations inwards” IV.4.16.3 Now it must be remembered that the soul for Marvell, as for Plato and Plotinus, was extended: “And yet I quickly might arrive/Where my extended Soul is fixt.” And by means of this “extended Soul” we can leave the sensible, imperfect, undefined love and reach a “Conjunction of the Mind.” For, if we look at the diagram, the two lovers–the poles on which the World “doth Wheel”–are points on a circle. It is the love, then, of the “extended Soul” which is perfect: “The perfection of the circle will be the perfection of the point, it will aspire to this perfection and strive to attain it, as far as it can, through a circle”
VI.2.12. The parallel lines, stretching to infinity, are indefinite; the circle is a finite figure: “indefiniteness is the greater in the less ordered object; the less deep in good, the deeper in evil” II.4.16. The love represented by the parallel lines belongs to the senses of “sensation”; it is indefinite and, therefore, “the less deep in good, the deeper in evil.” On the other hand, “the Conjunction of the Mind” is represented (as “intellection” should be, according to Plotinus) by a circle. This perfect figure thus represents the perfect love toward which Marvell has been striving. By extending the infinite lines into a finite circle, the poet has set limits to what is infinite, and so “defined” love. What was true of Plato’s use of mathematics can be applied almost literally to this poem. It has “the power of mediating between the sensible, transient world and the world of pure being.”
4 If it is a mistake to regard “the Conjunction of the Mind” as a consolation prize, it is at least an oversimplification to regard the poem simply as a progression from the “sensation” of earthly, imperfect love to the “intellection” of a perfect, immutable love. Such an interpretation would take account only of the structure of the poem and not of its tone and mood. Although the intellectual structure is Platonic, the poet’s attitude is not. Marvell finds a love which is proof against sexuality and time; but he has been able to do this only by a complete physical separation of the lovers. He does not, as in “The Gallery,” ignore the sensuality of a Clora and embrace her innocence; nor does he attempt to escape the ravages of time by turning his love towards young girls.
He recognizes that to give up passion he must give up his Venus entirely, not try to transform her into a calm and innocent “Shepherdess”–that to avoid lust he must give up the “snowy lamb” (Young Love) and the “Faun” as well as the bull and the hart. But is this sacrifice of all physical relationships, even the most innocent, too high a price to pay for the attainment of perfect love? The answer is ambivalent. A world in which love must be completely confined to the realm of ideas, in which “. . .
Decrees of Steel/Us as the distant Poles have plac’d,” is not the best of all possible worlds for Marvell. In Plato the passage from sensual beauty to the idea of beauty (Beauty Absolute), from the love of one beautiful woman to the love of the idea of beauty, is accompanied by a state of exhilaration and triumph. And Plotinus has no doubt that, when we go from “sensation” to “intellection,” we are moving upward toward what is best. Plato and Plotinus are also certain that nothing is lost in the ascent, that everything that is best on one level is included in the next higher level. This feeling of exhilaration and untroubled satisfaction cannot be found in Marvell’s “Conjunction of the Mind.” For Marvell can envisage another world in which true love can exist in the senses, in which the lover’s body “quickly might arrive/Where [his] extended Soul is fixt.”
This possibility was to described a few years later in Book IV of Milton’s Paradise Lost. But Marvell could only envisage–not describe–the bringing together of spiritual and physical love: Unless the giddy Heaven fall, And Earth some new Convulsion tear; And, us to joyn, the World should all Be cramp’d into a Planisphere. 21-24 Marvell is not satisfied with the world as he sees it, but he does not, as in the minor love poems, try to distort it to fit his heart’s desire. This gives “The Definition of Love” the peculiar honesty which, despite the ingenuity of the images, has succeeded in coming through to an ever-increasing number of admirers.
A love that “was begotten by despair/Upon Impossibility” cannot be wished away, overthrown, or accepted with either equanimity or grief. Both these feelings are present, but neither of them is dominant. And the tension created by this careful balance of conflicting emotions and attitudes gives the poem its inscrutable tone. The excellence of the poem is not due to a technical trick but to the honesty with which two strong and contradictory feelings have been resolved. The sensuality which in the course of time destroys love has thus been completely conquered by a complete severance of all physical relationship. For not only is a sensual love sinful in the Christian sense, but it is impossible in the Platonic sense.
It is only in the realm of ideas, for Plato, that true love is attainable: “All the forms of love . . . can only reach their true goal when they have raised the soul altogether out of time and becoming, and have united her with a beauty that is universal and absolute. . . .”5 II “To his Coy Mistress” The Platonic progression has now been carried as far as possible; and, as we have seen, Marvell is also aware, even in this poem, of an opposite experience. Is it not possible that a pure love can be attained by the body as well as by the “extended Soul”? It is this possibility that is envisaged in the first stanza of “To his Coy Mistress.” Here in this imagined world, the “giddy Heaven” has fallen, and we have eternal love, not in the realm of ideas, but in the realm of the senses: Had we but World enough, and Time, This coyness Lady were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way To walk, and pass our long Loves Day. Thou by the Indian Granges side Should’st Rubies find: I by the Tide Of Humber would complain. I would Love you ten years before the Flood: And you should if you please refuse Till the Conversion of the Jews. My vegetable Love should grow Vaster then Empires, and more slow. An hundred years should go to praise Thine Eyes, and on thy Forehead Gaze. Two hundred to adore each Breast; But thirty thousand to the rest. An Age at least to every part, And the last Age should show your Heart. For Lady you deserve this State; Nor would I love at lower rate.
1-20 Beneath the bantering mockery of the woman’s coyness is the desire to overcome space and time: or, in the terms of the preceding poem, to crush the round earth “into a Planisphere” and to allow the two lovers who are on opposite sides of the globe to come together. Overcoming time, as well as space, the lovers have no “night,” with its connotations of sin, but enjoy a “long Loves Day.” The juxtaposition of the two realms–the one eternal, ideal, and noble; the other temporal, sensuous, and ordinary–provides the basis for the sharp contrasts, the irony and “wit.” It brings together the “thirty thousand” years and the woman’s body, the “Conversion of the Jews” and the attempt to seduce the woman (the conversion to immortal life and the conversion to a momentary pleasure or “death”), the “vegetable” or lowest kind of love and “Empires,” and the “State” with a “lower rate.”
But such a world where the ideal and the actual, the immortal and the mortal are united is impossible. In the second section of the poem Marvell brings us back to the world of time: “But at my back I alwaies hear/Times winged Charriot hurrying near.” Eternity is no longer with us as in the first section, but is ever “before us.” The “winged Charriot,” which can represent death (or the sun measuring time), prevents man from ever crossing the vast deserts of infinite space and infinite time. Not only passion, but even the poetry–the “ecchoing Song” which seeks to immortalize passion–is futile in the face of time.
And if passion turns to ashes, the continence–exemplified by the “Honour” of a “long preserv’d Virginity”–turns to dust. The somberness, the “metaphysical shudder,” in these lines places the first section in a different perspective. Beneath the fanciful images and bantering tone there is genuine regret that we cannot “. . . sit down, and think which way/To walk, and pass our long Loves Day.” Here, in the real world, eternity does not preserve the physical objects from destruction, but is associated with an unknown blankness (“Desarts”) on the other side of the grave. Consequently, the physical aspects of love are seen in dissolution. The darkness that is suggested by such words as “Worms,” “dust,” “ashes” and “Grave’s” is in sharp contrast to the brightness of the “long Loves Day” in the first section.
Why then, in the face of this horrible description of the physical world, is the poet so insistent, in the final section, on a physical union? The obvious answer is that, by means of this union, the lovers will “at once [their] Time devour.” But how can the lovers “devour” time when they seem to be hastening to their own destruction “Thorough the Iron gates of Life”? One critic has attempted to solve this dilemma by linking the “Sun” in the final couplet with “Times winged Charriot”; and, he continues, “. . . although we cannot stop the chariot, we can avoid hearing its relentless succession by getting on it and going for a wild ride (like Phaeton’s).”6 Another critic describes the “sun,” as “setting only to rise again,” and interprets it as “the symbol of perpetual self-renewal, in contrast with human life, which sets once and forever. . . .”
7 But these lines and the entire stanza can be understood more easily by remembering the Platonic conception that time is created by the motions of the heavenly spheres: “The Sun itselfe, which makes times. . . .”–a line from Donne’s “The Anniversarie”–is a typical example of this concept. Since Marvell’s lovers are making their own time, the “Ball” into which they have rolled their “Strength” and “sweetness” has now been transformed into a “Sun.” For, if the heavenly spheres create time by their movements, that which moves and creates time (according to the poet’s wit–if not according to logic) must be a heavenly sphere. Hence the lovers’ “Ball” becomes “our Sun.” But why should “our Sun . . . run”? In some poems the answer would be obvious: the faster the sun runs, the sooner the lovers can enjoy night.
In Spenser’s “Epithalamion,” for example, the declining sun cannot move quickly enough for the impassioned lover. Marvell’s “Sun” also brings about a union of the lovers. But how different is the tone! Let us roll all our Strength, and all Our sweetness up into one Ball: And tear our Pleasures with rough strife, Thorough the Iron gates of Life. Thus, though we cannot make our Sun Stand still, yet we will make him run. 41-46 To go “Thorough the Iron gates” can mean to leave life as well as to enter; and, since they are “Iron gates,” the first meaning is the more probable. The intensity of the physical union, therefore, leads to death–in both senses of the word. But here there is little of the ecstasy traditionally associated with a morte raptus.
The syntax of the lines indicate that the “Strength” and “sweetness” of the lovers is not intensified by the physical union but destroyed. And the imagery–“birds of prey,” “strife,” and “Iron gates”–also suggests that the ecstasy which leads the lovers out of this world, into a “World enough, and Time,” leads them into death. What Donne once said of the circle can be applied to the “Ball” created by the lovers: “. . . in this circle the two points meet, the womb and the grave are but one point. . . .”8 If the first section, along with its undercurrent of wordly cynicism, represents the longing toward an ideal, eternal love and if the second section represents love as it exists in this temporal world, then the concluding section is not a solution.
It does not show us how to make “our Sun Stand still” and so achieve eternal love; nor does it teach us to be content with momentary passion. The conclusion, however, does resolve two themes. In the “Sun” which does not “Stand still,” we have a recognition of “Times winged Charriot”; and, in the two lovers who their “Time devour,” we have a development of the longing and aspiration for “World enough, and Time.” The ending is a genuine resolution because it neither ignores the conditions of existence nor does it succumb to them: “the last sentence does, but with undiminished vigor, unfold and justify the first.”9 III “The Garden” “The Garden,” also deals with the contradictory impulses celebrated in the preceding two poems.
But in it we do not feel that they are contradictory, although the terms action and withdrawal, body and soul, continue to be used for purposes of analysis. The impulses are reconciled, most obviously, by transferring the scene to an imaginary garden beyond time. Less obviously, but more important, the reconciliation is achieved by embodying the concepts in natural images to a greater extent than in any other poem. In “The Definition of Love,” for example, the two kinds of love are represented by different kinds of lines and circles. But we are aware of just what these lines and circles represent. The lines and circles, as well as the “Tinsel Wing” of “feeble Hope,” merely correspond to abstract concepts; they do not reverberate with a life of their own.
In “The Garden,” however, we see that the concepts, although they are named (“Innocence,” “Passions heat,” “Solitude,” etc.) become lost, as it were, in the imagery and action. The poem seems to reverberate with meanings far beyond the abstract concepts which are embodied in them. It is not only the poet but the reader who is immersed in the life of this garden. One of John Dewey’s statements about art applies particularly to the poem: “Experience at its height . . . signifies complete interpenetration of the self and the world of objects and events.”10 As we saw in “Upon Appleton House”–and to some extent in all the pastoral poetry–the “objects and events” in gardens and meadows are not so simple as the nineteenth-century readers believed.
In contrast to their reading of “The Garden” as an expression of a love of nature and solitude, contemporary critics have discovered beneath the placid surface references which are Classical, Christian, Plotinian, and Hermetic. And these references point to an attempt to transcend sexuality that is very similar to the attempts we have seen in the love poems.
The attention which critics and scholars have given to this poem is enough to bewilder not only the ordinary reader but even the most sophisticated student of Renaissance poetry. Fortunately, however, it is possible to see some convergence among the different exegeses and interpretations. One scholar may see a source in the medieval poetry of contemplation and retreat, and another may see a neo-Platonic ecstasy, but there is general agreement that the poem deals with a withdrawal from sexuality into a pristine garden where man lives without a mate.
An attempt will be made in this discussion to use the different sources in such a way as to make the action of the poem easier to follow. At the same time, “The Garden” will be presented as the culmination of Marvell’s lyric poetry–as his most comprehensive attempt to reconcile sexuality with continence, the soul with the body, and active participation in the pleasures of this world with withdrawal into a mystical state beyond time. On a first reading, the poem seems to be a simple description of a delightful experience.
Aware of the futility of human passion and ambition, the poet forsakes human society for the “repose,” and “Innocence,” and “Beauty” which he finds in nature, But, if we look at the poem more carefully, we find that the “Innocence” of the garden is “delicious,” and provides pleasures which, particularly in the fifth stanza, are very much akin to sexual experience. Since we can see that this garden is the Garden of Eden, there is no difficulty in understanding why it is beautiful, restful, and innocent.
But some exploration is needed to make clear just why passionate pleasures can be enjoyed among trees, or why the plants are sexual and man is not. An early attempt at an explanation was made by William Empson, who argued that women are no longer interesting to the poet “because nature is more beautiful.”11 It is tempting to accept a simple explanation, especially since the poem itself tries to reduce human experience to simple terms. But, if women are no longer interesting, we would still have to account for the fact that the beauty and sexuality of women are attributed to nature; or, to put it another way, why and in what way is “nature more beautiful” than women? The key to this difficulty lies in the tradition, which Marvell uses, that Adam before the Fall was androgynous, containing both sexes within himself. Ruth Wallerstein first found this tradition in an old Rabbinic legend.
12 More recently Maren-Sofie Rostvig has traced the androgynous Adam to the Hermetic tradition. Lord Fairfax, on whose estate Marvell (presumably) wrote this poem, was engaged in writing a commentary on a translation of Hermetic writings. And some sentences from Fairfax’s works relate quite specifically to “The Garden”: “. . . ‘being male and female, in the same body as the Scriptures said of the first man before he sined & before God took the woman out of the side of man.’ . . . During this period they were tied in a certain bond or knot which in the words of Fairfax, ‘held all things from action, poyse or motion,'”13 But, whatever the source, the idea of Adam as androgynous clarifies the central paradox of the poem.
In the first stanza, we enter into this garden by a conventional symbol. The wreath of laurel (“Bayes”), which represents the result of men’s efforts, is taken literally; that is, it is discussed not only as a symbol of human ambition, but as a natural plant: How vainly men themselves amaze To win the Palm, the Oke, or Bayes; And their uncessant Labours see Crown’d from some single Herb or Tree. Whose short and narrow verged Shade Does prudently their Toyles upbraid; 1-6 Representing the Garden of Eden before Eve, the plants serve as a reminder of the happy state from which man has fallen. Now, after the Fall, man is cursed with labor by the sweat of his brow, with sinful sexuality, and with death.
The plants which symbolize fame and triumph cannot protect man’s brow from the sun; they can only fade and die, reminding him of the futility of both his labor and his fame. Man’s sexuality is then contrasted with his former state of innocence by a reference to the procreation of plants. Containing both the pistil and stamen within themselves, the flowers and trees, like androgynous Adam, unite or “close”–not in sexual passion–but “To weave the Garlands of repose.” In the next six stanzas we are free of sexual passion, labor, and mortality,–the consequences of the creation of Eve: Fair quiet, have I found thee here, And Innocence thy Sister dear! Mistaken long, I sought you then In busie Companies of Men. Your sacred Plants, if here below, Only among the Plants will grow. 9-14 Among men the “sacred Plants” of fame and triumph (“the Palm, the Oke, or Bayes”) will pass away into oblivion.
“Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil.” But, if these “sacred Plants” ever existed “here below,” they were in the Garden of Eden, or in this garden which Marvell makes into an Eden. Fame “will grow” because there is no death; and “Innocence,” because Adam contained both sexes within himself, precludes evil. Ignorant of the state of innocence and of the evils of sexuality, the lovers who “Cut in these Trees their Mistress name” do not realize that their pleasures are inferior to those of the androgynous Adam who walked about giving the trees only their own names: “. . . whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof” Genesis 2:19. In the fourth and fifth stanzas, Marvell insists not only that the garden can represent the freedom from sexuality, labor, and death which existed in Eden, but that this androgynous Adam, walking among the trees, enjoyed all the pleasures of sexuality.
This is first proved by reference to the Greek myths, which, in the seventeenth century, were commonly regarded as pagan versions of Biblical records: When we have run our Passions 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. 25-32 By the use of such terms as “heat,” “chase,” and “race,” the chasing of Daphne and Syrinx is made to resemble a race. What would seem like a defeat is turned into a victory. The “Reed” and the “Laurel” which represent defeat for the lovers are “the Palm, the Oke, or Bayes” which represent victory for the runners.
Marvell thus twists the legends around to fit his argument. Apollo and Pan, recognizing the superiority of the passion enjoyed by the androgynous Adam, embrace the laurel and the reed. Even when they seem to pursue the nymphs, they do so only in an attempt to reach this state of innocent sexuality: “Apollo hunted Daphne so/Only that She might Laurel grow.” Marvell is also doing something else in this stanza. If Daphne turns into laurel, then the laurel becomes more and more like Daphne. That is, the pleasures which the androgynous Adam enjoyed, although at all times perfectly innocent, seem to resemble the sexual pleasures of mortal man. So far the solitude has been “delicious” and the “lovely green” has been “am’rous.”
But after the laurel and the reed have been identified with Daphne and Syrinx, the poet can go even further; he can present a scene in which the innocent pleasures enjoyed before the advent of Eve seem to be very much like those enjoyed with her: What wond’rous 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 Nectaren, and curious Peach, Into my hands themselves do reach; Stumbling on Melons, as I pass, Insnar’d with Flow’rs, I fall on Grass. 33-40 Nowhere in Marvell has ambivalence been used with greater subtlety and effectiveness.
The scene is primarily a description of the Garden of Eden before Eve. It also describes the same garden after the Fall. And thirdly, it shows the superiority of the first scene over the second without any explicit statement. That this is the garden after the Fall can easily be seen if we recognize the sexual connotations of the imagery. (The use of fruits and flowers as sexual symbols has been pointed out by numerous critics, including William Empson and Milton Klonsky.) In this context all the sensuous pleasures are evil. The “Grass,” as we have mentioned in a previous chapter, is the flesh. When he stumbles “on Melons” (which is the Greek for apples), is “Insnar’d with Flow’rs,” and falls ” on Grass,” he is falling into carnal sin.
But we have said that this is primarily a description of “that happy Garden-state.” This is where love has made “his best retreat,” where Daphne has turned into a plant. Therefore the consequences of the Fall–sinful sexuality, labor, and death–should be absent. In this context the fruits are not the forbidden ones but those given man to enjoy for food and meat without labor or effort: “The Nectaren, and curious Peach/Into my hands themselves do reach.” This pristine Adam is completely passive. In this innocent state, his being “Insnar’d with Flow’rs” and falling “on Grass” should be taken literally. The “fall on Grass” is not a descent into hell, but an innocent, sensuous, altogether pleasant experience. Since Adam is not without sex, but contains both sexes within himself, the sexual connotations of the images are still present, but they are now perfectly innocent.
Daphne has turned into a laurel. Instead of the sinful sexuality which was to come with Eve, the fruits represent the sexuality which the androgynous Adam enjoyed in the garden. We now see that the sexual connotations are used only to show the superiority of the innocent pleasures. In the plants Marvell has found a symbol for passion with all of its pleasures and none of its pains. It is indeed a “wond’rous Life.”
Having shown that Apollo desired Daphne only as a laurel, that true passion is really enjoyed among the green plants, Marvell now attempts to transform sensible passion into Platonic ideas. In an age when Plato was the divine philosopher, when ancient philosophy (like the myths of Apollo and Daphne) was thought of not as conflicting with Christianity but as a pagan anticipation of Christian truth, it is not surprising that platonic ideas are used as a philosophical counterpart of the Garden of Eden.
14 In the Plotinian cosmology, the World Soul extends throughout the entire universe, even to the vegetative and generative forces in nature and man. So far, according to this cosmology, the poem has taken place in the lowest parts of the World Soul. But above this World Soul is the Mind, or Intellectual Principle. Only “The better part of the soul . . . is winged for the Intellectual act” Enneads, II,34.. The lower orders of existence, such as the plants, can attain pleasure; but happiness, since it requires reason, can only be found in the mind: Mean while the Mind, from pleasure less, Withdraws into its happiness: The Mind, that Ocean where each kind Does streight its own resemblance find; 41-44 In Plato, for every class of objects there is an Idea of that object.
These Ideas, since they are not dependent on any one mind, may be said to exist in a Universal Mind. Therefore, like the sea, which in medieval legend contained replicas of all the plants and animals which could be found on earth the mind contains an idea of “each kind” or class of earthly objects. But once those sensible objects get into the mind, they are no longer sensible objects but ideas, or thoughts. Plato’s lover, “contemplating the vast sea of beauty . . . will create many fair and noble thoughts and notions in the boundless love of wisdom” Symposium, 210.: Yet it creates, transcending these, Far other Worlds, and other Seas; Annihilating all that’s made To a green Thought in a green shade.
45-48 This transformation of a sensible object into a thought is also in accordance with neo-Platonic philosophy. It is only in the world of becoming that there is a difference between the process of thinking and that which is thought. In immaterial objects, however, according to Plotinus, “the knowledge is identical with the thing, the immaterial thing being an intellectual object is also a thought.”15 Having become a thought, freed from any connection with the senses, “all that’s made” in this world–including passionate desire–becomes good, innocent, or “green.” The “Shade,” for the seventeenth century, was the soul or spirit after it was freed from the body; and it is, therefore, also innocent.
Human passion, which in the Garden of Eden was exemplified by a green plant, becomes in this Platonic “Mind” a “green Thought in a green Shade.” But Marvell uses these Platonic and neo-Platonic concepts to express a very un-Platonic attitude, In Plotinus, to achieve “its proper act and End. . . . The Final Disengagement,” the soul “must hold itself above all passions and affections.” “The Soul leaves the natural world and busies itself elsewhere” I,2.5. But since we are in the Garden of Eden, the soul can disengage itself here below, in the innocent vegetative order. In the Phaedrus the soul–which has only been recently separated from the divine world of true being, “in our state of innocence before we had any experience of evils to come”–becomes winged for a higher flight: 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. 53-56 The “various Light” recalls the lights in Genesis which measure time: “And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years” 1:14. Since there is no death in this state of innocence, or even labor, the soul is not afraid of time. The lights which “divide the day from the night” which are “for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years,” do not mark the soul’s journey toward death. The natural garden, transformed into an ideal garden, is eternal; and the soul oblivious of time, “Waves in its Plumes the various Light.” But all this took place before God had found a “helpmeet” for Adam.
And in the next stanza we are reminded that this state of innocence has passed: 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! 57-60 It was “beyond a Mortal’s share” to live alone and contain two sexes in one body: But ’twas beyond a Mortal’s share To wander solitary there: Two Paradise ’twere in one To live in Paradise alone. 61-64 The poem now comes into a clearer perspective. The garden is the Garden of Innocence; it is the place where man “walk’d without a Mate.” But the poet who is looking at it, although he can imagine himself to be the innocent Adam, knows all along that he is the fallen Adam. Because he is both Adams, he can make “The Garden” a microcosm of the sinful world was well as a symbol of Eden.
That is why the laurel in the first stanza can represent both the “green” innocent plants and the futility of human fame and why the fruits in the fifth stanza represent both innocence and sexuality. Although in the final stanza Marvell again describes the innocence that preceded the Fall, it is innocence as seen by a poet who is entirely aware of the consequences of that Fall: How well the skillful Gardner drew Of flow’rs and herbes this Dial new; Where from above the milder Sun Does through a fragrant Zodiack run; And, as it works, th’ industries Bee Computes its time as well as we. 65-70 Again this scene, like the entire poem, can be read as a simple description of perfect innocence and peace.
But, the perfect state makes us recognize the fallen state also. The “industrious Bee” recalls the “uncessant Labours” of men in the first stanza; and the sundial, fragrant though it may be, measures the path of the sun which reminds us of the “short and narrow verged Shade.” The garden is the natural garden of fallen man as well as Eden. The ecstatic moment has passed, the soul has returned to the body, but neither the poet nor the garden is quite the same after such an experience: “How could such sweet and wholsome Hours/Be reckon’d but with herbs and flow’rs!” We are outside of time and within time, participating in the world before us and withdrawing into complete passivity–all at the same time.
It is, in every sense of the word, a “wond’rous Life.” As in all good poetry, the poem tries to create in the minds of the reader the effect that it describes. Vivid images and simple actions, or rather lack of action, create the effect of simplicity which is part of the pristine state being described. The passivity is further emphasized by the slow, regular rhythm, in contrast to the rapid, headlong pace of “To his Coy Mistress.” (It is hard to believe that the meter and the rhyme scheme are the same in both poems, so strong are the contrasts that Marvell has made in rhythm and diction.) At the same time the depth of meaning in every stanza and the many references to philosophy and legend involve us in the contemplative activity which balances the passivity of the body.
Our minds do not have to move quickly, as they do in the love poems; but, as befitting the activity of contemplation, we have to allow the images to sink in slowly, allowing them to act on our unconscious. They may be compared to those images which Yeats describes in “Byzantium”: “images that yet/Fresh images beget.” The penetrating and suggestive quality of the images gives the poem its distinctive tone, and ultimately, it is this quality that accounts for the poem being considered one of the great lyrics in English literature.
The complex intellectual and mythical strands would not make the poem what it is if Marvell had only translated these concepts into concrete images. As we have tried to show, conventional ideas and feelings may have gone into the poem, and scholars can, at least in theory, identify them all. But–and this point is one that is easily forgotten–we can never, even theoretically, identify completely what comes out of the poem. Not only does the poem create a pattern which is distinctive and therefore different from its sources, but it creates in the reader an ever-changing series of responses.
This ability of any fully created work of art to have its own life explains, to some extent, why constant reinterpretations of certain literary works occur. Scholars and critics can tell us what went into the poem and what effect the poem has on them. And these are both important functions. But if he reads the poem often, a reader cannot prevent the images, rhythm, and the pattern from creating responses within him that go beyond any philosophic concepts. Notes and References 1. Jowett translation,