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Andrew Marvell’s Mower Against the Garden is the first in a series of four ‘Garden’ poems. The poem can be read literally, as a pastoral, ecological poem concerned with the destruction of the natural landscape as a result of human consumerism; in particular the fashion for highly ornate, architectural gardens. This is an easy assumption to make when taking Marvell’s personal background into account. Marvell grew up in rural Yorkshire, the son of a clergyman and later resided at Nun Appleton House as a tutor to Lord Fairfax’s daughter. It is therefore a fair assumption to make that he would be familiar with high lifestyle and possibly be concerned enough to have an opinion on ecological consequences. However, if we regard Marvell as a metaphysical poet, as he is credited to be, we realise there are Edenic references. Mira Sengupta’s interpretation of the poem argues that we have to read the poem as a metaphorical allegory for the fall of humankind, and that the assumption that the garden represents nature is “overly simplistic” and that it represents human nature before the fall .
Marvell’s structuring of the poem supports Sengupta’s argument. While the poem is seemingly non-stanzaic there is a clearly defined structure. The poem is made of three sections. The structure of the first two sections is identical, four quatrains which are each made up of a complete sentence, followed by a couplet. The third section is made of one quatrain. The quatrain structure, combined with the fact that the poem is of a series of four could support the pastoral argument, representing the four seasons however the three part structure is comparable to an academic argument – introduction, body and conclusion – which supports Sengupta’s argument. The poem is structured to argue whereas simple pastoral poems are for the most part descriptive poems.
The rhyme and rhythm of the poem strengthen the argument. The poem is constructed of rhyming couplets that follow an AA, BB, CC, DD, through to TT pattern. The first line of each couplet is written in iambic pentameter and the second in iambic tetrameter. The effect this has is that the first line of each couplet makes a statement and the second line supports it. The meter used makes speech natural and is a similar rhythm to the human heartbeat, which makes the poem flow when read aloud, and that is the point – the poem was written to be heard, not read.
The poem’s syntax is particularly interesting. Sengupta puts significance on the shift from ‘he’ to ‘them’ in the first seven lines as evidence of the Adam and Eve allegory. While she makes a strong case with which I agree, I believe she overlooks more obvious signs, which are Marvell’s use of sexual metaphors. As Sengupta rightly points out, the inclusion of the words ‘vice’ and ‘seduce’ in the first two lines sets up the narrative trajectory of the poem. The sexual and sinful connotations are obvious, however it is Marvell’s use of ambiguous sexual metaphors that reinforce the argument. It is his references to, what on the surface are, normal flowers that I find particularly interesting.
The first flower he mentions is the carnation, the “pink” which “grew as double as his mind” l9. Is he referring here to a simple double-bloomed flower or something else? My interpretation is that because he [Adam] is no longer pure in mind due to the introduction of a “nutriment” l10 [Eve] his penis [pink] grew to twice its normal size – in short he was aroused. The next incidence of innocence having sexual connotations is the tulip, a peculiar flower that seems to represent the female lower form aesthetically yet is “overtly and precisely phallic’ according to the gardener Monty Don . Next he mentions the ‘Marvel of Peru’. This exotic flower was only a recent discovery at the time the poem was written and its properties again allude to sexuality. It has uses as an aphrodisiac and has the peculiar quality of being able to produce two different coloured blooms on the same plant.
The property that all these flowers have in common is duality or doubling in some form. The double pink head of the carnation, the aesthetic peculiarity of the tulip and the double-bloom potential of the Marvel of Peru. This dualistic reoccurrence ties them together neatly with the “cherry that does Nature vex” l29 – they are all potentially hermaphrodites. The carnation visually resembles the female sex organs yet in the poem it represents the phallus. The tulip, described by Jeanette Winterson as a “queer little flower” and, more significantly, she uses to represent sexual transformation, is aesthetically both sexes . The Marvel of Peru is a confirmed hermaphrodite, just like the cherry that can “procreate without a sex” l30. The cherry itself has sexual connotations, stones being a slang term for testicles when the poem was produced.
All this is relevant to the poems subject and Sengupta’s argument in that before the introduction of sex and desire in the ‘Garden [of Eden]’ Adam was also a hermaphrodite or at least sexless. Sengupta explains it thus;
‘with the influence of the Mower [mankind after the fall] the plants vex their own nature, because they no longer procreate as they were intended to (asexually)[…] instead of having sex the natural way, the fruits and plants[…] have learned to procreate by means of grafting […] the way humans do, with a partner.”
By using seemingly natural allegories Marvell succeeds in creating a poem that conveys itself initially as a straightforward pastoral poem with ecological undertones, however the underlying sexual allusions mean that the poem succeeds in doing exactly what he accuses the ‘Mower’ of doing; the introduction of the idea of sex and lust taints what was once pure and innocent.
Don, M (2005) My Roots, Great Britain: Hodder & Stoughton. Extract available at http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=koEnG1c3pVsC&pg=PT185&lpg=PT185&dq=phallic+tulip+meaning&source=bl&ots=3FYxb0QuHX&sig=7Yiiy3boNbBsvAr0C64lTQqnHdc&hl=en&sa=X&ei=FuAyU7SwD8KRhQe_2YC4BA&ved=0CFAQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=phallic%20tulip%20meaning&f=false
Douglas, E (2014) ‘That was a terrible thing to do to a flower: Floral Pleasures and Changeable Bodies Virginia Woolfs Orlando and Jeanette Wintersons The Powerbook’, , (), p14. [Online]. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/4854766/That_was_a_terrible_thing_to_do_to_a_flower_Floral_Pleasures_and_Changeable_Bodies_in_Virginia_Woolfs_Orlando_and_Jeanette_Wintersons_The_PowerBook (Accessed: 26/3/14).
Greenblatt (2012) ‘Andrew Marvell’, in Greenblatt (ed.) Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume B. New York: W.W Norton & Company, pp. 1789-1790.
Sengupta, M () Grafting The Texts: An Intertextual Reading of Marvell’s Mower and Garden Poems, Available at: http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/marvellsociety/newsletter/mira-m-sengupta-grafting-the-texts-an-intertextual-reading-of-marvells-mower-and-garden-poems/ (Accessed: 26/03/2014).
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