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Andrew Marvell: The Pastoral, Conveyed

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Andrew Marvell’s poetry exemplifies an ancient literary genre known as the pastoral. This genre, which dates back to the third century B.C.E., represents the values of the shepherd and rustic life. Marvell’s poems “The Garden” and “The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn” both embody the pastoral style, but they differ in the way they portray pastoral ideals. This essay analyzes their pastoral themes and color metaphors.

“The Garden” focuses on an abstract theme, far-fetched and yet typical for Marvell, who is renowned for his unique, metaphysical elaborations. In this poem, he compares the shade of a garden to a sanctuary, a place where one finds peace and enlightenment. Marvell begins this metaphor by criticizing material ambition. He argues that glory-seeking men compete in “uncessant labors” in order to be “crowned from some single herb or tree” (3, 4). These crowns, however, produce only a “narrow-verged shade” that cannot compare to the much more satisfying shade of “all the flowers and trees” in the vast garden (5, 7). Marvell is overwhelmingly intrigued with the garden’s ability to cultivate knowledge, and in the second stanza he further develops the theme of Nature’s superiority. He goes on to explain that “busy companies of men” cannot find “Fair Quiet” and “Innocence” in their vain business (12, 9, 10). Only in the garden, he suggests, can we discover these two personified ideals. “Quiet” and “Innocence,” in this context, represent the essential elements for clear thought and pure mind, thus enabling enlightenment (9, 10). Marvell argues that “Society is all but rude / to this delicious solitude” (15, 16). Here, Marvell formulates an interesting comparison. Choosing a physical sensation such as “delicious” to modify a nonphysical state such as “solitude” strangely suggests that the garden fosters both physical pleasure as well as incorporeal perceptions (16). This paradox demonstrates a pastoral concept of Nature’s ability to transcend the body and soul.

In contrast to “The Garden,” in which the pastoral theme is clearer, Marvell’s “Nymph” purposefully juxtaposes two conflicting ideas: an Edenic paradise problematized by an emphasis on momento mori, a reminder of one’s mortality. Marvell describes two falls from innocence. The first is of the nymph when she admits that her lover, whom she had not previously found “counterfeit,” “soon had me beguiled” (27, 34). Her seemingly paradisiacal love for “Unconstant Sylvio” had tarnished when he “Left his fawn, but took his heart” (25, 36). The second fall from innocence occurs as the “wanton troopers” shoot her fawn (1). The word “wanton” suggests the needlessness of killing the fawn; Marvell couples phrases such as “ungentle men” in order to establish a more dramatic fall from innocence, one caused by needless violence (1, 3).

The narrator of this elegy vividly recounts the Edenic scene before the fawn was killed: “Could so mine idle life have spent; / For it was full of sport, and light” (40, 41). Marvell then slowly transitions into a momento mori, raising an interesting question about the fate of innocence — not just of the fawn, but of every living thing:

…It seemed to bless

Itself in me; how could I less

Than love it? O, I cannot be

Unkind to a beast that loveth me.

Had it lived long I do not know

Whether it too might have done so

As Sylvio did… (43-49)

Here Marvell suggests a reversal of roles for the Nymph’s lover. Phrases such as “a beast that loveth me” and “seemed to bless / itself in me” both indicate the fawn has taken the place of Sylvio (46, 43). The nymph fears that the fawn, if given the chance to live long enough, would lose its innocence, as Sylvio did, and flee in wild passion. Through this question, Marvell begs us to consider a difficult scenario: since we live in a postlapsarian context, are all things fated to naturally lose their innocence? Even the things that we think are pure, like the fawn? Will they too fall victim to the temptations of the rosebush? The pastoral scene of the nymph and fawn is now problematized by two falls from innocence.

As is typical of Marvell, he includes a stretched metaphor involving colors to explain the dual existence of the fawn: innocent but driven by passion. He compares the white, pure innocence of a lily bed to the red, thorn-penetrating passion of a rosebush.

In the flaxen lilies’ shade,

It like a bank of lilies laid.

Upon the roses it would feed,

Until its lips e’en seem to bleed.

And its pure virgin limbs to fold

In whitest sheets of lilies cold;

Had it lived long, it would have been

Lilies without, roses within. (81-93)

The “lilies’ shade” shifts from peaceful innocence to passion when the fawn eats from the tempting red roses, allowing the thorns to pluck its virginity and stain its “lips” red (81, 85). Then the fawn’s “pure virgin limbs” fold, anticipating its fall from innocence (86). The last couplet, ending with “Lilies without, roses within,” suggests that even if the fawn had not been shot, its innocence would have been overcome naturally, as is the nature of all living things: “On roses thus itself to fill” (93, 88).

Contrary to this personification of red as passion and white as innocence, in “The Garden” Marvell introduces us to another color metaphor: “No white nor red was ever seen / so amorous as this lovely green” (17, 18). Marvell uses green in this poem to symbolize enlightenment, which is only achievable through the peacefulness of the garden shade. In this garden, the mind transcends materialistic reality. It possesses the unique power to imagine “far other worlds, and other seas” (46). If this counter-reality is true, some may ask: what is the world today but a picture of our imagination? Marvell assures us that the mind transcends what we think is reality, “annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade” (47, 48). Holding true to the metaphor, Marvell suggests that the only permanence is a fresh thought in a green garden. Thus, the only way we can maintain a prelapsarian happiness is to live with nature and embrace the green shade.

In both poems, Marvell portrays complex visions of the pastoral. “The Garden” serves to admire nature’s superiority, and the ability of the garden to cultivate intellectual growth. “The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn” considers innocence’s fate in a postlapsarian world. Both poems utilize extended color metaphors to personify ideals and human characteristics. Through these two poems, Marvell demonstrates his superior ability to weave metaphysical comparisons that challenge his readers and allow them to stretch their minds in order to see the pastoral through a wider — yet far more focused — lens.

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