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Many poets draw on the theme of nature to symbolize the message they are trying to convey. In many cases, nature is juxtaposed with artistic design to emphasize the conflict or the relationship between the natural and the human worlds. Millar Maclure clarifies the distinction between nature and art as follows: “nature as what is given, the universal order of creation, including human nature, and art as what is made, what man makes.” He futher explains, “it is also proper to speak of nature as the art or ‘signature’ of God, and of art as the distinguishing quality or evidence of man’s nature.” This conflict between nature and art is often designed as an allegory by authors of poetry to communicate their opinion on society. Both Edmund Spenser (1522-1599) and Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) explore the idea of nature (and art) in their poetry, in order to present a moral as well as a historical lesson.
The works compared in this essay are Book 1 and part of Book 2 (“The Bower of Bliss” episode) of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House: To My Lord Fairfax.” The Faerie Queene, Spenser’s longest and greatest work, was published in two parts, the first in 1590 and the second in 1596. He himself describes his work as “a continued Allegory, or darke conceit,” thus alerting the reader to look beyond the literal meaning of the text. Susanne Wofford explains that Spenser uses external events and places to convey the characters’ internal consciousness; “the landscape of Spenser’s poem is a psychological one: many of its places and commonplaces represent spiritual or emotional aspects of the characters themselves. To learn how to read Spenser’s poem,” she writes, “is to learn that everything – a person in a story, a house, a tree or a giant – can represent an aspect of the hero or heroine’s own psyche.” Even though Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” (1651) is not a “continued allegory” it is filled with allegories referring to England and with a deep relation to the scriptures. “In the poem’s rich symbolism, biblical events – Eden, the first temptation, the Fall, the wilderness experience of the Israelites – find echoes in the experience of the Fairfax family, the speaker, the history of the English Reformation, and the wanton destruction of the recent Civil Wars.” In this essay, I will primarily be examining three aspects of both poems: the relationship between nature and art, the effect of female beauty on nature, and the reference to the Garden of Eden.
In these poems, Spenser and Marvell take their reader on a journey through various landscapes and sceneries, each of which bears a different meaning and contributes to the implication of the plot. These works are not only adventurous, but are also instructional, both for the characters and for the reader. Spenser uses the imagery of gardens and buildings with the intention of reflecting “Renaissance pictorial and architectural display. His architecture and his horticulture are presented precisely and symbolically while his untamed forests, his thickets, plains, and pastures remain vague (if no less symbolic).” Both nature and art are prominent in Spenser’s work, and they both serve the same symbolical purpose. “The generall end therefore of all the booke,” writes Spenser in his letter to Sir Walter Raleigh, which accompanied the first edition of The Faerie Queene, “is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.” Hence, it is intended to educate in a honorable and creditable fashion worthy of a good Christian. The same religious character and intention can be found in Marvell’s poetry. Joseph Summers states that in Marvell’s “poems nature apart from man is usually ‘green,’ vital, fecund, and triumphant. Since it affirms life it is, as part of the divine plan, ‘good,’ but its goodness is neither available nor quite comprehensible to man…Since his alienation with the departure from Eden, man can only live in nature either as its observer or its destroyer.” That might be one of the reasons why man starts imitating nature. In “Upon Appleton House,” however, there is one person who is not only observing nature, but is also capable of adding to its beauty. Still, Marvell, like Spenser, uses natural imagery to express his view of history and religion.
The first point of comparison in these two poems is the relationship between nature and art, and its implications for society. Nature and art are often personified to emphasize the tension that exists between them. In Book II of The Faerie Queene, the Bower of Bliss is an artful place that has imitated nature to the extent that it might seem real, but the author gives clear hints as to its artifice:
Thus being entred, they behold around
A large and spacious plaine, on every side
Strowed with pleasauns, whose faire grassy ground
Mantled with green, and goodly beautifide
With all the ornaments of Floraes pride,
Wherewith her mother Art, as halfe in scorne
Of niggard Nature, like a pompous bride
Did decke her, and too lavishly adorne,
When forth from virgin bowre she comes in th’early morne. (II, vii, 50)
This stanza starts off with a picturesque description of the plain, but as the lines progress it becomes clear that it is not the work of “Nature,” but that it is “mother Art” who has beautified it all “too lavishly.” Nature is cast off as a “niggard” by Art, and she has made the plain look like a “pompous bride,” which, eventually, is too much of a good thing. Another scene of conflict between nature and art can be found in stanza 59:
One would have thought (so cunningly, the rude,
And scornèd parts were mingled with the fine)
That nature had for wantonesse ensued
Art, and that Art at nature did repine;
So striving each th’other to undermine,
Each did the others worke more beautifie;
So diff’ring both in willes, agreed in fine:
So all agreed through sweete diversitie,
This Garden to adorne with all varietie. (II, vii)
Nature and Art seem to be competing to see who the best creator is, but as a result of this battle, no one notices the “rude and scornèd part” that are “mingled with the fine.” Although they are not of the same mind, they end up agreeing in “sweete diversitie.” In the place where, fundamentally, nature should rule, there is a mixture of nature and art, and it is not clear where one starts and the other ends. All creatures and objects in this garden “like” something from nature, “as if” they belong there and “seem” authentic, but they merely “resemble” the natural world. Words like these dominate this passage of the Bower of Bliss, and with these Spenser hints at the corruption of art, the unnatural, the ungodly.
In the opening lines of “Upon Appleton House,” Marvell contrasts the natural character of the Fairfax house with the works of “foreign Architect[s]” (l. 2). Nature rules this house which is not ostentatious, but a place where “all things are composed…Like Nature, orderly and near” (ll. 25-6). In stanza 2, Marvell compares human architecture to natural design:
Why should of all things man unruled
Such unproportioned dwellings build?
The beasts are by their dens exprest,
And birds contrive an equal nest;
The low-roofed tortoises do dwell
In cases fit of tortoise-shell:
No creature loves an empty space;
Their bodies measure out their place.
Like the builders of the Tower of Babel, man is trying to surpass the work of God, and “thinks by breadth the world t’unite” (l. 24). The first group, of course, failed miserably in their mission, and God punished them for thinking they could measure up to Him. Consequently, nature, God’s creation, is superior to human art. Marvell too, personifies nature and art in his poem:
But Nature here hath been so free
As if she said, Leave this to me.
Art would more neatly have defaced
What she had laid so sweetly waste;
In fragrant gardens, shady woods,
Deep meadows, and transparent floods. (st. 10)
If she gets the chance, Art will defile Natures work in “gardens,” “woods,” “meadows” and “floods,” but not none of this happens at the Fairfax estate. Like Spenser, Marvell depicts nature as “good” and art as generally “bad,” but whereas Marvell’s nature is able to stand against the forces of art, Spenser’s nature has to compromise with the dominating character of art.
The second point of comparison is the effect of female beauty on her natural surroundings. In the first book of The Faerie Queene, Una’s beauty is revealed every time she removes the veil from her face:
Her angels face
As the great eye of heaven shynèd bright,
And made a sunshine in the shadie place;
Did never mortall eye behold such heavenly grace. (I, iii, 4)
It seems that even the sun is affected by Una’s “angels face” as it lights up the “shadie place” where Una is resting. When a “ramping Lyon” (l. 38) rushes “out of the thickest wood” (l. 37) obviously intending to devour her, he too is amazed at her sight and instead of attacking her, the beast kisses “her wearie feet” (l. 46). The lion, the king of the animal kingdom, surrenders to Una, and decides to protect her on her journey. This wild creature from the forest rejects his innate nature when he comes face to face with this “heavenly grace.” Later, in canto 6, Una is rescued from Sans Lou by a group of “wyld woodgods” (l. 73) who “stand astonied at her beautie bright, | In their rude eyes unworthie of so wofull plight” (ll. 80-1). They too “kisse her feete” (l. 108) and “worship her, as Queene,” but when she tries to put a stop to their idolatry of her, “they her Asse would worship fayn” (l. 171). Even though these mystical creatures do not represent nature in this poem, they do show the same natural reaction as nature to her beauty and grace. In a similar way, Mary Fairfax affects her natural surroundings in Marvell’s poem. At the end of the poem, writes Andrew Sanders, “[t]here is a firm return to the idea embodied by the house and its a occupants as Fairfax’s daughter is presented as the auspicious restorer of a limited earthly paradise, much as her father may still be to the country at large”:
‘Tis she that to these gardens gave
That wondrous beauty which they have;
She straightness on the woods bestows;
To her the meadow sweetness owes;
Nothing could make the river be
So crystal-pure but only she;
She yet more pure, sweet, straight, and fair,
Than gardens, woods, meads, rivers are.
Therefore what first she on them spent,
They gratefully again present:
The meadow, carpets where to tread;
The garden, flow’rs to crown her head;
And for her glass, the limpid brook,
Where she may all her beauties look;
But, since she would not have them seen,
The wood about her draws a screen. (st. 87-88)
Nature is exalted throughout the poem, but Mary’s beauty even exceeds the natural beauty of Nunappleton. In fact, she is the cause of “that wondrous beauty,” and like the kingfisher, she “Admiring Nature does benumb” (l. 672); that is, she controls the elements around her. Both Mary and Una try to hide their appearances from the outside world, probably because they know the power that lies in it. It is not only the outward beauty of these women that the poets are concerned with; their inward beauty reveals that they are indeed moderate and excellent creatures.
Both Spenser and Marvell make use of historical and biblical allegories to put a deeper meaning in their poetry, and each of them draws on the image of Paradise, the third point of comparison, to expose the sinfulness of man. Sanders explains the role of nature (and art) in Spenser’s allegories: “Where Spenser’s landscapes tend to be generalized, his buildings are solid and spatially imagined and his formal gardens are ordered and ornamentally planted. Each is the occasion of a knightly sojourn, temptation, distraction, or recuperation, but each also helps to stabilize the foundations from which the poem’s allegory rises.” The description of the Bower of Bliss seems to recall that of the Garden of Eden before the fall of man:
The joyous birds shrouded in chearefull shade,
Their notes unto the voice attempred sweet;
Th’Angelicall soft trembling voyces made
To th’instruments divine respondence meet;
With the base murmere of the waters fall:
The waters fall with difference discreet,
Now soft, now loud, unto the wind did call:
The gentle warbling wind low answerèd to all. (II, xii, 71)
Looks, however, can be deceiving, and they certainly are in this case. The following stanza depicts Acrasia in the middle of the bower, enjoying an immoral life:
There, whence that Musick seemèd heard to bee,
Was the faire Witch here selfe now solacing,
With a New Lover, whom through sorceree
And witchcraft, she from farre did thither bring:
There she had him now layd a slombering,
In secret shade, after long wanton joyes:
Whilst round about them pleasauntly did sing
Many faire Ladies, and lascivious boyes,
That ever mixt their song with light licentious toyes. (II, xii, 72)
Paradise is corrupted by sin, but its deceiving appearances might be appealing to onlookers. However, Sir Guyon, the knight of Temperance, is able to see through this deception, and destroys the Bower of Bliss:
But all those pleasant bowres and Pallace brave,
Guyon broke downe, with rigour pittilesse;
Ne ought their goodly workmanship might save
Them from the tempest of his wrathfulnesse,
But that their blisse he turn’d to balefulnesse:
Their groves he feld, their gardins did deface,
Their arbers spoyle, their Cabinets suppresse,
Their banket houses burne, their buildings race,
And of the fairest late, now made the fowlest place. (II, xii, 83)
The artificial nature in the garden is destroyed by Guyon, and there can be no mistake about the allegory here: when practising temperance and self-control, man can overcome lust and desire. Marvell’s garden is not artificial, but it has been tainted by sin as much as Spenser’s:
O thou, that dear and happy isle
The garden of the world ere while,
Thou Paradise of four seas,
Which Heaven planted us to please,
But, to exclude the world, did guard
With wat’ry if not flaming sword;
What luckless apple did we taste,
To make us mortal, and thee waste? (st. 41)
This stanza actually contains two allegories; a biblical one referring to the lost Paradise, the Garden of Eden (which is now guarded with a “flaming sword,” as a consequence of human sin), and a historical one referring to that “dear and happy isle” of fallen England, devastated by the Civil War as a result of Thomas Fairfax’s retirement as gardener of this paradise. Like The Faerie Queene, this poem points to the devastating results of a sinful life, but where the Bower of Bliss is destroyed, Nunappleton remains “Heaven’s Center, Nature’s Lap, | And Paradise’s only Map” (ll. 767-8).
In summary, Edmund Spenser describes a competitive relationship between nature and art in The Faerie Queene in which art seems to have the upper hand, but where nature is depicted as “good.” Andrew Marvell, on the other hand, draws a picture of a very “natural” art at Nunappleton, where nature is victorious over art. Further, external and internal female beauty, embodied in Una and Mary Fairfax, affect the natural surroundings. Both women represent grace, and nature can only react in one way: with worship and submission. Finally, Spenser’s Garden of Eden is an illusion of artificial nature trying to imitate Paradise while it is in fact its antipode, while Marvell’s fallen Paradise is resurrected on that small piece of Thomas Fairfax’s land. Ultimately, these poems reveal that the line between “nature as what is given, the universal order of creation” and “art as what is made, what man makes” is a very thin one.
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