Marvell’s Gardens: A Reading of The Mower Against Gardens and The Garden: [Essay Example], 2215 words GradesFixer
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Marvell’s Gardens: a Reading of the Mower Against Gardens and the Garden

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For both “The Mower Against Gardens” and “The Garden”, the primary terms in opposition are the same: the world of nature, the world of men. The former is a realm of leisure, the latter of ceaseless, pointless toil. And yet the status granted to the garden in one poem is directly contrary to that granted in the other: for “The Mower Against Gardens”, the garden is the locus of human labor (and perversion), it is at the heart of the world of men. The scene of “The Garden,” by contrast, is one of leisure, solitude, and nature’s fecundity. The relationship between the two poems is more complicated than the mere opposition suggested by their titles: while the terms of the argument are constant between them, the value granted them shifts; the status of labor, leisure, and nature is different in each. Also different, I will argue, is the tone of the poems: one seems earnest in its argument, while the other is self-mocking.

The argument of “The Mower Against Gardens” falls into three parts. The first (ll. 1-22) is by far the longest, and presents in its first sentence the opposed terms of its argument. In the very first word, we find the poem’s moral verdict:

Luxurious man, to bring his vice in use,

Did after him the world seduce,

And from the fields the flowers and plants allure,

Where nature was most plain and pure.

On one hand is “Luxurious man”; on the other, “world”, “Fields…flowers and plants”, and “nature.” The terms of condemnation are bald (“Luxurious,” “vice”), but the statement of the offense is more subtle: it is not the practice of man’s vice that corrupts the world, but rather his determination to “seduce” the world to follow his vice, his need to make nature into a mirror for himself. This is a familiar moralizing argument: the real danger of vice is not individual practice, but rather the transmission of that practice to others. In this passage, such transmission occurs through careful perversion of the environment (“And a more luscious earth for them did knead, / Which stupefied them”), and its effects are precisely as desired: “The pink grew then as double as his mind” – the tainted man can see his image in the world he has made around him. “Double” is a curious adjective, implying self-division, inner conflict, a straining against nature: aspects of man’s state after the Fall (the earliest Christian word for the post-lapsarian state makes clear this aspect: dipsychia, double-souledness).

The examples of perversion presented in lines 9-18 concern accidental rather than essential properties: scent, color, and value in terms of both money and labor. The examples found in lines 11-14 aim their condemnation at specifically female (and perhaps largely courtly) acts of self-adornment: “perfume”, “paint”, “interline its cheek”. (I take the last in the sense of the OED’s fifth definition, “To mark with lines, esp. of various colours”; the texts cited are comfortably 17th-century.) This is the first instance of an argumentative thread common to both poems, and which is especially strong in “The Garden”: a reviling of sexual pursuit and the (non-auto) erotic life. Lines 15-19 turn from personal vanity to economic waste: a meadow sold for a tulip, the toil and risk of exploration for “the Marvel of Peru” (the discovery of “another world” is merely a happy coincidence).

A shift occurs in line 19 (“And yet”), beginning the second section of the poem (to line 31). Lines 19-22 make a conciliatory gesture, and then dramatically intensify the poem’s condemnation:

And yet these rarities might be allowed

To man, that sovereign thing and proud,

Had he not dealt between the bark and tree,

Forbidden mixtures there to see.

If in the first movement of the poem there is a sense of perversion, a willful straying from nature, with line 22 a new sense of transgression is introduced. “Forbidden” implies not only moral laxity or lapse; it implies law, a concrete statute, the breaking of which invokes punishment from an authority higher than man, however “sovereign”. Unlike the adornments of lines 9-18, which concern only the addition or alteration of accidental properties, in lines 21-30 it is the essence of things that is altered, with ensuing chaos: “No plant now knew the stock from which it came; / He grafts upon the wild the tame.” This transgression, the result of which is a loss of origins, is made more grievous because it is frivolous, intended not even to delight “the palate”, but merely to “put [it] in dispute”. Not even pleasure governs man’s appetite; novelty is all. With the entrance of “his green seraglio” there is a suggestion not only of the exotic but of the heathen; man’s perversion has become a religious transgression.

With the new terms of the argument, however, the poem has backed itself into a corner. With the transgression of law must come punishment, and none seems forthcoming. Indeed, man seems able to fulfill his wishes (however empty) in their entirety: he’s perfectly capable of vexing nature (l.29), and the word “forbidden”, so effective at heightening the force of the poem’s invective, begins to ring hollow. The poem responds to this dilemma by shifting its strategy entirely; in its third and final section, from line 31, the poem turns from damning the world of men to praising the world of nature, and the implied terms of disparagement switch from condemnation to pity. Man needn’t work so hard for satisfaction; in “the sweet fields”, “willing Nature does to all dispense / A wild and fragrant innocence.” If he gave over his perverse love of the exotic, man would find his needs met almost entirely without toil: “And fauns and fairies do the meadows till / More by their presence than their skill.” Finally, man’s punishment is one of self-imposed deprivation; however beautiful his creations, they lack real substance: “howsoe’er the figures do excel, / The Gods themselves with us do dwell.”

The beginning of “The Garden” seems to take up this argument seamlessly: “How vainly men themselves amaze / To win the palm, the oak, or bays.” Again, the inutility of labor is denigrated in favor of the leisured enjoyment of nature: the little crowns won by man’s great effort can’t even provide adequate shade, while “all flowers and all trees do close / To weave the garlands of repose.” Like the mower poem, “The Garden” follows a three-part structure. In the first four stanzas, the virtues of the garden are proved through comparison with the trials (and supposed pleasures) of the world of men. As he compares the two worlds, the speaker seems to fully inhabit neither, and his praise of the garden is mitigated, in the second stanza, by doubt: “Fair Quiet, have I found thee here, / And Innocence, thy sister dear?” In the very stanza that should establish the garden’s virtues, the speaker can’t even be certain that those virtues exist: “Your sacred plants, if here below, / Only among the plants will grow.”

As in “The Mower Against Gardens”, the polemic has a sexual edge; in the third and fourth stanzas the pleasures of (human) erotic pursuit are found decidedly wanting when compared to the pleasures of the garden. Importantly, though, the pleasures compared are of a kind: “No white nor red was ever seen / So amorous as this lovely green.” The erotic is not rejected in “The Garden”, but merely takes a different (and decidedly odd) object: “Fair trees, wheresoe’er your barks I wound, / No name shall but your own be found.” This conceit provides the poem with its finest display of wit: far from foiled by the metamorphoses of their quarry, Apollo and Pan were after the plants all along. It also, however, leads the poem into the second section (the three stanzas from l. 33), which disrupts the speaker’s former credibility by introducing elements that make “The Garden” a poem impossible to read straight.

The three stanzas of the second section address the pleasures of the body, the mind, and the soul as they are gratified in the garden. “What wondrous life is this I lead!” the speaker exults: there’s no longer any trace of the uncertainty found in the poem’s second stanza, nor is there any presence – even rhetorically – of the world outside the garden. As with the “sweet fields” of the earlier poem, gratification requires little or no action on the part of the speaker:

Ripe apples drop about my head;

The luscious clusters of the vine

Upon my mouth do crush their wine;

The nectarine and curious peach

Into my hands themselves do reach…

Already this seems suspect: “luscious” was a word of denigration in the mower poem, and what’s described here isn’t easeful subsistence, but rather gluttony. The final lines of the stanza clarify the detrimental effects: “Stumbling on melons, as I pass, / Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.” The negative cast of the following stanzas becomes even starker: in stanza six, the mind “Withdraws into its happiness”, rejecting the possibility of interaction with the real world (“The mind, that ocean where each kind / Does straight its own resemblance find”) for an entirely imagined creation. Lest we think this a salutary use of the imagination, the poem underscores it as destructive: “Annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade.” Even as the soul is transformed into a singing bird in stanza seven, the pointlessness of the speaker’s leisure is as pronounced as the inutility of labor in the mower poem: “And, till prepared for longer flight, / Waves in its plumes the various light.” One is correct, I think, in doubting the advent of this “longer flight”; the movement from body to soul has been less an ascension than a stupor.

Having arrived at the soul, the only intensification possible in the poem’s third section (from stanza 9) is a gesture to Paradise. The retreat to the garden is a rejection of the entire world and society, and what is presented as a validating gesture defeats itself – the state of satisfaction (or stupor) of the speaker is doomed to be short-lived, as it presumes a greater privilege than is granted to “a mortal’s share”. (By so entirely rejecting society, this stanza extends the poem’s striking anti-erotic posture: were man truly perfect, even in a prelapsarian state, he would be allowed full autonomy, free from the cloying necessities of sex and procreation; nor would he desire any Miltonic “apt and cheerful conversation”.) The poem’s closing stanza, with its image of the flower dial, underscores this fleetingness: “How could such sweet and wholesome hours / Be reckoned but with herbs and flowers?” Herbs and flowers are transient, quickly wilting things, unsustainable through seasons; the sojourn in the garden must be similarly transient.

It is tempting to see these two poems as an easy pair, with “The Garden” merely embodying those vices railed against by the mower. However, the relationship is not quite so neat. The poems’ speakers are not clear opposites: both feel an antipathy for the world of men, both denigrate a seemingly vain labor, and both praise the natural world (though it is important that the word “nature” does not appear in “The Garden”, while in the mower poem it is a capitalized entity). The gardens described in the poems (though both, as noted above, are “luscious”) are not precisely the same, and there’s no suggestion of innovation or labor in the fruits of “The Garden”: none is the product of grafting, none is imported from “another world”. Most importantly, “The Mower Against Gardens” seems to me a fundamentally earnest poem, lamenting a tendency to be dissatisfied with the common and known, and to prefer a profligate search for novelty. In its depiction of drunken stupor, and its acknowledgment of the unsustainability of its vision, on the other hand, “The Garden” takes on a tone of self-mockery.

The source of these differences may lie in the poems’ diverging conceptions of “labor” and “leisure”. The mower disparages needless scientific innovation, a vexing of nature with no real end; the speaker of “The Garden” dismisses poetry, sport, and civic duty (at least two of which we know to have been among Marvell’s endeavors). The leisure of the mower is not sloth: his very title indicates labor, and the ease granted by “willing nature” is not gluttony but an effort harmonious with nature, toward necessary ends. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the pitch of the poems’ rejection of the world of men is decidedly different. The mower rejects the social world not in the abstract, but in its particular incarnation; there’s nothing in “a wild and fragrant innocence” that requires solitude, and the mower seems to long for the repopulation of “the sweet fields [that] lie forgot.” The speaker in “The Garden”, by contrast, desires an utter break with society, a rejection of all labor and all duty. The tone of the poem and the ridiculousness of its drunkenly stumbling speaker, I think, deflate the desirability of so perfect a severance from the human world.

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Marvell’s Gardens: A Reading of The Mower Against Gardens and The Garden. (2018, Jun 17). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 15, 2021, from
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