The Garden (poem)
How vainly men themselves amaze
"The Garden", by Andrew Marvell, is one of the most famous English poems of the seventeenth century.
Marvell recast much of his poem in Latin, "Hortus", printed to follow "The Garden" in the 1681 posthumous Miscellaneous Poems:
Quisnam adeo, mortale genus, præcorda versat?
Heu Palmæ Laurique furor, vel simplicis Herbæ!...
- The vanity of earthly endeavors is set forth in the first words, introducing the contrast between the sensuous solitude of the garden and the fruitless labyrinth ("amaze" still retained its "maze" connotations) of the busy labours of the world; the contrast, to the Garden's advantage, occupies the first five stanzas.
- The palm frond rewarding martyrs, the oak wreath conquerors, the Laurel wreath poets.
- The contrasted virtues of the Active and the Contemplative Life have been examined since Antiquity.
- The fruits of quiet and innocence, in this world, thrive best in a garden.
- The nymph Daphne escaped Apollo's pursuit by becoming the Laurel, from which he wove his crowning wreath; Marvell asserts that it was precisely as a tree that the god valued her.
- Syrinx, escaped from goatlike Pan in the form of a reed, from whose hollow stem the nature spirit fashioned his pan pipes.
- Charles Lamb, in his essay "The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple", quoted this line as "What wond'rous life is this I lead!" and it is found quoted as often as Marvell's original.
- Embedded in one of the most luxuriant couplets in English poetry are the darker reminders of "insnared" and "fall", inexorably recalling a greater Entrapment and Fall in a Garden.
- Here is the volta, the turning in the train of thought, in this case towards the further withdrawal of internal reflection and mystical annihilation of Self: compare the seventeenth-century philosophy of Quietism.
- In the history of ideas, the concept that in a perfect, and therefore symmetrical Creation, each creature of the earth found its counterpart in the sea had a long career; it had been firmly dismissed by Sir Thomas Browne, in Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) in which one of the "Vulgar errors" is "that all Animals of the Land, are in their Kinde in the Sea"; even exploded philosophy was grist to Marvell's metaphysical wit.
- Eleanor Perenyi titled her book of ruminative garden essays, Green Thoughts (New York: Random House) 1981.
- "But the principal clue to Marvell's nature-mystique lies, I think, in the obsession that green had for him," wrote Vita Sackville-West, poet and gardener. "He used it in and out of season, moreover he supplemented it by constant references to shade and shadow, which were all part of the same line of thought. Marvell was highly sensitive to colour—an argument which could be substantiated by numerous instances;— all variations of light and shade were to him a perpetual delight; but of all colours it was green that enchanted him most; the world of his mind was a glaucous world, as though he lived in a coppice, stippled with sunlight and alive with moving shadows" (quoted MacDonald xxix-xxx).
- The poem climaxes in an image of mystical iridescence ("the various Light") that transcends attempts to parse the grammar of its logic, as if the reader were to ask "what is actually waved?"
- This next-to-last stanza is a falling action evoking the unattainable original solitary bliss, in a wistful minor-key cadence that is resolved, as if in music, with the concrete last image of the final stanza, set once again in the external garden of here-and-now.
- The conceit, of a planted circle of flowers that would open sequentially during the daylight hours and into the night has entertained armchair gardeners ever since; Carolus Linnaeus contrived a dial planting of forty-six flowers, Hugh MacDonald noted (MacDonald, p. note p. 173).
- The sun's circuit of the day in this charmed, "milder" and "fragrant" but once again perfectly real garden setting, is assimilated to the solar circuit of the year, as Time, which has been held in suspension, begins again.
- The last couplet has become a standard sundial inscription.
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