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Spenser was twelve when Shakespeare was born, Shakespeare was eight when Donne was born, Donne was twenty-one when Herbert was born, Herbert was fifteen when Milton was born, Milton was thirteen when Marvell was born. Marvell was the last to die and with him the line came to an end.
The Garden, a meditation on innocence and solitude, owes something to each of them. It owes its setting to Spenser, its music to Shakespeare, its wit to Donne, its passion to Herbert, its humanity to Milton. Less well known than some of Marvell’s other poems, notably To His Coy Mistress (‘The grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace’), it has memorable lines of its own (‘A green thought in a green shade’, ‘Two paradises ’twere in one to live in paradise alone’) and at its heart something more profound.
Marvell was a master of the rhyming couplet, having learned from the others how rhythm and rhyme should work together. He knew how to vary the length of the syllables in his eight-syllable line – long in
While all flowers and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose
Society is all but rude
To this delicious solitude.
He knew how to make rhyme underline meaning instead of merely drawing attention to itself.
The difference between the iambic pentameter that Spenser laid down as the basic metre of English poetry –
Calm was the day, and through the trembling air
Sweet breathing Zephyrus did softly play
– and Marvell’s iambic octameter –
Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness
– is itself subtle. Without the rhyme, the metre would disappear altogether, as it does in Shakespeare’s later plays, where the length of line is infinitely variable and rhyming couplets are used only to end a scene, as they are in sonnets to end the poem.
Marvell’s eight-line verses, each consisting of four rhyming couplets, develop their own momentum. They are the building blocks of the poem, each developing a single idea or ‘conceit’, like the quatrains in a Shakespearean sonnet. The last of the four rhyming couplets in each verse of Marvell’s poem serves the same purpose as the rhyming couplet at the end of a sonnet – a conclusion, a resolution, a surprise or an affirmation.
The garden in Marvell’s poem is like the sun rising or the fever or the flea in Donne’s. Such conceits were a staple of Elizabethan poetry in all its varieties, lyric, epic and dramatic, but they were mainly borrowed from the Italians and the French, who borrowed them in turn from the Romans. Donne’s were more original and more unlikely, chosen to surprise or even shock. Dryden wrote that he ‘perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of love.’ Dr Johnson called them metaphysical.
Each verse of The Garden presents the conceit in a different way. The first draws a contrast between plants as symbols of hard-won success (‘the palm, the oak, or bays’) and what they are in themselves (‘garlands of repose’). The second takes that contrast a step further by preferring ‘delicious solitude’ to ‘busy companies of men’. The third is about ‘fond lovers’ carving ‘their mistress name’ in the bark of a tree, little knowing ‘how far these beauties hers exceed’. The fourth uses Ovid’s Metamorphoses to show that, as the human objects of the gods’ lust were saved by being turned into laurel (Daphne running from Apollo) or reeds (Syrinx escaping from Pan), so the beauty of nature lasts longer than human passion (‘Love hither makes his best retreat’). The fifth makes the garden into a sensuous idyll (‘Ripe apples drop about my head… Insnar’d with flowers, I fall on grass.’) The sixth, in a progression from sensuous to intellectual pleasure, describes how the mind, inspired by the garden, creates its own world (‘Annihilating all that’s made, to a green thought in a green shade.’) The seventh envisages a kind of death in life, in which the soul (‘Casting the body’s vest aside’) glides up into the branches of a tree (‘There like a bird it sits, and sings’) where, anticipating death (‘till prepar’d for longer flight’), it becomes part of the garden (‘Waves in its plumes the various light’). The eighth places the garden in Eden (‘that happy Garden-state’) before God created woman (‘While Man there walk’d without a mate’) and enjoyed perfect happiness in solitude (‘After a place so pure and sweet, what other help could yet be meet!’) The ninth and final verse comes full circle with a reminder that man’s way of telling and using time is not the only one (‘the industrious bee computes its time as well as we.’)
From the seventh verse to the end there are echoes of both Herbert and Milton, Herbert in the passionate expression of religious belief, Milton in the humanising of scripture. Herbert’s eight-syllable lines in Vertue could have been written by Marvell, both for style and sentiment.
Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky:
The dew shall weep thy fall tonight;
For thou must die.
Marvell was a lyric, not an epic, poet. Milton’s best work was written in blank verse on a grand scale. Marvell was humorous, Milton was not. But they met at the seventeenth century crossroads between religion and humanism, tradition and individualism. The same spirit that drove Milton to want to ‘justify the ways of God to man’ and to do it by humanising the story of original sin, drove Marvell to write The Garden and put himself, human and alone, at the heart of it.
Dryden came next. He was ten when Marvell was born, but he lived nearly thirty years longer and his was the voice of the new age.
Click on the link below to read the poem.