01 April 2010

'The Better Swordsman'—Andrew Marvell, Part 2

Continued from this post.

The second poem I’d like to post is Marvell’s ‘The Garden’, which is probably more well known than ‘Clorinda & Damon’. Marvell wrote it while living at Appleton House (the subject of its own poem), the estate of the Commander-in-Chief of Cromwell’s armies, Lord Fairfax, tutoring the latter’s daughter. This fact causes Tillyard to note that Marvell should not be too closely associated with the Parliamentarians, for despite his support of their cause and his admiring poems on Cromwell, Fairfax was retired at Appleton at this time because ‘he could not longer co-operate with Cromwell’. In Tillyard’s words, ‘Marvell was anything but a mere partisan even though he took part in practical politics.’ [1] Here is the text:

‘The Garden’

How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays; [2]
And their uncessant labors see
Crowned from some single herb or tree:
Whose short and narrow vergèd shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all flowers and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence, thy sister dear!
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy companies of men.
Your sacred plants, if here below,
Only among the plants will grow.
Society is all but rude,
To this delicious solitude.

No white nor red was ever seen
So am’rous as this lovely green. [3]
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees their mistress’ name.
Little, alas, they know, or heed,
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair Trees! wheres’e’er your barks I wound,
No names shall but your own be found.

When we have run our passion’s heat,
Love hither makes his best retreat:
The gods who mortal beauty chase,
Still in a tree did end their race.
Apollo hunted Daphne so,
Only that she might laurel grow,
And Pan did after Syrinx speed,
Not as a nymph, but for a reed.

What wondrous life is this I lead!
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;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,
Or at some fruit-tree’s mossy root,
Casting the body’s vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide:
There like a bird it sits and sings,
Then whets and combs its silver wings;
And, till prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Such was that happy garden-state,
While man there walked without a mate:
After a place so pure and sweet,
What other help could yet be meet!
But ’twas beyond a mortal’s share
To wander solitary there:
Two paradises ’twere in one
To live in Paradise alone.

How well the skillful gard’ner drew
Of flowers and herbs this dial new;
Where from above the milder sun
Does through a fragrant zodiac run;
And, as it works, th’ industrious bee
Computes its time as well as we.
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckoned but with herbs and flowers! [4]

White et al comment on ‘The Garden’ and Marvell’s ‘garden poems’ generally, at some length in their brief introduction to him:

. . . The vivid immediate experience of these poems, as fresh as one of Montaigne’s explorations of himself, is set in a deep context not only moral and religious, but philosophical. Garden literature in his day [5] had roots in the Stoic-Epicurean retirement from the ambition, passion, and selfishness of the world, by the nourishment of sentimental melancholy. The French libertine poets were being read in Fairfax’s circle. In deep contrast to their view of the garden, and in profound difference of temper from the first, was a Christian devotional tradition which had from early times transformed the celebration of spring into a symbol of Easter and the Resurrection, and which read the immediately sensed beauty of nature as a book of the creatures, awaking thought and contemplation to the goodness and beauty of God. This view was closely associated with the allegorical interpretation of ‘The Song of Songs’ as an expression of the love of God and the soul. One of its most characteristic symbols was that of the soul in contemplation as a ‘hortus conclusus’ or enclosed garden. . . . [6]

For Kermode too, the ‘sensed beauty of nature’ is not sufficient by itself to recommend the enclosure of the garden:

. . . [T]he garden provides more than a mirror of creation, since it also enables the mind to withdraw from sensibilia and produce its own fantasies, establishing worlds other than the visible. Thus begins a formal garden ecstasy; but there is still an element of antithesis carried over from the earlier wit: this ascending love is traditionally, in the familiar Platonic formula, contrasted with that which descends to mere sensual contact. The soul, ascended, is as it were between the worlds, like a bird on a bough; the figure was used by Spenser, also. It is poised between the white light of eternity and the varieties of color that light assumes in the creation. . . . [7]

Although his emphasis is less on the ancient tradition and more on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, E.M.W. Tillyard is very much in line with Kermode’s (and thus, Eliot’s) approach. Tillyard refers to ‘retirement from the busy world to a retreat, preferably in the country, from which to study the glories of God as revealed in nature and to contemplate the approach of death’ as one of the great myths of English literature. [8] Of Marvell’s ‘Garden’ he says that it is ‘a typical “retirement” poem, embodying the commonplaces of the kind: the futility of the crowd of the ambitious, the barren suffering of the lover, the innocence of the country retreat, its near recapture of the innocence of Paradise, and its virtue in promoting a state of spiritual exaltation.’ [9]

In his brief comments about the unusual spectacle of a retirement poem penned by a Parliamentarian, Tillyard mentions Marvell’s close friendship with ‘a poet very much on the opposite side’—Richard Lovelace. [10] Lovelace is the addressee of a poem which I won’t post in full, but from which I’d like to excerpt some lines to conclude this post. Here are the first sixteen lines of ‘To His Noble Friend, Mr Richard Lovelace, upon His Poems’:

Our times are much degenerate from those
Which your sweet muse, which your fair fortune chose,
And as complexions alter with the climes,
Our wits have drawn th’ infection of our times.
That candid age no other way could tell
To be ingenious, but by speaking well.
Who best could praise, had then the greatest praise,
’Twas more esteemed to give, than wear the bays;
Modest ambition studied only then
To honor not herself, but worthy men.
These virtues now are banished out of town;
Our Civil Wars have lost the civic crown.
He highest builds, who with most art destroys,
And against others’ fame his own employs.
I see the envious caterpillar sit
On the fair blossom of each growing wit. [11]

This is the note I would like to end on. I see the conscious dedication of the verbal arts to the act of praise as a sorely needed antidote to our own days of cynicism and the lowest common denominator.

[1] E.M.W. Tillyard, Myth & the English Mind: From Piers Plowman to Edward Gibbon (Being the Clark Lectures 1959-60) (NY: Collier, 1962), p. 74.

[2] Frank Kermode notes here that the foliage of the trees listed constitutes ‘rewards for achievement in war, statesmanship, [and] poetry’, respectively (Frank Kermode, ed., The Selected Poetry of Marvell [NY: New American Library, 1967], p. 107).

[3] On Marvell’s references to green, Kermode comments, ‘The poem makes the green of the garden stand for solitude against crowds, retirement against action, sensual delight free of sexual pursuit, the satisfaction of the senses against that of the mind; it is not the green of hope, the benedicta viriditas of alchemy, the green of the hermetic emerald, but the poem’s green’ (pp. xx-xxi).

[4] Ibid., pp. 107-10.

[5] Most of which was, interestingly, written by Royalists rather than supporters of Cromwell and Parliament, like Marvell. In fact, Tillyard notes that only its ‘exceptional poetic quality’ and its author’s politics make Marvell’s ‘Garden’ stand out from others of its kind (Tillyard, p. 74).

[6] Helen C. White, Ruth C. Wallerstein, & Ricardo Quintana, Seventeenth-Century Verse & Prose, Vol. 1: 1600-1660 (NY: Macmillan, 1965), p. 454.

[7] Kermode, pp. xxi-xxii.

[8] Tillyard, p. 65. I found this one of the most fascinating parts of Tillyard’s book. I may have to post on it some more. I’d forgotten how neat it was!

[9] Ibid., p. 74.

[10] Ibid., p. 74.

[11] Kermode, p. 148.

No comments: