The Garden – Summary
“The Garden”, by Andrew Marvell, is one of the most famous metaphysical poems of the seventeenth century. The speaker of “The Garden” starts by commenting on man’s vanity and inferiority in politics, war, and civil service. Instead, the speaker prefers to spend time in a private garden with “Fair Quiet” and its sister “Innocence.” The garden, according to the speaker, is a place of “sacred plants,” away from society’s “rude” demands. He praises the garden for its “lovely green” colour, which he considers superior to the white and red colours that are usually associated with passionate love.
The speaker, argues that when passion has run its course, love leads people to a contemplative life surrounded by nature. He extols the garden’s abundance of fruits and plants, imagining himself tripping over melons and falling on the grass.
Meanwhile, his mind drifts into a blissful state, enabling him to imagine and ponder “other worlds and other oceans.” The speaker then returns to addressing the garden where he imagines his soul separating from his body and perching like a bird in the trees. He compares the scene to the biblical Eden’s “happy gardenstate,” where God created Adam and Eve. The speaker imagines the garden as its own universe, complete with a sun that runs through a “fragrant zodiac” and an “industrious bee” whose work calculates the passing of time.
The poem’s main argument is to compare and contrast conscious and unconscious states, intuitive and intellectual modes of perception. Marvell’s thought is inferred by metaphors, but this distinction is never rendered directly. The poem incorporates the concepts of the conscious mind, which includes everything because it is understood, and the unconscious animal form, which includes everything because it is in tune with it. The argument isn’t that they’re fundamentally different, but that they have to stop being different in order for either to be recognised.
The poem The Garden is full of symbolism. The Garden of Eden, Earthly Heaven, and that garden to which the Stoic, Epicurean, and Platonist withdraw for solace or reflection are the gardens to which Marvell most clearly alludes in his poem. The poem starts by establishing that it is concerned with the garden of retirement, the garden of the contemplative man who avoids action. Man chases after palms, which represent winners, oaks, which represent kings, and Bayes, which represent poets, in vain, but retired life is quantitatively superior. When we evaluate behaviour in terms of plants, we get single plants, while retirement provides us with not just one, but all plants. The first stanza is thus a witty critique of active life, though it bears little resemblance to other types of garden poetry, such as libertine or Epicurean.
Analysis of The Garden
This poem was likely written in Marvell’s final years, when he had retired from tutoring Mary Fairfax, daughter of Thomas Fairfax (whom he addresses in Upon Appleton House, to my Lord Fairfax) who, in turn, was a General in the army of Oliver Cromwell. Marvell was a close friend of Charles I and was grieved by the interregnum period and the execution of Charles I by Charles II. This event may be attributed to his indifference towards war, distinctly observed throughout the poem. Marvell opens with this mood of futility of war; how vainly man tries to crown his deeds. This crown is made of branches of different trees and shrubs. Here Marvell draws beautiful imagery of how even flowers close themselves in the distant future. This again symbolises how power and authority will close upon its own malevolent nature once.
In the second stanza, he directly addresses the Garden. He calls it the sister of Innocence, epitomising it as the abode of peace, again contrasting to the rebellious feats of war. Since he has just retired from his tutorship, upon reflection, he feels that it is here in the garden that the true nature of life is encountered, and not in the busy company of men.
The third stanza goes further on how these men engage themselves and how the garden’s beauty is overlooked. The White and Red colours symbolise sexual passion, which, regardless, are no more amorous than the vastness and humility of green, since it is humility that paves the way to immortality. Here he employs a concept of the Renaissance school and also one of the Metaphysical school, that of Signatura Rerum, signature of all things, which implies that God left his mark on every object, which renders it its primary identity. This is perhaps what Kant would have called the thing-in-itself. This garden is also the retreat of all things, amorously desired by ‘mortal’ Gods. At this point, he draws Biblical references.
The fifth stanza is particularly describing the garden. One might compare the fall in the last line to the fall of Man, also referred to in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton himself was a close friend of Marvell, a colleague as Latin Secretary of the Council of States, and Marvell came to his defence when Charles II accused Milton of writing against the wars.
The sixth stanza is particularly fascinating. It articulates how the everyday beauties of nature can incite ‘deeper’ reflections, tantamount to Blake’s famous “if we cleansed our doors of perception, everything would appear to us as it is: infinite”(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell); as if the visible world is a face of a parabola( a concept introduced in Sartre’s Transcendence of the Ego) or the tip of an iceberg that protrudes out of the water; as if the garden, with all its serene beauty, is just a means to get somewhere where ‘flowers are not merely flowers, stones not merely stones’ (The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa). This can be contrasted to the lively description of the garden. If the poet was sure to get to a different realm, he wouldn’t be so vivid in describing the garden. So, in a way, the poem is the poet’s means, the poet’s ‘Garden’ to get to a greater height.
The opening of the seventh stanza is the most mystical part of the poem. The poet presents an imagery, depicting how his soul detaches from his body and glides through the garden. Marvell visualises it as a bird, sitting on the twigs of a tree of this garden, ‘till prepar’d for longer flight’. Again the picture of the garden as a means is emphasised, but here, the bird’s(the soul) flight may refer to Man’s eventual refuge to Heaven. Thinking in Biblical terms, at this point, The Garden of Eden is clearly referred to.
Now the Garden has drifted the poet to a primitive realm, to the time before Eve’s creation, and thus, before the Original Sin and more particularly, the passion runs, hinted in the fourth stanza. But Marvell also declares that this solitude cannot be lived with. If one could, there would be ‘Two Paradises ’twere in one/To live in Paradise alone.’, exclaiming that this solitude would further envisage an inner paradise, whilst living in the outer one.
In the final stanza, Marvell again returns to the Garden, lovingly concluding that one couldn’t make a better use of the slipping hours but for here, in the shade of the garden.The concept of Adam, roaming alone in Paradise is one of much debate. Strangely enough, this poem was actually sent to the press by Mary Marvell, who claimed to be Andrew Marvell’s widow, but no records of hers have been deciphered yet.