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The topic of nature is present in a number of the poems of the seventeenth century writers John Milton and Andrew Marvell. Indeed, in Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ and ‘The Mower Against Gardens’, nature is arguably the central theme, and in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, the natural world is referred to throughout.
However, when one considers that it is essential to think about the historical context- politically, religiously- and the ideological leanings of the writers of the seventeenth century when looking at works from that era, the theme of nature is present in these works to serve as more than a tribute to nature itself; nature is used also to allude to various theological and political ideals present at the time.
When thinking about the theme of nature in seventeenth century poetry, Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ is arguably the first work to spring to mind, as the poem is essentially a detailed description of a garden, and the various natural wonders within.
However, a closer reading of the poem reveals the various political, classical and religious messages hidden inside Marvell’s Garden. Indeed, the very subject of gardens and gardening was a contentious one in seventeenth century England; changing God’s landscape by gardening was seen by Puritans to be counter religious.
However, as gardening developed in the seventeenth century, so did the poetry surrounding it, and although Marvell himself sometimes criticised the practice of turning productive land into gardens, he wrote ‘The Garden’, a hortus poem, as a tribute to gardens.
With this in mind, the poem has already given us a point to consider: what sort of garden was Marvell praising, and what does this garden represent? The first stanza alone contains enough imagery to make it clear that this garden is representing a number of political and religious ideas.
The vanity of man, the desire to achieve the unachievable, is referred to in the very first line: ‘How vainly men themselves amaze’. Military, civic, and poetic ambition are represented by ‘the palm, the oak, or bays’, and there are clear connections here to the English revolution. There is the idea that people put themselves through much toil to win little recognition, when far more could be gained with no toil at all: And their incessant Labours see Crown’d from some single Herb or Tree, Whose short and narrow verged shade Does prudently their Toyles upbraid; While all Flow’rs and all Trees do close To weave the Garlands of repose.
As Lawrence W. Hyman wrote, it is Marvell’s awareness of the futility of human passion and ambition that makes him forsake society for the solitude, innocence and beauty of nature1 . The second stanza reinforces this idea: ‘Fair quiet, have I found thee here, / And innocence, thy sister dear? ‘, and the superiority of the garden compared to the society Marvell lives in is made clear when he states that he has been unable to find the innocence and calm he seeks ‘In busy companies of men’. Here we have the notion of a return to Eden from a postlapsarian, vain world; the fact that the plants are scared adds to this.
The senses are evoked, as is the concept of fulfillment and the fertility of nature, by the solitude of the garden being described as ‘delicious’. Marvell then compares the beauty of the garden to that of a woman, ‘No white nor red was ever seen/ so amorous as this lovely green’, red and white being colours of femininity. Suggestions of misogyny perhaps stem from this third stanza, in which Marvell also states that no female can compare to the garden, and there is the intimation that Marvell would indeed rather embrace a tree than a woman, ‘Fair trees!
Where’e’er your bark I wound’. The fact that Marvell never married (the woman claiming to be his widow was apparently his housekeeper)2, along with the imagery present in this stanza offer us an insight into his view of women. The concept of an almost romantic love of nature continues into the forth stanza. Marvell implies that love is destined to fade ‘When we have run our passion’s heat’, and points out, with a classical reference, that even the gods ultimately value the beauty of nature over that of women.
The story of Apollo and Daphne, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the god Apollo pursued Daphne until she transformed herself into a laurel tree, is used, and there is also a reference to Pan and Syrinx, a similar classical story. Marvell suggests here that the gods were only ever interested in the plants, not the women3. The fifth stanza contains perhaps the most natural imagery in the entire poem, and returns to the concept of fertility and life-giving nature, of another Eden. The garden is feeding Marvell in the line ‘Ripe apples drop about my head’, and the verdant descriptions of the garden’s other vegetation again evoke the senses.
There is also the notion of carelessness and ease; the nectarines and peaches are reaching themselves into Marvell’s hand, he only stumbles on melons, and the only thing to fall upon in grass. We are then introduced to the concept of hortus mentis, or ‘garden of the mind’, when Marvell writes, ‘Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less, /Withdraws into its happiness’; the mind has left the garden, and withdrawn into itself, such is the tranquility and simplicity offered by the garden. Here Marvell is following the neo-Platonic philosophy present at the time.
Continuing on from this, Marvell writes that the garden has freed the soul from the confines of the body, ‘Casting the body’s vest aside, /My soul into the boughs does glide’. Again this suggests a return to Eden, a loss of mortality, and the soul is also given an almost angelic quality, ‘Then whets and combs its silver wings’. The end of the poem describes an actual return to Eden, and again contains a hint of misogyny. When Marvell states, ‘Such was that happy garden-state, /While man there walked without a mate’, he is describing the past, the Garden of Eden, rather than the garden he has so far been speaking about.
He is also suggesting that man was better off ‘without a mate’; without women. The final line of the poem again praises the peace of the garden, and states that that peace could be found nowhere else in the world in which he lived. In both Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ and ‘The Mower Against Gardens’, the primary terms in opposition are the same: the worlds of nature and men. However, whilst in ‘The Garden’, the garden is a place of leisure, solace and tranquility, ‘The Mower Against Gardens’ presents the garden as a place of endless toil and struggle.
The relationship between the two poems is more complex than the mere conflict suggested by their titles: although the terms of the argument are constant between them, the value given to them shifts; the status of labour, leisure, and nature is different in each. Arguably, another difference is the tone of the two poems. Whilst one seems heartfelt in its argument, the other is almost self mocking. The very first line of ‘The Mower Against Gardens’ presents the opposed terms of the poem’s argument, ‘Luxurious man, to bring his vice in use, /Did after him the world seduce’.
Here Marvell is stating that it is not man’s practice of his vices that corrupts, it is rather his determination to distort the world to follow his vice, to alter nature to reflect himself. This provides both an insight into Marvell’s views on gardening, of which, as stated earlier, he was often critical, and a further insight into what kind of garden is being represented in ‘The Garden’; it is not a man made space with mown grass and pruned hedges, it is a natural, uncultivated place.
Also, this argument is representative of a more common moral issue; the true danger of immorality lies not in its practice by an individual, but in its transmission to others. This transmission comes about through careful perversion of nature, this passage argues, and its effects are as the corrupt man desires, ‘The pink grew then as double in his mind’; nature is reflecting the tainted man. Whilst in the first movement of the poem there is a sense of straying from nature, of knowingly perverting the earth, in line 22 a different kind of corruption is introduced.
The use of ‘forbidden’ suggests not only a moral lapse; it implies law, concrete rules whose breaking deserves punishment from a higher authority than man, however ‘sovereign’ man has become, or thinks he has become. Indeed, the use of ‘sovereign’ here seems almost ironic. This passage of the poem suggests that not only has nature been altered by man, its very essence has also been corrupted, “No plant now knew the stock from which it came; / He grafts upon the wild the tame. ” To make matters worse, this transgression, this loss of origin, is frivolous, and not even intended to be of any benefit to man, but to rather cause dispute.
This implies that not even pleasure governs man’s behavior, but novelty. There is also the idea that man’s distortion has become a religious transgression with the entrance on ‘his green seraglio’. In conclusion, it is clear that in Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ and ‘The Mower Against Gardens’, nature is used for far more than a description of nature itself. The conflicting viewpoints of both poems are presented through the use of nature, which is used to allude to various religious, social and, political ideas, and it is only when both poems are read in the context of the time in which they were written that we can recognize these ideas.