As it’s National Poetry Day in the UK today, and I don’t have much time to compose a post, I thought I’d just accept the challenge of the NPD website and reproduce here two stanzas (there are nine in total in the poem) from one of my favourite poems by Andrew Marvell (1621-78): ‘The Garden’:
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,
Ensnared 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.
I recall studying this poem as a new undergraduate (we started in term 1 with the Metaphysicals at Bristol!) and relishing the interplay of sensuality and cerebral thinking in it. One of my first essays for my tutor was to discuss Eliot’s description of Marvell’s poetry as having ‘a tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace’. I don’t think I knew what I was talking about then.
I wonder if that opening couplet reflects the pronunciation of the period; presumably ‘lead’ and ‘head’ rhymed then (one finds similar things in Shakespeare, as David Crystal points out in his published and forthcoming works on Shakespearean pronunciation).
The natural cornucopia in these stanzas is a poetic commonplace – Jonson used the trope in ‘To Penshurst’ (published 1616). I can’t resist giving a short extract here, for he goes completely overboard in his description of the veritable anxiety of game and edible fish to leap into the maw of the hungry aristocrat:
Each bank doth yield thee conies; and the tops,
Fertile of wood, Ashore and Sidney’s copse,
To crown thy open table, doth provide
The purpled pheasant with the speckled side;
The painted partridge lies in every field,
And for thy mess is willing to be killed…
Then it’s the turn of the exotic and conveniently low-hanging fruit:
Then hath thy orchard fruit, thy garden flowers,
Fresh as the Ayre, and new as are the houres.
The early cherry, with the later plum,
Fig, grape, and quince, each in his time doth come:
The blushing apricot and woolly peach,
Hang on thy walls, that every child may reach.
Marvell can’t resist outdoing Jonson by adding the even more exotic, newly-arrived (in England) ‘nectarine’.
With typically Metaphysical panache he subverts the familiar image of Eden as the setting for the Fall by suggesting that any ‘fall’ in this garden leads not to disaster but to enlightenment. The peaceful serenity of the natural garden provides a perfect setting (the paradisal physical or material world – ‘all that’s made’) for transcendence to the superior pleasures of a metaphysical, rational world of ideas (the wonderful ‘green thoughts in a green shade’).
A final note on that puzzling couplet about the mind’s reflection in the ocean: ‘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.’ (Wikipedia)
Image of Marvell in the public domain at Wikimedia Commons.