“Bermudas” is a poetic celebration of the English colonists arriving in the Bermudas and establishing a new community during the mid-seventeenth century. Marvell frames the poem as a song of praise, sung by the group of English colonists as they arrive to the islands by boat. They begin their song by praising God, who “led [them] through the wat’ry maze” and onto the island that was before unknown to them, yet much “kinder” than the island which they had left behind. God protected the colonists from sea-monsters and storms as well as “prelates’ rage,” allowing them to land safely upon the shore.
Once they arrive, they see that the island provides an “eternal spring” of natural abundance that “enamels ev’rything” and makes their new home a true paradise. The poem continues with the colonists praising the bountiful fruits they find everywhere, like oranges, pomegranates, figs, melons, and apples. They believe that He directly chose the cedar trees and brought them from Lebanon, while the sea washed ambergris onto the shore. The colonists perceive the island to be a perfect temple that God has delivered to them as a place to settle and to “sound his name” in praise. The colonists imagine that their song is traveling to “Heaven’s vault” and echoing joyously. The poem ends with an image of the colonists keeping time by the strokes of their oars.
In “Bermudas,” Marvell consciously imitates the poetry of praise that appears in the Book of Psalms, which is part of the Old Testament. Marvell was writing during the early modern period, and the Book of Psalms was a favorite source of inspiration for poets wanting to praise their patrons or members of the court, especially Kings and Queens. However, Marvell’s poem departs from this tradition by placing the song of praise in the mouths of English Puritan settlers, who are leaving their homeland in order to found a new, Eden-like community of believers in the Bermudas. Marvell wrote the poem in couplets of rhyming iambic tetrameter. There are two speakers in the poem – a narrator, who introduces the scene of the colonists’ landing and concludes the poem by commenting on how they keep time with the strokes of their oars, and second voice comes from the colonists who sing in unison.
The poem begins with the narrator introducing the scene on the ocean off the “remote Bermudas,” where a group of English settlers in a “small boat” are singing. Marvell likens the Bermuda islands to a larger boat, as they “ride / In th’ocean’s bosom unespied.” He immediately presents the parallel image of the colonists in their own “small boat,” and strikes a tone of harmony between the settlers and the landscape that implies godly unity between the two.
This image, and in fact, the entire poem, is strikingly inconsistent with the actual historical events in the Bermudas. Spanish settlers actually arrived about one hundred years before the English. The Spanish colonies there were infamously rife with property disputes, criminal conspiracies, allegations of moral impropriety, and violence against the native peoples. However, Marvell praises the settlers' efforts and godly virtue, thus ignoring these unsavory facets of colonial life in the Bermudas.
As the poem proceeds, Marvell transitions from the narrator's voice to the unified song of the colonists as they approach the islands. They begin by listing reasons to praise God for guiding their mission “through the wat’ry maze” of the ocean. His protection from “huge sea-monsters” refers to Psalms 74:13-14, which states, “thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters. Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces.” Marvell’s allusion to the Psalms 74 implies that God has been protecting the colonists during their journey across the sea, and also that their settlement of a new community in the Bermudas is a prophetic event that seeks to establish a new Eden on Earth.
The remainder of the song develops associations between this new Christian colony and the legendary paradise of Eden. For instance, the colonists label the island an “eternal spring,” suggesting that God will never allow its bounty to run out. The sheer proliferation and vibrant colors of the island’s fruit likewise imply its paradisal nature. Furthermore, the colonists discover that God makes figs meet their mouths and the melons fall at their feet without any manual labor. Also, the presence of cypress trees that have mystically arrived from Lebanon show that a providential hand is at work in making this island a perfect paradise. Marvell uses these associations of bounty and beauty to suggest that the island will become a reformed Eden, a new paradise that reconciles free will and God’s intention in a new fellowship of Christian living.