Andrew Marvell: Poems

Summary and Analysis of "The Garden"

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Summary:

“The Garden” begins with the speaker reflecting upon the vanity and inferiority of man’s devotion to public life in politics, war, and civic service. Instead, the speaker values a retreat to “Fair Quiet” and its sister, “Innocence,” in a private garden. The speaker portrays the garden as a space of “sacred plants,” removed from society and its “rude” demands. He praises the garden for its shade of “lovely green,” which he sees as superior to the white and red hues that commonly signify passionate love.

The speaker claims that when passion has run its course, love turns people towards a contemplative life surrounded by nature. He praises the abundance of fruits and plants in the garden, imagining himself tripping over melons and falling upon the grass. Meanwhile, his mind retreats into a state of inner happiness, allowing him to create and contemplate “other worlds and other seas.” The speaker then returns to addressing the garden, where he envisions his soul releasing itself from his body and perching in the trees like a bird. He compares the scene to the “happy garden-state” of Eden, the Biblical paradise in which God created Adam and Eve. The poem ends with the speaker imagining the garden as its own cosmos, with a sun running through a “fragrant zodiac” and an “industrious bee” whose work computes the passage of time.

Analysis

"The Garden" is divided into 9 numbered stanzas, each of which contains 4 rhymed couplets of iambic pentameter. Its subject matter is the tranquility of retirement from public life. Most critics associate the poem's content with Marvell’s own retirement from his position as tutor to Mary Fairfax, whose father, Thomas, was a General in Oliver Cromwell’s army during the English Civil War.

In the first stanza, the speaker mentions three forms of public virtue associated with the emblem of a particular plant’s leaves: the palm for military virtue, the oak for civic virtue, and the bay (or laurel) for poetic virtue. However, these symbols also suggest the limitations of the pursuits they signify, since the wreaths are only made of trimmings from the actual plants. Public life and devotion to virtue must come to an end one day. The speaker suggests that just as flowers and trees “do close / To weave the garlands of repose,” so must individuals retreat from social obligation into retired contemplation.

The speaker goes on to praise the solitude and quiet of his retreat into the garden, believing that he was mistaken to have once sought “Fair Quiet’ and “Innocence” among the “busy companies of men.” He also associates his private retreat with a holy experience, stating that the “sacred plants” of quiet and innocence can only grow amongst the organic plants in the garden. In other words, the material surrounding of the garden makes room in the speaker's heart and mind for the cultivation of spiritual values, which life in society has forced him to disregard.

The speaker continues to develop his extended conceit of the garden’s superior virtues, finding its “lovely green” more favorable than red and white which are the colors poets most often used in erotic poetry to describe the lips, teeth, face, and body of a beloved. Poets may carve the name of their beloved into trees, but the speaker finds such actions to be fruitless, because the each tree already contains a more beautiful imprint: a proper name. By using this image, Marvell refers to the Renaissance doctrine of signatura rerum, or "signature of all things", which held that God imprinted each entity he created with the sign of its proper name, and gave Adam the power to recognize these signs. The speaker thus imagines his experience in the garden as a paradisal return to Adam's perfect knowledge of creation.

The speaker continues to praise the abundant fruits, vines, flowers, and grass in the garden, but at the end of stanza five, the speaker’s image of this natural cornucopia abruptly shifts when he finds himself “Stumbling on melons” and “Insnared with flow’rs.” He falls onto the grass, which suggests that the garden’s private efflorescence has become too much for him to manage, as if it ahs overwhelmed his bodily senses. Hence, he retreats into his mind, where the powers of contemplation become a source of superior creativity. His mind is capable of making other worlds and “other seas” that transcend the limitations of physical embodiment, thereby “annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade.” Since this new shade of green denotes the creative power of the intellect, it appears to surpass the “lovely green” plants and trees that the speaker mentioned earlier.

The speaker then presents an image of his soul detaching from his body, but remaining in the garden. It simply glides into the tree limbs like a bird, waving its wings to reflect the light of the sun until it is ready for its “longer flight.” The image suggests that during the soul’s time on Earth, it is possible for it to transcend some of the physical body's limitations, as we see in the speaker's previous contemplation of a “green thought in a green shade.” Yet the soul cannot entirely detach from the physical world until the moment of bodily death, so for the time being it must remain perched upon the highest reaches that the garden allows. Thus, the poem’s final stanza contains an extended metaphor comparing the garden to a private universe, containing its own “fragrant zodiac” of flowers and a cosmic timekeeper in the form of the bee, whose industrious labors mark the passage of the time.