The speaker in the poem is a Mower, who criticizes “Luxurious man” for seducing and perverting the power of Nature, which is otherwise plain and pure. Men divide up fields, and enclose a “dead and standing pool of air” within their gardens, which stifles the free growth of Nature. He replaces Nature's innate power with a “more luscious earth” that feeds the plants of the garden, such that man's “nutriment [does] change the kind.”
Man taints the roses with “strange perfumes,” and teaches the flowers how to paint themselves. The tulip that was naturally white suddenly seeks a new “complexion” or color to “interline its cheek.” By changing the tulip’s basic nature, it becomes such a valuable commodity that a single transformed bulb can be worth the same as an entire meadow. Men begin scouring the earth for new exotic plants, such as the “Marvel of Peru.”
The Mower suggests that “sov’reign” man might deserve such “rarities” had he not also gone about making improper mixtures of nature by grafting plants and trees onto each other to create new stock. The Mower dismisses this manner of cultivation as a form of adultery, and compares it to a “green seraglio,” or harem. He believes that the men who aspire to create such gardens are like tyrants overseeing their brothels of women and the eunuchs that guard them.
The Mower ends the poem with a lament for the fields, which he says “do lie forgot” while men tend to their wicked gardens instead. In the fields, Nature provides abundance along with a “wild and fragrant innocence.” Fairies and fauns cultivate the meadows with their sheer “presence” rather than their “skill,” even if men place classical statues of these figures in their gardens. In the end, the Mower claims, these “Gods themselves with us do dwell,” but only in the fields and meadows of unblemished Nature.
‘The Mower Against Gardens’ is the first of Marvell’s four “Mower” poems, which explore the relationship between human beings and nature. The sequence of the poems corresponds loosely to the four seasons, moving from late spring to summer, and then into fall and winter. Along with the environmental changes that mark each season, Marvell presents a gradual transformation in the figure of the Mower, who begins as a pastoral hero but eventually becomes a reaper of death in the final poem of the series. The poem is written in rhymed couplets that alternate between iambic pentameter and iambic tetrameter.
The key device of ‘The Mower Against Gardens’ is an extended conceit in which man acts as a lecherous manipulator of nature, treating the seeds and plants like his concubines. The Mower compares mankind to a brothel owner, and sees his practice of grafting plants and trees as a slick perversion of their natural beauty. The Mower claims that this process began when man enclosed the fields and meadows, making “gardens square” that contain a “dead and standing pool of air.” This image implies that the free and vibrant circulation of air, which feeds natural growth, has been stymied by man’s interference.
As the Mower continues his tirade against the artificiality of gardens, his language suggests that man’s interference is both wicked and lascivious. He refers to the act of grafting as making “Forbidden mixtures” that produce “adult’rate fruit,” which recalls the myth of Adam and Eve’s transgression against God in the Book of Genesis. Eve’s decision to eat the forbidden fruit of knowledge brought sin into the world, and the Mower implies that humanity’s manipulation of Nature to suit its own ends is a similarly sinful enterprise.
Against this extended comparison of the gardener to a lecherous brothel owner, the Mower offers an idealized figure of “willing Nature” in a state of simply innocence. The fields and meadows contain an essential value that decreases as a result of artificial cultivation. The Mower suggests this in his claim that “fauns and fairies do the meadows till, / More by their presence than their skill.” In other words, the mythical spirits of Nature preserve its essential goodness within these freely growing spaces, whereas the human beings' manicured gardens only contain fashionable statues of such guardians, “polished by some ancient hand.”
The poem thus criticizes the fascination with gardens among the 17th century social elite. The Mower frowns upon those who use their gardens for self-indulgent pleasures. From the Mower’s perspective, gardens are an unnecessary, and even wicked, manipulation of nature, twisting it into an improper space of human indulgence. Meanwhile, the figure of the Mower represents an antiquated bucolic culture, whose relationship to plants is more pragmatic and appreciative of their medicinal properties rather than their potential for ornamentation (Smith 131). The Mower also sees the fields and meadows as sites of agrarian production which ought to be favored over the enclosed restriction of private gardens. Marvell’s Mower favors the idea of nature in its own pure state instead of the cultivated gardens that were popular among religious and political radicals of the time - who imagined recreating Eden through their reforms.