Andrew Marvell: Poems

Andrew Marvell: Poems Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Scholars and historians categorize Andrew Marvell as a metaphysical poet. Explain what this means, and discuss an example from his poetry that illustrates your response.

    The 17th century group of English poets known as the “metaphysicals” wrote poems that featured elaborate conceits, which are irregular forms of versification containing extremely philosophical speculations about love, the body, and the soul. Marvell’s poem ‘The Coronet’ is a good example. The versification of the poem is complicated, embedding sonnets of different forms (Shakespearean, Petrarchan) within a larger rhyme scheme. Marvell also employs several different meters (including iambic pentameter, tetrameters, and trimester). This complexity of verse is an artful counterweight to the professed simplicity of the poem’s speaker and his identity as a shepherd.

  2. 2

    Discuss the relationship between work and nature that unfolds in Marvell’s ‘Mower’ poems.

    The series of Mower poems follow a cycle based on the four seasons, and each of the four poems depicts the Mower’s changing relationship with his natural environment and his work. His unrequited love for Juliana has wounded him psychologically, and as the poems develop, this romantic alienation causes the Mower to become increasingly withdrawn from tending to the meadows. The Mower's unhappiness culminates in his vengeful tirade against the meadows in the dirge-like final poem of the series, “The Mower’s Song.”

  3. 3

    What does Marvell’s Mower think about human ingenuity in “The Mower Against Gardens,” and what does his perspective reflect about Marvell’s society?

    From the Mower’s perspective, gardens are an unnecessary and even wicked manipulation of nature. He bemoans the practice of twisting plants into an improper space simply to satisfy human beings' indulgence. Marvell’s Mower finds beauty in the idea of nature in its pure state. He views the fields and meadows as crucial sources of agrarian production, and therefore far superior to decorative private gardens. Meanwhile, gardens were popular amongst religious and political radicals during Marvell's time, who were also trying to recreate a societal Eden through their reforms. The poem indirectly criticizes the 17th century social elite, who built gardens as displays of wealth and other self-indulgent interests.

  4. 4

    Discuss the significance of the appearance of King Charles I in Marvell’s poem “An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return From Ireland.”

    When the poem shifts focus from Cromwell to Charles I, the speaker’s tone takes on a tragic quality that subtly implies sympathy for the executed sovereign. The speaker describes the King as a “royal actor” born to face the “tragic scaffold” of his execution as the armed masses look on and clap “their bloody hands.” The speaker also claims King Charles I did “nothing common” or “mean” when facing the scene of his execution, and “bowed his comely head” upon the executioner’s block as if it were a bed. This sympathetic description of the King within a poem intended to praise his opponent, Cromwell, softens Marvell's perspective, and makes his political stance seem vague.

  5. 5

    What is the underlying structure of “Upon Appleton House” and how does it guide the movement and development of the poem?

    The thematic content of the poem is reflected by the apparent shifts in perspectives on the estate, which can be summarized as follows: Stanzas 1-10 describe Appleton house itself, Stanzas 11-35 give a history of the house and its time as a priory, Stanzas 36-46 describe its flower gardens and suggest Sir Thomas Fairfax’s military prowess, Stanzas 47- 60 give an account of the meadows, Stanzas 61-81 move to discuss the woods, and Stanzas 82-97 are set at the river and evolve into praise for Mary Fairfax and the family line.

  6. 6

    What are some potential allegorical meanings of “The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn?”

    A comparison of the poem’s imagery to Marvell’s language in the “Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return” suggests that the dying fawn may be an allegory for the death of Charles I. The “wanton troopers” that attack the fawn could represent the Army of Oliver Cromwell, which overthrew the monarchy and established a Commonwealth. The images of blood in the “Nymph Complaining” also recall the “bloody hands” of the group of observers that watch Charles I being executed in Marvell’s “Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return to Ireland.” Moreover, the nymph’s descriptions of the fawn’s calmness and innocence in her garden resonate with Marvell’s depiction of Charles I as he faced his executioner, bowing his head calmly “as upon a bed.” Ultimately, however, these suggestions are faint, and it is difficult to ascertain whether a political-theological allegory is at work in Marvell’s lyric pastoral.

  7. 7

    What is the significance of the phrase “vegetable love” in Marvell’s poem, “To His Coy Mistress?”

    The speaker of the poem uses the metaphor of a “vegetable love” to suggest a slow and steady growth that might increase to vast proportions, perhaps encoding a phallic suggestion. Marvell’s use of the phrase is also consistent with his interest in the vitality of the natural world and the relationship between forms of vegetable, animal, and human life. In this particular poem, the idea of "vegetable love" implies that the speaker could praise his lady’s features – eyes, forehead, breasts, and heart - as his love grows slowly and steadily over hundreds and even thousands of years. The speaker states that the Lady clearly deserves such praise, due to her superior stature. Yet he dovetails this claim into an attempt to persuade the Lady to make love now because unlimited time is not available in a human lifespan.

  8. 8

    Discuss the importance of God to the group of settlers in “Bermudas.” In your response, cite Biblical passages to which the poem alludes.

    The colonists approaching the Bermudas offer many reasons to praise God for safely guiding their mission “through the wat’ry maze” of the ocean at each step along the way. His protection over “huge sea-monsters” also 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 not only that the colonists have received God's protection during their journey across the sea, but also that their settlement of a new Christian community in the Bermudas is a prophetic event that seeks to establish a new Eden on Earth. This poem embodies the mindset of the Puritan colonists and missionaries who made their way west from England and settled the New World. It is also the kernel that eventually led to the idea of manifest destiny and the American expansion across North America.

  9. 9

    What is the significance of the image of the roosting bird in stanza 7 of “The Garden?”

    The bird represents the soul of the speaker detached from its bodily casing. The image suggests that during the soul’s time on Earth, it is possible to transcend the limitations of the physical body, as is evident a previous line, which contains a contemplation of “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 can afford. In a practical context, this image implies that human beings must be weary of keeping their souls pure and worshipping God while on Earth so that they will be able to ascend to Heaven for eternity after death.

  10. 10

    What surprising discovery does the speaker of “The Coronet” make when he begins “Thinking,” and what is the significance of this realization?

    The speaker finds the “serpent,” or Satan, hidden in the coils of flowers and plants he intends to use to weave a new crown in honor of Christ. Satan’s presence suggests that no matter how well-intended the shepherd’s efforts may be, he cannot create a physical embodiment of Christian praise that is not at the same time an act of self-aggrandizement. This predicament reveals the depth of Marvell’s elaborate conceit: the poem that the shepherd is “writing” is actually the crown, or coronet, of flowers. Just as the shepherd realizes that his efforts are tainted by mortal sin, Marvell acknowledges that the art of poetry contains sinful seeds of pride and self-valorization, invoking the inherent complications involved in being a devout Christian poet.