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Green Thoughts:

Andrew Marvell's 'Garden' of Enlightenment Thinking

 

Garrett Hazelwood

 

             There have been many critical interpretations of Andrew Marvell's famous poem, ''The Garden'', and these texts represent an enormous diversity of conflicting readings of the work.  Lawrence Hyman, for example, claims that the poem should be understood through purely sexual terms.  In contrast, Margaret Carpenter interprets the poem through a discussion of its relevance to the Book of Genesis.  In another reading, Nicolas Salerno views the poem through an exclusively historical lens and focuses on the ways in which the poem echoes popular 17th century horticultural manuals; while yet another critic, Daniel Stempel, imagines that the text demonstrates Marvell's Cartesian leanings.  While each of these readings of ''The Garden'' - along with countless other approaches to the text - present compelling arguments as to the poem's meaning, their incredible diversity and variously contradictory arguments demonstrate not only the complexity of the poem, but also the inherent impossibility of the simultaneous accuracy of the majority of those same interpretations.  In an effort to clear things up, this paper will humbly propose yet another reading of ''The Garden'', and illuminate, in the most comprehensible terms possible, its actual meaning as intended by Andrew Marvell.  This explanation of the poem will examine textual and historical evidence, as well as build upon several earlier critical interpretations of its meaning, in order to illustrate its discussion of newly emerging 17th century enlightenment thought with its emphasis on the value of progress and reason.  Furthermore, I will endeavor to show the poem's representation of the collision occurring at the time of its creation between increasingly antiquated medieval modes of thought and the divergent modern thinking that began to take hold during the early modern period and would eventually lead to a major revolution in western thought. 

            In order to properly interpret the meaning of ''The Garden'' we must first place it within an historical framework.  However, because the exact date of the poem's creation is unknown, it is impossible to pinpoint its exact position in history.  It is known that Marvell lived from 1621 until 1678, and although many scholars maintain that Marvell wrote the poem in his youth, at least one has argued that it was written no earlier than 1668 (Pritchard).  In any case, the poem must have been written sometime in the mid 17th century: a watershed moment in the history of Western scientific thought, and the time during which such great thinkers as Descartes, Galileo, and Locke were doing their most important work.  This was the time when the early foundations of Enlightenment thought began to gain considerable influence among the English intellectual society, and being a member of that group, Marvell was certainly influenced by this movement, which championed ''the use and celebration of reason'' and asserted that ''the goals of rational man were…knowledge, freedom, and happiness'' (''Enlightenment'').  One scholar even makes the argument that Marvell was directly influenced by Descarte's idea of dualism (Stempel).  Additionally, it is important to note that although Enlightenment ideas had begun to take hold in the 17th century, its principles were still extremely new, and therefore must have seemed very radical to most people during this time period. 

            After situating ''The Garden'' in an historical context, its underlying theme, which champions Enlightenment ideals over vain quests for glory and material gain, can be identified with much greater ease.  Throughout the poem, Marvell uses the image of the garden and the shade it provides to symbolize a place of quiet and innocence, which he illustrates as an ideal environment for stimulating thought, progress, and reason.  In contrast, he depicts the prizes gained from endeavors seeking honor or material gain as casting a narrow shadow that fails to provide the shade he uses as a central metaphor in the poem. 

For evidence to support these claims, we can begin by looking to the first and fourth stanzas.  Marvell opens his poem with a criticism of ''how vainly men themselves amaze / to win the palm, the oak, or bays'' (ll. 1-2).  He then tells his readers that the labor expended in seeking these plants, which represent various awards for military, civic, and poetic achievement, prove worthless because they provide nothing of substance but a ''narrow verged shade'' (ll. 5).  Furthermore, because the narrow shadow produced by these material awards is hardly enough to create the shade provided by ''all [the] flow'rs and all [the] trees'' (ll. 7) in his garden, he criticizes the men who seek them for wasting their labors.  Then, in the fourth stanza, Marvell echoes this earlier point through two examples from Greek myth.  Carpenter was wrong in saying that these lines represented a perversion of Greek myth, because even though she was correct in pointing out that ''Apollo and Pan chased these nymphs for what they were, not for that into which they were to be metamorphosed,'' (159) the text doesn't necessarily contradict that point.  If the lines are examined more closely, they merely represent the notion that Apollo and Pan were like the vain men in the first stanza who sought after earthly material prizes, thinking they would prove of great value, but were only rewarded with the ''narrow verged shade'' (ll. 5) provided by laurel or a reed. 

The key to connecting the first and fourth stanzas is to pay particular attention to Marvell's uses of the plural and the singular.  When he writes critically of the prizes that vain men seek, he refers to them in the singular, subtly pointing out the insignificant amount of shade provided by a single leaf or tree.  In the fourth stanza, he talks about the Greek Gods ending their chase in the singularity of ''a tree'' and Syrinx turning into a single reed.  However, when he talks about plants in the plural, he is referring fondly to the entirety of nature, which he values in the poem as a place that provides generous shade and therefore facilitates thought and  reason, thereby also stimulating progress.  Therefore, Marvell is arguing that to gain a simple token from nature is pointless in that it begets nothing but itself, whereas using the entirety of nature – represented through the use of the plural – to cultivate thought and progress is far superior.  Additionally, benefiting from the natural world by using it to create thought and produce progress is a perfect illustration of the way proto-Enlightenment thinkers sought to progress mankind's knowledge through the examination of nature. 

After identifying and criticizing those who value glory and material prizes over reason and progress, Marvell uses natural imagery to illustrate the virtues of Enlightenment ideals.  Perhaps the most compelling instance of Marvell's identification of nature as a place that facilitates Enlightenment thought occurs in the second stanza when he identifies the garden as a place where ''fair Quiet'' and Innocence reside.  By asserting that nature, as represented by the garden, is a place of quiet and innocence, Marvell is illustrating two crucial features that produce new ideas.  Quiet, obviously, is the ideal environment for focused meditative thought, and innocence is a necessary component for the production of questions.  In other words, being innocent involves lacking understanding and therefore is the necessary foundation for seeking new knowledge.  Furthermore, Marvell tells his readers that the ''sacred plants'' (ll. 13) belonging to Quiet and Innocence, ''only among the plants [in the garden] will grow'' (ll. 14), evoking the idea that Quiet and Innocence cultivate growth.  This image of growth, in turn, implies that Quiet and Innocence cultivate progress through their encouragement of thought.  Pursuing this idea into the next stanza, we see yet another indication of Enlightenment ideals when Marvell claims that instead of carving the name of a person into a tree as cruel lovers do, he will only carve them with name of the trees themselves.  This notion highlights the value Marvell places on identifying nature for what it truly is rather than assigning it the name, and therefore characteristics, of humans.  This can be identified as an instance where Marvell advances a scientific understanding of nature over an abstract notion of personifying, and therefore overlooking the true physical description, of the natural world. 

''The Garden'' continues to illustrate nature as a catalyst for thought and progress in stanzas five through eight, and makes use of biblical imagery in stanzas five and eight to tie down its argument championing Enlightenment ideals.  As pointed out by Hyman in his critical interpretation of the poem, stanza five evokes strong images of man's fall from the Garden of Eden.  However, what he failed to note was Marvell's ambivalence towards, and even celebration of, this fall.  The stanza describes the temptations of the garden causing the speaker in the poem to literally ''fall on grass'' (ll. 40), but quickly transitions into the next stanza where it tells that he simultaneously escapes from ''pleasures less'' (ll. 41) and ''withdraws into [the] happiness'' (ll. 42) of the mind.  What Marvell is describing with these lines is that instead of man's fall from Eden being a bad thing, it was actually wonderful because by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, man was deprived of the physical pleasures of Eden, but rewarded with something much greater, the gift of knowledge.  This is why Marvell tells us that the mind ''creates, transcending these [material objects], / far other worlds, and other seas,'' (ll. 45-46) implying that through thought man is able to create worlds far superior to the physical one our bodies inhabit.  He explains that nature provides a space that allows our minds to dissolve everything material into ''a green thought'' (ll. 49), or in other words, a new idea.  It is through these 'green', or new, thoughts that we are able to soar into the trees, where nature provides us with a shady place of rest where we can prepare our minds ''for longer flight'' (ll. 55) to new ideas and even greater heights.  After illustrating this idea, which is the primary argument of the poem, Marvell returns to his initial suggestion, that the solitude and quiet of nature provides man with the perfect environment to reason, by giving his readers an image of Adam wandering alone in Eden in the eighth stanza.  He claims that ''two paradises 'twere in one / to live in paradise alone'' (ll. 63-64), pointing out once again that nature provides us with a paradise for thought as well as for physical pleasures. 

            The last stanza of ''The Garden'' concludes the poem with an image illustrating the benefits of man's use of nature as an instrument for progress.  Salerno explains in his critique of the poem that the creation of huge sundials by a certain arrangement of trees and flowers were a feature of some of the period's more elaborate gardens.  Marvell describes one of these incredible sundials when he explains ''how well the skilful gardener drew / of flowers and herbs this dial new'' (ll. 65-66).  This image is used as a concrete example of the achievements of science that man can create with the help of nature, and furthermore, by using a sundial to provide this example, Marvell is also providing an image of time, which helps to evoke the notion of progress. 

            After a careful analysis of the entire poem, we can come to see just how multi-layered and complex the imagery of ''The Garden'' is.  As I have already explained, Marvell uses the image of a garden to evoke a number of ideas.  First, by framing his poem within a garden he is able to point out the way that the natural world provides a retreat for silent, solitary thought.  Secondly, it allows him to easily evoke biblical imagery and use it to illustrate the way nature provides us with knowledge, just as it did when man first ate from the Tree of Knowledge.  Finally, it also allows him to contrast man's use of nature to achieve the Enlightenment goals of progress and happiness with the vanity of laboring after worthless material prizes.  In turn, we can understand this condemnation of labor for the sake of glory or material prizes – as represented by the ''palm, the oak, or bays'' (ll. 2) – as a direct criticism of pre-Enlightenment values that failed to place importance on thought, reason, and progress.  Marvell wrote ''The Garden'' in a time when Enlightenment ideas were first starting to emerge in Europe in order to solicit more widespread appreciation of their value to society, and by writing with this goal in mind he has left long standing evidence of the struggle between the ''green thoughts'' of the Enlightenment and the pre-existing values of European society.  Luckily for us, and for the advancement of human knowledge of the natural world, Enlightenment thinkers like Marvell won that conflict, and in so doing, set the stage for the countless multitudes of green thoughts that would be built off of theirs. 


Works Cited

 

Carpenter, Margaret A. ''Marvell's ''Garden'''' Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, The English Renaissance 10 (1970): 155-69.

"Enlightenment." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 13 Mar. 2009  <http://search.eb.com/eb/article-9032680>.

Hyman, Lawrence W. "Marvell's Garden." ELH 25 (1958): 13-22. JSTOR. 5 Mar. 2009 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2871893>.

Pritchard, Allan. "Marvell's "The Garden": A Restoration Poem?" Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 23 (1983): 371-88. JSTOR. University California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbarba. 7 Mar. 2009 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/450404>.

Salerno, Nicholas A. "Andrew Marvell and the Furor Hortensis." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, The English Renaissance 8 (1968): 103-20.

Stempel, Daniel. "The Garden: Marvell's Cartesian Ecstasy." Winter 1967. JSTOR. University California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbarba. 9 Mar. 2009 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2708484>.

 

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