by Nicholas von Maltzahn (University of Ottawa)
One of Marvell’s most-loved poems, “The Garden,” has so long been viewed as other-worldly in its preoccupations that its worldiness has gone overlooked. But since modern scholarship has persuasively dated it to the Restoration, we may explore its description of meditative retreat in ways less encumbered by Victorian ideals for poetry.
“The Garden” played a significant part in the nineteenth- century renewal of interest in Marvell’s poems. Already in 1821, Charles Lamb knew to praise its “witty delicacy” (London Magazine). Robert Chambers as well as Francis Turner Palgrave included it among the few Marvell lyrics in their influential anthologies (1844, 1861). Emerson and Tennyson prized it. Where Whigs had valued Marvell as an incorruptible patriot, “The Garden” encouraged the eventual fascination with a more private poet, whose apparent unworldliness came to be preferred above his political commitments. The result was a chronology of hisworks that set the former against the latter. The composition of all his garden poetry might then be dated to ca. 1650-52, when he found employment by the Lord General Fairfax in his Yorkshire retreat, on which some of those poems commented openly. After he entered politics in the 1650s, it was thought, he incapacitated himself for such poetic rapture where the mind “withdraws into its happiness.”
Hence the too grudging critical response to Allan Pritchard’s discernment in “The Garden” of the pronounced influence of posthumously published poetry by Katherine Phillips (1667) and Abraham Cowley (1668) (Pritchard, “Marvell’s ‘The Garden’: A Restoration Poem?” Studies in English Literature, 23, 1983). So oft repeated had the early dating been, and so persistent the critical assumptions behind it, that students of Marvell’s poetry only slowly responded to Pritchard’s careful argument. And only belatedly was more made of his claim that the same argument might hold for “The Mower against Gardens,” eventually taken up in earnest by Paul Hammond (Notes and Queries, June 2006). Some small hesitation still shades the acceptance of the late date in Nigel Smith’s edition of The Poems of Andrew Marvell (rev. ed. 2007), who views Pritchard’s case as “strong” but “not absolutely convincing.” But in view of the weight of the internal evidence cited by Pritchard and Hammond, the earlier date would now require much argument based on further evidence to explain how Phillips and Cowley might have previously drawn on Marvell in manuscript, or he on their poems before their print publication.
Recent scholarship has begun to respond to the wider implication of these late dates for Marvell’s composition of some of his most memorable lyric verse. Plainly we can no longer simplify Marvell’s literary career as the Victorians and their twentieth-century successors did. Moreover, the later dating can help us make better sense of some suggestive features of “The Garden” and its Latin companion “Hortus” (which translates which remains unclear, with each having passages all its own). These exemplify the social wit and particularity of Marvell’s poetry more than his retreat from the world.
For example, given a Restoration date, “Hortus” includes what must be a witty description of the faithless Charles II, amusingly fixated on the Royal Oak. “Jupiter annosam, neglecta conjuge, Quercum / Deperit” (his wife forgotten, Jupiter pines for the aged oak): his editors have left this line untouched, but it is a characteristically Marvellian turn on Ovid’s Cyclops. In Cyclops’s song to his coy mistress Galatea, that monstrous suitor complains she is “durior annosa quercu” (more resistant than aged oak); in a jealous rage, he then destroys her beloved Acis. How like Marvell to have in mind an ungainly lover drawn to an ever-young nymph! And such are the intricacies of Marvell’s ironies that in referring to Charles II he may here recall also the Royal Oak, burnt in the Dutch raid on the Medway. On thatship Archibald Douglas died the death celebrated in Marvell’s “Last Instructions” (also “The Loyall Scot”), when the boy stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled.
The later date also helps make sense of Marvell’s complaint in “Hortus” that he has sought peace in vain through temples, cities, and royal palaces (“per templa, per urbes … regum perque alta palatia”). That the last may recall Marvell’s services in Whitehall was proposed long ago by Elsie Duncan-Jones (Proceedings of the British Academy, 1975, 275n). By the late 1660s he might well express weariness with his career at Westminster, whether as state servant or MP, as he does in a letter of 1670 where he seems to have some alternative career in Ireland in prospect.
Other details from “The Garden” suggest, if it is not just a garden of the mind, more of the luxury that characterizes a Restoration pleasure garden. Again editors have scanted these, but through them Marvell insists on the sophistication of the garden he celebrates. For example, he outdoes Jonson’s praise of Penshurst’s peach and apricot by supplying “The Garden” also with nectarines, a fruit still fashionable enough for Etherege’s Bellinda to delight in them in The Man of Mode (1676). These were no common fruit-in 1629 it might be noted that “they haue beene with us not many yeares”–and were prized also for their qualities: “The fruit is more firme then the Peach, and more delectable in taste; and is therefore of more esteeme, and that worthily” (Parkinson, Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris, 582-3).
Also luxurious are the melons on which Marvell, or his persona, stumbles in “The Garden.” In his “Bermudas” those were classed with oranges, pomegranates and figs as exotic fruit worth naming by way of celebrating that locus amoenus. Again these were something of a costly novelty in the seventeenth-century English garden: “They haue beene formerly only eaten by great personages, because the fruit was not only delicate but rare,” since “This Countrey hath not had vntill of late yeares the skill to nourse them vp kindly” (Parkinson, 525). But even once established in England, they could only be grown in the south. That they might not grow in the north emerges from the Savile correspondence—”I forget I am at Rufford [Abbey], as ill a clymate for politicks as for melons” (1680)–and I have it on the authority of an archival tea-circle at the Hull Trinity House that they still will not grow in Yorkshire, long after the Little Ice Age three hundred years ago.
In the Restoration Marvell had plenty of access to more southern gardens, where melons might thrive. The likeliest candidates are those of the Lord Wharton, whether at Winchendon or Wooburn, Buckinghamshire. But there are other possibilities, such as Buckingham’s plantings now getting underway at Cliveden (an easy walk from Wooburn), or perhaps Sir Thomas Lee’s at Hartwell House (also Buckinghamshire), or Sir Philip Harcourt’s at Stanton Harcourt (Oxfordshire).
In sum, it seems too narrowing of Marvell’s literary career and social experience to identify his garden poetry only with his services to the Lord Fairfax, 1650-52. The legacy of Romantic poetics leaves us all the more curious about Marvell’s evocation of some meditative retreat, eventually “Annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade.” To contemplate that, and its lavish circumstances, in a Restoration setting invites a richer conception of his later career as a controversialist, satirist, and lyric poet.