The Garden most probably dates from the period of Andrew Marvell’s stay with General Fairfax at Nun Appleton, and Marvell had most probably the garden at Nun Appleton in mind when he wrote this poem. As such, this poem has a bit of personal and autobiographical interest. Marvell also wrote a companion piece to this poem in Latin. The title of the poem in Latin was Hortus. The English version, with which we have to deal, corresponded quite closely to the Latin poem, but the Latin version lacks the equivalent verses for Stanzas V to VIII. It is not possible to say, therefore, whether Marvell wrote the English version first or the Latin version first; but critics inform us. that the English version is terser than the Latin and it may thus reflect the poet’s pruning of his first ideas in a second effort. (In other words, it would be reasonable to presume that the Latin version was written first, and the English poem afterwards).
The real object of the poet in writing The Garden seems to have been to establish the superiority of a contemplative life over a life of action. True contemplation, according to the poet, is possible only in the green shade of a tree in a garden. A garden offers quiet and repose, and here one can enjoy the pleasures of the mind and soul as well as the pleasures of the senses. A life of action, on the other hand, is futile, and men make a mistake in spending their time in feverish endeavours in order to win honours in different fields of life.
Irony and Wit
There are in this poem some lines in which women are made the target of an ironic attack. In Stanza III, the poet expresses, in an ironical and witty manner, the view that neither the white complexion nor the red lips of women can make women so loving as is the beautiful greenery of this garden. Lovers are foolish, as well as cruel, when they carve the names of their sweethearts on the barks of trees. These lovers do not realize that the beauties of a garden exceed the beauties of their ladies. If ever the poet carves a name on a tree, it will be the name of no woman but that of the tree itself. In Stanza IV, the poet continues his disparagement of women by giving a twist to the stories of amorous gods. In actual fact, Apollo and Pan chased Daphne and Syrinx respectively only to satisfy their lust; but Marvell says that these gods chased the nymphs because they were potential trees. Apollo ran after Daphne because she was to become a laurel tree, and Pan ran after Syrinx because she was to be transformed into a reed. Marvell’s point is that the gods love trees not women. Then in Stanza VIII Marvell praises a state of being alone and without a companion. Adam’s happiness, according to Marvell, was perfect as long as he was alone in the Garden of Eden, but that state of happiness was not to last because God gave Adam a companion in the shape of Eve. As for Marvell himself, he feels perfectly happy in the garden, alone as he is, by the side of the fountains and the fruit trees.
Some of the pictures in this poem have a richly sensuous quality. Such are the pictures of Apollo and Pan running after earthly beauties, even though the poet mentions these incidents to disprove the general belief that the gods were prompted by their lust. But the lines describing the fruits in Stanza V are truly sensuous. Indeed, our mouths begin to water when we read these lines about ripe apples dropping above the poet’s head, the luscious clusters of grapes crushing their wine upon his mouth, the nectarines and peaches coming into his hands of their own accord. The poet stumbles on melons; and, ensnared by flowers, he falls down on the grass. The fruits gratify not only our sense of taste but also our sense of smell.
Then there are other pictures too. There is the picture of the poet’s soul sitting and singing on the branches of trees, preening and combing its silver wings, and’ “waving the various light in its feathers”. Here the abstract idea of the soul has been made to appear concrete by means of the comparison with a bird and by means of a realistic picture of how the bird behaves. Then there is the picture of the sun-dial which has been formed by the flowers and herbs growing according to a particular pattern. It is followed by a picture of the sun passing through the Signs of a fragrant Zodiac. And then we have the picture of the industrious bee computing its time (or thyme*) as well as we human beings do. The pleasures which the poet’s mind enjoys in the garden are also described in a vivid and concrete manner. The mind is not satisfied with the pleasures of the sense, and so it withdraws into its own happiness. The mind is compared to an ocean where each kind of creature living on land finds its counterpart. But the mind can create worlds and seas different from those which actually exist on this planet, and the mind enjoys the pleasures of those other worlds and seas. The pleasures of contemplation are thus conveyed to us in a highly suggestive, as well as concrete, manner.