This Newsletter was published on Monday 16 April 2012

God’s Tended British Gardens: “The Coronet” and “Upon Appleton House”

by Greg Miller (Millsaps College)

Andrew Marvell’s pastoral vision in “The Coronet” and “Upon Appleton House” shares with George Herbert and John Donne a particularly British vision of reformed Christianity that draws heavily from older Catholic and Spanish devotional and poetic forms. These poets draw from these forms in order to displace and supplant them for Protestant and British ends. (I do not see these pairings as examples of hendiadys, though British Protestants often did.) The figure of a woman chastely married becomes the presiding genius of Marvell’s distinctively British Godly garden, supplanting the earlier monastic devotion to the Virgin and competing models of Spanish Catholic retirement referred to explicitly in the conclusion of “Upon Appleton House.” In Marvell’s poetic imagination, chaste married women, or virgins who will be married, consistently supplant Catholicism’s Virgin Mother Mary as the presiding genius of his British garden.

Marvell’s “The Coronet” echoes Donne’s “La Corona” sonnet sequence, a remaking of a Spanish Catholic form traditionally dedicated to the Virgin Mary and by Donne dedicated to his patron Lady Magdalen Herbert, George Herbert’s mother. Donne explicitly rejects veneration of the Virgin, choosing instead her Son’s atoning power; Donne’s sequence ends with a conditional statement: “And if thy holy Spirit, my Muse did raise, / Deigne at my hands this crown of prayer and praise,” the final line bringing the crown to its close in touching its beginning, its first line, becoming a supplication to Christ that he accept this “corona,” this crown, this interwoven sequence of sonnets. Donne simultaneously presented the sequence to his patroness Lady Magdalen, as Patrides and others have argued.

However, George Herbert’s “The Altar,” and many other lyrics, explicitly disdain gifts made by human hands and instead call upon an external, divine grace. Many have noted a significant tonal difference here between Donne and Herbert. Herbert’s “The Wreath,” for example, claims the site of praise not in the poem itself but in the imagined life lived elsewhere, other than in the poem: Herbert’s speaker asks for “simplicitie . . . that I may know, thy ways, / know them and practice them”; then and then only can he exchange for the “poor wreath” of the finished poem “a crown of praise.” Such a longed-for state of right life in service can exist only outside the poem and cannot be represented within the poem without being prideful. When Marvell writes of his poem’s “winding snare” in “The Coronet,” we hear clear echoes, as Nigel Smith and others have noted, of “Jordon I” and art’s “winding stair.” And Marvell is nowhere so Herbertian as in creating an eager, naïve speaker who plans to weave a crown “As never yet the King of Glory wore” (12). Yet ultimately Marvell imagines Christ trampling his blasted creation, the interwoven serpent and his withered posies, together, standing on and subduing what the speaker would have placed on his savior’s head with an eager, puffed-up sense of the high, inimitable quality of what he has made.

At the death of Lady Magdalen Danvers (she subsequently remarried, hence the name change), Donne published commendatory sermons about Lady Danvers jointly with his patron’s son’s Greek and Latin Series, Memoriae Matris Sacrum (which I translate “To the Memory of my Mother: A Consecrated Gift”). Herbert’s sequence of nineteen Latin and Greek poems itself forms a ring structure, the opening and closing poems both written in elegiac Latin couplets and explicitly addressing questions of decorum and genre; the beginning touches the poem’s end in a circulating and circular pattern. Though it is not a crown of sonnets, Herbert’s sequence is also wreath-like in structure. (See the appended diagram prepared by my colleague and collaborator Catherine Freis.) Within the pastoral world, a “coronet” is a “chaplet or garland of flowers for the head.” (One finds a similar “corona” in artistic representations in many Renaissance and Baroque paintings of the Virgin Mary crowned in heaven, such as those by Fra Angelico and Velasquez.) A “coronet” is also a crown, formed without arches, adorned with jewels along one line. The OED defines it as a “small or inferior crown; specifically a crown denoting a dignity inferior to that of the sovereign, worn by the nobility.” Marvell’s “coronet” of courtly verses portrays itself as empty in comparison with God’s sovereign crown. By rejecting and imitating the courtly, Marvell might even be said to do his models one better in his abject, clear submission.

Marvell’s “The Coronet” also echoes Herbert’s “The Wreath” and “The Odour,” both of which share scriptural references to God’s fragrant, tended garden—the faithful soul—and bears resemblances to passages in Herbert’s Memoriae Matris Sacrum. Lady Danvers’s path to heaven can now be tracked by the sweet odor left in her wake, Herbert’s Greek poem argues, the probable biblical reference 2 Corinthians 2:15: “For we are unto God a sweet savor of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish.” (For other parallels, see Philippians 4:18 and Revelations 5:8). The speaker of “The Coronet” claims:

Through every garden, every mead,
I gather flow’rs (my fruits are only flow’rs)
Dismantling all the fragrant tow’rs
That once adorned my shepherdess’s head.

The shepherdess’s rejected “fragrant tow’rs” have parallels in Herbert’s Latin verse. In poem 2, Lady Danvers’s gossipy contemporaries are described as “Lifting lofty towers and a head of turrets” (Struices superbas atque turritum caput, [2.11]), unlike Lady Danvers, whose “head’s edifice” is described as “what women / Of integrity wear, low, with a little nimbus of hair” (Quin post modestam, qualis integras decet, / Substructionem capitis & nimbum breuem [14-15]).

The focus in Herbert’s commendatory poems is on his mother’s active virtue, which earns in turn the crown of a garland:

Finally, how wondrous an Uplifter of the poor!
For the stumbling, a staff; a cover for the fallen,
The common comfort of the harried heart:
Public blessings garland her head,
The heavens both echo them and precede the measure.

Lady Danvers has “run the good race” Saint Paul urges all Christians to run and has won God’s victory garland, which we learn in line 49 was first granted by the heavens; God has foreseen the honor that He Himself, as ultimate judge, has already granted (1 Corinthians 9:24), seconding the public judgment and joy that God had felt before mortals. This is the sort of “fame in Heav’n” Milton later mentions in Lycidas (84). Some readers may hear intimations of God’s foreknowledge as well (Ephesians 1:4). Lady Danvers is described in the beginning of poem 15 of the sequence as “resplendence of women, men’s means to zeal, / The dread of Demons, God’s tended garden” (1-2). Lady Danvers brings pain to “Demons” because she is “the field of God,” with a probable allusion to 1 Corinthians 3:9, as Hutchinson notes (575): “For we are God’s co-workers. You are God’s cultivated field, God’s building.” Herbert’s commendatory poems do not claim to share in their matron’s goodness, but instead to praise that goodness.

To summarize briefly, Marvell’s “The Coronet” draws from Herbert and Donne, generally and specifically. The poem itself imitates the anti-rhetorical rhetorical gestures that Stanley Fish long ago said distinguish the era’s “self-consuming artifacts.” The artful contempt towards artfulness does Donne one better. Instead of crowning Christ, as Donne seems to hope to do in his Corona dedicated to Lady Danvers, Marvell instead imagines Christ treading on the speaker’s art, thereby showing that the poet, like Herbert, sees art as “less than the least of thy [or Christ’s] mercies,” as Herbert put it. But Marvell characteristically disappears in this graceful, artful, and allusive interweaving. This disappearing act may serve to elevate Donne and Herbert, to flatter through an artful imitation that nevertheless has a lighter touch than either of his models. He makes no claims for himself and instead gives all. I offer here the possibility that the confluence of allusions to La Coronna and Herbert and his “shepherdess’s tower” quietly refers to the absent presence of Magdalen Danvers, the presiding pastoral center of the Memoriae Matris Sacrum sequence. In place of the Virgin, we have the chaste matron, the great British patroness of the arts, friend and protector of Donne and other British artists and humanists, God’s tended garden itself.

In “Upon Appleton House,” we find a similar deference on the part of the speaker: “Humility alone designs / Those short but admirable lines” (41-42). The discussion of the temptation of the “blooming Virgin Thwaites” (90), Fairfax’s ancestress, by the nuns of Appleton includes the language of “crowning”: “Twere sacrilege a man t’admit / To holy things, for heaven fit. / I see the angels in a crown / On you the lilies show’ring down” (139-142). On such religious imagery of the Virgin Mary, and her virginal followers, Donne builds his “La Corona” in what he intended as holy parody and apposition. And in Marvell’s poem, instead of marriage, a nun suggests to Thwaite that Fairfax become Thwaites’s “devoto,” a Spanish (or Italian) term for a religious devotee, the kind of Petrarchan idealizing love Milton abhorred, the “serenade, which the starved lover sings / To his proud fair, best quitted with disdain.”

But in this quintessential British garden, we find a “military” garden—a garden pruned to imitate objects of warfare—modeled, perhaps, on a Spanish idea: Diego Saavedra de Fajaro’s 1649 plan (Smith in Marvell 224). And thought itself in Marvell’s poem takes as a recurring metaphor the bullfight, wedged metaphysically between imagery of Peter Lely’s painting and the Levellers’ rebellions against forced enclosures of the commons:

A leveled space, as smooth and plain,
As cloths for Lely stretched to stain.
The world when first created sure
Was such a table rase and pure.
Or rather such is the toril
Ere the bulls enter at Madrid.

The Levellers, in the stanzas that follow, in driving their bulls into the commons that have been already cut by scythes, make of the common field a “tabula rasa.” The short grass is shorted to nothingness by the Levellers’ hungry herds. Cognition and creation are alike likened first to “staining” a stretched canvas to paint and then, secondly, to rebels grazing hungry cattle where they should not be grazed, defying laws that made what had once been public and shared instead private and closed. And with the reference to bullfights, one anticipates imaginatively an impending fight to the death between matador and bull for the pleasure of an admiring audience.   Thought is not a blank slate or pure, in short, but constrained by scarcity, political conflict, and war. We are at the heart, I think, of Marvell’s supreme reticence in his lyric verse.

I’m going to go out on a limb a bit and speculate about the curious inundation scene that follows, the sluice gates opened and the land flooded, the cattle (still associated metonymically with thought) driven to little islands, the poet imagining himself as in an island ark. God has not betrayed His promise, and this is not a true second flood, of course, but a small one. One thinks of Herbert’s “The Water-course,” where the speaker encourages himself “Since the condition of this world is frail” to “turn the pipes and waters course / To serve thy sinnes, and furnish thee with store / Of sov’raigne tears” (6-8). Marvell chooses “cataracts,” echoing the Vulgate translation of Genesis 7:11: “the windows of heaven were open.” In Herbert’s poem, repentance is imagined as a kind of irrigation scheme to align the individual soul with God’s providential renewal, from one point of view, a flood that otherwise destroys, an understanding of the poem informed by a presentation by Helen Wilcox at the George Herbert Society’s meeting in the fall of 2011 at the Gregynog Conference Center, Powys, Wales. Herbert’s poem urges the speaker to love “Life” and not “Strife.” Marvell’s naïve speaker, by contrast, later plants himself in the middle of the field, as if crucified, asking that “courteous briars nail me through” (616) and “where the floods did lately drown, / there at the evening stake me down” (624). He is situated in a dividing path between two parts of the wood. He stages a mock self-crucifixion, in which the garden is asked to take part.

When Marvell’s speaker imagines himself as the “other,” a Roman Catholic (or, arguably, Anglican) of sorts, “a great prelate of the woods,” he imagines his thoughts, once again made “pure,” thanks to winnowing natural elements:

Thanks for my rest ye mossy banks,
And unto you cool zephyrs thanks,
Who, as my hair, my thoughts too shed,
And winnow from the chaff my head.

To make of thought itself a material, physical object (“my head”—something left behind by the forces of nature) is humorous. He sheds like chaff both hair (he is aging) and thoughts alike, leaving his head alone like the good grain.

As in “The Coronet,” grace comes from without and is not a product of the creative, thinking, imagining poet: or so it is represented. It is the “young Maria” who, when she walks” (651), makes things change and his dead thoughts (clearly never really dead) come alive: “She yet more pure, sweet, straight, and fair, / Than gardens , woods, meads, rivers are” (695-6).

For you Thessalian Tempé’s seat
Shall now be scorned as obsolete;
Aranjuèz, as less, disdained;
The Bel-Retiro as constrained;
But name not the Idalian grove,
For ‘twas the seat of wanton Love;
Much less the dead’s Elysian fields,
Yet nor to them your beauty yields.

As Nigel Smith notes, “Bel-Retiro” is “properly Buen Retiro.” Marvell has changed the place name to make a Protestant and anti-Catholic joke: “Bel” is from “Bel and the Dragon” in the Apocrypha (Smith in Marvell 241). In the story, Daniel informs the king that he has been deceived by the priests serving the Idol Bel. It is they who consume the offerings left for the god, and not the idol, who is a mere statue and hence no deity. The king has the retainers and their families killed upon Daniel’s proof of their deceit.

In short, in “Upon Appleton House,” the speaker, is naively (or faux naively) embracing the landscape around him, a British landscape of retirement and wholeness, but the speaker, in many respects imaginatively Catholic, is suspect. His imitation of Christ, his desire to be crucified, is a false imitation of the atonement, an idea Herbert explored at great length in “The Sacrifice” and elsewhere. Marvell’s speaker’s repudiation of thought, leaving it as chaff for the seed of his physical head, refuses public spectacle, refuses political engagement that allies forcefully with the Levellers, whom he ridicules and yet also presents as in some ways at one with the natural world of green England.

Intellectual and literary historians of the last decade have focused on the extent to which European skepticism and liberalism draw upon a shared anti-Catholicism, whose virulence in Marvell’s late anti-Anglican and anti-Catholic satire is particularly pronounced. I have attempted to explore briefly the early lyric roots of Marvell’s late paradoxical anti-Catholic defenses of liberty. The British matron, or her proleptic virginal embodiment, figures forth a faithful, fruitful life, a life the poet admires, desires, and lifts up, but from which he consistently represents himself as comically excluded. Protestant Britain defines herself by an otherness that is strangely familiar, her own Catholic past imagined in her intimate adversary’s Spanish lineaments; Marvell imagines himself playing the other with a deep comic seriousness, stepping short of crossing into the imagined garden as a redeemed speaker, not even deferred to a hoped-for future. Marvell leaves redemption figuratively to women who are imagined as embodying and bringing forth, and being, God’s tended British gardens.

Herbert's Metrics

Herbert’s Metrics – The metrical organization of Memoriae Matris Sacrum


Works cited

  • Donne, John. Complete English Poems. Ed. C.A. Patrides. London: Everyman, 1991.
  • Freis, Catherine, Richard Freis, and Greg Miller, eds. George Herbert’s Memoriae Matris Sacrum: To the Memory of my Mother: A Consecrated Gift. A Critical Text, Translation and Commentary. Fairfield, CT: George Herbert Journal Special Journals & Monographs, 2012.
  • Herbert, George. Works. Ed. F.E. Hutchinson. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941.
  • Marvell, Andrew. Poems. Ed. Nigel Smith. Rev. ed. New York: Longman, 2007.