This Newsletter was published on Tuesday 7 December 2010

Marvell’s Two Gardens—Re-Writing the Roman Hortus

Jacob Blevins (at SCRC, Kansas City)

Jacob Blevins (at SCRC, Kansas City)

By Jacob Blevins (McNeese State University)

Denying that language itself represents a crucial locus of identity is nearly impossible in today’s critical climate. In fact, our modern experience itself makes clear the ties of language and identity. In south-central and south-western Louisiana–where I am from–Cajun French is considered the essence of an entire cultural and ethnic tradition, and as a result one can find Cajun and Creole French exclusively being spoken in many homes and programmed on certain radio stations in the Acadien area [1]. Similarly, the native Coushatta tribe, of which well fewer than a hundred still speak their native language, is desperately trying to revitalize and reeducate the tribe members on the Coushatta language, even pressuring the state of Louisiana to recognize the Coushatta language as a foreign language to be taught in local schools; a resurgence in the language is considered by tribe elders to be integral to the survival and security of tribal identity. In the United Kingdom, Wales has been trying to regain its linguistic tradition for some time with reasonable success; signage, publications, some public documents, and monuments typically include writing in both English and Welsh. In all of these cases–and there are many others–language is more of a cultural and identity signifier than spatial boundaries or even specific cultural practices or traditions are [2]. Physical borders can be somewhat arbitrary; customs and traditions, though important and often lasting, can fade away and be replaced with new customs. However, language, despite its natural changes and developments, is at least perceived as a constant cultural marker, one that, once lost, can destroy the identity of an entire cultural consciousness.

During the Renaissance, the actual loss of language was not at stake, but the need for validating identity through language was. In France, writers such as Joachim du Bellay look to the vernacular as a way to break from a past tradition that constantly threatens to envelope and consume any attempt at unique literary expression. As a kind of classical crisis, DuBellay both attacks Latin (most notably in Deffence et illustration de la langue francoyse) and then turns around and writes in Latin himself elsewhere–and in some cases even translates his own Latin poetry back into French. Similarly, in Italy, Petrarch went back and forth from Latin to Italian (Petrarch wrote Africanus in Latin, the Sonnets for Laura in Italian). And English writers certainly were concerned about exactly the same thing as evidenced by Meres and Carew, who both claimed in the early seventeenth century that the “excellency” of the English language compares favorably to that of the Latin and Greek [3]. Although critics have always recognized the importance of the vernacular and the attempt at establishing the vernacular as an authoritative mode of expression, there simply has not been enough discussion about the significance of writers choosing to forgo the vernacular and turning back to Latin. Neo-Latin poetry is somewhat accepted as a kind of stable genre, and only the deviation from that genre through the vernacular is viewed as consequential. I would argue that the significance flows both ways. When these Renaissance writers choose to write in Latin, a language that fundamentally belongs to another cultural consciousness, there is significance to that; there is a statement of poetic identity present in that decision–conscious or unconscious. Kenneth Haynes has recognized this fundamental significance:

When authors choose the language in which they write, their choices should be investigated because the choice implies that the language of a work could have been different, and one of the things literary criticism may do is answer the question of why a work is as it is and not otherwise. (21)

Not only is why a work “is as it is” important but also how it is what it as. What does the choice of language mean for the poem and what would the different choice of language have meant? Unfortunately such conjecture is usually just that; but there are examples of self-translation that can give us glimpses into the significance of exactly the choice Haynes addresses. At this intersection of the vernacular and of the language of humanism’s classical memory, we find a crisis of poetic identity manifesting itself within the text.

That English writers suffered from the same kind of crisis is clear, and Andrew Marvell in particular offers a unique example and insight into the process of classical appropriation and the subsequent attempt at redefining the poet as a relevant, timely, and significant figure for his own ideological space. England seemed even one step further away from memory of the classical world, but its need to connect to and then separate from that world was as much a part of its writers’ identity than it was for France’s or Italy’s. Marvell’s classicism deserves a comprehensive study; it is a classicism that is both complex and lucid, both explicit and implicit, and ultimately, much like Milton’s (though to a lesser degree), representative of humanism’s pre-Enlightenment culmination of literary expression. This is not the time for such a thorough and comprehensive reading of Marvell’s classicism, but a look at two of his garden poems will function as a useful example of his contribution to the topic at hand and help show the psychological dynamic to his classical appropriation. The interaction, or perhaps evolution, of Marvell’s “twin” poems, “Hortus” and “The Garden,” illustrates a method of imitation and influence that is indicative of the psychological processes of identity formation that were central to humanism and that were the cause of conflict and crisis in the assimilation of the classical and Christian in Renaissance texts. Marvell’s “Hortus” represents a very simple form of eclectic or sacramental appropriation. Even though the poem as a whole is not a direct imitation of a specific classical source—though the Horatian components are obvious—it is an attempt at re-creating a classical mode, a classical space, with no identification in the present, even in the actual language used. For the effective humanist writer, this kind of total reliance on tradition is unacceptable; it devalues the relevance of the writer’s current context. In “The Garden,” however, Marvell attempts to “re-write” the classical space that dominates “Hortus,” but he must do it in a way that both fixes his work in a tradition and then exposes what that tradition lacks. Marvell’s garden poems contain the fissures and ideological repositioning that is characteristic of humanism’s classical crisis, but they actually take us one step further in the writer’s Symbolic self-construction [4].

Curiously, gardening and gardens themselves have proved to be a fascinating and well-explored topic of study. British classicist, Diana Spencer, has done work on the representation of the garden space in the Roman poets Statius and–of even more importance to our purpose here—Horace [5]. The Early Modern garden—obviously significant for Marvellians–is the topic of Rebecca Bushnell’s 2003 book Green Desire: Imagining Early Modern Gardensm>. And any reader of Renaissance literature can recall many substantial “garden” passages in the Early Modern corpus (Shakespeare’s Richard II, Milton’s Paradise Lost). While the Christian garden draws much from its Biblical origins, the literary garden seems to be grounded in the classical hortus and the pastoral tradition more generally. This sort of convergence of the classical and Christian in the garden image in many ways exemplifies the humanist program itself. Again, the Christian and the classical exist simultaneously, often anachronistically, with the literary grounded in the pagan and the ideological grounded in the Christian. The writer validates his poetic identity by engaging the classical, and validates his ideological identity by engaging the Christian. The problem is that this identifies a lack in the Christian tradition, i.e., the poet needs the achievement of the ancients; the Christian—despite many attempts by many writers—simply does not provide a suitable literary precedent. The result–at least in sophisticated, well conceived imitation–are writers identifying the lack in the classical world by showing, implicitly and explicitly, that the classical is nonetheless incomplete without the Christian despite its literary authority: the Christian fills the lack in the pagan past.

Marvell’s two poems show us two distinct levels or modes of literary identification with that past. That both poems are connected to classical sources has been fairly well established. John M. Potter gives an excellent analysis of Horatian elements in the two poems. Although Potter probably overstates the Horatian/Epicurean elements and underestimates the impact of the Judeo-Christian in “The Garden,” his overall assessment of the classical in Marvell is solid and insightful. Potter believes that other critics, such as Stanley Stewart, H. E. Toliver and Ruth Wallerstein, all take the poems too seriously and thus miss the greater significance of the classical, satiric, Horatian tone. My concern is less that the poems are classical but rather how Marvell attempts to make them classical.

With “Hortus” Marvell’s attempt at creating a kind of classical, epicurean pastoral ode hinges on the complete re-creation of the classical space that was the norm in the original classical pastoral garden ode, on multiple levels. This starts of course with the mythological. “Hortus” is rooted in classical myth. Classical mythology is commonplace in Renaissance texts, but here the speaker pays full respect and commitment to the authority of that myth. Apollo and the muses are invoked:

Me quoque, vos Musae, et te conscie testor Apollo,
Non armenta juvant hominum, circique boatus,
Mugitusve fori; sed me penetralia veris,
Horroresque trahunt muti, et consortia sola. (16-19)

Apollo is here referred to as “testor Apollo,” suggesting “all knowing,” even “omniscient,” and retaining the original deific quality of Apollo. We have a full catalogue of other deities that reflects those classical figures associated with lovers and trees:

Jupiter annosam, neglecta conjuge, quercum
Deperit; haud alia doluit sic pellice Juno.
Lemniacum temerant vestigia nulla cubile,
Nec Veneris Mavors meminit si fraxinus adsit.
Formosae pressit Daphnes vestigia Phaebus
Ut fieret Laurus; sed nil quaesiverat ultra. (41-46)

The identity of the poem’s speaker is placed squarely within this mythological realm, and even more importantly the speaker is placed within the actual physical space of the classical world. Lines 17 and 18 situate the speaker in the peaceful green of the garden by differentiating it from the Roman Forum and from the Circus of Rome. “Hortus” is so fundamentally different from a poem like “To His Coy Mistress” where Marvell’s carpe diem motif is subtly situated in a much more contemporary world–there are elements of Catullus and Horace, and Ovid in that poem but the world of the poem remains fixed in the present. So in terms of “Hortus,” despite the fact it is a fine Latin poem and a fine replication of a kind epicurean idealism, simply said, there is absolutely nothing English about this poem, nothing Christian, nothing that identifies or creates a seventeenth-century literary voice. Neither the speaker nor the writer has any real presence in the poem. The poem, of course, even adopts the Latin language and Latin meter, which further removes it from the present. There certainly is nothing inherently wrong with this, but such imitation does force a reader to question the poem’s purpose and makes clear that in this poem Marvell the poet is not reaching beyond the superficial sacramental rendering of his “source.” As a humanist Marvell the poet is at least implicitly paying a significant tribute to the classical Other that gives the humanist writer so much of his identity. To know and imitate the classics is admirable, demonstrates talent, but it is ultimately restrictive and ideologically void of a contemporary consciousness. The original folio printer of the volume containing this poem assumed (apparently based on Christian elements found in “The Garden”) that something had to have been missing (desunt multa was inserted right before line 50). It was almost as if he was asking, “Certainly there has to be something else to this.”

In a way, Marvell imitates his own poem in “The Garden,” and a primary goal in that imitation seems to be to redefine and ultimately reassess the valorization of the classical in the Latin version [6]. The opening of “the Garden” contains a passage that is very close to its Latin counterpart:

How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays;
And their uncessant labours see
Crowned from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all flow’rs and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose. (1-8)

The first two lines of the Latin “Hortus” read thus:

Quisnam adeo, mortale genus, praecordia versat?
Heu palmae, laurique furor, vel simplicis herbae!

The first two lines in both poems similarly question man’s quest for public recognition. But subtle differences in the English de-classicizes the Latin version, a version which directly echoes certain commonplaces in classical literature. First, while the speaker of “Hortus” fears the “madness” [furor] of clinging to poetic fame or some other earthly glory, “The Garden” emphasizes the “vanity” of it. While the general classical “tone” in the English poem is present, the reference to vanity suggests a much more contemporary, Christian ideological concern. It is not the furor of an Orpheus, Pentheus, Ajax, or Heracles (all fallen to madness) from which the speaker suffers or could suffer, but of a self-serving interest in fame, in public approval and praise, all elements that challenge fundamental Christian humility. In addition, Marvell leaves out of his list of “Palm, Oak, and Bayes,” the more classical “laurel” of Apollo that is part of the equivalent list in “Hortus” (palmae, laurique).

In Stanza 4 of “The Garden” the mythological imagery is reduced to merely two classical episodes:

The gods, that mortal beauty chase,
Still in a tree did end their race.
Apollo hunted Daphne so,
Only that she might laurel grow;
And Pan did after Syrinx speed,
Not as a nymph, but for a reed. (27-32)

These are the only two classical “love stories” referenced—”Hortus” mentions several others, including Jupiter, Juno, Mars, and Venus. In both versions, the speakers really pervert the original myths, suggesting that Apollo and Pan did not have any real desire for these nymphs, but simply desired the trees they would become. The Latin version is even a bit more explicit than “Apollo hunted Daphne so / Only that she might laurel grow.” The Latin reads that Apollo pursued lovely Daphne for the laurel but “nil quaesiverat ultra” [but he sought after nothing beyond this]. This interpretation of the stories of Apollo and Pan in the Metamorphoses seems far fetched, that is that these deities only wanted the trees themselves, not the actual nymphs they chased. Nevertheless, regardless of the somewhat ludicrous reading of the myths by the speaker, these two figures—Apollo and Pan—who do make into “The Garden” are both related closely to poetry and song and therefore still relevant to the speaker’s purpose.

A significant difference really comes in the fact that “The Garden” calls attention to gods whom “mortal Beauty chase.” The gods, Apollo and Pan, apparently are initially chasing some kind of “mortal beauty.” Mythologically, that is not really true either; both Syrinx and Daphne are minor deities and thus immortal from the start, and it is not common for the beauty of a nymph to fade (i.e. to be mortal). This emphasis on the issue of mortal beauty is not at all addressed in “Hortus.” The myth itself is used similarly in both poems, but “The Garden” contains a certain subtext that the natural love of the trees in the garden is somehow beyond simply earthly love and thus transcends the physical beauty perhaps implicit in “mortal beauty.” The entire reference suggests a kind of Christian neoplatonic notion of beauty, whereby the speaker’s love of the green garden represents a greater love of something heavenly. The Christian comes in and violates the integrity of the classical that was fully intact in “Hortus” and thus sets up the greater Christian implications in “The Garden” as a whole. In very much a humanist move, the classical is re-created but only insofar as it can be undermined by the immediacy of the Christian and of the poet’s own space and time. Here, the Circus Maximus and the Forum are nowhere to be found; as if the writer cannot proceed too far away from the classical ode, the garden space here is left ambiguous.

Ultimately, instead of the speaker simply relishing the garden on its own terms, as one might find in a classical pastoral of private contemplation or as one does find in “Hortus,” in “The Garden” the speaker anachronistically inserts the Christian as a means to validate the relevance of the largely classical garden that is the subject of the poem. With only the slight suggestions of a Christian presence earlier in “The Garden,” such as the examples already mentioned, we the readers are brought strangely and abruptly within the Judeo-Christian realm as the speaker justifies his own celebration of peace and solitude:

Such was that happy garden-state,
While man there walked without a mate:
After a place so pure, and sweet,
What other help could yet be meet?
But ’twas beyond a mortal’s share
To wander solitary there:
Two Paradises ’twere in one
To live in Paradise alone. (57-64)

Of course the seriousness of the passage is very doubtful, with the idea that man perhaps was in an even better paradise, a double paradise, before his mate arrived on the scene [7]. The satirical nature of the stanza does indeed capture the essence of what he does with the classical references in “Hortus”—lovers are better off carving the names of trees on trees rather than the name of lovers. But here somehow the sentiment of solitude needs a Christian precedent; somehow this places the virtue of solitude in the here and now and gives the speaker an actual identity—perhaps a Christian identity—that is missing in “Hortus.”

In addition, the final stanza emphasizes the gardener rather than the maker of the garden, which in “Hortus” seems to be represented by Apollo and his association with the sun. But still the bee image in “The Garden” (“And, as it works, the’industrious Bee computes its time as well as we”) directly echoes not just the closing of “Hortus” with its “Sedula Apis” (the officious or busy bee) who marks his work with thyme but echoes even Horace himself in Ode 4.2 when he compares his own hard work of writing poetry to the hard-working Mantinian bee who busily gathers thyme. It is as if as quickly as the poet finds a Judeo-Christian image that works to move the ode forward, he turns back on himself, almost in doubt, and returns back to a direct classical allusion–one that we have already seen used in “Hortus.”

Jacob Blevins (McNeese State University)


  1. See Barry Ancelet’s Cajun and Creole Folktales: The French Oral Tradition of South Louisiana. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1994.
  2. For an intriguing recent article that discusses the connections between language, perception, and self-identity, and the implications of those connections, see “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?”
  3. See Richard Carew, The Excellency of the English Tongue (1614) and Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia: Wit’s Treasury, A Comparative Discourse of our English Poets, with the Greek, Latin, and Italian Poets. 1598.
  4. I use the “Symbolic” here in the Lacanian sense: that is as the realm of codes and structures through which we project identity. This realm exists fundamentally in language, but it carries over to cultural and artistic structures that dictate various modes of self-projection.
  5. See Diana Spencer, “Singing in the Garden: Statius’ plein air Lyric (after Horace),” Dialogism and Lyric Self-Fashioning: Bakhtin and the Voices of a Genre. Ed. Jacob Blevins. Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna UP, 2008.
  6. Even though the Latin poem is commonly considered to have come first, even if it were determined that that was not the case, the interaction of the classicism in the two poems would still function similarly.
  7. Milton’s Satan demonstrates the opposite sentiment in Book 4 of Paradise Lost, after he sees Adam and Eve embracing one another:

    Sight hateful, sight tormenting! thus these two
    Imparadis’t in one another’s arms
    The happier Eden, shall enjoy thir fill
    Of bliss on bliss… (505-508)

Works cited

  • Bushnell, Rebecca W. Green Desire: Imagining Early Modern English Gardens. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003.
  • Haynes, Kenneth. English Literature and Ancient Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Marvell, Andrew. Poems. Ed. Nigel Smith. New York: Longman, 2003.
  • Milton, John. Complete Poems. Ed. John T. Shawcross. New York: Anchor, 1971.
  • Potter, John M. “Another Porker in the Garden of Epicurus: Marvell’s ‘Hortus’ and ‘The Garden’.” Studies in English Literature 11 (1971): 137-151.