This Newsletter was published on Monday 16 April 2012

Grafting the Texts: An Intertextual Reading of Marvell’s Mower and Garden Poems

by Mira Mayuri Sengupta (City College of New York)

When one first reads Andrew Marvell’s poem “The Mower against Gardens,” an immediate concern is to identify the Mower: what or who is the Mower? Dean R. Baldwin claims that “the mower’s character remains elusive” (26) across all four of the “Mower” poems. This critical attention on the Mower, however, may cause readers to overlook perhaps the more primary question: what is the garden? Readers might take for granted the meaning of the “garden,” assuming it is safe to interpret it literally or at least metonymically, representing fields of “flowers and plants…where Nature was most plain and pure” (ll. 3-4). Baldwin is among the many critics who read the “garden” as a metonym for all of nature, arguing that “‘Mower against Gardens’…dourly satirizes man’s ‘improvements’ on nature” (26). Based on Baldwin’s reading, a strong argument can be made that the poem is about the Mower as representative of all human beings who abuse nature while attempting to “improve” it, and that with the workings of human industry and artifice, nature becomes something as artificial as “flowers themselves were taught to paint” (l. 12). While this interpretation is perfectly valid, it is based on the perhaps overly simplistic assumption that the garden necessarily represents nature, literally the “flowers and plants” (l. 3). I would suggest that the symbol of the garden is not as simple as Baldwin proposes; that it is more metaphorical than metonymical and therefore requires further investigation.

What, then, is the garden? I believe the answer to this question lies in another one of Marvell’s pastoral poems—namely, “The Garden.” I would suggest that both “The Garden” and “Mower Against Gardens” are essentially concerned with the same garden: Eden. Laurence W. Hyman does not focus on the “Mower” poems, but presents an interpretation of “The Garden,” arguing that “the garden is Eden, not only before the Fall, but before even the creation of Eve” (14). Before Eve, the Eden presented in “The Garden” is a metaphysical state of mind, embodying enlightenment and purity, similar to the Platonic forms, a state that is completely free from human death, labor, and desire (19). In “The Garden” Marvell presents a picture of this perfect Edenic garden, but in “Mower Against Gardens,” the garden is itself a symbol not just of nature, but of human nature before the Fall—nature in its purest, most innocent form, and it is the corrupted, fallen Mower who works “against” it. My aim is to argue the necessity of reading Marvell’s “Mower” poems intertextually with “The Garden,” because doing so helps to orient the reader toward the more metaphorical layers of meaning embedded within the Mower poems. My reading of “Mower Against Gardens,” with the help of Hyman’s interpretation of “The Garden,” supports the claim that the “Mower” and the “garden” are actually both man, but that the Mower is fallen man or the sinning self, and the garden is man before the Fall, the pure and innocent “Edenic” self.

To better understand the symbolic value of the garden in both poems, let us first look to Hyman’s interpretation of “The Garden.” He argues that “before the Fall, Adam was an androgyne” (14). The Fall in this poem, according to Hyman, “dates not from the eating of the apple, but from the moment God took out Adam’s rib” (14). In other words, when God created Eve, Adam experienced an initial “Fall” from grace, because he was no longer androgynous. Hyman argues that this claim is Marvell’s opinion and not the view actually espoused by Genesis (14). Before Eve, Adam had both sexes within him and was thus sexually self-sufficient and free from sexual desire: “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!” (“Garden” ll. 57-60). Hyman’s reading of “The Garden” contradicts Hollander and Kermode’s well-known “misogynist” interpretation of “The Garden,” because Hyman views Adam not as a man who is simply “better off” without a woman (Hollander 665), but an androgyne who has no need for a woman since androgynes are both male and female intrinsically. The speaker, embodying an Adam-like figure, happily engages with the plentiful plants, fruit, and vegetation of the garden, but has no need for a physical sexual partner.

Despite Adam’s androgyny, “The Garden” is still infused with sexual imagery: “luscious clusters of the vine / Upon my mouth do crush the wine” (ll. 35-36). Hyman proposes that Adam’s engagement with nature is in fact sexual, but not the kind of base sexuality of the fallen world, which exists between physical bodies, but an innocent, pure form of sexuality that existed in Eden before the Fall and before the creation of Eve: “Since Adam is not without sex, but contains both sexes within him, the sexual connotations of the images are still present, but are now perfectly innocent” (18). In other words, the original androgyny of Adam and the plants allows them to achieve in Eden a state of pure innocence while still enjoying sexual pleasure: “the garden…represent[s] freedom from sexuality, labor, and death which existed in Eden….This androgynous Adam…enjoyed all the pleasures of sexuality…and none of its pains” (18-19). The garden described in the poem is thus Eden in its purest form, before sin, desire, death, labor, or human sexuality. This Eden need not be literal; Hyman notes that it is more likely a metaphysical Eden, alluding to the speaker’s enlightened or pure state of mind, made evident in the lines “Casting the body’s vest aside, / My soul into the boughs does glide” (ll. 51-52). Platonic in nature, these lines demonstrate that the speaker’s body is not present in Eden, but his soul is.

Keeping Hyman’s interpretation of “The Garden” in mind, we can argue that the metaphysical Eden represented in “The Garden” translates to an allegorical Eden in “Mower against Gardens.” To reiterate my former claim, the garden in all of the “Mower” poems represents man’s innocent, Edenic nature, and the Mower, man’s corrupt, sinning nature. “Mower against Gardens” therefore presents the tension of man’s dualistic nature, a tension that is completely internal—between man and himself. The opening lines allude to this inner tension: “Luxurious man, to bring his vice in use, / did after him the world seduce” (ll. 1-2). The speaker intimates that “luxurious” or “lustful” man first seduced himself, and subsequently, the rest of the world. In other words, “man…did, after him[self], the world seduce” (my emphasis). These opening lines set up the narrative trajectory of the poem, which traces how man (collectively Adam and Eve in Eden) falls from grace, and how subsequently their progeny continue to “seduce” the “rest of the world” (l. 2), thereby moving further away from humankind’s formerly pure nature.

Though it does not name them directly, “Mower against Gardens” describes Adam and Eve’s actual fall from grace. The first five lines refer to man as “he,” but suddenly, the pronoun shifts from “he” to “them.” This plural pronoun is ambiguous and could be referring to the “flowers and plants” of line 3, but I believe it actually represents Adam and Eve: “A more luscious earth for them did knead, / Which stupefied them while it fed” (ll. 7-8). Although the “he” mentioned in the earlier lines signifies all of humankind (including Adam, Eve, and their progeny) the shift to “them” is appropriate, as these lines refer to the specific experience of Adam and Eve. The lines call attention to their “needing” (desiring) and “kneading” (molding) a new life and world for themselves, “a more luscious earth,” since the pure, innocent life within Eden was not enough for them. The earth, or more specifically, the fruit “stupefied them while it fed,” because although they gained knowledge, they also became open to the mysteries of the world, changing their perspectives completely, as well as their nature; hence, “the nutriment did change the kind” (l. 10). It is this fatal moment at which the Edenic human nature is forever altered.

Nature, thus altered in the Fall, begins to turn against itself by becoming something artificial, different from what it was originally intended to be: “flowers themselves were taught to paint / The tulip white, did for complexion seek / and learned to interline its cheek” (ll. 11-14). The commonsense or literal explanation of these lines is that, with the artificial workings of the Mower, flowers were grafted together so that the colors were no longer pure, but bred to have various colors. It is the Mower, or fallen man, who is responsible for this artificial tampering with nature. But in keeping with Hyman’s interpretation of “The Garden,” there is evidence in “Mower” that the garden is in fact a metaphor for humankind’s Edenic self that has since been corrupted by the Mower, or man’s sexual, greedy self. The white tulip is not a literal symbol of nature here, but rather is personified as a woman applying rouge to her cheeks. Significantly, the white tulip seeking red rouge for its complexion is representative of human desire, passion, and pride. The color imagery is especially notable in comparison to Marvell’s “The Garden,” which reads: “No white nor red was ever seen so amorous as this lovely Green” (ll. 17-18). The colors red and white are “emblematic of feminine beauty,” and more specifically in “The Garden” the green foliage is “contrasted with the red of passion and the white of innocence” (Rumrich 554-555). The white tulip, formerly innocent and pure, has now been corrupted by the Mower and has learned not only to mask its true nature with red rouge, but also to sin—to desire and to have pride.

Now fully accustomed to sin, the flowers and plants in “Mower against Gardens” are strikingly contrasted with those described in “The Garden.” Marvell uses sexual imagery to describe the vegetation in both poems, but this imagery takes on a different form in each poem. In “Mower,” the speaker cries “And in the cherry he does Nature vex, / To procreate without a sex” (ll. 29-30). In other words, with the influence of the Mower, the plants vex their own nature, because they no longer procreate as they were intended to (asexually)—not unlike Adam in Eden before the creation of Eve. Hyman argues that in “The Garden” “Man’s sexuality is…contrasted with his former state of innocence by a reference to the procreation of plants…[which] contain…the pistil and stamin within themselves…like androgynous Adam” (16). Instead of having sex the natural way, the fruits and plants described in “Mower” have now learned to procreate by means of grafting, which unlike asexual reproduction, requires the mixing of two or more flowers. So essentially, the flowers have learned to “procreate” the way humans do, with a partner. Grafting is thus far removed from the original state of nature within Eden, as it is described in “The Garden.” Hyman notes that, in “The Garden,” the plants have sex the natural way: they “unite or ‘close’—not in sexual passion—but to ‘weave garlands of repose’” (16). The corrupt, artificial nature of the flowers depicted in “Mower” are thus markedly representative of human nature, which was formerly white and pure, but tainted and altered by the artificial devices of the Mower.

Toward the close of “Mower against Gardens” Nature (or humankind) has degenerated entirely to a state of sin and chaos: “No plant now knew the stock from which it came; / He grafts upon the wild the tame” (ll. 23-24). Humanity here is described as so far removed from its original state of grace and purity that no one remembers “the stock from which it came.” The grafting or mixing of the “wild and the tame” may be representative of the metaphysical mixing of the original, pure self with the sinning self—the “uncertain and adulterate fruit” which “might put the palate in dispute” (ll. 25-26). The two opposing selves, represented by the “Mower” and the “garden,” are in a constant state of “uncertainty” and “dispute,” and are thus essentially pitted against each other. The title “Mower against Gardens” (my emphasis) is therefore appropriate, representing the constant state of tension and unrest between the sinning and pure selves. But despite the inner chaos between the internal “Mower” and “garden,” the speaker offers some hope. In the final lines of the poem, the speaker reflects that even though “the sweet fields do lie forgot….willing Nature does to all dispense / A wild and fragrant innocence” (ll. 31-34). These lines are particularly important, reminding the reader, almost didactically, that humankind’s original nature still resides in the self internally, and does “willingly…dispense a wild and fragrant innocence.” The question is whether humans will acknowledge and remember the innocence and purity of their original selves, the Eden within.

While the “Garden” poem is not part of the Mower collection, I believe it is useful to turn to the “Garden” when attempting to get at the deeper, more metaphysical layers of meaning beyond simply metonymical readings. Perhaps these poems were not intended to be read intertextually; perhaps in search of an organic connection, I have forcefully grafted them together like the Mower himself. But as I have discussed, there is evidence hinting that the “gardens” represented in each poem are actually both the same garden: the internal Eden. Finally, there is one more line to consider in the Mower poem. The very last line reads: “the gods themselves with us do dwell,” (l. 40) raising yet another question: who is “us”? Why the sudden use of the first-person-plural at the end of the poem? As expected, I look to “The Garden” to answer this question. The narrative of “The Garden” involves a speaker who has entered Eden, at least in his mind. I believe that the speaker in “The Garden” is the same speaker in “Mower against Gardens.” Or perhaps the speaker of “The Garden” is actually the poet of the Mower poems, who writes the poem “Mower against Gardens” while he is within the garden itself, namely, the Eden depicted in the other poem. Thus the line “the gods themselves with us do dwell” makes sense—as “us” refers to the speaker who has now merged with and embodied this metaphysical Eden. The line “my soul into the boughs does glide” (l. 2) perfectly exemplifies this metaphysical merging. Also, we recall that the speaker of the “Garden” is androgynous, containing both sexes within him, so the use of the first-personal plural makes sense at the end of the Mower poem. Having embodied Adam’s innocent state of androgyny, the speaker of the “The Garden” is able to comment on the corruption of human nature in “Mower against Gardens.” He discusses in “The Garden” how he too used to behave like the fallen Mower: “Mistaken long, I sought you then / In busy companies of men…Society is all but rude / To this delicious solitude” (ll. 11-16). Having formerly shared in the Mower’s misery, he has now transcended it and merged his interior identity with the Garden of Eden, where he and the “gods themselves…do dwell” (“Mower” l. 40), and having reclaimed ownership of his original Edenic self, he may live—unlike the Mower—a truly “wondrous life.”

Works cited

  • Baldwin, Dean R. “Marvell’s ‘Mower Poems.’” Explicator: 35.3 (1977). 25-26.
  • Hollander, John and Frank Kermode, eds. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
  • Hyman, Lawrence W. “Marvell’s Garden.” English Literary History: 25.1 (1958). 13-22.
  • Rumrich, John and Gregory Chaplin, eds. Seventeenth-Century British Poetry 1603-1660. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 553-555.