Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The celebration of retreat from the cares of the world is a common theme in Roman poetry, particularly that of Horace, and there is evidence that Marvell wrote “The Garden” while serving as tutor to Lord Fairfax’s daughter at his country estate, Appleton House. A general of the parliamentary forces, Fairfax had retired following the recent civil war that brought Oliver Cromwell to power.
The question with respect to this theme is whether to take the poem as serious commendation of such a decision or as playful mockery of it. Marvell may well have written this poem the same year he wrote his famous “Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” in which he celebrates the “restless Cromwell” for leaving his gardens and urging his “active star.” In another poem from the same period, Upon Appleton House, Marvell seems almost to be teasing Fairfax when he portrays him as governor of a garden in which flowers are ranked in regiments and bees perform as sentinels.
Marvell’s wit clearly runs toward irony and intentional ambiguity, but there is no direct evidence that this poem was intended as anything other than a celebration of the life of ease and leisure, the contemplative life, in the face of distracting ambitions and romantic passions. How seriously, one might ask, is the reader to take the “mystical” or “transcendental” mode of the sixth and seventh stanzas? Is Marvell “anti-woman” in the eighth stanza? Perhaps what makes this three-hundred-year-old poem still worth reading is that such questions remain worth discussing. The answers to those questions, and to many others that spring from “The Garden,” very likely follow from the reader’s decision as to how seriously Marvell’s speaker is committed to the theme of withdrawal. Perhaps it is significant that while the return of time in the closing stanza is witty and pastoral, it returns nevertheless.