Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

One of the central elements of the boatmen’s song is their description of life in an earthly paradise. Ancient classical writers shared a tradition about a “Golden Age,” an idyllic pastoral existence of peace, whose biblical counterpart is Eden. Every civilization and culture have had their dreams of paradise, although...

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One of the central elements of the boatmen’s song is their description of life in an earthly paradise. Ancient classical writers shared a tradition about a “Golden Age,” an idyllic pastoral existence of peace, whose biblical counterpart is Eden. Every civilization and culture have had their dreams of paradise, although there are variations in the details. The human dream of a paradisiacal life can represent a memory of the distant past (human beginnings), can function as an ideal for the future, or can take the shape of a fictive utopia occurring any time.

Marvell’s depiction of this age-old dream has a number of distinctive characteristics. As a synthesis of classical, Old Testament, and New Testament elements, it transcends specific nations or cultures and thus has a universal quality. Unlike mythological garden-paradises and utopias whose locations are vague or unknown, Marvell’s garden-paradise has a real geographical and historical existence. Finally, Marvell’s “Eden” is neither in the distant past nor in the distant future, but in the present, and it functions as a fulfillment of humankind’s dream.

However, Marvell’s primary theme is not the proclamation that humankind’s idyllic dream has finally come to pass. Rather, the paradise theme is subordinated to, and helps support, the chief emphasis of the poem, which is a celebration of a new Exodus, a new deliverance of God’s people to a new Promised Land. Marvell establishes the similarity between the boatmen and the Israelites primarily through a situational parallel. Just as the chosen people were led out of Egypt during a period of persecution by the pharaoh, the boatmen were led from their land during their persecution. Just as the Israelites crossed the Red Sea to arrive at the Promised Land, the boatmen crossed a new sea to arrive at a new Promised Land. Just as the Israelites were protected and guided throughout their journey, the boatmen were protected and guided to this new destination.

Marvell strengthens this metaphoric identification of the two groups through structural elements and story details. The poem has forty lines, recalling the forty years it took the Israelites to reach the Promised Land. The boatmen’s song is a poetical prayer, sung in unison by the people, recalling Old Testament psalms of thanksgiving for deliverance. The fowls sent through the air by God recall the quail sent to the Israelites during their journey. The cedars of Lebanon, “chosen by his [God’s] hand” and transplanted in Bermuda, were the trees used in building Solomon’s Temple in the Promised Land.

Marvell, well known for his defense of independence and his championing of civil and religious liberties during the reign of Charles I and under the subsequent rule of Oliver Cromwell, uses the biblical Exodus as a paradigm, a prototype, to make his metaphoric statement about the Puritan refugees of pre-Cromwellian England. Although Marvell never visited the Bermudas himself, the islands presented him with the chance to render poetically an image of a garden paradise while making a political and religious statement concerning an actual historical event.

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