The Mower, Against Gardens

by Andrew Marvell
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457

Taken by itself, the poem remains fairly unambiguous in its meaning. Humankind, in its economic and cultural development, has generated more wealth than it knows what to do with. In a false sophistication, man has replaced nature with an art that is merely tasteless display. While this is serious enough, what he has really done is to corrupt nature itself. The purity of natural innocence is replaced by a seduced nature, which is then reduced further in its moral and spiritual power by becoming merely a taste, a vogue. Moral and spiritual categories are lost, as is, ultimately, man’s identity as a created being. Man’s hubris is to take over God’s creation, rather than steward it, for his own exploitative pleasures. Such a reading would accord with the Puritan ethos of the seventeenth century as expressed, for example, in Milton’s Comus (1637); it would also accord with the ecological morality of the late twentieth century.

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Such a straightforward reading can be questioned, however, in two ways—first, by linking this poem with the other mower poems, second, by linking it to “The Garden,” one of Marvell’s best-known poems. If the figure of the mower in all the poems is considered, then he is not, perhaps, the upright Puritan he appears to be here. Ultimately, he is overtaken by passion; he falls himself. Nature’s innocence, then, seems either illusory or too fragile for man to hold. Perhaps the mower himself is overly proud or is biased; he may not be the mouthpiece for Marvell that the first reading suggests.

Alternatively, if “The Garden” is placed alongside the poem, the garden there is portrayed as Eden restored, even if not permanently. There the garden retains its luxuriousness—“the luscious clusters of the vine” press themselves on the poet (“The Garden” line 35), for example—but in this luxury the poet is able to meditate imaginatively and enter into a Platonic quietude of spirit. Perhaps Marvell is presenting again to the reader Edmund Spenser’s two gardens of The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596)—that of Acrasia (“the bowre of Blisse”), which is seductive and dangerous, and that of Adonis, which is the Platonic paradise where souls are regenerated.

If this is so, then juxtaposing these two poems actually brings one back to the original reading. “The Garden” can then represent the rediscovery of the true garden, as against the false garden portrayed in this poem. Even if the figure of the mower is to be seen ambiguously, the point that Marvell is making is still that man, cut off from nature, loses being; any passion, be it lust or luxury, can cause this severance. What must matter for man is spiritual presence, not technical skill or material control.

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Analysis