The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In the Miscellaneous Poems of Andrew Marvell, published posthumously, “The Mower, Against Gardens” stands first in a set of four pastoral poems centering on the figure of the mower. A significant proportion of Marvell’s poetry is pastoral by nature, but, as here, Marvell uses the pastoral convention in a most original way to ask fundamental questions about man’s fall, his passions, and the possibility of (re)gaining lost innocence within nature. Traditionally, pastoralism has opposed the innocence of country life (typified by the shepherd) to the corruption of civilization and the culture of the city. Marvell replaces the figure of the shepherd with a more ambiguous one, the mower, and he suggests that country life itself may be invaded by the corruption of the city. In other words, there is a moral and spiritual threat that mere place, or state, by itself, is insufficient to prevent. In the three other “mower” poems, the mower himself is seen losing his peace of mind through his passionate sexual feelings for a shepherdess, Juliana. He “falls” in love and in the ensuing despair and moral confusion thinks of death. As a mower, he sees himself as bringing death to the grass; he, too, has been cut down by passion.

In this poem, however, the mower is much more unambiguously denouncing the corruption typified by the ornate enclosed garden that was coming into vogue in the seventeenth century. The references to horticultural...

(The entire section is 477 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The forty-line poem is written in a non-stanzaic form. Yet there is a hidden stanza structure: The first part of the poem in reality consists of four quatrains and a couplet to round off the first eighteen lines; the second part is similar, leaving a final quatrain as conclusion.

This careful balancing is reflected in the paired rhyming scheme, so that each quatrain is basically two balancing or parallel couplets. Each couplet has as its first line an iambic pentameter line and as its second an iambic tetrameter line—an unusual form for Marvell. The shorter second lines thus avoid the full heroic couplet developed by John Dryden in the next generation of British poets and retain the terseness and epigrammatic quality typical of much of Marvell’s poetry. The form also suggests a directness and simplicity that match the poem’s opposition to ornateness.

The imagery is also noteworthy, as might be expected of a Metaphysical poet. The recurring train is sexual, manifesting itself in a series of vivid conceits. “Seduce” (line 2) suggests that the vice mentioned in the first line is of sexual appetite and reminds one of Satan’s seduction of Adam and Eve—a motif that his contemporary, John Milton, was to weave into the language of Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). Sexual fallenness is suggested by the cosmetic conceit (lines 11-14) used of the flowers, with the biblical subtext of Christ’s words “Consider the lilies of the field” producing other resonances. “Dealt with” (line 21) suggests sexual traffic; the biblical conceit of “forbidden mixtures” suggests incest and miscegenation. There is sexual immorality in “adult’rate” (line 25), sexual luxury in “Seraglio” and “Eunuchs” (line 27), and unnaturalness in the sexless cherry (lines 29-30)—which has been taken to refer either to the stoneless cherry (with “stones” being a contemporary colloquialism for testicles) or to a cherry fruited through grafting. Sexual purity is suggested only by “pure” (line 4) and “Innocence” (line 34).

Thus the new Fall of Man is still seen in sexual terms. Marvell, however, does fill this out with other striking conceits—the enclosed garden as “a dead and standing pool of Air” (line 6) is particularly forceful, in that water and air both normally connote freedom of spirit and movement. Enclosure thus brings restraint, and the garden becomes a prison where the innocent plants are raped (“enforc’d”) and corrupted into double-mindedness (line 9).