Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The main character of this poem is the lady who narrates it. She is evidently a woman of some status, and though she is unnamed in the poem, we know that she is of a high social and economic class because of her dress and the property she walks. She wears a stiff gown made of heavy brocade, her hair is powdered, and she carries a "jewelled fan." She acknowledges that she "too [is] a rare / Pattern," just as her garden—full of daffodils and blue squills in this season of early summer—is.
Her dress is rich and beautiful and even has a train that extends behind her, and she wears fashionable high-heeled shoes as well: these help us to understand her elevated status. She was to be married in a month (her fiancé wanted to wait for the summer sunshine to bless their union), but her betrothed has died fighting in a war, and now it seems that she will never marry.
The lady's fiancé was a colonel named Lord Hartwell, and it seems that he and the lady loved each other very much. She imagines herself bathing naked in a tub within the garden maze and then embracing him so tightly that the buttons on his clothing bruise her body. She imagines being with him—"Aching, melting, unafraid"—but, instead, she feels weak underneath the weight of her heavy brocade gown.
The lady seems to feel very confined by patterns: how everything must be in its "proper" place, with perfect lines. She had anticipated her wedding day as the day on which she would be "loose[d]" from the pattern of constraint by her husband. Now, this will never be, and she will walk "Up and down" in the garden for the rest of her life.
The Footman, the Messenger, and the Duke
The morning before the poem takes place, the lady's footman has come to deliver a message to her: a short letter sent by the Duke via a messenger, informing her that her fiancé has died in battle.