“Twicknam Garden” is a lyric in three unorthodox nine-line stanzas, with five lines in iambic pentameter and four in iambic tetrameter, rhyming ababbccdd. It is essentially a compliment poem, a gift to the poet’s (theoretical) mistress. Both the persona speaking in the poem and the recipient are participating in a popular social role-playing game of the period. The poet presents himself as emotionally devastated because he cannot stop loving, although his beloved constantly rejects him and even holds him in disdain. The lady, on the other hand, while possessing all the qualities capable of inspiring love, must remain serenely aloof, arousing passion but in no way obligated to respond or even acknowledge it. This is the standard situation of the conventional sonnet sequence. Since Twickenham Park was the principal residence of the Countess of Bedford, one can assume she was the lady.
The poem begins by establishing the poet’s emotional situation—“blasted with sighs, and surrounded with tears.” The images are more intense than modern readers recognize: The poet compares himself to a winter countryside, torn by winds and immersed in water. He comes to Twickenham Garden for more than relief; he comes for everything that spring, the restorer of life, implies. Here life is restored through the eyes and ears, by seeing and hearing the lady, but even here the poet is caught in a dilemma: The presence of the lady provokes him to declare his love, and that will arouse her anger and his further dismay. Even the greatest pleasure thus turns bitter. He feels like the serpent in Eden, the contradictory element which makes everything else perfect.
The second stanza returns to the image of health. The persona observes that his situation would improve if winter prevailed at Twickenham; then, the contrast between its wholesomeness and his disease would disappear. Realizing that this could be possible only if the garden were destroyed or he left, he asks to be changed into a part of the garden, or even into a weed or a structure. He would fit unobtrusively into a wintry, desolate, mournful situation. He specifically names the mandrake, a plant with a forked root, popularly believed to resemble a human being and to utter a groan when plucked out of the ground; it also has particular sexual connotations, being used in primitive folk rituals to enhance fertility.
In the third stanza, the persona invites all who claim to be lovers to test themselves against him. They should collect samples of his tears in pure vessels to compare with those of their lovers. If the tastes do not match, their mistresses are false. He goes on to observe that since women can manufacture tears at will, their eyes are not true indicators of the state of their hearts. In fact, he says, you can judge a woman’s feelings from her eyes about as well as you can judge her costume from her shadow. Women are simply not reasonable beings. Only one of them remains constant; his mistress, and she is constant only in rejecting him.
John Donne, the originator of what came to be called Metaphysical poetry—noted for the complexity and difficulty of its figures—is fairly conservative in his use of devices in this poem. Still, much of the imagery is intricate and multilayered, tying together several levels of meaning, and the diction is equally rich. The rhythm of the lines further reinforces the way several meanings are played with simultaneously.
The most obvious technical aspect of the poem is its irregular regularity, to give it the kind of paradoxical name Donne would have...
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liked. That is, the poem is not cast in a standard pattern: The most popular nine-line format is that of the Spenserian stanza, used almost entirely for long narrative poems. Furthermore, no common lyric format mixes tetrameter and pentameter lines as this does. The poem reads as if it were designed to provide evidence to support Ben Jonson’s famous assertion that Donne “deserved hanging for not keeping accent.” For example, the opening line, supposed to be in iambic pentameter, reads more naturally—in Donne’s pronunciation and ours—as an irregular, four-stress line.
Once he establishes this unorthodox format, however, Donne uses it consistently throughout the poem. That is, he treats his irregular pattern as if it were regular. In fact, he stresses its regularity. All three stanzas have identical rhetorical and dialectical structure; they all divide into a four-line unit, a three-line unit, and a concluding couplet. Further, the opening quatrain in all three units presents a positive situation or topic, the middle triplet transforming it by giving it a negative slant, and the final couplet confirming the dilemma. The structure of the poem thus replicates the dominant image of the poem: The lover’s chronic unhappiness results from “The spider love, which transubstantiates all,/ And can convert Manna to gall.” This clever duplication of effect was known as “wit” in Donne’s time and was one of the most prized qualities of poetry. It appears throughout the imagery and diction of this poem. The opening, for example, creates an image of a lover “blasted with sighs, and surrounded with tears”—that is, suffering the kind of wind and water damage brought to the surface of the land by winter. This kind of far-fetched connection illustrates exactly what is meant by Metaphysical wit; it requires imaginative audacity. Donne follows it up by bringing the lover to long for spring, which can be seen on four levels: the season of spring, which restores the damages of winter and renews life out of the death of winter; the spring that flows in this garden, maintaining its vegetal life; a medicinal spring, which produces healing waters; and the metaphorical spring, which is the restorative season for lovers. Finally, it becomes the effect of spring in his mistress’s appearance and voice.
Other metaphors show the same kind of multiple reference. It is so pervasive that only a few examples need be given here. The richest lode appears in the opening stanza. There, the lover is called a traitor to himself, for he bears “the spider love”—a spider because it catches everything in its web and transforms everything it catches, and because it changes the living into the dead. His love forces him to seek his mistress, for only there can he live, but, like a spider, this love will bring him to the death of her rejection.