The Mower to the Glo-Worms

One of four ‘Mower' poems Marvell wrote

This is one of a set of four ‘Mower' poems. Three of them concern the Mower's hopeless love for Juliana, and the loss of his inner peace. In one of them, Damon the Mower, he also plays with the idea of Death being symbolised by a mower with his scythe. Like grass, he is ready to be cut down. All the poems are pastoral, but with mowers substituted for shepherds.

Glow-worms and foolish fires

Glow worm, photo by Herky, available through Creative CommonsGlow-worms are rarely seen in Britain these days. They can be quite breathtaking: little flashes of light literally appear as from nowhere. It would appear they used to be collected in jars and used as a source of light. The other type of natural light mentioned is the ‘foolish Fires' or ignus fatuus, which is a type of marsh-gas or methane, given off by the marsh. If followed, it can lead you straight into the marsh. The two contrasting lights become symbolic in the poem.

In the first stanza, the glow-worms benefit the nightingale, traditionally the song bird of the night. In pastoral, singing represents the making of poetry. The nightingale studies and meditates, as is appropriate for the night: hers is a serious song, in the manner of Marvell's contemporary, John Milton, whose pastoral Il Penseroso was written a little before this.

The poem now gradually slips downhill. The glow-worms are likened to ‘country comets'. Comets were seen as prophetic signs (‘portend','presage') that something bad was going to happen (‘War ... Prince's funeral'). Here, the Mower suggests the only bad thing is going to be the cutting of the grass, its ‘fall'.

The glow-worm is then seen as directing the way ‘To wandring Mowers ... that ... have lost their aim'. In retrospect, we can see exactly the symbolism of this, though when we first read it, we take it literally. For in stanza four, we find that:

my Mind hath so displaced
That I shall never find my home.

So the ‘wandring' Mower will stay wandering. The Latin word for ‘to wander' is ‘errare' from which we get ‘to err', hence ‘to fall into error'. So he has fallen, too, ‘fallen' in love and into error at the same time.

The strength of human passion

The Mower cannot be led by the glow-worms, but only the ‘foolish Fires' of sexual passion – a far cry from the quiet and harmonious meditations of the nightingale. The pathos of addressing the glow-worms as ‘courteous' while his mind is ‘displac'd' is poignant. He seems a decent fellow: really good-hearted, but sexual passion is too strong for even those who love the tranquillity of nature. This is the true nature of human fallen-ness. There may be the light of truth available; there may be the desire for it; but human passion in the end ultimately is too strong.

This is a marvellously simple little poem, in iambic tetrameter quatrains. Yet, like the best simple poems, it describes a universal experience.

Investigating The Mower to the Glo-Worms
  • Read through Marvell's The Mower to the Glo-Worms
    • Is it about love, or passion, or infatuation?
    • Look at the play on ‘ignis fatuus' and ‘infatuation'
    • Why does he say ‘have lost their aim' rather than ‘their way'?
  • Compare this to a Herbert poem. What is the difference of quality between Marvell's simplicity and Herbert's?

(see Themes and significant ideas > The Loss of Innocence).

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