Imagery and symbolism in Twicknam Garden

Religious conceits

As with most Metaphysical poetry, the real matter of Twicknam Garden lies in its imagery, here a series of brilliant conceits. Many of these conceits have religious origins, and we soon become aware of Donne's use of the ‘religion of love' language.

First stanza

If we look at the first stanza, what we find is a complex conceit woven from a number of quite different religious sources.


  • The Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation (the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ believed to occur at the Mass)
  • Manna' is sometimes referred to as ‘the bread from heaven', a reference to the Israelites being supplied with a mysterious food whilst they were travelling through the wilderness (Exodus 16:14-15 and Exodus 16:35)
  • Here the ‘spider love' is the transforming substance, but, spiders, being poisonous, make it a sort of anti-transformation: from good to bad, from bread to ‘gall'
  • ‘Gall', a bitter substance, often contrasted with food that is good to eat. The Gospel of Matthew describes gall mixed with vinegar being offered to Jesus Christ to drink while he was dying on the cross (Matthew 27:34)
  • The final strand of the conceit is the reference to ‘True Paradise', or Eden (Genesis 2:8), the original perfect garden.
  • The thing that transformed that from good was the serpent (Genesis 3:1-5). So now Donne is the serpent, turning a perfect place into a place of expulsion, grief and absence.

Andrew Marvell's poem The Garden uses similar imagery.

Second stanza

The conceits in the second stanza are more straightforward:

  • the natural image of winter being obviously consonant with his own mood of desolation 
  • Mandrakes had a symbolic meaning for the time: they were little plants with a Images of the mandrake, published in 1491forked root, often seen as symbolising males, sometimes females, especially anatomically. They were reputed to groan as they were pulled up. Some manuscripts have ‘groane', some have ‘grow' here. Since the groaning of mandrakes was an Elizabethan commonplace, this would appear the better reading.

Third stanza

  • The third stanza's conceit of tears as something to be tasted is not unusual
  • Donne manages to tie in the ‘bread' image of stanza one in his reference to ‘loves wine'
  • Thus we have both the bread and the wine of the Mass.

But there is a reverse in the conceit:

  • Whereas before he was the false presence, now his tears are the sign of the true
  • The tradition of hearts being reflected in eyes is decisively rejected in Donne's cynical ending
  • The comparison is made with shadows, which in fact tell us little about the actual clothes a woman may be wearing.

Investigating Twicknam Garden
  • Donne is hoping to be cured in the first four lines.
    • In what way?
    • Cured of what?
  • In what ways does Donne take conventional love imagery and turn it upside down?
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