The Coronet

The difficulties of writing devotional poetry

The poem is a pastoral one about the difficulty of writing religious or devotional poetry. It thus deals with the same problem that Herbert faced in his two poems Jordan I and Jordan II. (For a more complex discussion of the same problem see Herbert's poemThe Forerunners)The ‘coronet' of the title is a woven crown of flowers, typically given for instance to the Queen of the May. Marvell's religious pastoralism is suggesting that as a religious poet, his endeavour will be to replace Christ's crown of thorns, given to him by the mocking soldiers at his crucifixion (Matthew 27:29), with a crown of flowers. Symbolically that means he will give poetry to Christ which is more appropriate to crowning him, than the poetry of the world, which typically makes fun of him.

More on pastoral: Pastoral poetry is a very ancient genre of poetry which deals with the loves and lives of shepherds and shepherdesses, and other such country folk. They live far from towns, and spend their lives singing, sometimes mourning the loss of a sheep or a fellow shepherd or a love affair that has gone wrong. The countryside is idealised, since writers of the genre are usually city people. It is simple and the poetic expression uses a set of conventions that has varied little over the centuries. Sometimes, it is used symbolically. Often the shepherd is a poet, or the poet; his songs become his poetry. A typical theme is the corruption of city life, and, through this theme, political statements are sometimes made.

Temptation to steal the glory

Even the poet is guilty of worldly poetry. He has first to dismantle ‘all the fragrant Towers' made for his ‘Shepherdesses head', that is, his love poetry. So he is going to re-use the ‘flowers' - beautiful language and fine phrases -from that for his sacred crown, as well as using others freshly picked. But ... , and as Herbert found, there is always a but - ‘I find the Serpent old', a reference to the first pastoral of the Garden of Eden and the serpent that tempted Eve (Genesis 3:1). The temptation the serpent represents to the poet is ‘Fame and Interest', (‘interest' here means ‘self-interest' or ‘self-advantage')– he wants people to notice him rather than God.

Iambic pentameters

The final section moves into full iambic pentameters, and addresses first ‘foolish Man' (i.e. himself) and then God. As Vaughan does in his Ascension -Hymn, Marvell offers God an alternative prayer: either sort out the false motives from the true, or tell him to give the whole enterprise up. In that way ‘he may die'. He closes with a final couplet in antithetical form: if Christ tramples underfoot the poet's efforts, at least his feet will be crowned, even if his head isn't.

However, as with Herbert, the final irony is that in saying he is willing not to write any more religious poetry, he has, in fact, written another religious poem- perhaps his most religious.

Investigating The Coronet
  • Read through Marvell's The Coronet
    • Do you think it is possible to write a completely selfless religious poem, where all the attention is on God?
  • Why are such poets as Herbert and Marvell so anxious about writing religious poetry?
    • In what way does Marvell think he has added to the crown of thorns on Christ? (ll.1-3)
  • Compare The Coronet with Herbert's Jordan I

(see Themes and significant ideas > Writing as poet or priest).

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