The Picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers

About childhood and innocence

This pastoral poem deals with childhood and innocence. It is playful but there is an underlying ambiguity, as the poet looks ahead and sees the little girl growing up and losing her innocence. He is both looking at her directly, perhaps from his memory of her, and looking at a picture of her. So she is not there in person for him to talk to. There is therefore not quite the naturalness we might suppose at first, since he is addressing a copy of her, the artificial, not the real child. ‘Artifice' therefore becomes part of the ambiguity, part of the loss of innocence.


Nymph by DJ Chakalov, available through Creative CommonsThe flowers are the central image of the poem. We are reminded of Marvell's The Coronet, where the weaving of flowers was a sign of the making of poetry. Little T.C. is a ‘Nimph', a semi-divine maiden in Greek pastoral mythology. The grass is ‘green', suggesting innocence as well as lush nature. She tames the wilder flowers and ‘gives them names'. The poet is echoing the role of Adam in naming the living creatures in the Garden of Eden, that of naming (Genesis 1:28; Genesis 2:19-20). However, she will only play with the roses, the symbol of love.

What lies ahead?

The poet thinks ahead. For what purpose was she born? He uses mythological language referring to ‘the Gods' and Cupid (‘wanton Love'). Her ‘chaster Laws' will tame Cupid's lasciviousness, but in doing so, she will become an ‘Enemy of Man' , where ‘Man' really does mean ‘male' rather than ‘human'. The language is of power (‘her command severe'), which is enlarged upon in the third stanza: ‘those conquering Eyes', ‘glancing wheels', ‘Triumph', ‘thy Glories'. She is going to be very beautiful when she grows up, and the poet knows it. Best for him to get in her good books now, before it is too late. In the battle of love, her suitors will have no chance: they will be trampled on and left for dead!

The symbolism of the flowers

The poet then returns to the present, and what a dramatic contrast! Everything in the garden is benefiting from her presence. He launches a series of hyperbolic conceits detailing what she should now do: ‘Reform the errours of the Spring', by giving the tulips a scent, taking the thorns out of rose-bushes, and allowing violets to flower for much longer. Each hyperbole uses significant flower symbolism. Tulips are pretty but without a scent. 2 Corinthians 2:15 suggests we need a scent, ‘an aroma of life'. Roses make bleed those who try to pluck them: to take thorns away would be to render them innocent. Violets are a symbol of modesty: to make them last longer means to hope that T.C. will retain her modesty for longer. So the ‘errours' are really the errors waiting for her as she grows up, her ‘fall' from innocence.

A final plea

The final plea in the last stanza is for her to gather flowers but not the buds. He echoes the Cavalier poet Robert Herrick's ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may', only to deny it. Do not ‘seize the day', even though that is what he, as male lover, wanted in To his Coy Mistress. Now, speaking in the role of an older man, he wants her to stay ‘coy'. If not, he fears Flora, the goddess of flowers in Greek mythology, will take revenge and ‘Nip in the blossome all our hopes and Thee.' As the crime is ‘to kill her infants', Marvell is thinking sombrely of the possibility that she may die young, rather than simply of an early loss of virginity or innocence. It is a dark note on which to finish. However, in an age where the majority of children never reached adulthood, it is a very real prayer. The ultimate enemy is not loss of innocence, but death itself.

Investigating The Picture of Little T.C.
  • Read through Marvell's The Picture of little T.C.
    • What does ‘his Bow broke and his Ensigns torn' refer to?
    • Why does he call her ‘young beauty of the Woods'?
    • How does Marvell convey his ambivalent feelings?
  • How can childhood innocence be vulnerable?

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

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