Commentary on The Garden

A meditation

The nine stanzas of The Garden follow naturally on from one to another. It is not difficult to see each stage of the argument or train of thought, though individual points of interpretation may be hard. The poem works very much the same way as Keats' Ode to a Nightingale. It is a meditation in a particular place; the place influences the course of the meditation; and at times the poet seems to enter a new world of the imagination. At the end, the poet returns to where he is, not quite ready, perhaps. Keats remains unsettled; Marvell accepts the quiet reality of his world.


The Garden opens on the theme of ambition. Human efforts seek recognition. Symbolically, the recognition is in the form of a crown made from some tree or shrub ‘the Palm, the Oke, or Bayes'- at least that is how victors were crowned in classical times. However, to make these crowns, branches have to be cut down and therefore their life is shortened. They fade, cut off from their natural source of life. If left in their natural state, they would offer people peace and tranquillity. ‘Amaze' here means ‘confuse'.


Marvell speaks to the quiet he has found ‘here', that is, in this garden. He compares his life now to what it was, when he was trying to gain success in the world. We are perhaps reminded of Herbert's Affliction I. That society ‘was all but rude' – by ‘rude' he means uncivilised. So he reverses what we associate with civilisation: the city. The pastoral ideal is the true civilisation. He is not alone in this: we can go back to the Roman poet Horace for such thoughts.

Sexual passion

The third stanza picks up on sexual passion, the white and red. The symbolism of green is disputed by critics, some suggesting green was then still a colour of love, while we tend to associate it with innocence. The sense, however, is of contrast, so innocence or freedom from passion would seem to be its meaning. ‘Flame' obviously means the fire of passion. If he is going to carve any names in any trees, it will be their own.

Examples from Classical mythology

Apollo and DaphneClassical mythology supports Marvell's argument. Marvell quotes the Greek myth of the god Apollo, who lusted after a nymph, Daphne. While he was pursuing her, she cried out for help and was turned into a laurel. A similar transformation occurred when Pan pursued Syrinx. Marvell expresses it as though that was the gods' purpose, rather than just the result: a neat grammatical shift.

The garden

Marvell now turns back to himself. The richness of the garden he describes anticipates Milton's description of the Garden of Eden in his poem Paradise Lost, books IV and IX. The Bible suggests it is fertile but little more (Genesis 2:8-14). Poets ever since have been expanding on the biblical text. The only ‘fall' he experiences is not into sin, but being tripped by the luxuriant vegetation, a thought he uses also in Upon Appleton House (ll.650ff.).

The joys of meditation

Stanza six is the centre of the poem, and also the site of many interpretations. The one offered here is not the only one, but quite widely accepted. He talks of the joys of meditation, and this is where the Platonic idealism can be seen: the world of ideas is actually a greater reality than that of sense data. For the poet, that world is expressed through the shaping power of the imagination. The inner world does correspond to the outer, but it

creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other Seas

These created worlds are more real and powerful, and intuitively, have greater truth in them. In the conditions of tranquillity which the garden affords, the poet is free to be able to do this. The couplet:

Annihilating all that's made
To a green Thought in a green shade

is the most perfect and concise way of expressing this. Its meaning teases us: it seems clear, and yet when we try to explain it, the meaning suddenly becomes elusive. This is how real poetry should work so that it simply cannot be paraphrased in prose. Donne created his own little world out of the lovers' mutual love (as in The Sunne Rising): here Marvell creates his own world from the power of the imagination.

Mystical experience

Marvell even suggests a mystical experience: the soul appears to escape the body and to be transported up into the trees where ‘like a Bird it sits, and sings'. The symbolism of the soul as a bird is an ancient one, found in various myths, though Marvell may be describing a real experience in this simile. The soul is preparing itself ‘for longer flight', that is, the journey back to heaven. We are at the other extreme from Donne's love poetry, as seen in The Extasie, where the out-of-body experience must end by a return to the body. Marvell would be happy if he never returned.

Adam alone in Eden

Stanza eight returns to the thought of the Garden of Eden, suggested in stanza five. Here he refers to the ideal state as being, not after the creation of Eve, but before it, when Adam was solitary. This doesn't mean Marvell was anti-women, just that Adam alone was in the solitary state where sexual passion would not even be a temptation. Genesis 2:18-25 suggests quite the opposite, so Marvell is being decidedly unorthodox here in Christian terms. However, the comment is somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

A floral clock

Flower Clock, photo by George Shuklin, available through Creative CommonsIn the last stanza, Marvell returns to where he is, and for the first time he remarks on the clock made out of plants and flowers. These can still be seen sometimes in old gardens or parks. Time does go by; he is not yet in the timelessness of eternity. However, it goes by so slowly that no-one is threatened by it. Time and eternity are very close together, and there is no sense at all of the transience of life, the consciousness which haunted so many of Marvell's contemporaries, and even Marvell himself in To his Coy Mistress. The power of the imagination, without the destructive force of sexual love, can bring them close together.

Investigating The Garden
  • Read through The Garden
  • Have you ever had the experience of time almost stopping?
    • What brought about the circumstances?
  • Explain lines 63-64, about the two Paradises
  • Compare the thought here to that in Marvell's To his Coy Mistress
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