Study Guide

The Garden Analysis

  • Sound Check

    Climbing a Tree

    Going Up: "The Garden" starts off steady—lots of branches mean that the climb is fairly regular, just like the meter and rhyme of the poem. Marvell isn't heavy on things like alliteration or consonance, either, so our progress isn't getting bogged down by lots of leaves and poetic devices. And notice how none of Marvell's lines seem to run into each other but they all end in perfect, usually one-syllable rhymes? That's because there is no enjambment in this poem, and there isn't any choppy phrasing, or thoughts that end in the middle of the line, either. The first half of "The Garden" is just strong, succinct lines of poetry (like line 1: " How vainly men themselves amaze"), leading straight up to…

    The Top: "What won'drous life is this I lead!" Precisely at the beginning of the fifth octave, you have reached the top and man, oh man is the view fan-freaking-tastic. The volta at the beginning of stanza 5 marks a change in tone and sound. We go from critical language—"vain," "uncessant," "mistaken," and the like—to words of exaltation like "won'drous" and "Paradise." We also get more poetic devices, like the consonance of the P sounds and the assonance of the short U in: "Ripe apples drop about my head; / The luscious clusters of the vine" (34-35). This change in mood is so drastic, it's almost a little overwhelming, kind of like the first glimpse of a spectacular landscape seen from somewhere high in the sky.

    The Descent: Things start to get a bit tricky on the way down. All the branches you used on the way up—the meter, the form, the rhyme scheme—are still there, but as the content gets more muddled, the climb down gets a little trickier and it takes a little bit longer to figure out where you're headed. We start to encounter slant rhymes like "foot" and "root," and the number of multi-syllable words increases. Marvell also starts to use commas a little more generously. Lines that contain multiple phrases, like "Meanwhile the mind, from pleasures less," become more common, as opposed to in the first half of the poem, where almost all the lines are single, succinct phrases. Also gone are the exclamations of wonder and beauty that we saw back in stanza 5. Nature is still being praised, but all the talk of the mind, the soul, and "longer flights" really mellows out the tone of the poem until eventually you find yourself firmly back to reality and down on the ground.

    Who knew sound techniques could take you on such a trip?

  • What's Up With the Title?

    One of the more popular interpretations of this poem is that "The Garden" is about—gasp—gardens in seventeenth-century England, hence the title of the poem. Not surprisingly, there's a lot of support for this theory. The poem certainly talks a lot about flowers, trees, fruit, nature and other garden-y things, plus European gardens from the 1600s were usually very carefully landscaped, so the idea that Marvell's uniform stanzas and meter mirror the formal, symmetrical layout of the traditional seventeenth-century gardens isn't without some street cred (see the "Form and Meter" section for more).

    But the poem isn't called "Gardens," "A Garden," or "The Garden at Whateverland Palace," it's called "The Garden," and when anyone from the seventeenth century is talking about the garden, it's usually the Garden of Eden they have in mind. This, too, makes a lot of sense because, once upon a time, lots of British people thought of England as being a lot like The Garden of Eden.

    If that last sentence made no sense to you, let us catch you up real quick. Marvell's use of the term "garden-state" in line 57 (not a reference to the state of New Jersey's license plates) is our first clue that something's up, but there's historical context that really brings this England-as-Eden concept home. Before Marvell was alive, England was ruled by a charming lass named Queen Elizabeth. She did lots of things well, but one of the things she did best was make everyone in England believe that England was awesome, something she accomplished (in part) by emphasizing the fact that God had a special, super-awesome destiny in store for the country. Being unofficially dubbed the promised land, plus the fact that England was green and filled with lots of flowers, was enough for many people in the late 1500s, so the idea of England-as-Eden was born.

    By the time Marvell was writing, though, England has been through civil wars, international conflicts, plague, economic failure, and had killed a king only to reinstate his morally questionable brother; whatever Garden of Eden points Elizabeth I had racked up during her reign were obliterated and then some. So why was Marvell talking about England as some idealized garden paradise when it so clearly was not?

    One thought is that Marvell is longing for a return to more peaceful times, both spiritually and politically. Another is that he is looking forward to England's bright future now that all the nastiness of the wars-sickness-death-starvation has been dealt with. Or perhaps the Garden of Eden references are meant to expose the decaying state of England, not its glorious past or future. A fourth theory is that the Bible has nothing to do with this poem at all and the speaker is just trying to talk about plain old regular gardens—no ifs, ands, or Biblical paradises about it. The English nerds have yet to agree on an answer, Shmoopsters, so we are officially giving you license to run with any of these theories that you like, or come up with one of your own.

  • Setting

    Gardens are important in "The Garden" for lots of reasons, but in this section we're going to use our super-Shmoop vision goggles and focus in on the kind of garden Marvell is trying to create in his poem, namely a hortus conclusus. For those of you who aren't Latin scholars, hortus conclusus is a term that literally means "enclosed garden." In the world of landscaping this simply means a garden that is somehow cut off from the natural world by a wall or barrier. In the world of art, poetry, and literature, it's a little bit more important than that.

    The person most frequently associated with the hortus conclusus is the Virgin Mary because, in accordance with Christian theology, her womb needed no "planting" in order to become fertile, therefore leaving her "garden" closed off from the Josephs of the outside world. Moving into the abstract, the hortus conclusus can also represent safety, fertility, privacy, secrecy, sacredness, innocence, or basically anything else associated with keeping bad things out and good things safe from contamination and danger.

    It seems, then, that the speaker imagines an enclosed garden so that the evils, stresses, and people of society can be kept out of his "happy garden-state" (57), leaving his soul free to fly around like a bird, chill in the trees, and basically do whatever it wants. Line 58 even goes as far as claiming that paradise was more paradisiacal "while man there walked without a mate," indicating that the speaker is in serious need of some alone time.

    But Marvell's garden isn't actually enclosed. The speaker talks of a "Paradise alone" in a wistful, longing way; if he were already alone in Paradise, we imagine his tone would be more like "I'm hanging here by myself and it is awesome!" The poem spells it out for us, too; we learn in the same stanza that " [it] 'twas beyond a mortal's share / To wander solitary there" (l61-62). And if Adam wasn't allowed to live alone in Eden before the Fall of Man, our speaker basically doesn't have a chance of getting what he wants. So is the speaker merely dreaming of an opportunity he knows he will never have? Or looking forward to a "Paradise alone" that he hopes will come in the future? Is it even worth dreaming about something that you know will never come true?

    Finally, your interpretation of exactly what is invading the garden depends on your reading of the poem. If you take it in a political sense, you might think the garden is being invaded by the social corruption the speaker rails against at the beginning of the poem. If you see this as a commentary on romance and sexual relationships similar to what we see in stanza 4, you might think of the garden as being invaded by some seductress that is distracting the speaker from his thoughts. Scholars have argued these views and everything in between, but Shmoop is looking into claims that garden gnomes are ultimately to blame.

  • Speaker

    If we break the stanzas up into groups, say stanzas I-IV and V-IX, you might notice that the speaker in the first four stanzas has decidedly different things to say than the speaker in V-IX. In the first four stanzas, the speaker is all about dissing society and proving why nature is better; those who yearn for recognition in the public sphere are "vain" and their success is short-term and not even really that impressive (think Mckayla Maroney). Stanzas V-IX, however, shift from the rejection of other options (society, politics, and women are lame) into exalting the speaker's chosen paradise (the garden is the bomb-diggity). It's tempting to write our speaker off as a tree hugger and leave it at that, but there's another, more important element to the person behind this poem than just his or her love of nature.

    Take a look at lines 51-56 to see what we mean:

    Casting the body's vest aside,
    My Soul into the boughs does glide:
    There like a bird it sits, and sings,
    Then whets, and combs its silver wings;
    And, till prepar'd for longer flight,
    Waves in its plumes the various light. 

    Here, we see Marvell use something called an epic simile (a simile that stretches on for several lines): the speaker's soul is like a bird gliding, sitting, singing, whetting, combing, and shaking its tail feathers. By comparing the activities of the soul (something people have never seen) to the activities of a bird (something very familiar), the observation suddenly becomes much more accessible and easier to understand. The bird, instead of being the focus of the passage, is a vehicle by which the speaker can make observations about an immaterial, more complex phenomenon, the soul.

    The common thread in "The Garden," then, is not nature or society but the speaker's knowledge of and focus on what philosophical folks might refer to as "higher pursuits" and what we at Shmoop refer to as super-fuzzy concepts like the soul and the human mind (different than the brain, mind you). Nature, it turns out, is not our speaker's main concern; it is, instead, a magic portal through which the speaker can access and understand a higher plane of thinking. And we think that even Mckayla Maroney should find that impressive.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (8) Snow Line

    "The Garden" is no walk in the park, folks. There are allusions galore, complicated thoughts and syntax, fancy words, and so many layers of meaning not even your English teachers will unanimously agree on what this poem means. The complexity makes this poem undeniably hard, but somehow, between Marvell's metaphors, there is just enough room for light to shine through the clouds and show you the way to the top.

  • Calling Card

    Complexity

    In official literary lingo, Marvell is what we like to call a Metaphysical Poet. This puts him in the company of some pretty impressive folks like John Donne, Richard Crashaw, George Herbert, and Henry Vaughn (you may have heard of them before) and it also means that Marvell and his metaphysical buddies made names for themselves by digging deep and talking about the "big" questions in life—ones about love, sex, death, existence, the mind, the soul, and so forth. These are pretty weighty topics and, as you might imagine, discussions can easily take a turn for the super-complicated.

    Marvell may have been writing a couple decades later than most of the Metaphysical Poets, but he is the King of Complicated, Complex, and Conflicting. The first thing that makes his poetry complex is that Marvell is incredibly elusive as an author. The speakers of many of his poems are often hard to pin down and Marvell uses so many paradoxes, witticisms, and complexities in tone that it's really difficult to tell how he felt about many of the subjects he treated.

    On top of all that, Marvell writes about a huge range of topics. He has poems about everything from love and religion to politics and satire, so it's hard to know if you're reading one of his love poems, for example, if there isn't some deeper political meaning lurking under the surface.

    "The Garden" is a great example of this; it seems like a straightforward poem about nature, but when you look more closely, religion, politics, and sex start to filter in, too. (Check out "A Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body" or "To His Coy Mistress" for other examples.) So Andrew Marvell, we ask you: Why'd you have to go and make things so complicated? Avril Lavigne, Shmoop, and English students everywhere would really like to know.

  • Form and Meter

    Iambic Tetrameter

    Marvell loves the classics, and his choice of form and meter for "The Garden" is no exception. He uses a meter called iambic tetrameter, which means he's got four iambs per line. What's an iamb? It's a pair of syllables in which the first syllable is unstressed, the second one stressed: daDUM. ("Allow" is an iamb, for example.) Tetra- means four, so we know that iambic tetrameter means four iambs to a line, making each one sound like daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM. The rhyme scheme is also pretty straightforward. Marvell uses rhyming couplets, so each of the poem's nine octaves, or eight-line stanzas, contains the rhyme AABBCCDD, where each letter represents an end rhyme sound.

    This is a fairly typical rhyme scheme, but Marvell executes it here with something that's eerily close to perfection. Take a look at this:

    When we have run our passions' heat
    Love hither makes his best retreat.
    The gods, that mortal beauty chase,
    Still in a tree did end their race:
    Apollo hunted Daphne so,
    Only that she might laurel grow;
    And Pan did after Syrinx speed,
    Not as a nymph but for a reed
    (25-32)

    Now that is some poetry. See how all the lines are perfectly 8 beats, with no extra syllables clouding up Marvell's nice, crisp meter? His end-rhymes are perfect and concise and even his syntax, or the way he grammatically structures his lines, is parallel. Folks, if Marvell were still alive we'd owe him a standing ovation for this.

    Marvell wasn't just trying to flex his poetic muscles though; he may have had other reasons for adhering to the metrical pattern so strictly. English gardens in the seventeenth century, it turns out, were often painstakingly designed and placed a huge emphasis on structure, symmetry, and formality—things that some scholars believe Marvell was trying to recreate with his incredibly symmetrical, structured use of meter and form in "The Garden."

  • Wreaths

    No, we don't mean the kind you put on your door at Christmas time. The wreaths in this poem are actually more like crowns, and they're heavily associated with ambition. That kind of drive has no place in "The Garden" though, something Marvell makes very clear when he speaks of the wreaths and the accomplishments they represent as being "short and narrow verged." Wreaths, being in the shape of circles, are also typically associated with eternal life. Marvell casts that notion aside too, though, and instead focuses on how the trees that make up the wreathes, cut off from their natural life source, will wither and die.

    • Line 2: When Marvell mentions "the palm, the oak, or bays" he's referring to crowns or wreaths made out of branches from these kinds of tree. Crowns of this sort are usually seen as tokens of honor, but for Marvell they are more like shackles that keep men chained to society and away from the outside world. The tradition of handing out these crowns carries over from ancient Greece and Rome, two cultures that will definitely appear again in this poem, so keep an eye out or check out our section on "Classical Mythology."
    • Line 8: The "garlands of repose" that the speaker enjoys are meant to be seen as a contrast to the wreaths of public recognition in line 2. Unlike the "uncessant labours" of men, which produce nothing but short-term recognition, the speaker's investment in nature and his own mind is both relaxing and long-lasting.
  • Floral Imagery

    Dorothy's scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz sings about how he'd love a life "whiling away the hours conversing with the flowers" and we think Marvell knows exactly what this guy is talking about. Flower imagery pops up everywhere in "The Garden" and represents a number of things symbolically, but Marvell definitely focused on making all the greenery, no matter what it symbolizes, appear as wonderful and inspirational as possible. He does such a good job in fact that we have to classify this as pastoral, or a work that presents nature in its idealized form and leaves out all the death, wilting, winter, and mosquitos. 

    • Line 2: We talked earlier about the symbolism of wreaths in general, but it turns out that the specific kinds of plant wreaths Marvell mentions have special significance. Palm fronds symbolize triumph and victory, and crowns of palms are traditionally given out as tokens of success in war. Oak, on the other hand, is a reward for success in politics and a crown of "bays" or laurel, represents accomplishments in poetry.
    • Line 4: What the speaker takes issue with here is that a few branches of one herb or tree are so high on everybody's wish list that they forget all about actual nature and its millions of varieties—far more beautiful and impressive than one measly wreath.
    • Line 7: This is our first pastoral image, and the picture Marvell paints is of trees and flowers uniting together to weave garlands for the speaker. The fact that the trees and flowers are doing the weaving as opposed to a human is not only unlikely (hence the pastoral), it also further emphasizes the "repose" the speaker experiences by going to the garden.
    • Lines 20-24: In these lines, Marvell is taking the stereotypical practice of carving the name of the person you love into a tree (or desk, as present times might have it) and pulling a 180 degree switch—instead of scarring up the old tree in your backyard with the name of the person you love, you should instead be writing "I <3 OAK" in the bark because trees are way cooler than girlfriends or boyfriends. The image represents the speaker's rejection of sexuality in favor of nature, something that is made very apparent as the poem continues (see the "Themes" section on "Man and the Natural World" for all the juicy deets).
    • Line 34: Ripe apples dropping brings up all kinds of symbolism. The over-ripeness of the apples (don't forget, they're falling for a reason), screams of fertility almost in excess. Apples themselves are intimately associated with Eve and the Garden of Eden (see the section below) and color is also coming into play (although that might vary depending on what kind of apples you're thinking of). How 'bout 'dem apples, indeed.
    • Line 35-36: The luscious clusters referenced in line 35 add a sensuality to the nature imagery in "The Garden," an allure that's only reinforced by the fact that wine comes from the grapes; the image of grapes "crushing" their wine in the speaker's mouth is also reminiscent of the great Greek and Roman Bacchanalian feasts where people were literally so drunk that they couldn't sit up and so rich that it didn't matter because they had servants to pour wine in their mouths anyway.
    • Lines 37-38: These lines are written in the same sensual tone as the rest of the fifth stanza. Here, the peach and nectarine are offering themselves up to the speaker, a gesture of total surrender and seductiveness.
    • Line 39: This is the picture of fertility. The garden is full of such abundant life that the fruit has taken over the path and the speaker cannot help but trip over all the produce.
    • Line 40: Unlike Adam and Eve, who fell into sin when they spiritually stumbled in the Garden of Eden, Marvell's garden is portrayed as a safe place. The speaker is ensnared by flowers, not the devil, and falls on grass, not into evil ways.
    • Line 50: The mossy root of the fruit tree might be something found in nature relatively frequently, but it certainly creates a picture of relaxation and picturesque beauty.
  • Colors

    If anyone has ever accused you of using "colorful language," it probably means that you've been walking between risqué and wittily irreverent. This is a fine line to tread, and Marvell's use of color (the ROY G. BIV kind) adds a significant amount of color (the saucy kind) to "The Garden." And that little extra sass is one of the reasons this poem really seems to come alive when you read it; Marvell is great at weaving in sensory detail, but what makes his descriptions spark is the double-meaning or symbolic implications of the words he chooses. 

    • Line 17: White and red are big time contributors to the realm of color symbolism. Conveniently for us, they're also typically associated with certain flowers (white for lilies, red for roses) which also plays into our garden setting. As you might have guessed, white and lilies are symbolic of innocence while their sexier counterpart, the red rose, represents passion and love.
    • Line 18: In spite of its association with fertility and new life, green doesn't often show up in poems that contain words like "amorous." Marvell's description and the speaker's preference for "amorous green," then, are one clue that this poem might not be going in a direction we expect.
    • Line 49: Green continues to represent fertility and new life in this line, although this time Marvell seems to be referring to both the fertility of the mind and the birth of new thoughts as well as the green shade provided by the garden plants.
    • Line 54: Silver is a tricky one, and it's not a color we see pop up too terribly often in poetry. Here, Marvell seems to be banking on silver's status as a cool, shiny color and playing up its ability to reflect what's around it.
  • Classical Mythology

    The Greek and Roman gods have come and gone in popularity over the centuries, but with Marvell they are certainly a lot closer to heroes than they are to zeroes. Allusions to classical myths pop up all over his poetry, and two are used very prominently in "The Garden." The myths of Apollo and Daphne and of Syrinx and Pan, however, are more forms of wordplay than they are symbolic gestures. Marvell takes two stories about deities who escape rape by turning into plants and changes the meaning; according to Marvell, the men whose designs are frustrated in the original myths weren't chasing after the women at all; they wanted the plants. Clever though the twist in meaning may be, it's plenty twisted enough to make us very wary of Marvell's speaker's true intentions.

    • Lines 29-30: You can check out the story of Apollo and Daphne here.
    • Lines 31-32: You can check out the story of Pan and Syrinx here.
  • The Garden of Eden

    About 100 years before Marvell was born, people in England were being burned alive for embellishing what was said in the Bible. During Marvell's lifetime, England went through a brutal civil conflict over religion. For some reason, though, if Marvell wants to "develop" what Genesis has to say about the Garden of Eden in a poem, that is A-OK. That's right Shmoopsters, Marvell's garden resembles the Garden of Eden in a lot of ways but, as you might expect from a guy like Marvell, some fairly significant changes have been made to the scenery.

    • Lines 34-38: The Bible describes the Garden of Eden as fertile, but this is taking it to a whole new level. We mean, this fruit is just throwing itself at the speaker and there's nary a bruise in sight.
    • Lines 39-40: The "Fall of Man" has no place in this Garden. Marvell's speaker does in fact fall, but it's on grass, not into a burning pit of fire and brimstone.
    • Lines 57-64: This stanza plays with the idea of Adam alone in Paradise. According to the Bible this was not the way things were supposed to be, but Marvell has other ideas. He's not hating on women really; the speaker is just longing for a place where people, namely sultry ladies, aren't keeping him from his thoughts. It is, however, pretty unorthodox and, in the wrong circumstances, could have gotten Marvell into a lot of trouble.
  • Metaphysical Imagery

    If you're studying metaphysics, you are primarily concerned with things that exist outside the realm of perceivable reality—things that people think are out there even though we can't physically see them. We're talking about things like the soul and the mind, and phenomena like human existence. These have been favorite topics of poets for centuries, but the non-material, potentially non-existent status of a lot of metaphysical subject matter makes them fairly hard to tackle. We mean, if someone asked you to describe a soul, how would you do it? Where would you even begin? For the Metaphysical Poets, the answer seems to lie in the use of imagery. In "The Garden," for example, Marvell uses metaphors, similes, and other images to describe metaphysical concepts, thus making intangible things seem more approachable and comprehensible to his average reader. A thorough understanding of these passages is pretty essential if you're going to understand how the imagery functions, so if you're still a little confused, hop on up to our "Detailed Summary" section, where we unpack each line, piece by piece. If you've got the metaphorical meaning of these lines down pat, then have at it! 

    • The Ocean, Lines 43-46: By comparing the mind to the ocean, Marvell is able to take a complicated, philosophical thought (the difference between images absorbed by the mind from real life and images created by the mind) and translate it into terms someone in the late 1600s would understand. The ocean theory was in vogue at the time, so people would have known what Marvell was getting at without him having to dive too deeply into philosophy-speak. 
    • The Bird, Lines 51-56: The garden, it seems, is a super-relaxing place for our speaker—so relaxing, in fact, that the speaker's soul can get naked (exit the body) and run around. The point of comparing the soul to the bird, however, emphasizes the fact that this is just one step in a long process of preparation. These brief moments where the soul escapes the body are practice for the much longer separation between soul and body, a.k.a. death. Just as birds need to rest, preen, and prepare their wings for a long migration, so the speaker believes that the soul needs time to prepare before the Grim Reaper comes a-knockin'.
    • The Sundial, Lines 65-70: We've got all sorts of imagery going on here. We have God as gardener, garden as sundial, and bees as people. The comparison goes something like this: God made time, and people keep track of time to know how much longer they have left in the world. The gardener plants flowers, and the bees use the cycle of life and death in nature to guide their actions and measure out their remaining hours.
    • By comparing human life to the short-lived bloom of flowers in a garden, Marvell emphasizes just how brief our existence on this planet is. Relatively speaking, our lives are no more significant or enduring than the lives of insects and our lifespans no lengthier than an English summer.
    • Steaminess Rating

      PG-13

      "The Garden" is proof that you don't need sex to have a sexual poem. This poem is crawling with sensual images and sexual innuendo, which makes us giggle a little bit because the poem is basically about Marvell's love affair with trees. There's nothing funny about the sexualized imagery in "The Garden" though; the poetic beauty of Marvell's poem is compromised for many people who cannot look past the misogynistic undertones they see in his lyrics.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References:

      • Lines 13-14: Hermes Trismegistus—the idea that everything on earth has a similar but more superior counterpart in the heavens comes from a line of philosophical thinking called Hermeticism.
      • Lines 19-20: Virgil, Eclogue X, ln 53-54—"It is better to suffer and carve my love on the young trees. They will grow; thou, too, my love, wilt grow."
      • Lines 43-44: Pliny, Natural History, IX.i.2—the image depends on the idea that all species on land had their corresponding species in the sea
      • Lines 52-56: Spenser, An Hymne of Heavenly Beautie (1596), ln 24-8— "to mount aloft by order dew, / To contemplation of th'immortal sky, / Of the soare falcon so I learne to fly, / That flags awhile her fluttering wings beneath, / Till she her selfe for stronger flight can breathe."

      Mythological References:

      • Lines 29-30: The story of Daphne and Apollo—Ovid, Metamorphoses I, ln 452- 567
      • Lines 31-32: The story of Pan and Syrinx—Ovid, Metamorphoses I, ln 698-712

      Biblical References:

      • Line 40: Job 18:10— "The snare is laid for him in the ground, and a trap for him in the way"
      • Isaiah 40:6— "All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field"
      • Line 60: Genesis 2:18—"And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him"