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?
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.