The Garden Summary
"The Garden" is basically a poem about someone who thinks that hanging out in nature is the coolest thing a person could do, and being able to hang in nature by yourself is the whipped cream and cherry on top of that already delicious garden sundae. But the poem doesn't start out that way. In fact, the poem opens far, far, away from Marvell's garden world with a condemnation of society. It criticizes men who work their butts off to gain public recognition because really, they're losing out—all that time in the office means they aren't spending time in the great outdoors and, according to Marvell, they're got their priorities all mixed up.
Next the speaker talks about how he used to look for "quiet" and "innocence" in society but has discovered that even the best that mankind has to offer isn't as awesome as the solitude of nature, a point which is capped off by a cute little anecdote that explains why trees are better than girlfriends. And just in case anyone remains unconvinced, the speaker calls in some Greek mythology for backup—even classical gods like Apollo and Pan, he says, liked plants better than people.
Stanza 5 marks a shift in the speaker's argument from nature vs. society into pure praise for the awesomeness of nature, epitomized by the idea of "the garden." Wherever this garden is, the speaker is clearly pumped up about the idea of spending lots of time there. There's lots of delicious fruit, so many melons that you can't even find room to walk, and nice cushy grass to fall on in case you get too drunk on all the wine that "luscious clusters" of grapes are dripping into your mouth.
Marvell then takes things up a notch and starts talking about spiritual things like the mind and the soul. It's complicated language, but the speaker is basically saying that being in the garden allows the mind to be at its best and the soul to be its most content. And what would be extremely awesome for the mind and soul would be the opportunity to enjoy the garden alone; in Biblical terms, Adam would have been better off if Eve never existed (the jury is still out on what Marvell's wife thought about this last bit). The poem concludes with some images of God as a gardener-clockmaker and compares the flowers in the garden to a super-huge sundial by which humankind can measure their lives.
How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays;
And their uncessant labors see
Crowned from some single herb or tree,
- The speaker starts off in a kind of scoffing, mocking tone: look at all those silly men working their behinds off out there trying to win some trees. How ridiculous are they?
- But these aren't just any trees. The palm tree, the oak, and the bay, or laurel tree all have special significance in classical traditions. A crown made out of the branches of each tree is given out to people who deserve honor in a specific field: the palm tree for military honors, the oak tree for political honors, and the laurel tree for poetic honors.
- These awards are a big deal. They mean someone important (the king, emperor, governor, despot, whomever) has noticed your work and called you out for being awesome, and that kind of recognition also opens up the door for making more money or getting yourself a better job. Translation: there are lots of reasons to want those tree crowns and lots of people willing to work very, very hard to get them.
- Our speaker doesn't seem to be one of those people, though. He doesn't praise the work ethic of these men; he mocks them for working so hard for something so insignificant. We don't know exactly what our speaker has got against all these men who are striving for glory, but the use of words like "vainly" (in vain), "uncessant" (never-ending), and "labors" (hard work) indicates a negative impression.
- Take a look at line 4. The phrase "crowned from some single herb or tree" isn't meant to sound impressive. Crowns are generally very elaborate, and are obviously associated with royalty and power, but the crowns here are made out of "some single herb or tree." The speaker can't even be bothered to figure out what kind of herb or tree it is! It's just "some herb"—and a "single" herb at that. It seems like our speaker thinks that sounds pretty lame.
Whose short and narrow vergèd shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all flow'rs and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.
- The speaker continues his scoffing in lines 5 and 6, but the wording is a bit tricky so we'll help spell it out. Line 5 opens and we're still talking about tree crowns. In case you were wondering, our speaker's opinion of them hasn't improved: these crowns are so worthless, they can't even offer shade! Instead of being an honor, the crowns are, in essence, a badge of disapproval.
- The "short and narrow verged shade" of the wreaths upbraids, or censures, the toils and labors of the men striving to earn them.
- If you're confused already, don't worry—lines 7 and 8 get us up to speed. The wreaths from lines 1-4, it seems, are being compared to "all flow'rs and all trees." The criticism of their "short and narrow vergèd shade" makes sense when you think about the shade you'd get from wearing a crown or wreath compared to the shade of a whole canopy of trees, vines, and flowers.
- It seems that, while all those men are busy with their "uncessant labors," the speaker is kickin' it out in nature. The flowers and trees out in the natural world are weaving themselves together to create a beautiful, stress-free, super-shady environment for the speaker to relax in.
- This stanza, as a whole, is making a point about workaholics. The speaker is wondering why men spend so much time working in their stuffy offices to earn one measly crown of oak branches that can't even keep them out of the sun when all those men could and should be spending time with the hundreds of different kinds of trees that exist in the garden.
- The answer to the speaker's question, of course, is that the crowns are not just tree branches woven together, they symbolize something—glory, honor, talent, and recognition. But the speaker already knows that, and he's twisting the tradition in order to prove a point: the natural world has better things to offer than the man-made world. Our speaker doesn't really think that men who work their bums off to write the best poem ever want the crown of laurel because they want to use its branches for shade. He's taking a tradition that uses something from nature to celebrate a public accomplishment and saying things should be the other way around: we, the public, should be celebrating nature instead.
- This kind of tradition-twisting and wordplay is a form of wit, and wit is something Andrew Marvell's poetry is known for.
- Keep your eyes open for other situations in "The Garden" where familiar stories, traditions, or ideas are interpreted in unfamiliar ways.
- Here at the beginning of a poem is also the perfect time to take notice of the rhyme, form, and meter. As you might have noticed, this poem is broken up into nine stanzas, each of which is an octave (a fancy name for a stanza with 8 lines). It's also good to note that the poem is written in rhymed couplets of iambic tetrameter. Questions? We've got lots more to say about the role of rhyme schemes and stanza forms in "The Garden," so if this has whetted your appetite, zip over to the "Form and Meter" section to dig a little deeper.
Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence, thy sister dear!
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy companies of men.
- In stanza 2 we learn that our speaker has found "Fair Quiet" and "Innocence" "here." Where exactly "here" is we don't know yet, but we know where it is not. Lines 11 and 12 tell us that the speaker, once upon a time, looked for "Fair Quiet" and "Innocence" in society, but came back empty-handed.
- Lines 9 and 10 use a literary device known as personification, or the act of referring to a non-living object (idea, place, thing, quality) as if it had personal attributes. Marvell refers to "Fair Quiet" as having a sister, Innocence, and therefore personifies the two ideas.
- You might be tempted to label the speaker's address to "Fair Quiet" in line 9 as an apostrophe, but is it really? It looks an awful lot like one, but in order for it to be a true apostrophe, it has to be an address to someone or something who isn't there. "Fair Quiet" is referred to as being "here." Of course, whether or not you consider it an apostrophe depends on where you think "here" is. Let's keep reading to see if we get any more clues.
Your sacred plants, if here below,
Only among the plants will grow.
Society is all but rude,
To this delicious solitude.
- The "your" at the beginning of line 13 refers all the way back up to "Fair Quiet" in line 9. So now the speaker, it seems, is talking about Fair Quiet owning plants—plants which, we learn in line 14, only grow among other plants.
- At first glance line 14 seems like a weird and totally obvious statement to make. Why should Fair Quiet's plants not be found with plants belonging to anyone else?
- In order to really understand lines 13 and 14, we have to dip into a little seventeenth century philosophy. These lines are actually referring to the idea that all the plants on earth are inferior versions of the plants that grow "above" or in heaven. The sunflowers you see out your window, for example, are all well and good, but they aren't anywhere close to being as beautiful as the sunflowers that grow in the afterlife.
- Marvell is talking up nature. He's saying that, if the sacred versions of plants exist anywhere on earth, they'd be found hanging out with the other plants. Nature, even in its inferior, earthly form, is a more suitable place for sacred plants than anything human society could come up with.
- Lines 15 and 16 sum things up: society can't compare to being alone in the great outdoors.
- The mention of "solitude" in line 16 catches our attention. The speaker isn't just trying to escape the hustle and bustle of city life; he's saying "I want some 'me time' out here in the country and don't anyone even think of trying to tag along." It seems that the only way to stay truly removed from society is to have no company at all.
No white nor red was ever seen
So am'rous as this lovely green;
- In these lines the speaker is comparing colors, and his conclusion is a surprising one: apparently green, not red or white, is the most romantic color.
- But what does it mean for a color to be "am'rous" (amorous)? The dictionary definition of amorous is "showing, feeling, or related to sexual desire," but green isn't usually a color we associate with love. In fact, red and white are much more traditional. Hmm.
- Now whenever colors appear in poetry, you can usually bet that some fairly significant symbolism is going to come along with them. Traditionally speaking, white represents innocence, red symbolizes lust and romance, and green is the color of fertility.
- So what do you think? Does the association of green with fertility make it an "am'rous" color? Or is Marvell pulling another witty trick and getting at something else entirely? Let's read on…
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees their mistress' name.
Little, alas, they know, or heed,
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair trees! wheres'e'er your barks I wound
No name shall but your own be found.
- In case you missed his point about trees being better than people back in stanza 2, Marvell illustrates it here with a nice bit of imagery.
- Ever heard your parents refer to "old flames" from back in their high school days? This goes back to a really common simile that compares the heat of a romantic relationship to the heat of a burning flame. Marvell, though, turns this comparison around; the heat of the flame becomes a cruel thing, and instead of comparing romantic heat favorably to the heat of fire, Marvell draws on fire's capacity to destroy and burn things up.
- So when Marvell writes that lovers are "cruel as their flame," he's saying the lovers are destroying things in the same way that fire does. As we'll see in the next line, he's referring immediately to trees but many people also interpret this line as a critique of romantic relationships in general. They read it as saying something more like this: lovers, who are as cruel to the outside world as they are to each other.
- These lovers are engaging in the old-fashioned practice of carving each other's names into tree bark. But why is Marvell describing this as "cruel"? It seems harmless enough, right?
- In line 21: a-ha! There's something these lovers don't know about what they're doing. Either that, or they know and choose to ignore it.
- According to Marvell, the cruelty is a result of a lack of appreciation. The lovers are too busy wooing their women to notice that their totally clichéd romantic gestures are destroying something that's far more beautiful than their ladyloves. Being attracted to women, apparently, is for ignoramuses. Trees are the new ladies. You get the picture.
- As you might have expected, our speaker is not going to fall into the same trap. "Fair trees!" he apostrophizes, if anyone ever catches me carving anything into your bark…
- They'll only find a big heart with "I <3 OAKS" written in it.
When we have run our passions' heat,
Love hither makes his best retreat:
- We've moved onto the next stanza, but we're still talking about romantic love in line 25. The line essentially reads "when we have exhausted our sexual desire," but there is a pun going on with the word "heat." Marvell is immediately referring to "heat" as in romantic heat, but it also refers to the "heat" as the heats of a race.
- The pun on "heat" introduces us to the predominant metaphor in this stanza, which compares the pursuit of sexual passion to the running of a race.
- After our sexual desires are exhausted, love retreats to "hither." Now "hither" is an old-timey word that probably even your grandparents are too young to have used. It basically means "towards this place," a.k.a. the garden.
- But what is Marvell really saying? That after we're sick of loving people we start loving plants? How does Love, a feeling, retreat anyway?
- Notice that Marvell personifies Love in line 26 by referring to "his […] retreat" (our emphasis). Love is no longer a feeling, but a person. The retreat, then, is a person's retreat. This raises lots of questions concerning the speaker's opinion of the worth of romance and of society in general. Chew on that one Shmoopsters, and let us know what you come up with.
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.
- Just in case you don't believe that all love stories end with dudes ditching their women for trees, Marvell has some good old-fashioned mythology to back up his point.
- The gods, he says, known connoisseurs of "mortal beauty," really weren't into the ladies; they only wanted women for the plants they would become.
- This isn't as totally crazy as it sounds. People are occasionally turned into plants according to Greek mythology. But it doesn't go down quite how Marvell tells the story, either.
- Marvell uses the stories of Apollo and Daphne and Pan and Syrinx as examples, which you can read in more detail here and here. In super-abbreviated form, both stories involve men (Apollo and Pan) who fall madly in love with ladies-nymphs (Daphne and Syrinx), but the ladies want nothing to do with them or any other man. The men chase the women all over the woods and are about to catch them when river gods decide to swoop in and save the day by turning the ladies into plants. (Daphne becomes the laurel tree and Syrinx becomes a reed.) Hence, the "race" of the gods ends in trees.
- Marvell's rendering of the story, though, leaves out the part where Apollo and Pan are devastated and the river gods were actually being sneaky and vindictive. (Daphne's father really wanted grandchildren and was punishing his daughter for wanting to remain a virgin.)
- But, once again, Marvell knows this. He isn't using the stories to support his "trees are better than people" point because he thinks that's how it actually happened; he's twisting the stories around in an attempt to be witty.
- We think Marvell's super witty, but that doesn't change the fact that this stanza gives readers, especially modern readers, some serious pause. Is there some resentment of women lurking under the surface here? And if there is, does that affect the way you look at the rest of the poem?
- The tone of this stanza is a little tongue-in-cheek, but also a little dark.
- Marvell is, after all, making a joke out of two myths about rape. Eek.
What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
- Now we're in stanza 5 and, man, does our speaker seem excited to be here. "What wondrous life is this I lead!" This sounds like a par-tay.
- And, as you might have noticed, it also sounds remarkably different in tone than what we encountered in the previous stanza.
- This, folks, is what we call a volta. Volta is an Italian word meaning "turn" and, in poetry, it represents the specific place in a poem where the speaker's train of thought shifts, changes abruptly, or "turns."
- Words like "but," "and yet," or "alas" are common indicators that a volta might be right around the corner, but here the transition is more subtle. The shift in thought is really more like a shift in argument. The speaker turns from his argument that nature is better than society and begins talking, instead, about why nature is so awesome.
- The speaker does a great job of making the garden sound like the sweetest place on earth. Ripe apples falling from the trees, grapes leaking their juices into his mouth…
- Actually, it also sounds a little too good to be true. This passage also marks where "The Garden" really becomes a pastoral poem as opposed a poem that just talks about nature. A pastoral is a poem that presents nature in an idealized and unrealistic form, as opposed to describing nature as it actually appears. So while we know that apples do get ripe and fall from trees and grapes are occasionally leaky, the romanticized, totally perfect, blissful way in which it's described here is a little too perfect to be taken at face value.
- Nature is also proactively giving the speaker everything he wants. He isn't picking the apples, they're dropping right in front of him. The "luscious clusters" of grapes are squeezing themselves into his mouth—no effort needed.
- This no-work-necessary description of nature creates the idea that nature is awesome because it's a place that is both luxurious and relaxing. In an era where being outside is more likely to be associated with plowing the fields than playing in gardens, this is an important distinction to make.
The nectarine, and curious peach,
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flow'rs, I fall on grass.
- The wording here is pretty clear: fruit is so plentiful that it's literally rolling itself into the speaker's hands; there are so many melons he can't even find a place to walk, and even if he does trip up, it doesn't matter because he's falling on a soft, cushy bed of grass.
- Once again we see nature proactively giving the speaker everything he needs. Fruit, melons, flowers, a nice place to lie down—the garden has got it covered.
- The idea of the speaker falling introduces some of the biblical imagery, specifically Garden of Eden stuff, that will become more prevalent in stanza 8. Adam and Eve's decision to eat the forbidden fruit is commonly referred to as the "fall of man."
- The speaker also "falls" in his garden, but his fall reinforces the idea of the garden as a safe and relaxing place. He is ensnared with flowers, not by Satan, and falls on grass instead of into sin and eternal damnation.
Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
- While our speaker is physically busy relaxing in the garden, his mind, it seems, is busy as well.
- To be precise, the mind is "withdrawing into its happiness," or basically getting itself to a swell state where the mind can do what it loves to do—think.
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
- In line 43 we see the mind described as "that ocean." Since we know the mind is not actually an ocean, this means we have a metaphor on our hands. But before we can really dive into the meaning of that metaphor (no pun intended), there are some things you need to know about seventeenth century philosophy. Sound fun? Great!!
- The logic behind this "mind is ocean" metaphor goes back to a theory about nature that was in vogue back in Marvell's day, namely that for every species on land there is a corresponding species that lives in the ocean. Ever heard of manatees referred to as " sea cows" or tuna called "the chicken of the sea"? It's kind of like that, except that the theory goes farther and says that there is a tuna = chicken kind of equation for every single species on earth.
- Now, Marvell's metaphor compares the mind to the ocean, but what he's really trying to say is that, just like the all the ocean creatures correspond to all the land creatures, the mind has in it a corresponding image for every the object in the world.
- Think of it like this: you've seen a desk before, yes? Okay. So, now you can picture what that desk looks like in your mind. A desk isn't physically in your head (ouch!), but there is an image of a desk in your mind that you can call up should you ever need to remember what a desk looks like.
- But we're not done yet. Marvell has to take the metaphor even further to get to his real point, which goes something like this: the mind is capable of holding all these images of things that exist in the real world, but it is also capable of creating worlds of its own, that is, imagining things that do not exist in real life.
- The speaker of "The Garden" thinks these images that the mind creates "transcend" or surpass any images that are merely remembered or absorbed from the physical world. For example, no one has seen the soul, but using our minds we can think about the soul and imagine what it might be like. This, according to the speaker, is the highest and best level of thinking, and being in the garden is a good thing because it seems to help the speaker reach this higher level. Phew.
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.
- We're going to preface this section of the summary by telling you that this is one of the most debated and famous passages, not of this poem, but of Marvell's poetry in general. And that's saying a lot because the dude talks about some pretty complex stuff. Okay, on with the analyzing.
- We're still talking about the imagination, or the capacity of the mind to create and imagine things that don't exist in the physical world. These images that the mind comes up with annihilate, or obliterate, all the images of things that do exist in the physical world.
- Fun fact: another definition of "annihilate" is to "treat as non-existent," which we think works perfectly with what Marvell is trying to say.
- But what does it mean to annihilate something "to a green thought in a green shade"? There are theories, Shmoopsters, but no definitive answers. But this sounds fun so we'll have a crack at it anyway.
- Let's take it piece by piece. What do you think a "green thought" is?
- A good place to start is to go back to other places in the poem where Marvell has mentioned the color green. Remember back in stanza 3, when the speaker talked about green as "am'rous"?
- But also remember that he's not talking about amorous in the normal sense. The speaker's got a thing for trees. So, "a green thought" is possibly a kinda-sorta-romantic thought about nature. Which makes sense, because if you're thinking about nature, you're likely thinking about things that are green.
- The same principle applies for figuring out "in a green shade." Our speaker is in a garden and we know he feels that being in the garden allows him to think better. So, "a green thought in a green shade" is talking about an original kinda-sorta-romantic thought about nature made while in nature.
- Put all together, the lines say: the mind rejects thinking about what exists in the world in favor of coming up with original thoughts about nature, and original thoughts about nature can only occur while the person thinking them is actively in the natural world.
- So here's a question for you Shmoopsters: by that standard does this poem qualify as "a green thought in a green shade"?
Here at the fountain's sliding foot,
Or at some fruit-tree's mossy root,
Casting the body's vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide:
- We get to stanza 7 and our speaker is kickin' it. He's relaxing at the base of a fountain, he's leaning up against a nice, mossy fruit tree root and just generally having a grand old time.
- But while his body is stationary, his soul is just waking up. "The body's vest" is another way of saying "skin," so our speaker is talking about an actual out-of-body experience.
- His soul is gliding away into the trees, but he doesn't seem concerned about it at all.
- The soul, in fact, is running the whole show. We don't know where this is going but it sure has gotten good.
There like a bird it sits and sings,
Then whets, and combs its silver wings;
And, till prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.
- Describing what the soul is up to is apparently a little tricky, so Marvell uses another simile to help make things more clear.
- The speaker's soul is like a bird.
- This soul-bird seems happy, too. It's sitting, singing, and getting its feathers all fancy.
- The bird is also preparing for "longer flight," which brings in the second part of our simile. Indirectly, the migration of a bird is being compared to the death of the speaker. The "longer flight" is actually the permanent separation between soul and body at the time of natural death.
- You might think that death would be a downer, but the speaker's soul seems very okay with the idea. Its "preparation" seems actually very pleasant and relaxing. Why do we think our speaker is able to be so calm?
- Poetic devices like alliteration and consonance don't play a huge role in "The Garden," but we did notice some S sounds appearing pretty frequently in this passage. They're soft, breathy, and contribute to the overall relaxing tone of the stanza.
- (Check out "Sound Check" for more of this stuff.)
Such was that happy garden-state,
While man there walked without a mate:
After a place so pure and sweet,
What other help could yet be meet!
- The "such was" that opens stanza 8 refers immediately back to the situation being described in stanza 7. Remember, where the speaker's soul was flying around like a bird?
- Apparently the speaker thinks that is what it was like in The Garden of Eden (that happy garden-state) before Eve came along and ruined everything.
- The speaker can't imagine why God would have thought it necessary to add anything to his creation after making Adam.
- That's interesting because, without Eve, more people could obviously not have existed.
- Line 60 is a fairly direct reference to a Bible verse in Genesis: "And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him."
- So does this mean our speaker's yearning for solitude flies in the face of what God ordained back at the beginning of time? Or is this just another example of Marvell's famous wit?
But 'twas beyond a mortal's share
To wander solitary there :
Two paradises 'twere in one
To live in Paradise alone.
- The speaker seems resigned to the fact that his dream of solo Paradise will never actually come true, but that doesn't mean he's giving up the chase.
- Lines 63 and 64 are super-famous. They essentially say that living in Paradise would be great, and living by yourself would be Paradise. So it would be a double-Paradise if you could live in Paradise and not have to share it with anyone else.
- And we're sure Marvell meant to include that it would be three paradises in one if Shmoop could be there to keep him company.
- Also, a quick point about tone. Did you notice how lines 63 and 64 sound kind of like an aphorism, or proverb? They make a profound point, but do it in an incredibly concise, clean kind of way. This is very typical of Marvell's poetry. He picked the style up from classical authors, but always makes sure to mellow out the terseness with a little flowery language. That way, the poem sounds succinct and clean without becoming too harsh.
How well the skillful gard'ner drew
Of flow'rs and herbs this dial new;
Where from above the milder sun
Does through a fragrant zodiac run;
- In line 65, the speaker praises the gardener for the work he has done.
- Using another metaphor, Marvell compares the speaker's garden to a sundial made of flowers and herbs. We recommend checking this out if you want to know more about how sundials work.
- According to the metaphor, the changing of the seasons turns the flowers into mini-sundials. You can follow the passing of time by watching the flowers bloom, grow, and fade in the same way that you can track time by keeping your sundial handy.
- The "fragrant zodiac" is really just another way of restating the metaphor. Different zodiac signs correspond with certain positions of the sun in the sky, so the "fragrant zodiac" is the different flowers and herbs that bloom and wither at different times of the year.
- This can also be looked at from a spiritual perspective, where God is the gardener-clockmaker and the sundial measures not just the passing of a day or a year, but the life of the speaker.
And, as it works, th' industrious bee
Computes its time as well as we.
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckoned but with herbs and flow'rs!
- We're still working with the sundial metaphor in the final lines of the poem, except now a new piece has been added: the bee.
- The bees are presented as being "industrious" and "computing their time" or keeping track of their days. Their most logical metaphorical counterpart, then, is people.
- Marvell even comes out and says it in line 70: the bees compute their time "as well as we." This could mean that they do just as good of a job as we do, but it could also mean that bees keep track of time just like humans do.
- The last two lines of the poem bring everything together. Our speaker, like the bees, chooses to spend his hours in the garden, amongst the herbs and flowers. But if we switch gears and go back to imagining the garden as a sundial, the sentiment still works, because the herbs and flowers are literally being used as ways to keep track of time.