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.