Study Guide

The Garden Stanza 3

By Andrew Marvell

Stanza 3

Lines 17-18

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…

Lines 19-24

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.