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,
Whose short and narrow-vergèd shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all the flowers and trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.
Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence, thy sister dear!
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy companies of men:
Your sacred plants, if here below,
Only among the plants will grow;
Society is all but rude,
To this delicious solitude.
Andrew Marvell (1621–1678)
A garden is many things: somewhere to relax, to escape, but also to nurture green shoots painstakingly from the soil; a place where time stands still, but also where we see the changes wrought by every season. It is both the scene beyond our window and a complex symbol of nature, life, and eternity.
Marvell’s poem begins by describing the garden of the world’s affairs, in which men strive hard to win crowns of “the palm, the oak, or bays.” (Julius Caesar wearing his wreath of beaten-gold laurel leaves comes to mind.) These three trees represent military, civic, and poetic honors, respectively.
Yet somehow these efforts are in vain. When our “uncessant” or unceasing labors are directed at one goal and one goal only, we will never see the wood, or rather garden, for the flowering shrubs, topiary, and trees.
What is the personal cost of striving to achieve fame? Is our satisfaction short-changed by superficiality—and our humanity undercut by petty competition? Are we somehow limiting our growth? The “short and narrow-vergéd shade” suggests that such achievement is surprisingly fleeting and of little use beyond gratifying our greed.
All the while, the “flowers and trees do close,” weaving “garlands” not to honor action, but “repose.” Here “close” is used in an older definition of "to unite," so that the garden speaks as one, revealing to us that it is the miracle of recreation that crowns our days; after all, life for most of human history has been nasty, brutish, and short. But this “repose” is more than relaxation: it is a time and space for us to think, to reflect, to meditate: to live on our own terms and not sacrifice ourselves to others.
In the tranquillity of the garden, we find “Fair Quiet” and “Innocence.” Personified as sisters, they are like two graces that visit us in our hour of need, taking us away from noise and distraction.
Our poet Andrew Marvell has been foolish enough to look for them among “busy companies of men.” The futility of this is brought home by the next two lines: ‘Your sacred plants, if here below/ Only among the plants will grow.” The repetition of “plants” may seem rather lazy and uninspired. Plants will grow among plants—so what? However, I think the repetition deliberately gives the statement the quality of a truism, possibly trite but still worth considering: whisperings of immortality can’t be heard on the raucous high street—they can only be caught amid the murmur of leaves, numinous with possibility.
The stanza ends with a tart alliterative opposition: society or solitude? Upsetting our expectations, the first is “rude,” while the second is “delicious” and the one that is truly civilized.
From these two opening stanzas, so delicately interweaving naturalistic detail and social commentary, the rest of the poem goes on for another seven stanzas, taking the reader back to the classical age when Greek gods darted and frolicked among the trees.We see Apollo chasing Daphne; Pan pursuing Syrinx; the merry-go-round of love goes on and on. In stanza five, Marvell imagines “ripe apples” dropping on his head, with “lustrous clusters of the vine” upon his mouth. He momentarily views life as a garden of infinite pleasures, where appetite is restlessly provoked.
Yet, inevitably, the insatiable appetite begins to look a little higher; and contemplation replaces intoxication. Marvell reflects on how his mind wanders among the beauty of the garden and “withdraws into its happiness.” In a wonderful phrase, Marvell observes that the mind converts everything to “a green thought in a green shade,” extrapolating from the particulars of bush and briar, an archetypal paradise.
Marvell concludes by evoking the Garden of Eden, occupied by the “skillful gardener.” And when he asks, “How could such sweet and wholesome hours/ Be reckoned but with herbs and flowers?”, who could disagree? Time to pick up a trowel and start weeding.
Andrew Marvell (1621–1678) was an English metaphysical poet.