Even Christopher Ricks, whose criticism is chary in its courtship of the political, feels that Marvell, in one of the crucial aspects of his style, responds to the strife disemboweling the nation in the time of Civil War. Ricks sets Marvell alongside a set of Ulster poets, no coterie themselves, so as to show that the self-reflexive simile is not only a matter of a poet’s scrutinizing the analysis and comparison at the heart of poetic image-making, but also an emblem of division restored in unity and identity: an emblem of hope for countries at odds with themselves. Empson applauded Ricks’ essay on grounds of its recognizing in Marvell something other than a poet concerned with poetry and the imagination—though nowadays, thanks to the MFA industry, “imagination” is out and “craft” is in:
Ricks is concerned with the idea of being self-inwoven, as when the dew-drop ’round in itself encloses’ or in the conceit ‘mine own precipice I go’. I feared that the sad cult of solipsism was going to crop up; ‘A poem should not mean, but be’ has so often turned out to mean ‘the ideal poem is about poetical techniques and jealous quarrels with other poets’; so it was a refreshing surprise when Ricks found the trope typical of civil war…
But Ricks recognizes, and Empson too, that there is inherent in Marvell a desire to be about something other than civil war; it’s a trope that is typical, but also a trope that turns away, looking in on itself not only in solipsism, but in uncertainty as to how much it does resemble something beyond. One of the strengths of Ricks’ essay is in remaining sensitive to Marvell’s wanting to have things both ways, for feeling tempted towards the political and for feeling the urge to withdraw entirely. “The poetry does say…that the human creature in the world is inherently puzzled or betrayed,” says Empson, in the same review piece. In his earlier contribution to Marvell criticism, in Some Versions of Pastoral, Empson had suggested that the inherent puzzle lay in reconciling the worldly with the simple swain, the bustle in the calm, and the multiplicity in the annihilating green of the Garden; but the puzzle, I would say, is not whether the Garden can contain and resolve, but whether the Garden contains or whether it excludes—and a puzzle even of which Marvell would have it do. It is a puzzle of whether there is a place of no engagement, or not; and, from that, a puzzle as to whether it would be satisfying if there were.
Whereas Donne was the metaphysical of erotic fulfillment and disappointment; Marvell is the metaphysical of erotic temptation and flirtation. In the self-inwoven similes, the turn in on oneself is with another in mind; the fulfillment is solitary, but not self-dependent. The poems ask to be read as suggesting political savor; but also, because they only suggest it, refusing it.
(This from the poet whose other most anthologized poem, aside from “The Garden,” beseeches consummation, rather than admiration; but the quickening of that poem is in imagining the grave, a prurient glance at the worms trying her virginity, and pondering the expanse of time, and moving nearer without arriving. The poem takes pleasure in the prospect of desire left forever unfulfilled—as all flirting must. Nabokov, in Cambridge in the 20s, must have been doused in Marvell; would he have forgotten the lines, from “Coy Mistress,” “I by the tide | of Humber would complain”? —and would not Nabokov was much as any have delighted in the self-mirroring of the self-inwoven simile)
Aside the self-inwoven simile, I would set another, from “Damon the Mower”:
Sharp like his scythe his sorrow was
And withered like his hope the grass.
The oddness of the lines lies in their chiasmatic inversion of the terms of comparison, so that sorrow and grass align and hope and scythe. There is no preferred vantage point; the immediate thought is that this is, pace Eliot, pace everyone, still another instance of Marvell’s marvelous equanimity and equipoise, his seeing both sides and giving no preference to the one or the other. And the immediate thought is not wrong or unhelpful, but the equipoise and equanimity are themselves a symptom, common to these lines and to the self-inwoven or self-reflective simile, the terms of which are in perfectly equal weight. The equipoise is a refusal to commit, a refusal to consummate, a refusal to settle: the metaphors are all hopelessly romantic, or rather hopelessly hopeless-romance, the stuff of self-help and self-fulfillment. But for Marvell fulfillment is often poised between the prospect of the self alone and the possibility of union with another, were the self-inwoven simile moves towards the latter in its syntax, but resolves itself as the former in its semantics.
The objection is that “The Garden” is a poem of retreat. The penultimate stanza rejects even the charms of the opposite sex:
Such was that happy garden-state
While man there walked without a mate:
After a place so pure, and sweet
What other help could there be meet!
But ’twas beyond a mortal’s share
To wander solitary there:
Two paradises ’twere in one
To live in paradise alone.
But as Empson saw when reading the poem, Paradise does hold the prospect of containing within itself so much more, including sensual others; the trees are Daphne, and the reeds Syrinx. Granted, they have been transformed; but their originals cannot be disposed of, and the thought occurs that the Garden, as Marvell conceives it line by line is, in being the object of impossible pursuit, transformed similarly into something else, something that is not a place of retreat, but instead a substitute, somehow an equivalent, for the world more generally. Yet for the Garden to be so pure as to act as a substitute for the world would be too great a pleasure for man; that desire itself could not be consummated and so the prospect of another desire, a mate, is introduced—and the desire for her obliterates the desire for the Garden not because solitude is required for meditation, but because she’s a distraction, splitting desire against itself. Or worse: demanding, since she’s a mate, as Daphne and Syrinx were’t, something lasting. And the prospect of duration–either flirtation in perpetuity or bond-service to the mate, forsaking the time of the garden, leads to the final stanza:
How well the skillful gardener drew
Of flowers and herbs this dial new,
Where from above the milder sun
Does through a fragrant zodiac run;
And, as it works, the industrious bee
Computes its time as well as we.
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckoned but with time and flowers.
Marvell is fascinated by the experience of reaching out further and further only to find one’s object drawing back anew, each time; and he is fascinated by it from both perspectives: to look inwards, to find new worlds, and then to annihilate them to a green thought in a green shade…Or, in “On a Drop of Dew”:
In how coy a figure wound,
Every way it turns away:
So the world excluding round,
Yet receiving in the day,
Dark beneath, but bright above
Here disdaining, there in love.
How loose and easy hence to go,
How girt and ready to ascend,
Moving but on a point below,
It all about does upward bend.
Ready, but not departed; and Marvell’s poem snatching and preserving the drop at the instant of determine but unrealized velleity. Not that it could go either way, but that it wants to go, and that Marvell is fascinated by that moment of wanting to and not: the poise of shape, the symmetry of design, these are matters of not yet committing to engagement: the beauty of design, the unworldly intelligence, that can only exist when the potential crests without crashing.
And even the hero of Marvell’s imagination, Damon the Mower, his Pierrot, is an ideal figure because of the form his engagement with the world takes: one that cuts down only that which, perforce, can and must return; one that acts to bide the time till further growth. And that is another way of speaking of the same thing: biding the time not in suspended actions, but in actions that perpetuate suspense. Perhaps Juliana, whose name hearkens to Julius, to the empire and emperor, threatens him not because desire is inherently threatening, or even because he feels pain in his love, but because it might be that she is not of the mower’s world at all—that she will demand a greater removal than of the grass from the fields, the prospect of death and action in her being more than the inconsequential type of it in his daily rounds. Or perhaps she is permitted as an object of desire because she is merely a type herself: a possibility of a greater reality left unrealized and unfulfilled.