Not that the poems are about language, but they are about a mild yearning for something beyond or before civilization and the human existence that seems, to Marvell, to demand and aspire to the civilization that he would see around and through; language being a part of such an existence, and such a civilization, the poems cannot but also reflect on their own means or mode of being.
Their verbal artifice gazes longingly to some sort of state where not only artifice, but words too are not required, or where they are entirely redundant. Such a feeling drives the conceits of “The Garden,” where the only names inscribed in the bark of trees would be the names of trees; where solitude is preferred to the company even of a perfect mate because she or he would demand conversation.
Perhaps because so much of the praise of Marvell is on technical grounds–an admiration for his conceits, for his wit, for his poise and equanimity–it took me a long time to see what a strange mind he had: that he is really something like a Platonist (the Cambridge Platonists are held as a source of his thought) or a Pantheist, and so like Wordsworth or Yeats. The reason I didn’t see it, though, has to do with his not bewailing, raging against, or moaning through the plight of separation.
The reason, I think, is because Marvell feels that, even though the fundamental unity of all things, the perfect silence, the wild harmony of the world, has been fractured or lost to man, there exist ways of recovering or sustaining contact with it–and Marvell himself has mastered one such way: the poetry performs the magic. That is why it can be so poised, take such an equanimous view even of historical crises like the death of Charles; without being the pure wilderness of the platonic unity itself, it can serve as a conduit to it, or draw on it, in its conceits. A key statement comes at the end of “Damon the Mower,” a poem that I too long thought an especially witty variation on a pastoral conceit:
Their statues, polished by some ancient hand,
May to adorn the gardens stand:
But howso’er the figures do excel,
The gods themselves with us do dwell.
And this because the Mower dwells in the wilderness, would at least see that there is something more fundamental to the gardens of civilized man; a sort of Being underlying its being. I was taught, I’m pretty sure, that the metaphysicals were not to the thought of as dealing with metaphysics, but Marvell evidently is; James K. Smith makes the point in his essay on them that they are all concerned ultimately with the unity of the Many and the One; go further and say that they are concerned more specifically with Metaphysics as Plato was, so that the most return to a Platonic unity is an aspiration of poets throughout the tradition and that it cleaves apart otherwise similar moments, so that we can distinguish Metaphysicals drawing on the same resources as their contemporaries, crucially distinguishing themselves from them. Some 17th century poets are Metaphysicals, others are not; same for 18th and 19th century poets, with Shelley for instance, and Swinburne, being the Metaphysicals of the 19th and Smart probably, despite the Christianity, or within the Christianity, of the 18th; in the 20th century, Stevens, Yeats,and Empson are Metaphysical poets, which makes understandable why Empson could read read Yeats as generously as he does, but which leaves me scratching my head at why he struggles with Stevens.
Stevens seems to me the nearest poet to Marvell; the equanimity, sometimes almost smug, of the poets, controls their feeling that we are living in a shattered world, the unity of existence crucially lost, and they can summon the equanimity and justify it because the powers of the imagination are at their fingertips: conceits and metaphors are possible and so they can feel that, even if they cannot restore themselves to the unity, they can touch it. It would not surprise me to find Marvell expressing sympathy with some of the grander statements about poetry and the imagination that we find in later poets.
More than those poets, though, Marvell believes in the refined order in which he lives; if we are to have fallen and lost contact with the wilds beyond the Garden, if even those with whom the gods dwell are to live amidst its fine statues, they are obligated to maintain their appearance and condition. He does not believe that the lost Platonic unity can provide an answer for questions of how to serve in civic life, for how to negotiate its demands, and so he is able to take on those challenges without feeling that they are, in themselves, symptoms or harbingers of tragedy. In the civilized gardens of human life, after all, we can find the traces that allow for us to imagine what the real wilderness must be (not a “nature” that Marvell would identify in a particular landscape).
The true realm, for Marvell, would be I think, timeless; which is why where the poems invoke the contact with that realm, they imagine a harmony with time that is the nearest we can come to timelessness:
Thus sung they, in the English boat,
An holy and a cheerful note,
And all the way, to guide their chime,
With falling oars they kept their time.
Keeping time with song as he keeps it with poems, and in so keeping, mastering, containing, marking off the garden beyond which we once, or one day, will tread, but which we now can know but in conceit.