If we take Andrew Marvell’s Damon the Mower as an avatar for the poet himself, there is something peculiar in the close of “The Mower Against Gardens,” namely that Marvell would seem to be an artist of the gardens the Mower sets himself against:
And yet these rarities might be allowed
To man, that sovereign thing and proud,
Had he not dealt between the bark and tree,
Forbidden mixtures there to see.
No plant now knew the stock from which it came;
He grafts upon the wild the tame:
That th’ uncertain and adulterate fruit
Might put the palate in dispute.
His green seraglio has its eunuchs too,
Lest any tyrant him outdo.
And in the cherry he does nature vex,
To procreate without a sex.
’Tis all enforced, the fountain and the grot,
While the sweet fields do lie forgot:
Where willing nature does to all dispense
A wild and fragrant innocence:
And fauns and fairies do the meadows till,
More by their presence than their skill.
Their statues, polished by some ancient hand,
May to adorn the gardens stand:
But howsoe’er the figures do excel,
The gods themselves with us do dwell.
Marvell is a poem of delicate courtesy, of courtly equanimity, poise, and negotiation; he delights in paradoxes that some have thought too perverse, “forbidden mixtures” of unlike elements; he can seem to cultivate and refine his poems to an artificial airiness. The Mower, however, prefers the “wild and fragrant innocence” of the grasses (, where fauns and faeries are not mere statues, but are animate presences. The final line is among his greatest: “The gods themselves with us do dwell.” That line, and poem itself, is courtly and pagan; he writes against those who resurrect the fauns as porcelain ornament. He would do something more.
It is not, fundamentally, an opposition between court and country, between the civility and rural plainness, that moves Marvell. In “Damon the Mower,” one of two where Damon complains of Juliana, the contrast is drawn between the Mower and the shepherds:
‘What, though the piping shepherd stock
The plains with an unnumbered flock,
This scythe of mine discovers wide
More ground than all his sheep do hide.
“Grass” rather than sheep, or the loftier cultivations of the garden, is the Mower’s concern. The opening of “The Mower’s Song”:
My mind was once the true survey
Of all these meadows fresh and gay,
And in the greenness of the grass
Did see its hopes as in a glass;
When Juliana came, and she
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.
It’s hardly an original thought to find in these poems the iconography that unlocks Marvell’s particular balance of judgement, by which all of his greatest poems are written. The grass is that of the psalms (“As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth”), and, as there, it is the most basic emblem of life; so we are told, with real force, that death is a mower too, the implication being that the relation of death to life is akin to that of Damon’s. He has achieved, if not the full power of Death, something of the same detached dependence towards life as Death must have; it stands apart, on another plane, of nothingness, eternity.
William Empson was right to detect what sounds like a Buddhist note in Marvell’s thought; a perpetual preparedness for, and acceptance of, the loss of a self mournfully attached to the world’s suffering and delights—balanced by an acceptance of desire and suffering as it occurs: Marvell does not too much desire to be free from desire, but is content with the loss of desire and gain that must arrive with death, and with the immensity of time in which any one life’s brevity will fade. Hence the momentous turn of “To His Coy Mistress.” Hence the astonishing detachment, emotional and intellectual, at the close of “Eyes and Tears”:
Ope then, mine eyes, your double sluice,
And practise so your noblest use ;
For others too can see, or sleep,
But only human eyes can weep.
Now, like two clouds dissolving, drop,
And at each tear in distance stop ;
Now, like two fountains, trickle down ;
Now, like two floods, o’erturn and drown :
Thus let your streams o’erflow your springs,
Till eyes and tears be the same things ;
And each the other’s difference bears,
These weeping eyes, those seeing tears.
It is not only Marvell’s spiritual position—fundamentally not Christian, not clamoring to know God, or to be forgiven—that sets him apart from the main English tradition, but the means by which it is articulated: where we find something similar, in Whitman or in Wordsworth, who similarly turns to “nature” (a concept as alive in Marvell as in Wordsworth, though their conceptions differ), it is accompanied by a turning away from an inherited hierarchy of civilization. Whitman’s grasses are democratic; Wordsworth’s are of the same matter as the rocks and mountains. In Marvell, the means of expression, the ladder by which he arrives at his vantage point, is the poetry of a civilized and learned elite. (Marvell also lacks Whitman and Wordsworth’s fervor–their faith in something being the way it is, or being able to become a certain way)
Of course that is not entirely a choice on Marvell’s part, but his commitment to perfecting the courtly qualities of his verse, its metaphysical wit, its thin classicism, its openness to the entertainments of the court (music, hunting), and its sprezzatura, is pronounced—and more than pronounced. It is not so much that these are the vehicle for Marvell’s insight into the nature of things, his sense of the impersonal eternal and the sadness of the world, as that Marvell’s verse is implicitly arguing that the insight itself permits a refining and perfecting of the courtly virtues.
That is, the verse is political in the sense that it might be taken to be saying, “The virtues of a true courtly life, the equanimity, elegance, courage, and fortitude it ought to sustain and exemplify, are not possible unless we find the intellectual and spiritual resources for looking differently at life itself, its passing and its vicissitudes.” Those resources could, perhaps, be reconciled to some sort of Christianity, but most likely required a pagan mysticism or else traditions to which Marvell had no access.
They are responsible, at any rate, for the eerie quality of his best verse, as if it is a ice sculpture thawing slightly in response to the heat of the world, or else as if it a sculpture only finally settling into its icy form resistant to the world’s heat.