Andrew Marvell’s detached melancholy accommodates skepticism towards the idea that melancholy is suitable for the world (even as it admits that the world inspires melancholy); hence the humored wit of the verse. For all of the ways the world saddens, disappoints, fades from grasp, it reveals a profound unity, of which humans form a part, albeit incapable of the self-consciousness to know the whole. He is a genuinely metaphysical poet, but his tranquil enjoyment of his own artistry is never such as to insist on its powers of vision; it plays upon the way of the world, aspiring to exemplify it, and to be of and with it, like a symbol rather than a sign. The mode of the poetry persistently approaches allegory, but the allegory is never allowed to fall into place: there is nothing to map the figures and terms of the poetry onto, except for life itself, and the poem’s take on that burden.
Damon the Mower is political and metaphysical at once; he reduces the grass with power, but he is also a part of the harmony of nature and when he is himself laid low, the meadows run inappropriately rampant; his wealth is little, counted in hay, but the grass is so abundant as to make it an excess beyond what he could need; something called Love, perhaps Eros in its most Platonic form, or perhaps in its most carnal, threatens his existence and displaces him from his rounds; he is the great solitary hero whose thought as well as body is needed to keep the world in order. But he suffers like the figure in a pantomime or Romance, with exaggerated gestures; his drama is a simplified representation of something far more universal.
“The Garden” is Marvell’s greatest poem, but near it in wonderful strangeness are the Mower poems, of which “The Mower’s Song” is the most perfect.
The commensurate measure of mind, labor, and nature; the mind was perfectly meted to the meadows as the body was; the grass is not itself the mirror of the mind, but its greenness is the mirror of the hopes of the mind, and so the two are united; the mind saw its hopes for itself, for the world in the grass, which suggests any number of possibilities, but also quite sensibly speaks to the Mower’s mind being trained upon the hope of leveling the fields; seeing the grass, he saw his hopes of mowing the grass, and so he was happy. The “Green thought in a green shade” line from “The Garden” cannot be ignored; here too there is a sense of self-annihilation coinciding with solipsism, the mirror of the mind and the mirror of the world locked in infinite regress.
“What I do to the grass” is the crux of the poem, being the refrain: we are to think first and foremost that she reduces him, and kills him, as he does the grass, as happens in “Damon the Mower,” the longest of the poems in the “Mower” sequence. But that idea is scuttled somewhat by the next lines: Juliana (whose name recalls the heat of July, a woman, and the power of Julius Caesar, hence politics) levels Damon so that he can no longer mow, and as a consequence, the grass flowers, it runs rampant, indulging in the games of Mayday over his prostrate body; he is missing out on the “fellowship” with the grass that he must feel is normally expressed in the sweeps of the scythe, which hardly seem the stuff of “May-games.” His harmony with the grass has been disrupted; but that suggests that what Juliana does to the Mower is not so very unnatural, that it possesses instead a harmony of its own, with the further implication that the harmony of love and desire between humanity cannot sustain the harmony of man and the natural world. The political overtones are obvious too, where the leveled grasses now rise up over the authority who kept them in place, and celebrate without him, showing themselves perfectly content to dance in their natural due course of growing.
What ought they have done “in compassion”? The suggestion of the following lines is fallen into decay, along with him; the fellowship, he felt, was dependent on their possessing a common bond, a shared life, and when they showed themselves to live independently, they betrayed him. That is itself a strange thought given that he is a mower tasked with cutting the grass down, but he may have felt that he was doing it for a more general good and order, and that it was the grasses duty not just to fall because he fell but, in compassion with him, to maintain the order until he could recuperate. They ought to, he suggests, pick up the slack while he has been slackened by love. Instead, the mower is angered, and will bring all to a “common ruin,” including himself.
It’s not clear whether this threat implies he will take up the scythe and, in a preposterous re-enactment of Samson in the temple, lay all so low that he himself falls (crushed by the grass? exhausted? smitten, as in “Damon the Mower,” by his own scythe?). I prefer another alternative: that he believes that the rampant abundance of the grass will be its ruin, that, overrun, the meadows will fail, as if his care for them was necessary for their survival. He has fallen in ruin, and now they will follow; the former suggests that he breaks free of his love for Juliana, which the poem does not suggest, but the latter suggests that his revenge will be in yielding himself to that love, and in turning away, with a luxuriant self-gratification, from his duty. Retirement here is quite other than in The Garden, and may in fact be a turning towards the world from which The Garden is walled off; the cultivation of meadows is interesting because it straddles an axis of cultivation and wildness, of artifice and nature, and the Mower’s threats depend on our believing that the nature and wildness cannot sustain them, as meadows at least, without his cultivation; in the other direction, we may be asked to feel that the Mower is himself, despite his cultivation (he sings) and artifice (he sings well, urbanely) in fact absorbed into nature, subsumed already, so that his departure would, in effect, disrupt the equilibrium of the natural order.
The final stanza lends some support to the notion that the transformation traced in the poem is from wild nature to civilization, with the death of the Mower a consummation of civilization, carrying an underlying argument that courtly, political existence is the death of a purer pantheistic union with nature, though the argument would have to be more complicated: the heraldic emblems of honor for which courtly life are lived are themselves the transmogrified stuff of a nature from which man has turned away, lured by the love of Juliana, a love of glory as well as desire. The greenness of the meadows is lost, but they remain with him; he continues to address them throughout the poem. They, rather than Juliana, remain his true significant other. They remain also the true reflection of his thoughts and mind, which is to say that his mind now finds its mirror in the tomb. It is possible, it’s worth noting, that the tomb he builds does not require he to have already died; he might be building the tomb in which he will be buried at his later date. He is dead in the sense that living at court, with its heraldry and politics, means a death-in-life, living in and for a tomb and what will be written on it; but he is alive enough to sing the poem.
The final stanza needs to be heard with anger, regret, triumph, resignation, and whimsy; all are possible in the stride of “And thus, ye meadows.” But what is most perplexing is what the refrain could possibly mean at the end; for how can it be said that what Juliana “does” to him (and his thoughts, about which more in a moment) is what he “does” to the grass, if he does not just mow the grass but instead lets it rot in abundance until he turns it into his tomb? One answer is that he is still speaking from the perspective of a mower, which is not trivial since it suggests that he remains true to that pastoral rustic self, whatever else happens. That answer preserves the reading I have given so far.
Another answer is that he remains at one with the grass, and perhaps even more at one with the grass in his death than he was in his life; being laid low by Juliana is not just like being cut to the ground by a scythe but is to be cut the ground by a scythe so that when he lies beneath the other blades, he is himself a blade of grass, their fellowship and compassion owed because he is revealed–through the violent mowing of Juliana–to be no different from the grass above which he once strode, scythe in hand, and ultimately their decay will unite him to them in a common ruin, their tomb a pile of hay, their heraldry none at all. On such a reading, Marvell may or may not be in the court (there is no need to do away with the possibility), but the irony runs the other way: rather than the grass serving to fashion a courtly tomb, now the notion of a courtly tomb fashions the pile of hay; he is not going to court to seek honor, but the pile of hay in which he and the grass are one and the same, thanks to Juliana, is itself as worthy of honor as the court. What is simple and low reflects what is high and sophisticated, and vice versa, in the pastoral mode.
Juliana serves very different functions in the different readings I’ve outlined. In the dominant reading, until the last paragraph I’ve written, she tempts the Mower with love, desire, and glory, and removes him from his harmony with nature; this is to suppose Juliana is the Juliana Damon loves in “Damon the Mower.” But on the latter reading, she is herself a mower, a mower of a different sort, who reveals Damon to be himself among the grass; he is leveled, temporarily displaced from the natural order, but ultimately reunited with it, albeit in a deathly, pale form.
The refrain is rich also in suggesting that Juliana’s effect is not upon Damon alone, but upon his mind also: “does to my thoughts and me” might be “my thoughts and my self” or “my thoughts and my body” with either suggesting a separation or an equivalence between the different terms. The point though is that this intensely physical labor is also a product of the mind, and produces the mind; that Marvell here, as in “The Garden,” is suggesting that mind and reality are co-dependent, a fore-runner of idealism, an insight that allows him to suggest that the way of the world is a transitory fading away that is also a fading-into, the Buddhist quality that Empson detected in “The Garden.”