Andrew Marvell: The Pastoral Art of Love and Death


Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv’d virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
– Andrew Marvel, from To His Coy Mistress

Who will forget those passages in Isiah where God speaking to his prophet tells him to cry, and his prophet asks, timidly What shall I cry? The Lord answers:

All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever. (Isa. 40:6–8)

The trope of the withering and fading grass over which the lord’s spirit “bloweth” has seen its way into various poets down the ages. One remembers that most distinct of poets Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass where in Song of Myself he rhapsodizes on this trope in echo of Isiah’s withering grass that has become a people:

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green
stuff woven.

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths. 

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Here the poet hints that death, too, is an illusion, that change is all. A Dionysian realm of continuous metamorphosis rather than some transcendent world or Platonic dream. We who live loss, who as Wallace Stevens would celebrate say “farewell” know only the hint of that vital truth in the natural that repeats the gestures of his ancestors proving that things do not collapse but rather go “onward and outward” and “to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier”.

Yet, unlike Whitman it is in Andrew Marvell – a Lucretian poet, we capture the strangeness of grass under another sign, another world.  Where death is another country;  a place of loss without repetition: “fine and private place” where “none I think do there embrace”. No separate, other world; no realm beyond the universe, some heaven-haven where the dead congregate in jubilation.  Marvell would seek not Isiah’s God, nor the withering refrains of a dying species, but rather the marvelous tincture of the earth’s sweet life, both rare and new, here and now in this world:

Another world was searched through oceans new,
To find the marvel of Peru;
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.
– from The Mower Against the Garden

Neither a prophet nor a star gazer, Marvell is rather like the Chemyst of some secret world of artificial delights seeking the science of miracles not in some far flung realm beyond the stars, but rather in the very real material world below our feet.  It was the new art of gardens, of the taming of Nature rather than its worship. Marvell neither of worshipper of some external God nor even of Nature as God(dess) was closer to those more refined purveyors of the unnatural sciences that turn nature to ends that were not her own:

Where willing Nature does to all dispense A wild and fragrant innocence…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.

This is Man as Gardner – as Magician and Alchemyst, who turns from the fear of Nature and God and constructs artificial and hybrid forms against the natural proclivities of the untamed and wild world. Bloom will align Marvell with those other catastrophists who sought not some return to natural religion (Rousseau) nor revealed religion of Christianity, but is closer to those like Bruno and the Magus’s of the Hermetic Arts.

Marvell’s Mower, absurdly enough, is both the ridiculous Polyphemus, the Cyclops of Theocritus, and, I suspect, the Adam Kadmon or unfallen God-Man of Kabbalistic and Hermetic tradition. That is, Damon is Adam, Adam both debased beneath and exalted beyond the Adam of Genesis. Damon is the Clown as Death, if you will, but he is (or was) also the Clown as a more abundant, preexistent life, not so much the Cyclops or Virgil’s Corydon as the Platonic dream of a divine human before the crashing downwards of a catastrophic creation. Marvell’s more-than-ironic mode conveys mysteries only through an immensely sophisticated humor, edged by the reality principle of mortality.  (Harold Bloom, Andrew Marvell)

Yes, Marvell was both atheistic and materialist whose ironic and satiric wit both supple and measured would mask itself under the guise of devotional pastoral. A difficult are indeed. Learned yet not so learned as to put one off, but rather a learning that hides itself in the difficult art of tradition that speaks plainly even in its high wit.

And there among the grass fell down,
By his own scythe, the Mower mown.
“Alas!” said he, “these hurts are slight
To those that die by love’s despite.
With shepherd’s-purse, and clown’s-all-heal,
The blood I staunch, and wound I seal.
Only for him no cure is found,
Whom Juliana’s eyes do wound.
’Tis death alone that this must do:
For Death thou art a Mower too.”
 – from Damon the Mower

Between the death of love and the love of death, earthly love that wounds and the natural love that leads to a final movement in stasis and return, the patterns repetitious of both Love and Death that turn us under in both erotic loss and its return in that presence of natural intent where “Julian’s eyes do wound” and brings us this poets continuous life of song.

“I am the Mower Damon, known
Through all the meadows I have mown.
On me the morn her dew distills
Before her darling daffodils.
And, if at noon my toil me heat,
The sun himself licks off my sweat.
While, going home, the evening sweet
In cowslip-water bathes my feet.”
– from Damon the Mower

Here the poet’s self-enunciation as Nature’s uncanny guest, the force of Mind self-divinized among its renewing forms parodies the Biblical washing of the feet of Jesus with the “cowslip-water” that bathes the poet’s feet who has become not a savior of the world, but rather a solipsistic god within an artificial paradise or heterocosm of the poem itself. The truth of poetry is that the only form of immortality is that continuation of those grassy leaves – the poems themselves that will outlive the mortal poet who has built his artificial home and will live on within those who inherit his powers and influence. Like Pindar of the early Greeks Marvell would aspire toward that exhaustion of the possible rather than some indefinite and immortal place beyond the stars: “O my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible.”

And thus, ye meadows, which have been
Companions of my thoughts more green,
Shall now the heraldry become
With which I will adorn my tomb;
For Juliana comes, and she
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.
– from Damon the Mower

This dialectic of nature and thought in the interplay of subtle revision between natural death and unnatural vitality; that conveys a sense of that power or disposition that emanates from rather than transcends the order of things and mind. Here an immanent register of that atheistic materialism beckons us to wit rather than sentiment. Or as Bloom suggests in another key Marvell follows what Whitman calls the flag of the poet’s disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven. The heraldry of green will make the entire earth the Mower’s tomb, but such a heraldry will bury scythe and scyther alike, give death to Death, and perhaps herald the rebirth of Damon as Adam Kadmon, the Primal Man forever not to be mown down. (ibid.) Yet, unlike Bloom’s gnostic cabbalist, I believe Marvell would have seen a darker finality, where things end without repetition and triumph. A Lucretian world where death is both sweet and final, neither to be feared nor desired but rather just the truth of life lived.

To those that dye by Love’s despight.
With Shepherd’s-purse, and Clown’s-all-heal,
The Blood I stanch, and Wound I seal.
Only for him no Cure is found,
Whom Juliana’s Eyes do wound.
‘Tis death alone that this must do:
For Death thou art a Mower too.1

Marvell did not balk at confronting the bitter truth of this tragic world and our destiny, but rather raised this truth up in an aesthetic triumph of Love’s wound and ultimate despair: “Deserts of vast eternity. Thy beauty shall no more be found, Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound My echoing song…”. No, the song will not be found in the tomb but rather in those who continue to echo Marvell’s bright art and its pastoral gleanings.

  1. Marvell, Andrew (2012-10-28). The Complete Lyric Poetry (p. 66). Dog’s Tail Books. Kindle Edition.

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