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MOWER POEMS, THE Andrew Marvell (1681) Andrew Marvell may have written the four poems constituting the collection most editors refer to as The Mower Poems during his stay at Nun Appleton, an experience that would also inspire his "Upon Appleton House, to My Lord Fairfax." The poems, generally printed in the sequence in which they appeared in the posthumous Miscellaneous Poems (1681), are "The Mower against Gardens," "Damon the Mower," "The Mower to the Glow-worms," and "The Mower's Song." As the critic Nigel Smith explains, sources for all of the poems have connections not discernible until one closely studies the four pieces. As he often did, Marvell drew on the classics. In "The Mower against the Garden," the speaker remarks about tree grafting, a procedure that Pliny noted should take place before the intense summer heat, when the dog star is most prominent in the night sky. Both that heat and the star are referenced by the speaker in "Damon the Mower."
The settings of the poems reflect the seasons in which one would see mowers in the fields, beginning in late spring, to early summer, to later summer, with the grass mowing preceding harvest. With each poem the tone darkens until finally facing autumn the mower finds himself unable to work, the result of an unrequited love, which he feels will lead to his death. Other critics analyze the voice as the poet's own. In their view Mar-vell begins celebrating the pastoral tradition but turns against it by the fourth poem, when the theme remains death and his mower no longer finds sustenance in his pastoral surroundings. Marvell knew from his study of the classics that mowers were traditional figures in pastoral form, as were shepherds. In some translations reaper is substituted for mower. Mowers, as well as reapers, represented death in some pastorals, as they were associated with the passage of time and seasonal activities. Many critics see the poems as a contrast of innocence with experience, a common theme for poetry.
In "The Mower against the Garden" the mower represents wisdom and experience pitted against learning and experiment, as he chastises those who would not allow a garden to retain its natural state but rather insisted on unnatural ornamentation and changes, which are the product of horticultural experiments. The speaker describes "Luxurious man" as using his "vice" to "the world seduce," enclosing naturally beautiful spaces into gardens shaped into squares, producing "A dead and standing pool of air." Marvell extends his metaphor of man as seductive oppressor through the entire poem. The speaker argues for the higher value of natural, versus "luscious earth," fortified with unnatural nutrients that "stupefied" the plants while feeding them. With their nutrients altered, the roses take on "strange perfumes" and even the "flowers themselves were taught to paint," while "The tulip, white did for complexion seek," indicating that a tulip lacking color, or "complexion," is unnatural.
The gardener then declares man might have been excused such trespass had he left alone the trees, but instead man places "between the bark and tree" an unknown domestic plant. "He grafts upon the wild the tame," producing adulterated fruit. He also persuades the cherry "To procreate without a sex," such enforcements removing the natural beauty from plants and trees. The gardener prefers nature and its innocence, where "The gods themselves with us do dwell."
"Damon the Mower" was probably written during the unusually hot summer of 1652. In addition to that natural inspiration, Marvell turns to Theocritus as a source, his mower's humiliating lack of erection mimicking that of the cyclops Polythemus in wooing Galatea, a story also retold by other poets. Virgil's shepherd Corydon, as does Damon, offers gifts that are ignored by the object of his love, who happens to be a boy. Although Damon imagines death as the proper reaction for his rejection, Corydon simply returns to his pastoral life for sustenance. A more modern source may have been Thomas Randolph's "An Eclogue to Master Jonson," in which heat plays a crucial part in his depiction of mowers. Marvell's poem assumes a formal format, divided into 11 eight-line stanzas of rhyming couplets. The speaker is not Damon, but a storyteller who begins, "Hark how the mower Damon sung, / With love of Juliana stung!" The heat first plays a part as symbolic of Damon's passion:
Like her fair eyes the day was fair;
But scorching like his am'rous care.
Sharp like his scythe his sorrow was,
Marvell establishes imagery of death, including the scythe, emblematic of the grim reaper. Sexual refer ences, including one to "the snake, that kept within, / Now glitters in its second skin," suggest Damon's erection as he fantasizes about the shepherdess Juliana. However, when he approaches her with gifts rejected, the snake is "harmless" and "Disarmed of its teeth and sting"; he has apparently become self-conscious and flaccid in her presence. Damon can find no relief for "the fires / Of the hot day, or hot desires." He can find no moisture other than that of his own tears, "Nor cold but in her icy breast," a reference to Juliana's rejection of him. Damon notes that he might have continued to be content as a mower, except for the "thistles" sown by Love:
"But now I all the day complain, Joining my labour to my pain; And with my scythe cut down the grass, Yet still my grief is where it was: But, when the iron blunter grows, Sighing I whet my scythe and woes."
Distracted by love, he accidentally slices his own ankle, "By his scythe, the mower mown," as Marvell makes a pun, suggesting the term moan, representing Damon's agony. He knows the natural plant antidotes for his problem, which include "shepherd's-purse and clown's-all-heal," but even though he can halt the bleeding, he will not heal. Marvell closes as Damon explains:
"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."
The final line supplies an explicit aligning of the mower with death and with time, which traditionally carried a scythe when represented in iconic form.
The third poem in the series, "The Mower to the Glow-worms," is the most brief with only four four-line stanzas and a rhyme scheme of abab. The speaker expresses his grief over the fact that Juliana has so confused him that he will never find his way home. None of the natural guides, which include the glow-worms, beautifully referred to in figurative language as "Ye living lamps," can assist him. He describes the medita tive nightingale and "country comets." The comets "portend / No war, nor prince's funeral" but instead light the grass that has been cut by the mower, another death reference. While the glow-worms' "officious flame" often showed wandering mowers the way, they will no longer act as this mower's salvation. Critics note the escalation of the sorrowful tone, as the speaker no longer finds solace in his pastoral surroundings. They also find suggestive the fact that the speaker never refers to himself as a mower; no self-reference at all appears until the conclusion of the poem, when alienation from his world is complete.
The group of four poems concludes with "The Mower's Song," labeled by some a dirge, or song to accompany a funeral procession. The refrain "When Juliana came, and she / What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me" repeats as the final two lines of each of the five six-line stanzas, holding the focus firmly on death. This format remains unique among Marvell's work, with the first through fifth lines of each stanza reflecting the meter of tetrameter, while the final line is an alexandrine containing 12 regular monosyllable terms. Juliana represents life's experience, where his former pastoral existence prior to his passion for her represents his innocent age. Before Juliana, the speaker recalls,
My mind was once the true survey of all these meadows fresh and gay
And in the greenness of the grass
Marvell adopts a common approach, seen in work by Edmund Spenser, among many others, in featuring nature as a reflection of human thought. The speaker describes his surroundings as growing ever lusher and more luxurious, filled with flowers, while he pines away, filled with sorrow. He queries the "Unthankful meadows" as to how they could "A fellowship so true forgo," holding "gaudy May-games" while he "lay trodden under feet?" The speaker ruefully declares that he will have his revenge on nature for ignoring him. All that is green, along with him, "Will in one common ruin fall." As do classical heroes, he hauls his world, or parts of it, into Hades along with him. The mower now merges into his surroundings, not only identifying with the pastoral scene, but becoming that scene. In that manner Juliana may do to his thoughts and body what he has done to the grass, striking it down with his scythe. The green will become mere "heraldry" to "adorn his tomb," the color an emblem like that appearing on a coat of arms.
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