Good – and green – in the garden

The single red Camellia trying to get in through the window

I’m just going to concentrate on a few verses of ‘The Garden’ by Andrew Marvell. You’ll find the whole poem here. I found it in the Oxford Book of English Verse.  Like many famous English poems, I read it as an undergraduate at University. But those readings often went over my head – or perhaps heart?  I don’t think I’ve ever read it since.

The Garden

To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all flow’rs and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

I have no idea what’s happening in this opening stanza!

I can’t find the tone, and I’m not sure what’s being said. The word ‘vainly’ makes me think that Marvell is going to be talking about things humans get wrong and yet the two parts of the sentence here don’t seem to add up… palm, oak, bays – aren’t they all prizes, don’t you win them in wars and races? Yet later he’s saying ‘all flowers and all trees…’ Hate that feeling of not getting it. I rush on, then restrain myself and go back.

I’m going too fast here and in a kind of reading panic because it’s a famous poem and I don’t understand it. What do we do when we don’t get it? We read it again, more slowly, a little bit at a time. I  take a breath and start again, going for the first chunk of meaning;

To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;

As I read it aloud I realise ‘single’ is a clue here. There’s one kind of thing (lines 1-6) which is to do with ‘single’ and then there’s another kind of thing (lines 7&8) which is to do with ‘all’.

When I’m trying to read I often have to do without knowing and so sketch out a murky  unclear area I don’t yet understand and just leave it there. I often think of that space as ‘x’, as if reading was a bit like math equations, and you have to accept there are lots of parts you don’t know. You mark them as unknowns and then try to work out other bits. Eventually  ‘y’ may reveal ‘x’.

But I do now know that these opening lines  are about the difference between ‘single’ and ‘all’. It’s about taking notice of a the entirety of a garden rather than some special plant, is it?

To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all flow’rs and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

But also the difference between ‘uncessant labours’ and ‘repose’. The ‘single/all’ split has made me notice another, which  is the difference between ‘uncessant labours crowned’ and ‘garlands of repose’. And now I notice the difference between ‘crowns’ and ‘garlands’.

Hmm.I’m taking it at face value, but now it strikes me that this poem  may not be about a garden. It’s the word ‘vainly’ that makes me think it’s bigger than that. Can’t do anything with that thought yet.  People strive to win ‘the palm, the oak, or bays.’ They are plants that are signify winning. Winners get a crown  of bays, and those bays are cut from trees. Bays in particular  are often clipped and manicured, as the trees here seem to be;

Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;

The shade of trees  wouldn’t naturally be ‘short and narrow’, it should be long and widely expansive. But these trees seem to be only there for the  comment they can make on human endeavour, which I’m beginning to think  might be a very formal kind of gardening. But is this about any kind of clipped and manicured effort? Say you set yourself  to do something – a winning garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, or writing a  world-class Haiku or magnificent bodybuilding –  something that would result in you being a winner. Would all that unnatural clipping and pruning,  de-naturing the tree (person, thing, activity) under cultivation but also wasting your own time because all other flowers and trees are going, growing, in another direction?) is it about the energy of nature, and the energy of humans trying to do something?
Well, I’m no longer feeling scared and starting  to feel excited. I’m reading!
It’s the ‘prudent’  upbraiding that is bothering me. Why is it prudent?
If I did devote all my garden time and energy to clipping and pruning some prize-winning specimen, wouldn’t the plant itself, by its very nature ‘ upbraid’ me? Perhaps because of its natural tendency to grow wildly? But why would that upbraiding be ‘prudent’? Does prudent mean careful? Is it about money? I go to the dictionary – ‘prudent, acting with or showing care for the future’. From the Latin, provident. I think it is to do with the nature of trees – be they palm oak or bay – or plants (or people? or human endeavours? ). These things have their own energies and growth patterns.

I think this is a poem against a life of clipping bays. Don’t clip and contain natural energy – go with the flow.

Time’s up, more tomorrow.

4 thoughts on “Good – and green – in the garden

  1. HW March 9, 2017 / 9:48 am

    Can’t wait. Loving this daily read.

    • drjanedavis March 9, 2017 / 1:24 pm

      Thank you! It’s certainly doing me some good.

  2. Barb Milne March 9, 2017 / 8:34 pm

    The Garden
    How vainly men themselves amaze
    To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
    And their uncessant labours see
    Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
    Whose short and narrow verged shade
    Does prudently their toils upbraid;
    While all flow’rs and all trees do close
    To weave the garlands of repose.

    Hi Jane,
    I enjoyed reading your post. I’m a great fan of close reading …there’s a lot going on here. For (my ) starters though, the semi-colon interests me. It separates the hard syllable ‘d’ at the end of ‘shade’ ( now I think about where ‘shade’ ends!!!?)from the softness of ‘W’ in while. Maybe this contrast links in with thoughts of pruning and reaping ; cutting back, in order to replenish and re-establish . The harsh versus the new born softness, like spring I suppose.
    I can see another possible contrast too in the apparent anonymity of ‘some single herb’ (line 4) and the more universal ‘all’, ‘all flow’rs and all trees do close’
    (line 7). Additionally (line 4), I wonder if we, although when we read the words, think of one ‘single herb or tree’ yet, there is no comma following the word ‘herb’, are we to take it that we are thinking of a ‘single herb or [single] tree’ ?

    Barb

  3. Barb Milne March 9, 2017 / 8:54 pm

    For ‘shade’ re ‘upbraid’ apologies.

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