Remarks on Marvell’s “Garden”

Here is a famous modern assessment of the pastoral by Paul de Man, which builds upon the discussion of Marvell in William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral (on e-reserves, pp. 119-132). From an analysis of one stanza in “The Garden,” de Man makes a generalization about pastoral poetry and, ultimately, all poetry.

De Man, Paul. “The Dead-End of Formalist Criticism.” Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986. Seventeenth-Century Resources, Illinois State U. Web. 12 Feb. 2013.

The central strophe [division] of the poem happens to name the very problem upon which Empson’s previous work ended: the contradictory relations between natural being and the being of consciousness:

The Mind, that Ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other Seas,
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

The dialectical armature of this strophe defines what Empson calls the pastoral convention. It is the movement of consciousness as it contemplates the natural entity and finds itself integrally reflected down to the most peculiar aspects of phusis [nature, the physical world]. But a reflection is not an identification, and the simple correspondence of the Mind with the natural, far from being appeasing, turns troublesome. The mind recovers its balance only in domination over that which is its complete other. Thus the essentially negative activity of all thought takes place, and poetic thought in particular: “Annihilating all that’s made.” One would be hard pressed to state it any more strongly. However, the recourse to the modifier “green” to qualify what is then created by thought, re-introduces the pastoral world of innocence, of “humble, permanent, undeveloped nature which sustains everything, and to which everything must return” (Some Versions of Pastoral, 128). And it is reintroduced at the very moment that this world has been annihilated. It is the freshness, the greenness of budding thought that can evoke itself only through the memory of what it destroys on its way.

What is the pastoral convention, then, if not the eternal separation between the mind that distinguishes, negates, legislates, and the originary simplicity of the natural? […] There is no doubt that the pastoral theme is, in fact, the only poetic theme, that it is poetry itself.


How might the argument have proceeded if he had started with Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” (the carpe diem ballad we read yesterday), or a more conflicted and self-conscious work such as Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” instead?

How would you compare the presentation of “Mind” in this poem and article to I. A. Richards’s conception of the mind of the poet?


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