If you're an author or reader the words "literary criticism" are usually a downer, so it's a pleasure to find a really smart and stimulating book about great poems in Green Thoughts, Green Shades edited by UCLA professor Jonathan Post. The focus is on seventeenth-century poetry, the century of Marvell and the Metaphsyicals, and the essays are by poets who are also legitimate scholars. The prose is compelling without abstruse jargon, rank snark, or faux erudition. Robert Hass, casual and intelligent without airs, is a wonderful guide to Edward Taylor. Anthony Hecht, less casual, more professorial, reads Sidney's double sestina, a tour de force, with James Merrill in the back of his mind. Linda Gregerson addresses herself to such rare masterpieces as Ben Jonson's "My Picture Left in Scotland," "To Heaven," and "On My First Son." Heather McHugh is a delight on "sexual expressiveness" (as opposed to "sartorial impressiveness") in her romp through representative works of Rochester, Donne, Lovelace, Wyatt, Carew.
I happen to be reading and thinking about the poem that gives the book its title, "The Garden" by Andrew Marvell, mystery man of English poetry, who "learned fencing as avidly as he acquired foreign languages" and may have been a spy, and a damned good one at that. Marvell weathered the political storms of his demanding age and became a successful politician, a member of parliament from Hull, who "seems to have conducted his public life with discretion and his private life in secrecy." He may or may not have married his landlady. He produced poetry of exquisite paradox, and it followed as night the day that I, pondering Marvell's "Garden," would consult the amiable and erudite Stephen Yenser, whom I have been quoting and than whom a more sensitive reader of complex poetry would be hard to find.
Yenser's essay on Marvell deals not only with "The Garden" but with "The Definition of Love," "The Gallery," "The Coronet," and "On a Drop of Dew." But having my head in Genesis and images of paradise -- from savage romantic chasm ("Kubla Khan") to repository of innocence ("Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College") or even object of intense nostalgic desire ("Fern Hill') -- I am naturally drawn to the elegance and calm of Marvell's stanzas, which conceal and reveal the furtiveness and likely ambivalence of his personality. Yenser rewards me with "an exotic, occluded pun" in the image of the "dial" (or sundial) in this couplet:
How well the skillful Gardner grew
Of flow'rs and herbes this Dial new.
It does not seem overly fanciful to hear "die all" in "dial" -- not in a poet as cunning as Marvell; and besides, "the prosody dictates two syllables rather than a diphthong in 'Dial'." Yenser's is a reading as subtle as the poem demands. He hears "dust" in "industrious," and notes the inversion of "flowr's and herbes" in the last stanza of Marvell's poem. He contends that the second half of the poem is far superior to the first. "The Garden' probably didn't know where it was going until it got there -- and by then, evidently, there was no way to bring earlier stanzas quite up the quality of the closing ones." These are insights and contentions that enrich our grasp of the poem and our admiration of its author.
There is something uncanny in a poet who can go in two equal and opposite directions at once, as Marvell can, and we need all the help we can get in reading so masterly a couplet as concludes the penultimate stanza of "The Garden":
Two paradises 'twere in one
To live in paradise alone.
Just look at how alone in the last line contains one in the previous line. Consider, too, the mathematics of the lines, not only the apparent impossibility of what is proposed but the countermining emphasis on division or split; not only what the lines assert but what the music and appearance of the lines suggest. It is as though the two lines were a pair of railroad tracks heading to an infinity where they might meet but not until then. Or like a quarreling couple? Perhaps. Or perhaps the vision of paradise lost as a paradise split in two is a reflection of the characteristic workings of Marvell's own mind.
Going over this couplet, Yenser argues that Marvell did not believe in what he wrote but entertained it as either an idea or a move in a game of logic in which words turn ghostly on you and "paradise" turns into "pair of dice." Reread "The Garden" and let me know what you think.