Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Andrew Marvell's "curious peaches"

Andrew Marvell
'far from a garden, standing still'
(Image from Wikipedia)

John Milton's friend and fellow poet Andrew Marvell refers -- perhaps somewhat elliptically -- to "curious peaches" in stanza five of his poem The Garden. Let's take a look at this poem:
The Garden
How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labors see
Crowned from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow-vergèd shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all the flowers and trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence, thy sister dear!
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy companies of men:
Your sacred plants, if here below,
Only among the plants will grow;
Society is all but rude,
To this delicious solitude.

No white nor red was ever seen
So amorous as this lovely green;
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees their mistress' name.
Little, alas, they know or heed,
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair trees! wheresoe'er your barks I wound
No name shall but your own be found.

When we have run our passion's heat,
Love hither makes his best retreat:
The gods who mortal beauty chase,
Still in a tree did end their race.
Apollo hunted Daphne so,
Only that she might laurel grow,
And Pan did after Syrinx speed,
Not as a nymph, but for a reed.

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
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.

Here at the fountain's sliding foot,
Or at some fruit-tree's mossy root,
Casting the body's vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide:
There like a bird it sits and sings,
Then whets and combs its silver wings;
And, till prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Such was that happy garden-state,
While man there walked without a mate:
After a place so pure and sweet,
What other help could yet be meet!
But 'twas beyond a mortal's share
To wander solitary there:
Two paradises 'twere in one
To live in Paradise alone.

How well the skillful gardener drew
Of flowers and herbs this dial new;
Where from above the milder sun
Does through a fragrant zodiac run;
And, as it works, the industrious bee
Computes its time as well as we.
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckoned but with herbs and flowers!
The scholar Andrew Monnickendam (or Andrew Monnickendam Findlay?), professor of English Literature at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, writes on this poem in "Fallen Fruit, Fallen Men and a Fallen State: images in Marvell's Pastoral Poetry" (SEDERI: yearbook of the Spanish and Portuguese Society for English Renaissance Studies, Number 2, 1992, pages. 181-192), and he calls attention to stanza five, so let's focus on it as well:
What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.
The emphasis upon falling in a garden might lead the reader to thoughts of sin -- not sinful thoughts but of the sin original. As a skeptical Monnickendam shows, William Empson did so in Some Versions of Pastoral (only to be challenged by John Carey in Andrew Marvell):
Such readings must first consider the bizarre battle of the books over the fruity fifth stanza. William Empson started it all off:
Melon, again, is the Greek for apple. (Empson, 1935: 132)
More was to come:
Although it has been more than once noted that 'melon [sic. 'melon'] of Marvell's fifth stanza is derived from the Greek 'malum' meaning 'apple', it is doubtful that there has been any comment on the noun 'peach', which, elliptical for 'Persicum malum', Persian apple, is another reference to the apple of Eden. The apple, named four times in the stanza, since the nectarine is 'a variety of the common peach', is the evil fruit of the Garden of Eden which drops upon the poet's head and causes him, ensnared in the flowers of pleasure, to fall". [sic. to fall.] (ed. Carey, 1969: 247-8)
In other words, out of melons, peaches, nectarines, apples and grapes, only grapes are not apples. If this is beginning to appear nonsensical, we might be relieved to hear that
... the apple is not 'named' four times in the stanza. The apple is named once, the peach once the nectarine once, and the melon once. It may be that Marvell was aware of etymological reflections among the words and intended his readers to be aware of them. I think it pretty. unlikely. (ed. Carey, 1969: 238 [sic. 248?])
Although it might be received as a return to common sense, this comment does not take us any nearer to understanding the significance of the fruity items, nor does it consider the perplexing question of apple madness. What pithy subtext can be found at an apple's core? Apples can hardly universalise fruit simply because apples are not an exotic fruit for a northern European, whereas peaches, grapes, melons and nectarines belong to that catalogue of southern pleasures that the nightingale's song evoked for Keats. Furthermore, for people with dental problems, apples could be painfully associated with bleeding gums and pain, whereas peaches are soft, yielding and pleasurable. It is perfectly true that a peach is a Persian apple and that nectarine is a kind of peach; is also true, and equally useful to remember, that melon is an anagram of lemon. ("Fallen Fruit, Fallen Men and a Fallen State: images in Marvell's Pastoral Poetry," page 196)
Although I disagree that apples cannot universalize fruit -- for as we've previously seen, "apple" in the 17th century could still mean "fruit in general" -- I nevertheless agree with Monnickendam (who agrees, albeit obliquely, with Carey) on Marvell's poem. Marvell is not drawing attention to the forbidden fruit in stanza five of The Garden.

Granted, we might be tempted by the "curious peach" to think of Eve's curiosity for knowledge, yet there is no Eve in this garden, as stanza eight makes clear:
Such was that happy garden-state,
While man there walked without a mate:
After a place so pure and sweet,
What other help could yet be meet!
But 'twas beyond a mortal's share
To wander solitary there:
Two paradises 'twere in one
To live in Paradise alone.
Minus Eve, the poet as a solitary Adam is in no danger of falling from his blessed state, and the fruit itself does not appear forbidden:
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach
My only second thought about my ready agreement with Monnickendam lies in the possibility that Marvell intends to suggest that no fruit was forbidden to Adam prior to Eve's appearance. To suggest this, however, Marvell would have to be reading Genesis in a very heterodox manner, for Genesis 2.15-22 places the restriction upon Adam alone first, just prior to the depiction of Eve being formed from Adam's rib.

Of course, one might argue that the entire poem should be read ironically, that the poet is already a fallen man only imagining a paradise alone, still blaming Eve even while gorging himself on the forbidden 'apple' and falling in the grass.

Maybe. Maybe not.

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6 Comments:

At 10:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First I notice your curious use of the phrase "sufficient grounds" and now I see the question, " What pithy subtext can be found at an apple's core?"

My, Professors lead such funny lives.

JK

 
At 10:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I wish that I had posed that pithy query, but I am only the peddler of another man's words in this instance . . . as you probably realized.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:57 PM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

This is an interesting set of questions. It suggests something running through my mind recently in Milton's elegy. Literary criticism likes to hit on details; often without reading the whole silent element in hermetic poems. There are 72 lines in "The Garden". Marvell would have known (as did Milton) that 72 is the number of the Zodiacal universe. The poem hints at this is "fragrant zodiac". The garden is a metaphor for the cosmic garden. The fruit passage appears in verse 5, the number of senses and sensuality. There are 5 fruits.
Unlike with Tantalus, who misused the food of the gods, the vine here pushes itself into the speaker's mouth. The world of this garden offers its divine fruit sensually. Is there not a pun on "peach": impeach, to be removed from state, as Adam was. And is Marvell punning on the Latin root here? Impeach was connected to entangle...and the poet falls when "ensnared" by flowers. This is a type of hermetic garden, in which paradoxes prevail. So, by falling on the "grass", which would have had the same pronunciation as "grace" in Marvell's time, the speaker is lifted up. Felix culpa.
I know this is tangential to your intriguing post, but it does (perhaps) give a context for the question: What is this fruity passage about?

 
At 10:10 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Esheuneutics, these are very, very interesting suggestions -- far more interesting than I could have requested.

In fact, I'm writing something on Milton that is related to the themes posted here, but I don't want to say too much here just yet. If you're interested, I'll send you a copy in a day or two. It'll be rather short, but I'd bet that you'd have a number of suggestions on how I could improve my argument.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:31 AM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

Glad these speculations echo whatever ideas you are fermenting.
I am always interested in your Milton ideas. Thanks.

 
At 5:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Good, I'll send the short piece later today or early tomorrow . . . I hope.

Jeffery Hodges

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