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Reading: Greenwashing Marvell


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Greenwashing Marvell


Brendan Prawdzik

The Pennsylvania State University, US
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This article considers ecocriticism’s reception of Andrew Marvell and suggests ways forward for thinking about Marvell and ecology. It questions ecocriticism’s commitment to a progressive framework that fulfills early modern ecocriticism’s hope that pre-Romantic literatures can demonstrate proto-ecological ethics. Instead, I argue that Marvell’s poetry intuits emergent systems and their relationships. In essence, Marvell does not herald progress but rather bears witness to a universal decline. The rift at the heart of human experience in Marvell corresponds with the splitting and suspension of the subject across vast distances, this suspension being a consequence of the historically widening divide between the site of individual agency and the material consequences of that agency. Nonetheless, natural phenomena continue to interact with the poet, attesting to the agony of the internally displaced subject and offering, as tangible connections between the human and the land, some still-unknowable hope. As such, the poetry addresses historical developments that precede modern capitalism and the corresponding emergence of presentist ecocriticism.
How to Cite: Prawdzik, B., 2019. Greenwashing Marvell. Marvell Studies, 4(1), p.4. DOI:
  Published on 27 Mar 2019
 Accepted on 31 Oct 2018            Submitted on 26 Jun 2018

Ecocriticism has been making its way through early modern literary studies for twenty years. The scholarship has focused overwhelmingly on Shakespeare and, to a much lesser extent, Milton. Ecocriticism has intermittently enriched our understanding of early modern texts while compelling them to speak to our present ecological crisis. For instance, Ken Hiltner (2003) foregrounds a presentist ethics of rootedness and place but still contributes to our understanding of ethics (and failed ethics) in Milton’s garden. Simon C. Estok (2011) establishes through Shakespeare the concept of ecophobia, where the psychological foreground of tragedy plays off against a sometimes mysterious, sometimes awful natural world. Meanwhile, the concept of ‘ecophobia’ focuses a cultural critique that is intended, in part, to help us to think and act responsibly as we wade into ecological cataclysm.

Though scholars recognize Marvell as among the seventeenth century’s most important poets, he has not been treated in a full-length ecocritical study. While such a monograph appears nowhere, the green Marvell nonetheless appears everywhere, in monograph and anthology chapters and, most often, in smart lines brought in as supporting evidence for expansive claims. Marvell’s oeuvre is difficult, full of unanswered questions, yet it is easy to make Marvell speak to most occasions. The verse addresses difficult constellations of philosophical concerns. Of the poems most often cited in ecocriticism—the Mower triptych, ‘The Mower against Gardens’, ‘The Garden’, ‘Upon Appleton House’—we have no reliable knowledge of audience. Marvell’s green spaces are fraught with ironies and dense with classical and contemporary allusions. The pastoral was already one of the most sophisticated literary genres when Marvell complicated it further. However, when Marvell is greenly presentized, he is made to speak truths that ecocriticism, mostly, already knows. In such instances, we not only loosen our grasp on Marvell, but we also gag him from speaking what might be, for ecocriticism, exigent truths.

Marvell’s lyrics have been ‘greened’ for two and a half centuries. As Bruce R. Smith notes in The Key of Green: Passion and Perception in Renaissance Culture (2009), Alexander B. Grosart’s introduction to the 1872 Complete Poems gushes forth the spirit of Romanticism: ‘Fundamentally, the Poetry of Marvell is genuine as a bird’s singing, or the singing of the brook on its gleaming way under leafage … There is the breath and fragrance of inviolate Nature ….’1 The features of this green aesthetic—purling streams, the poet’s song-bird innocence, nature in its purest state—are still attractive. From the vantage of ecocriticism, the ‘inviolate Nature’ of Marvell’s landscapes can offer a hopeful vision of what might be.

As soon as ecocriticism tapped the poet’s shoulder, he was conscripted as an agent of ecological progress. Ecocriticism is committed to progress, to cultural advance under the banner of saving the planet or (less dramatically) of slowing and mitigating the effects of climate change. This commitment has offered the political energies of the humanities new direction, relevance, and urgency. Given its pre-Romantic terrain, early modern ecocriticism has needed to define its place in a sprawling field unified only in its commitment to ecosystemic salvation. The imperative of progress helped to establish two agendas for ecocriticism of early modern texts. The first was to locate, in the literature, evidence of environmental crises analogous to those of the present. The second was to reveal, in that literature, insights of ethics, imagination, perception, and critique that might help to shape twenty-first century readers, academic institutions, and ecocriticism itself into more responsible agents of progress.

The imperative of progress informs the ways that our discoveries are made to speak. Robert N. Watson (2007) scrutinizes early modern representations of nature within their historical contexts and epistemic frameworks. He articulates sharp skepticism towards the aims of ecocriticism and questions the motives driving it. And yet, he feels obliged to confront ecocriticism at the outset of his project. Midway through the introduction’s first page, in a section titled ‘Ecocriticism’, we find him mulling why ecocriticism does what it does:

Is ecocriticism … mostly an effort of liberal academics to assuage their student-day consciences (and their current radical students) about their retreat into aesthetics and detached professionalism, by forcing literary criticism into a sterile hybrid with social activism? … [In our sentimentality, do we strive] to have religion without coming to terms with religion’s irrational and authoritative demands, … to find an alternative locus for the sacred in an increasingly secular culture? … Is attempting to speak for animals, or trees for that matter, a progressive or an appropriative action?2

Despite a withering critique of ecocriticism in the early paragraphs of Back to Nature, Watson nonetheless concludes the section with a pivot into ecocriticism’s primary terms: ‘If we can understand how some people came to care in politically and intellectually responsible ways, about present and future life on this planet as a collectivity, we can hope to expand the ecologically minded community and its wisdom’.3 With the possible exception of Thomas Traherne, the authors and artists examined in Back to Nature show little capacity ‘to care in politically and intellectually responsible ways … about life on this planet’. Rather, Back to Nature tells a story of cultural decline, one that traces how early modern literature and art participated in deepening the division at the heart of human experience.

Progress is such a dangerous concept because it imposes a teleological structure, a vision of where things will end, which the present projects onto a past where such discourses are emergent or unintelligible. Further, it hammers flat structures of language and thought that point in directions other than to our present place and time—structures for which emergence, where past and future touch, brings much of the meaning. In his account of the English Civil Wars in The Rehearsal Transpros’d (1672), Marvell suggested that ‘men may spare their pains where Nature is at work, and the world will not go the faster for our driving’. Though the larger passage warrants sustained analysis, its premise is clear: the so-called ‘Good Old Cause’ was ‘too good to have been fought for’.4 As a ‘good’ cause, it should have been committed to Providence, that is, to its slow ‘work’ in the processes of ‘Nature’. Forcing progress had only thrown a nation into horrific war to no clear end.

The Whig narrative had identified Marvell as a protoliberal and patriot.5 Arguably, the green Marvell has absorbed some of this narrative’s underlying desire, namely, to place our poet as a champion of progress. Ecocriticism of early modern texts has become more historically informed and more theoretically responsive, and accounts of Marvellian nature in the past two decades have served a variety of purposes. Nonetheless, the idea that Marvell models ecolologically adept perception, action, and expression suggests not a liberation of the literary subject but, rather, the crystallization of a vision where Marvell stands predictably in the vanguard of progress.

For instance, Diane Kelsey McColley (2006) contended that Marvell’s verse offers insight into ecological principles: his ‘language is fluidly responsive to the liquidity of truth … overflow[ing] expected forms to carry new perceptions’.6 Joanna Picciotto (2008) aligns Marvell with cultural enterprises working to redeem humanity through new understandings of nature enabled by instrument and experiment. ‘The Garden’, ‘Upon Appleton House’, and ‘Last Instructions to a Painter’, asserts Picciotto, offer ‘means to chart a progressivist escape from fallen illusions … Through reading, we see observation in action, and as action, and are re-modeled into its agency’. Marvell’s verse strives toward the restoration of Adamic perception: ‘trustworthy prosthetic insight is generated by many pairs of eyes and hands working to discipline each other’.7 Andrew McRae (2010) finds Marvell’s poetry to be among the seventeenth century’s ‘most sensitive reflections on relations between humanity and the natural world’. The poems ‘reveal a mind grappling its way towards new kinds of appreciation of the natural environment’.8

Ecocriticism has only partially fulfilled its promise to open new ways of reading literatures of the past and new ways of making them speak meaningfully to the present.


‘Greenwashing’ occurs when a commodity is represented as green—as eco-friendly—to meet the consumer’s aesthetic and ethical needs in the face of ecological catastrophe. ‘Greenwashing’ compels because all modern consumers both share and deny the open secret that they are complicit in the dawning horrors of the Anthropocene. Greenwashing invites consumption that, nominally, does not participate in ecological decline and that represents antidote rather than poison.

Scholarship can greenwash literature. However rigorous or responsibly historicized our analyses, we greenwash when we maneuver earlier literatures into ecocriticism’s master paradigm of ecological progress. In this section, I want to demonstrate what scholarly greenwashing can look like and to sketch out the more cosmic consequences of our eagerness to prefer the aesthetic over a systemic and material reality. John Evelyn’s 1661 Fumifugium offers an excellent starting point, for it allows us to observe how Evelyn greenwashes proto-industrial London and how scholars, in turn, have followed his lead. While Fumifugium sold sparingly and held no influence until the late twentieth century, it has now become a locus classicus for ecocriticism on early modernity.9

Evelyn is attractive, first, because he offers thick description of urban pollution with which modern readers can sympathize. We learn that those ‘who repair to London, no sooner enter into it, but … find a universal alteration in their Bodies; which are either dryed up or enflam’d, the humours being exasperated and made apt to putrifie’.10 Evelyn’s account invites analogy between early modern London and the modern toxic city. For Hiltner, Fumifugium is ‘the first modern work to take as its subject industrial air pollution’.11 For John Bellamy Foster (1999), ‘The brilliance of Evelyn’s 17th-century contribution to conservation … raises important theoretical issues’ for the present. It ‘prefigur[es] an ecological stance that was not to become a political force until the late-19th century (if then)’.12 If the primary end of ecocriticism is salvific political action, in entering Evelyn’s London, we have invited ecocriticism into a place where it can make early modernity meaningful.

Evelyn is also attractive because he proposes a perimeter of herbs and flowers, which will serve the city as natural air filters. Evelyn proposes that London be encircled by fields of 20–40 acres, with 150-foot-wide borders between. The fields would be used for agriculture and the borders for horticulture. Evelyn’s enumeration of the herbs and flowers that he proposes to plant is seductively lush, full of beautiful names and olfactory descriptions. As botanical air filters, these plants would absorb smog from outside of the city and waft pleasant odors into it. McColley celebrates that Evelyn’s tract teaches ‘air-cleansing planting’: ‘Evelyn turns to grass roots remedies for air pollution’.13

In appropriating Fumifugium, ecocriticism has discussed its crucial second part infrequently.14 Here, Evelyn aims his reforms at industry: not only those that burn sea-coal, but also non-coal-burning industries and services that are simply noxious, unsavory, or ugly. His solution would ‘requir[e] only the Removal of such Trades, as are manifest Nusiances to the City … [to] farther distances; such [are the] Brewers, Diers, Sope, and Salt-boylers, Lime-burners, and the like’. These industries, ‘together with some few others of the same Classe’, would be ejected from the city center to ‘farther distances’ beyond the suburbs. Here, ‘Classe’ refers at once to a category of industry and an economic status. Whereas the botanical borders would frame the city beautifully, it is the removal of industry that ‘would even be found to breath a new life as it were, as well as London appear a new City’.15 Evelyn’s public-works project would have cleansed the city of material and labor conditions that answered demands of trade and consumption in this emergently industrial city. Industries ‘whose Works are upon the Margent of the Thames’ should ‘be banished further off, and not once dare to approach that silver Channel … which glides by our stately Palaces’. Evelyn adds to the banished not only chandlers, butchers, and fishmongers, but also our ‘Nasty Prisons and Common Goales [jails]’.16

We can hardly fail to notice relationships between urban planning and poverty familiar to the gentrified or ghettoized urban cultures of modern capitalism. ‘Tenements’ and ‘nasty Cottages near the City’, those which ‘are already become a great Eye-sore in the grounds opposite to His Majesty’s Palace at White-Hall’, are ejected to benefit the nobler and wealthier. ‘The Platts [plots] and Houses deserted … might be converted into Tenements, and some of them into Noble Houses for use and pleasure, respecting the Thames to their no small advantage’.17 Depopulating enclosure had contributed to London’s growth throughout early modernity. The ongoing private consolidation of England’s agriculture had uprooted laborers and had pushed many to find wage work in London. Evelyn’s plan would reverse that process: London becomes the enclosed land of the wealthy while laborers are pushed (back) out to dwell where they cannot easily be seen.

The material and organizational processes of primitive accumulation (or proto-industrial capitalism) tend to run beneath or outside of the aesthetic. The tools of ecocriticism have not proven sharp enough to dig beneath the aesthetic or to gauge what the aesthetic conceals or reveals. Raymond Williams’s 1970 The Country and the City, which explores how aesthetics, consumption, and materiality informed each other during four centuries of industrial growth in England, proves helpful in this respect. For Williams, ‘structures of feeling’ are dominant assumptions that function to maintain social order but that are also under pressures of social and temporal processes. They are not merely dominant ways of thinking but, rather, ‘affective elements of consciousness and relationships’ that assist the subject’s passage through ideology torqued by the pressures of social change.18 They inform our concessions to pastoralizing aesthetics.19 They are affective, insofar as they reproduce predictable responses (for instance, attitudes toward the countryside or to the days of yore). They are aesthetic, in so far as the aesthetic adheres to affect. They are formal, insofar as linguistic and prosodic structures concretize the aesthetic. They are material, insofar as the affective, aesthetic, and discursive shape the industrial capitalist landscape.

Since Evelyn shows us the ugly to promote the beautiful, and since he is writing a proposal instead of a utopia, he must also consider, to the extent possible, the material consequences of his aesthetic vision. By imagining the removal of industries, Evelyn must account for how the demands of consumption would be met: ‘Thousands of able Watermen may be employed in bringing Commodities into the City, to certaine Magazines & Wharfs, commodiously situated to dispense them by Carrs or rather Sleds, into the several parts of the Town’.20 In these good intentions, we can already see the tentacles of the supply chain extending from the commodity-form into the land and across rivers and oceans. In under 150 years, with the opening of the London and Greenwich Railway, Londoners and manufacturers would have their first (coal-driven) steam-train. Soon after, across the Atlantic, Henry David Thoreau would lament hearing, from his home at Walden Pond, ‘the iron horse mak[e] the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils’. He foresees the airplane, that superlative emitter of carbon dioxide: ‘what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don’t know’.21

Evelyn’s Fumifugium envisions the horticultural encircling of a London that radiated outward from Westminster. London assumes the aesthetics of its own consumption, of the commodity-form, of an objectified desire framed to efface the conditions of its becoming. The structure of Evelyn’s London in Fumifugium was determined, in part, by his failure to understand the extent of material interconnectivity between consumption and industrial pollution and, thus, between the individual and the horizon. We see, then, a greenwashing that is internal to Evelyn’s tract: the air can be cleansed of pollution and London made a new city. Since the problem is industry and not consumption, industry must be removed while still meeting the demands of town and port. The problem of transport becomes an opportunity for job creation. Meanwhile, the distancing of production leaves the commodity enshrined and the culture of consumption enlivened.

In celebrating Evelyn as a proto-ecological thinker, scholars have missed what his proposed reform can tell us about why we find ourself, some 350 years later, within a sixth global mass extinction event. We can see the ugliness of Fumifugium gutted in the moment of its introduction to early modern ecocriticism. Foster’s 1999Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature details Marx’s interest in ecology, especially the processes through which nature is made to serve the state and to constitute culture. Given Foster’s learned materialism, we would expect him to be a poor ambassador for Evelyn’s tract. And yet, Foster’s ‘edition’ of Fumifugium in 1999—which, published in the journal Organization & Environment, offered to many scholars a first encounter—reifies the text in a form responsive to the desiderata of ecocriticism as it was beginning to enter early modern studies. Foster publishes the first part of Fumifugium, which thickly describes London’s air pollution and its grotesque effects upon denizens and visitors. But he redacts the proposals. As such, the text is prepared to foreground an analogy between early modernity and present ecological crisis: dressed to please and ready to serve.


Like Evelyn, Marvell struggles, variously, to understand the relationship between the material systems of emergent capitalism and the aesthetic dimensions of the landscape. His lyrics often suggest a suspended subjectivity, one that straddles individual agency and some uncertainly located immanence in the land. The lyrics strive to grasp continuities that double as ruptures, that mark at once psychological rift and material flow. Frequently, shapes or abstract forms appear in Marvell’s landscapes to mark this paradox. These shapes—most frequently, squares or circles—figure soul, form, quantity, and development in antithesis to body, matter, quality, and wildness.

In ‘A Dialogue between the Soul and Body’, the square represents form which has been imposed upon wild matter. Through its arguments, imagery, and double-meanings, the poem has dramatized, as dialogue, the soul’s and body’s interdependent suffering. Based on the preceding uniformity of four-couplet stanzas, the poem should conclude at line 40. Yet an additional quatrain breaks through:

What but a soul could have the wit
To build me up for sin so fit?
So architects do square and hew
Green trees that in the forest grew. (ll. 41–44)

The quatrain analogizes the operation of the soul—to impose form on matter to achieve the conditions whereby the body must fail—with the work of architects, who extract resources from felled forests. Where the soul imposes the concept of sin to cut down the body, so do architects impose form upon wildness to clear space and to extract resources. Here, that form determines, in another register of reality, the leveling of forest. The trees are described as ‘green’—verdant, thriving, free—yet the past tense of ‘grew’ immediately revises them as dead, as already shaped into lumber. ‘Grew’ renders ‘green’ painful; as in the Mower triptych, we see natural presence recede as quickly as it is conceptualized.22

The opening quatrain of ‘Upon Appleton House’, also written in 1651, performs similar work in its suggestion that foreign architects impose grandiose designs that correspond to the wounding and reshaping of earth:

Within this sober frame expect
Work of no foreign architect;
That unto caves the quarries drew,
And forests did to pastures hew. (ll. 1–4)

The ‘sober frame’ of Nunappleton incorporates no work of foreign architects because at least one, the Huguenot David Papillon, was passed over for the English John Webb.23 The Englishness of the house evokes a sense of humility and rootedness, whereas the foreign is associated with impractical grandeur. Such proud buildings as the palace in William Davenant’s Gondibert appear to inflict strange violence upon the land, so that they gut rock deposits and ‘pastures hew’. Marvell suggests that Nunappleton required no such violation, since its materials were drawn from the ruins of the convent, which had occupied the grounds until the English Reformation. As such, its development follows an inductive, more materially fluent process. Materials were reconstituted without the violence of geometry: ‘all that neighbour-ruin [of the nunnery] shows/The quarries whence this dwelling rose’ (ll. 87–88).

To ‘draw’ ‘quarries’ ‘unto caves’ implies a tight correspondence between design and material extraction, between the geometry that delimits development and the violence that is inflicted upon matter. In ‘The Garden’, ‘the skillful gardener’ is described not as having cultivated the floral sundial but, rather, as having drawn it: ‘How well the skillful gardener drew/Of herbs and flowers this dial new’ (ll. 65–66). ‘Skillful gardener’ indicates the person who designed this garden, yet it does so by relating this horticulturalist to the divine Creator, whose art the seventeenth-century garden was understood to emulate.

We might think of designs for pleasure gardens that appear in works such as Gervase Markham’s Certaine Excellent and New Invented Knots and Mazes, for Plots and Gardens (1623) and Stephen Blake’s The Compleat Gardeners Practice (1664).24 Blake notes correspondences between his square designs and the pleasure garden’s square. He points to his skill as a draftsperson: ‘This figure represents Lines how they ought to be layed before you begin to draw a Large knott’. He notes in his design for a pleasure garden shaped as the fleur de lis: ‘Heere I have in the paper the Ovalls so round put/And in the Ground the same I can cut’.25 Marvell’s ‘drew’ implicates at once form and matter in the service of aesthetic production. If a floral sundial has been sketched (‘drawn’), so too does the sketched form correspond, exactly, with the ‘draw[ing]’ of the ‘herbs and flowers’ into the horticultural manifestation of that form. As Katherine Acheson explains in her analysis of military structures in the horticulture of ‘Upon Appleton House’, seventeenth-century print addresses a broad cultural interest in the relationship between geometrical structure and land:

The conceptualization of space that brings together the military and the horticultural in ‘Upon Appleton House’ derives from the application of ideas and techniques that were germane to early modern arts of mensuration, through which earth was measured and thereby transformed into territory, property, or ‘land’. The arts of mensuration and the modes of spatialization they generate are most commonly expressed in diagrammatic illustrations that represent the world schematically rather than naturalistically—that show the world as it was measured and made use of, rather than as it was seen and enjoyed.26

Blake’s knot garden designs are consummate examples of ‘illustrations that represent the world schematically rather than naturalistically’. They ‘show the world as it was [to be] measured and made use of’, particularly to display one’s wealth and taste. From upon raised ground or from the higher floors of the country house, one might be able to enjoy the design as an emblem, yet the experience of walking through such gardens would be essentially different. As ‘drawn’—formalized, aestheticized, imposed—the sun dial of Marvell’s garden requires that we attain a bird’s-eye perspective to imagine it.

The likely contemporary ‘Mower against Gardens’ takes geometrical imposition upon untouched nature as its starting point, from which it opens concerns about aesthetics, cosmetics, sexual corruption, the new economics, and colonial enterprise:

Luxurious man, to bring his vice in use,
Did after him the world seduce:
And from the fields the flowers and plants allure,
Where Nature was most plain and pure.
He first enclosed within the gardens square
A dead and standing pool of air. (ll. 1–6)

Humanity capitalized on the original sin by seducing the natural world from its ‘plain and pure’ state. It ‘allure[d]’ the ‘flowers and plants’ from the open field into the form of the garden, this square now immuring a stagnant ‘pool of air’. This geometrical imposition seconds the Fall and repeats that fall in horticultural development.27

From the start of ‘The Mower against Gardens’, Marvell integrates the language and logic of the new economics, of emergent agro-industrial capitalism. ‘Luxurious’ is both lustful and extravagant. The pleasure garden belonged to the privileged, its primary purpose to display opulence, standing, and taste. ‘Luxurious man’ not only had put its vice into practice—that is, ‘in use’—but also had circulated it to accumulate interest, as through usury.28 What begins in the poem as manipulation of soil becomes abstracted into a range of other corruptions. Among those who could grow capital were landlords who optimized their yield through enclosure. We might understand this pleasure garden as complicit, on the one hand, in the enclosure movement and its geographical and macroeconomic implications and, on the other, in the emergence of the commodity-form, which is the sign of these transitions.

Once the gardener had walled in the air, he then kneaded nutrients into the soil. Instead of growth and vitality, the product became the prize, and accelerated growth became the means to attaining it. The ‘luscious earth’ ‘stupefied’ the plants ‘while it fed’ them: ‘The pink grew then as double as his mind;/The nutriment did change the kind’ (ll. 6–10). The enriched soil could now alter the colors of tulips and even convert their reproductive organs. For instance, the ‘double pink’ was made by mixing nutrients into the soil that prompted stamen and carpel to develop into petals, thus doubling their number.29 In the poem, this both aesthetic and biological corruption corresponds with sexual corruption: the flowers wear cosmetics and serve in the gardener-regent’s ‘green seraglio’ (l. 27), guarded, according to custom, by neuter plants, ‘eunuchs’ (l. 27) such as the ‘double-pink’ itself. Ultimately, the garden’s promiscuity leads to a complete confusion of origin: ‘No plant now knew the stock from which it came’ (l. 23).

In ‘The Mower against Gardens’, the impurities of horticulture and the sexual corruption of court concur with an economic reshaping or devastating of the land. Marvell cites the Dutch tulip bubble of 1637, when prices for bulbs, based on off-season speculation, reached absurd heights.30 Here, Marvell notes that the blush-interlined white tulip was so in demand that the ‘onion root’ or bulb ‘was for a meadow sold’ (ll. 15–16). In framing tulip speculation within the ‘gardens square’, Marvell develops connotations of usury and coinage into an economics that abstracts and quantifies the land and whirls it about. The labeling of ‘man’ as a ‘sov’reign thing and proud’ suggests not only independence, pride, and monarchy, but also the representation of the monarch’s face upon the ‘sovereign’, then a viable but declining currency. As such, the abstraction of the land destabilizes ‘man’, whose self has been assumed into the representation of a wildly unstable value. To satisfy ‘luxurious man’, garden delights must also be sought through colonial enterprise: ‘Another world was searched, through oceans new,/To find the Marvel of Peru’ (ll. 17–18). In other words, colonial expansion was required to find a single exotic flower, the mirabilis jalapa.31 Trans-oceanic trade was increasingly integral to the economics of Marvell’s England, especially by 1668 (one proposed date of the poem’s composition).32 Whereas the poem’s ‘garden’ was planted to reconstitute a lost paradise, that mission leads to continuing expansion, to the domination of new lands and people and to the expansion of markets and trade routes. As with ‘use’ and ‘sov’reign’, the assertion, ‘No plant now knew the stock from which it came’, easily slides into economic critique. The expansion of colonial efforts through plantations large and small leads to ‘plants’—short for ‘plantations’—that seem causally disconnected from the ‘stock’, from the business capital of trading companies and speculators. In a Restoration context, ‘stock’ would evoke the ‘joint stock company’, such as the East India Company, which caused numerous bubbles and collapses while exploiting the land and its people.

These aspects of the same corruption—horticultural, material, economic, and mercantile—are ordinary in themselves but extraordinary in their interrelation. ‘The Mower against Gardens’ situates us within an uncertain space of systemic emergence. It also associates this immanence with the subject’s divided consciousness: ‘The pink grew now as double as his mind’ (l. 9). Most importantly, the poem represents the subject’s suspension across emergent systems in ways that are biological (‘grew’) and tactile: over time, humanity ‘did knead’ its perversion into the ‘earth’ (l. 7). What might be reduced to diametrical oppositions between art and nature, form and matter, economics and earth, is complicated by the fact that these poles are connected by material processes and innumerable acts of consumption.


Ecocriticism continues to redefine itself by shedding the romanticism of earlier ecocriticism. At the same time, it threatens always to maintain romantic sensibilities while attempting to surpass them through hardier method and more sophisticated meta-discourse. Accounts of Marvellian nature remain under the spell of what Theodor Adorno terms Naturschöne or ‘natural beauty’. For Adorno, artistic representations of nature pose—falsely—as communicative media between nature and the human subject.33 The artwork, in presenting itself as a mediation of nature and thus as making nature speak, requires a conception of nature that is, in fact, an idealization pulled from a bygone aesthetic. The concept of natural beauty permits art to convince itself—again, delusively—that it is recapturing communication from the silence that nature speaks to human languages. Moreover, ‘Natural beauty, purportedly ahistorical, is at its core historical’, so that aesthetic shifts not only demand, but also bestow new criteria by which to define this beauty.34 For eco-aware art, as also for literary criticism, such criteria might be interconnectedness, fluidity, texture, ambience, ephemerality, repetition, slowness, and melancholy. Such beauty, however far from vulgar kitsch, carries with it the promise of progress, of the new human and the new earth.

The millenarian fervor of the 1640s and 50s assumed that human beings could act to usher in the thousand-year reign of Christ, which was to precede the Apocalypse. Gerrard Winstanley thought that Paradise could be restored in communal agriculture. Thomas Traherne thought that it could be reclaimed in the present as a state of mind and being. Milton’s Adam and Eve exit the garden uncertainly, ‘With Providence thir guide’.35 Marvell’s own worldview, however, was rooted in a more firmly Calvinist view of nature and man as fallen, hopelessly depraved, and resigned to death and judgement. Although not theologically dogmatic, he saw attempts to reclaim ‘that happy garden-state’ (‘The Garden’, l. 57) as potentially escapist.36

Marvell’s concept of a corrupted nature was informed by reading Lucretius and Virgil.37 In De rerum natura and the Georgics, respectively, agricultural labor and reform are consequences of the slow dissolution of matter. ‘Omnia fatis in peius ruere ac retro sublapsa referri’, declares Virgil: ‘All things hasten backward, toward the worse’.38 The gradual diminishment of nature’s fruitfulness necessitated agricultural improvement, such as the invention and perfecting of the plough, along with all agricultural technologies and techniques thereafter. Instead of speaking to the Baconian narrative of scientific progress, Lucretius and Virgil postulated a ‘progress’ from a golden age to a bronze to an iron, the iron of the ploughshare. Thus, they offered Marvell narratives of human and natural regression.

The Marvellian pastoral is discernibly georgic. It presents the subject as a laborer in the space of the subject’s own alienation during a time of indefinite suffering. ‘The Mower to the Glow-worms’ captures the primary aesthetic division between cognition and perception: ‘For she my mind hath so displaced/That I shall never find my home’ (ll. 15–16). In “Damon the Mower,” Damon labors seasonally in the land of his dispossession. He is Virgil’s Meliboeus, dwelling comfortably in his pastoral home; yet he is also Tityrus, forced from his land to begin a life of labor in cold foreign soil. In Marvell’s England, such a paradox was plausible: a mower like Damon could have returned to the same land—now enclosed—where he might have sharecropped, grazed cattle, and dwelt with a family. Now, he returns each summer to reap hay for the lord of the estate, to be compensated by wages or according to the volume of hay that he reaps: ‘With this [scythe] the golden fleece I shear/Of all these closes every year’ (ll. 53–54).

Facing his internal displacement, the Mower takes aim at the land, attacking the grass vengefully: ‘While thus he threw his elbow round,/Depopulating all the ground …’ (ll. 73–74). ‘Depopulate’, with its unmistakable root in populus (‘people’), unites humanity and nature even as it describes the act of severing that unity ‘between the earth and root’ (l. 76). ‘Depopulate’ is no semantic coincidence. Damon’s stroke, directed at the grass, lacerates his own ankle:

The edgèd steel by careless chance
Did into his own ankle glance;
And there among the grass fell down,
By his own scythe, the mower mown. (ll. 77–80)

As such, Damon’s stroke severs at once land and mower while suggesting the displacement caused by depopulating enclosure. Damon’s internal displacement is so complete that he can see himself only unreliably, in the reflection of his face (and of the blinding sun) in the steel of his blade. His self-perception is not only unreliable; it is also aesthetic:

Nor am I so deformed to sight,
If in my scythe I lookèd right;
In which I see my picture done,
As in a crescent moon the sun. (ll. 57–60, my emphasis)

With this aesthetic self-perception in the midst of an alien nature, Damon is the picture of a mind displaced, a mind absolutely and irrevocably split from the earth and from itself. The person and the grass are ontologically split populus.

Throughout the Mower triptych, these divisions are attributed to Juliana; yet she possesses no identity, no realness. Rather, in her absence, she haunts Damon’s world as an allegory for a division at the heart of experience that is bound up with the history of the laborer-in-the-land. The innate sense of loss that comes with our emergence into the cultural matrix intensifies an antagonism to the natural world, one exceptionally tragic because, especially in ‘Damon the Mower’ and ‘The Mower’s Song’, human and nature are materially bound. In the latter poem, this antagonism becomes complete, as the Mower, whose decline is counted in years, is mocked by nature’s cyclical renewal:

Unthankful meadows, could you so
A fellowship so true forgo,
And in your gaudy May-games meet,
While I lay trodden under feet? (ll. 13–16)

In Lucretius and in Virgil’s Georgics, nature and humanity share the same plight, but not necessarily the same fate: in both, nature declines while bearing the promise of renewal. Regardless of the degree to which Marvell accepted these accounts of matter, he places the Mower at odds with nature, which renews cyclically while he is abandoned to his demise and death. They are ‘unthankful’ for his labors and friendship. They abandon ‘A fellowship so true’: here was the grass that brushed his sides and shared his sweat each summer. As he prepares to die, the meadows celebrate in ‘gaudy May-games’. Given the Mower’s death, why wouldn’t they? Rather than killing them, he will be joining them.

One might conjecture that Marvell’s prose, and especially his satires, suggest a much more progressive vision. After all, polemic and satire are almost constitutionally committed to change for the better. Marvell’s tracts and satires are not so much persuasive documents as they are committed to exposing discursive error and abuses of political and religious power. Unlike Milton’s early tracts, Marvell’s prose and satires show little concern for guiding humanity forward. As in the Remarks upon a Late and Disingenous Discourse, Marvell suggests that Christianity entered a regressive trajectory when adopted by Constantine and codified at the Council of Nicaea: ‘the first and greatest Æcumenical blow that by Christians was given to Christianity’.39 The history of the perversions and abuses of Christianity, in the hands of worldly power, stem, for Marvell, from this event. Adam and Eve bit the apple. Constantine summoned the bishops to Nicaea.

Death holds dominion in the language and imagery of Marvell’s nature. The topos of et in Arcadia ego not only reminds us that death comes to those in Arcadia, too, but also suggests that death fully inhabits Arcadia, that this nature, experienced as aesthetic, has already been given over to death. The natural world in Marvell is regularly perceived within the poems as aesthetic. For instance, ‘everything did seem to paint/The scene more fit for his complaint’ (‘Damon the Mower’, ll. 3–4); ‘Nor white nor red was ever seen/So am’rous as this lovely green’ (‘The Garden’, ll. 17–18); ‘The oak leaves me embroider all’ (‘Upon Appleton House’, l. 587); ‘flowers themselves were taught to paint’ (‘The Mower against Gardens’, l. 12).

For several of Marvell’s narrators, death provides the only exit from the displacement that generates desire for and antipathy towards nature. It is the only exit from the human condition. As Watson articulates:

Marvell consistently depicts the Fall as an onset of self-consciousness, for which the Other—a field or a woman, almost indistinguishably—becomes the scapegoat. Death, the obvious consequence of that Fall, is also its radical cure: the last hope for participation in nature without the obstructions of language and consciousness.40

The Fall’s original severing of human experience from natural presence determines the recursiveness of our efforts to reclaim it. We repeatedly strive to embrace what is always an aesthetic ghost: ‘the self-regarding reflex of the mind is always already bringing the fallen world back in’.41 Indeed, the ‘self-regarding reflex of the mind’ determines that apprehension of nature is really confrontation with hopeless alienation.

‘The Mower’s Song’ begins with the assertion that the Mower’s mind, once tuned to nature and once sharing its hopes, was itself mown when ‘Juliana came’ (l. 5). Even as he looks back upon that cutting, he can only recall a ‘mind [that] was once the true survey/Of all these meadows fresh and gay’ (ll. 1–2, my emphasis). In other words, he can only look back in time to a map of the meadows, not to the meadows themselves, as though nature were already a landscape painting stolen from an observer’s gaze upon it. The phrase ‘true survey’ is oxymoronic. Nonetheless, the Mower must suffer this banishment while remaining inextricable—materially—from the land. In death, he returns to the ‘Companions of my thoughts more green’ (l. 26), to the ‘fellowship so true’ (l. 14): ‘ye meadows … Shall now the heraldry become/With which I shall adorn my tomb’ (ll. 25–28). Conventionally, nature and mortality are never far from each other. But in many of Marvell’s lyrics, nature is associated with magic, festivity, and renewal—indeed, with comedic resolution. After all, Damon’s story ends happily.


In Marvell, then, we see a conjunction of paradoxes. The first of these paradoxes is that humanity is alienated from within nature: on one hand, psychologically and perceptually cleft from natural presence and, on the other, materially confluent with nature, integrated into its systems. If visual perception is suspect in Marvell, the tactile seems potently sincere, surcharged with dynamic meaning, insistent upon spreading its body like a bridge across the chasm, clinging like a residue.

The second paradox of Marvellian nature is that the human experience of alienation coincides with the emergence of epistemological systems in the landscape that evade the individual’s critical comprehension. As such, the Marvellian subject straddles materiality and the aesthetic perception of nature in a way that stretches the subject uncertainly across the land and, ultimately, across impossibly vast expanses of space and time. Thus, Marvell writes of attempts ‘To find the Marvel of Peru’: he is split between here and there, despite never having crossed the Atlantic. The aesthetic perspective toward nature of the ‘mind … displaced’ translates, through the transactions of the commodity-form, into a geometrical development of the land, which imposes abstractions upon matter that are answerable to the commodity-form and that assist in consolidating its dominion. In the meantime, the vermiculations of the supply chain, concealed through the mirror tricks of consumer culture, sprawl with unthinkable convolutions into the future.

As humanists seek new and better ways to locate human progress and to insist upon their contributions to it, so have I, too, hoped to find in Marvell a thinker and agent in that progress. In our labors, from our institutional and market carrels, we yearn for such revelations and discover them perhaps too often. I have paused over many moments in Marvell’s poetry and prose where meditations on history, aesthetics, and materiality converge upon representations of phenomenal experience. I think of the dewdrop of ‘Upon a Drop of Dew’: on the one hand, caught up within physical forces as a soul embodied; on the other, divided from nature as a body riven by soul:

Restless it rolls, and unsecure,
Trembling, lest it grow impure;
Till the warm sun pity its pain,
And to the skies exhale it back again. (ll. 15–18)

In addition to restlessness, rolling insecurity, trembling, warmth, pity, and pain, the dewdrop’s experience entails, also, a curious exhalation. ‘Exhale’, from ex-halare, indicates the act of breathing outward. Yet ‘hale’ derives a different, equally visceral sense from the Old French haler and Old Saxon halôn (‘to fetch, draw, or pull’).42 Both senses were current during the seventeenth century. Thus, ‘exhale’ signifies at once the intimately physical act of breathing outward and the less pleasant, though as visceral, experience of being fetched or pulled from earth.

I imagine that the poet of ‘Upon Appleton House’ is feeling something similar when ‘lick[ed]’, ‘clasp[ed]’, ‘curl[ed]’, and ‘haled’ by ‘Ivy’ (ll. 589–90). The verbs, all of which emphasize tactile interaction, begin with the intimacy of a lick and conclude with the latent aggression of a firm pull (‘hale’). Three stanzas later, they become violent: ‘Bind me … chain me … nail me through’ (ll. 609–16). ‘Curls’, which follows ‘Me licks’ and ‘clasps’, pinpoints the closeness of caress and aggression, ontological division and phenomenal continuity. What does it mean ‘to curl’ a human being (‘me’)? The second appearance of ‘curl’, in line 610, is part of a different, intransitive verb, ‘to curl about [me]’. Here, it is unambiguously the ‘gadding vines’ that the poet encourages to curl around his body, to ‘bind’ him. The earlier appearance, ‘[Me] curl’, suggests that the ivy that ‘licks’ and ‘clasps’ will also make the speaker’s body curl—as it ‘hales’ that body. The poet thus remains entangled with the ‘gadding vines’ of ivy in a relationship of both communion and a desired violent ‘bondage’ of ‘brambles’ that ‘chain’ and ‘briars’ that ‘nail me through’ (ll. 614–16).

Marvell’s poetry represents a subject at once ontologically divided from and phenomenally integrated with material nature. At the same time, the interchange that occurs at the body’s contact with the land—that crossing over which Maurice Merleau-Ponty refers to as the chiasm, the intertwining of a shared flesh43—is historically situated. It cannot be reduced to the type of ecological ethics that we see, repeatedly, in the greener shades of ecocriticism. Such reading seizes the moment of the early modern text, extracting it from its depth to speak to contexts that may be superficially similar but that are also profoundly alien, since present moments buried in the past absorb so much from their situation—both horizontal and vertical—in the strata of time.

The chiasmic in Marvell drapes over an historically shaped rift that renders nature inaccessible to the Marvellian subject-in-nature. Jacques Derrida, in his articulation of the divide between the human and the animal, permits the chasm an historical and material contingency. The barrier is as a ‘foliated consistency’, a ‘plural and repeatedly folded frontier’: ‘What are the edges of a limit that grows and multiplies by feeding on an abyss?’44 In other words, the chasm continues to be reshaped, indeed, to be layered and folded over repeatedly through our insidious discourses of the animal: ‘No one can deny seriously, or for very long, that men do all they can in order to dissimulate this cruelty [inflicted upon the animal] or to hide it from themselves, in order to organize on a global scale the forgetting or misunderstanding of this violence’.45 So too with the human’s relationship to non-human nature more broadly. What have we to show for our attempts to celebrate nature in our songs and poetry, to exalt nature in our art, to care for it in our discourses, to serve it in our purchases? This year, 5,000 to 50,000 species will be lost. (The current extinction rate is 1,000 to 5,000 times the background rate of extinction throughout geological time.) If it takes, say, an hour to read this article, then it is likely that we have lost one to six species since you began.

Too often, presentism requires the capture of a snapshot from a moment in the past. This moment has been extracted from contexts—especially historical, economic, discursive, technological, epistemological, organizational, aesthetic, and material contexts. To seize the moment of the early modern text from this contextual sediment is, perforce, to view it from above as though looking down upon an ornate tabletop. Even as this surface comes under the microscope, it loses its sense of emergence, loses the textures, the caresses and agonies, the sense of being separated from nature, God, and oneself. For the structures of feeling discussed by Williams are not simply algorithmic; what makes them transformative is that they channel a feeling of transition. They are at once of the past, present, and future.

Lost, also, is that brilliance in the text that illumines, partially and imperfectly, myriad forgotten connections. Fully manifested, the impulse towards presentism in ecological criticism—towards utility in the service of progress—would ensure that it found well-signposted avenues of inquiry. In such a case, ‘progress’ would be catastrophic indeed. And Marvell would be useless.


1Bruce R. Smith, The Key of Green: Passion and Perception in Renaissance Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 14; citing Alexander B. Grosart, ed., The Complete Works in Verse and Prose of Andrew Marvell: With … a Translation of the Greek and Latin Poetry … 4 vols. (London: AMS Press, 1872–1875), 1.lxvi. 

2Robert N. Watson, Back to Nature: The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 4–5. 

3Watson, 5. 

4Andrew Marvell, The Rehearsal Transpros’d, ed. Martin Dzelzainis, in The Prose Works of Andrew Marvell, vol. 1, ed. Annabel Patterson, Martin Dzelzainis, Nicholas von Matzahn, and N. H. Keeble (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 192. All citations of the prose refer to this edition. See also Brendan Prawdzik, ‘“Til Eyes and Tears Be the Same Things”: Marvell’s Spirituality and the Senses of History’, Explorations in Renaissance Culture 41 (2015): 202–24, esp. 204–16. 

5See Nicholas von Maltzahn, ‘Andrew Marvell and the Prehistory of Whiggism’, in ‘Cultures of Whiggism’: New Essays on English Literature and Culture in the Long Eighteenth Century, ed. David Womersley, Paddy Bullard, and Abigail Williams (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005), 31–61. 

6Diane Kelsey McColley, Poetry and Ecology in the Age of Milton and Marvell (Farnham: Ashgate, 2007), 16. 

7Joanna Picciotto, Labors of Innocence in Early Modern England (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 376–77: ‘If we, along with the poet, feel the grounds of observation shifting underfoot … this is the surest sign that progress is being made’ (377). 

8Andrew McRae, ‘The Green Marvell’, in The Cambridge Handbook to Andrew Marvell, ed. Derek Hirst and Steven N. Zwicker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 123. 

9See Mark Jenner, ‘The Politics of London Air: John Evelyn’s Fumifugium and the Restoration’, The Historical Journal 38, no. 3 (1995): 535–51. 

10John Evelyn, Fumifugium, or, the Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated (London: Gabriel Bedel and Thomas Collins, 1661), 9. 

11Ken Hiltner, ed., Renaissance Ecology: Imagining Eden in Milton’s England (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2008), 2–3. 

12John Bellamy Foster, ‘Introduction to John Evelyn’s Fumifugium’, Organization & Environment 12, no. 2 (1999): 185. 

13McColley, 154, 84. 

14See Jenner, 544–51; and Hiltner, What Else Is Pastoral? Renaissance Literature and the Environment (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011), 96. 

15Evelyn, 15. 

16Ibid., 21. 

17Ibid., 17. 

18Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 132. 

19Williams, The Country and the City (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 1–54. 

20Evelyn, 17. 

21Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854), 127. See also Sharon O’Dair, ‘Slow Shakespeare: An Eco-Critique of “Method” in Early Modern Literary Studies’, in Early Modern Ecostudies: From the Florentine Codex to Shakespeare, ed. Thomas Hallock, Ivo Kamps, and Karen L. Raber (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 11–13. 

22Cf. Marvell, ‘The Gallery’, ll. 54–56. All references to Marvell’s poetry refer to Nigel Smith, The Poems of Andrew Marvell (Harlow: Longman, 2003). 

23Jane Partner, ‘“The Swelling Hall”: Andrew Marvell and the Politics of Architecture at Nun Appleton House’, The Seventeenth Century 23, no. 2 (2008): 225–43, esp. 238–39. See also N. Smith, Poems, 216, n. 2–4. 

24See Rebecca Bushnell, Green Desire: Imagining Early Modern English Gardens (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003), 41–83. 

25Stephen Blake, The Compleat Gardeners Practice (London: Thomas Pierrepoint, 1664), 1, 24. 

26Katherine O. Acheson, ‘Military Illustration, Garden Design, and Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House”’, ELR 41, no. 1 (2011): 148; cf. D. K. Smith, The Cartographic Imagination in Early Modern England: Re-writing the World in Marlowe, Spenser, Raleigh, and Marvell (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 157–88. 

27Cf. Marvell, ‘Upon Appleton House’, 21–22. See also N. Smith’s note on ‘mote’, Poems, 217, n. 22. 

28Cf. Watson, 120. 

29Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. ‘double (adj. 1.d)’, accessed 12 January 2019, 

30Peter M. Garber, ‘Tulipmania’, Journal of Political Economy 97, no. 3 (1989): 535–60; cf. Earl A. Thompson, ‘The Tulipmania: Fact Or Artifact?’, Public Choice 130, no. 1 (2007): 99–114. 

31N. Smith, Poems, 134, n. 18. 

32For a discussion of the poem’s date of composition, see Paul Hammond, ‘The Date of Marvell’s “The Mower against Gardens”’, Notes & Queries 53, no. 2 (2006): 178–81; Derek Hirst and Steven N. Zwicker, Andrew Marvell, Orphan of the Hurricane (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 165–77. 

33Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor Adorno, ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 68–69. 

34Adorno, 64; cf. 71, 77. 

35John Milton, Paradise Lost, in The Works of John Milton, ed. Frank A. Patterson, vol. 2, pt. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931–1938), 12.647. 

36Prawdzik, 205–6; cf. John Rogers, The Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), 61–69. 

37See N. Smith, Poems, 152, 160; John M. Potter, ‘Another Porker in the Garden of Epicurus: Marvell’s “Hortus” and “The Garden”’, SEL 11, no. 1 (1971): 137–51, esp. 139–41. 

38Virgil, Georgics, 1.199–200, in J. B. Greenough, Ed., Bucolics, Aeneid, and Georgics of Vergil (Boston: Ginn & Co., 1900). My translation. 

39Marvell, A Short Historical Essay, in The Prose Works of Andrew Marvell, vol. 2, 142; Prawdzik 208–9. 

40Watson, 33. See also N. K. Sugimura, ‘Marvell’s Mind and the Glow-Worms of Extinction’, Review of English Studies 62, no. 254 (2010): 241–60. 

41Watson, 120. 

42Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. ‘hale, (v. 1)’, accessed 12 January 2019, 

43Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Le visible et l’invisible, suivi de Notes de travail (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), 191. 

44Jacques Derrida, ‘The Animal that Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, trans. David Wills, Critical Inquiry 28, no. 2 (2002): 399. 

45Ibid., 394. 

Competing Interests

The author has no competing interests to declare.


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