poem no. 2 – Marvell

The Mower to the Glo-Worms by Andrew Marvell.

Ye living Lamps, by whose dear light
The Nightingale does sit so late,
And studying all the Summer-night,
Her matchless Songs does meditate;

Ye Country Comets, that portend
No War, nor Princes funeral,
Shining unto no higher end
Then to presage the Grasses fall;

Ye Glo-worms, whose officious Flame
To wandring Mowers shows the way,
That in the Night have lost their aim,
And after foolish Fires do stray;

Your courteous Lights in vain you wast,
Since Juliana here is come,
For She my Mind hath so displac’d
That I shall never find my home.

Again, I guess the question is – why this one rather than any other Marvell poem? Especially since this is the only poem from a Metaphysical poet, so it was also chosen in preference to all of Donne and Herbert. Well, on another day, I might have picked a different poem. Like The Sun Rising, or Good Friday, Riding Westward. Or The Collar. Or, getting back to Marvell, The Unfortunate Lover.

I do like this one though. Part of the appeal of the Metaphysicals is the ingenuity of their poems, but when the poems are at their most spectacularly ingenious, it sometimes unbalances the poem. When I first read Donne, at school, I thought the compasses conceit in A Valediction Forbidding Mourning was just fabulous, but now I’m less sure. I think the reader’s attention is pulled too far away from the putative subject of the poem. What I like about The Mower to the Glo-Worms is that it has some of that ingenuity – in comparing the glowworms to comets, for example – but the conceits are always tied into the world of mowers, glowworms and nightingales, so I don’t have the feeling that the poet’s ingenuity is in competition with the poem.

The other thing that really appeals to me about the poem is its shape. We get three parallel stanzas offering ways of looking at the glowworms, and although they establish atmosphere and themes, we don’t actually get any of the core subject – the mower’s love for Juliana – until the last stanza. And when it does come, it’s understated; it’s hard to imagine a simpler line than ‘that I shall never find my home’ to end a poem. I once heard/read an explanation of one way music works. I don’t understand music, so this will be a bit garbled, but: because people have certain (unconscious) expectations about how a musical pattern will resolve itself, a composer can open the pattern and the audience will be held in a slight sense of tension waiting for the pattern to resolve. Then when the resolution, the ending, appears, the audience has a pleasurable sense of release, of things falling into place. In this poem, I feel we’re left with a slight rhetorical tension at the end of each of the first three stanzas. We’re left hanging by the semicolon; and only after repeating this pattern three times does the poem resolve itself.