Poet's Pick April 5
Andrew Marvell: "The Mower to the Glowworms"
Selected by Jennifer Barber
National Poetry Month 2016

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Jennifer Barber's Poetry Month Pick, April 5, 2016

"The Mower to the Glowworms"
by Andrew Marvell (1621–1678)

1
Ye living lamps, by whose dear light
The nightingale does sit so late,
And studying all the summer night,
Her matchless songs does meditate;

2
Ye country comets, that portend
No war, nor prince’s funeral,
Shining unto no higher end
Than to presage the grass’s fall;

3
Ye glowworms, whose officious flame
To wandering mowers shows the way,
That in the night have lost their aim,
And after foolish fires do stray;

4
Your courteous lights in vain you waste,
Since Juliana here is come,
For she my mind hath so displaced
That I shall never find my home.

 

* Jennifer Barber Comments:
There was a time in college when I went around chanting poems to myself. Not saying them, but chanting them. If I remembered only one stanza or part of a stanza from a poem, I’d happily repeat it dozens of times as I walked around the snowy campus (this was in Maine), the temperature dropping at dusk and the sky glowing
purple.

In English class, we were working our way through the Norton Anthology of Poetry, which had the aura of a sacred text in those days, and I fell hard for Andrew Marvell’s mower songs, in which he speaks in the voice of his scythe-wielding country character Damon, in love with Juliana. The first stanza of “The Mower’s Song” took up residence in my head for months and months, from the long winter into full spring:

My mind was once the true survey
   Of all these meadows fresh and gay
   And in the greenness of the grass
   Did see its hopes as in a glass;
   When Juliana came, and she
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.

I never got tired of the melody of those lines, and the strangeness of imagining grass as a mirror, and the idea of Damon being subject to Juliana as the grass is subject to his blade, and the way the last line plays out its extra length.

Thinking of Marvell again the other day, I went to my bookshelf and found the paperback Penguin edition I must have bought decades ago in England (its pages are now discolored, and the price listed on the back is 90 pence). There, on pages 109-110, were the two Marvell poems I cared about most, “The Mower’s Song” and “The Mower to the Glowworms.” I once knew a French-Canadian poet who thought the word “glow” was the most beautiful word in the English language, and it seems to me “The Mower to the Glowworms” might be the most beautiful title.

I was all about the poem’s first two stanzas. What better way to picture the light of glowworms (the wingless European beetle, which gives off a greenish light) than to imagine them as study lamps for the nightingale? What better way to bring vastness of scale into an intimate compass than to contrast astral bodies and events—used throughout history as omens and portents—with the brief, small lights of the glowing beetle?

Then, and now, the line “to presage the grass’s fall” allows a delicious exhalation, a letting go. I can practically hear the grass, too, exhaling as it falls under the mower’s scythe. To be able to describe something as small as a glowworm, as lowly as the grass, is to eavesdrop on the inner workings of the world; this, for me, is what poetry is.


Jennifer Barber:
Jennifer Barber’s poetry collections are Works on Paper from The Word Works, which received the 2015 Tenth Gate Prize and was published in 2016, and Given Away and Rigging the Wind, both from Kore Press (2012, 2003). She teaches literature and creative writing at Suffolk University in Boston, where she is editor of the literary journal Salamander.


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