Poet's Pick April 8
Andrew Marvell: "The Mower's Song"
Selected by Jennifer Clarvoe
National Poetry Month 2017

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Jennifer Clarvoe's Poetry Month Pick, April 8, 2017

"The Mower's Song"
by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)

   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.

   But these, while I with sorrow pine,
   Grew more luxuriant still and fine,
   That not one blade of grass you spy'd
   But had a flower on either side;
   When Juliana came, and she
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.

   Unthankful meadows, could you so
   A fellowship so true forgo?
   And in your gaudy May-games meet
   While I lay trodden under feet?
   When Juliana came, and she
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.

   But what you in compassion ought,
   Shall now by my revenge be wrought;
   And flow'rs, and grass, and I and all,
   Will in one common ruin fall.
   For Juliana comes, and she
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.

   And thus, ye meadows, which have been
   Companions of my thoughts more green,
   Shall now the heraldry become
   With which I shall adorn my tomb;
   For Juliana comes, and she
What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me. 


* Jennifer Clarvoe Comments:
This poem slays me.

That is, it does to me what the mower does to the grass, etc., etc.

Marvell's poem feels effortless and irresistible.  It may be a bit of a crime to try to describe the impact of its five stanzas and wonderfully relentless refrain.  The poem knows what to say, how to say it, and what to leave implicit in its actions.  It sets in motion the life and liveliness behind that clichéd idea—that what we want and hate in love is to be undone.

Patsy Cline can do it in a ballad, when she lays down a languorous chorus as if its two slow syllables were "sexy," instead of "crazy," instead of "lonely."  Delay is part of the power in Cline's song, as in Marvell's poem.  What the delay says is "I can't stand this, but don't let it end."  Marvell's mastery of poetic timing perfectly balances against the misery of the feeling, so that the reader can stay deliciously suspended between the two.

In both ballad and poem, it's the refrain that carries this feeling.  A sonnet might cut us off with its bleak irony, as in Shakespeare's concluding couplet:

     All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
     To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

But the deadpan refrain of "The Mower's Song" cuts us down again and again.  For the mower to keep repeating:

          When Juliana came, and she
    What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.

is for him to confess he's a bit like Charlie Brown:  every spring he'll let Lucy hold the football for him to kick, though she's never done anything other than, at the very last moment, pull it away.

Marilyn Hacker plays out something similar in her devastating poem, "Nearly a Valediction," which begins like this:

     You happened to me, I was happened to
     Like an abandoned building by a bull-
     Dozer, like the van that missed my skull
     Happened a two-inch gash across my chin.
     You were as deep down as I've ever been.

But what feels, in Hacker's poem, like tragic escalation to disaster, in Marvell's poem feels like a slow motion joke, the dominoes falling down one after another.  We can see it coming, but we can't do anything to stop it.  By the fourth stanza, the mower's sad story becomes a comic inevitability, no longer in past tense, but recurring in the present:

          For Juliana comes, and she
     What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.

Juliana herself glides through the poem untouched, unchanging with each refrain.  The mower neither addresses nor reproaches her, deflecting the arc of his emotion (hope, disappointment, reproach, revenge) onto the meadows instead.  And although the mower's complaint ends with his tomb, that other figure with the sickle in the field is never named, only implied.

The enjambement of that refrain, suspending us between Juliana's entrance and her (inevitable) action, reminds me again of another Patsy Cline ballad:

        You want me to act like we've never kissed
        You want me to forget
        Pretend we've never met
        And I've tried, and I've tried, and I haven't yet
        You walk by
        And I
        Fall to pieces.

In Marvell's poem, the hovering after the enjambement is heightened by our subliminal awareness that the first two pairs of rhymes marked lines of equal length—so that in the long last line an extra beat is built in before we're allowed to match that "she" with "me."  We feel that final withholding and are made to suffer it with pleasure.

It makes sense that, in the poem's recurring final line, the mower is reduced from subject, "I," to object, "me."  But what I think is especially brilliant is the way the mower's thoughts intrude in the middle of that delay, like a somersault in the air between trapezes.  Juliana takes away from the mower both his power to do and his power to think—even as he watches himself, and we follow him through it, in a sentence that mercilessly picks him up, turns him head over heels, and implacably (gently?) lays him down.

Jennifer Clarvoe:
Jennifer Clarvoe is the author of Invisible Tender and Counter-Amores. She has received the Poets Out Loud Prize, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and the Rome Prize in Literature, as well as a Dakin Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers Conference and a residency from the James Merrill House. She has taught at Kenyon College for twenty-five years.

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