Visions of misogyny in Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden”

The speaker of Andrew Marvell’s 1681 poem “The Garden” concludes that nature is altogether preferable to and more beautiful than women. John Hollander and Frank Kermode, glossing the poem in their Oxford Anthology of English Literature, therefore locate it in an Edenic misogynistic tradition—“the misogynistic tradition” that asserts that “Adam was better off without Eve” (655). The garden is not, they say, “a libertine garden” because “there is no woman in it” (655). Marvell’s speaker may indeed exclude women, but female sexuality is present: Marvell represents nature itself as a woman. The speaker engages in a sexually suggestive intercourse with the garden that makes the feminine subservient to male sexual drives—a form of misogyny anchored in sexual roles which are, in a sense, “naturalized” by the garden. This intercourse penetrates the formal center of the poem, and it is balanced on both ends with the marginalization of women: in other words, the poem’s sexually dominating misogyny is embedded within iterations of Edenic misogyny. Marvell’s poem is unquestionably misogynistic, but in a far more active and sexual way than the one Hollander and Kermode point out.

Marvell’s speaker exiles women from his garden, asserting that for Adam to have “live[d] in paradise alone” would have been “two paradises” “in one” (63-64). What need had Adam of a woman, the speaker asks, in “a place so pure and sweet” as that “happy garden-state”? (57-60). For the speaker, nature, this “garden-state,” is superior to women. He denies “white” and “red”—colors “emblematic of female beauty”—in favor of the garden’s “lovely green” (17-18; Hollander 655). He also rewrites the myths of Apollo and Daphne and Pan and Syrinx:

The gods, did 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. (27-32)

Instead of male gods being dismayed when their female quarry transforms into plant life to escape them, Marvell suggests that they are pleased. In the speaker’s versions of these myths, the males prefer laurels and reeds to Daphnes and Syrinxs; they prefer elements of nature—elements of the garden—to women.

Though the speaker does exclude women from the garden, echoing the Edenic misogynistic tradition, this exclusion is undercut by the way in which he casts the garden itself as female. He speaks much of flowers, a traditional symbol for female genitalia (7; 40; 72). This is not enough of course—most gardens have flowers—but through his interaction with the garden, the speaker removes doubt whether it is meant to stand for the feminine. After rewriting classical myths to subordinate women to nature, the first thing he does is treat nature as a woman—he engages in a figurative intercourse with it. The speaker tells us that the earth’s breast-like fruit offers itself to him: “melons” throw themselves in his path; “[r]ipe apples drop about [his] head,” and the “nectarine and curious peach / [i]nto [his] hands themselves do reach” (39; 34; 37-38). He embraces these offerings, suckling on the “luscious clusters of the vine” which “upon [his] mouth do crush their wine”—an image suggestive of cunnilingus—allowing himself to become “ensnared with flowers”—an image suggestive of vaginal penetration—and finally “fall[ing] on grass” in a postcoital stupor (35-36; 40). It is in this intercourse that the poem’s worst misogyny lies: not only are women excluded from Eden, but the femininity that remains is defined primarily by its satiation of male sexual appetites—appetites veiled as a lust for fruit. The feminine is useful only to the extent that it can satisfy masculine urges.

This couching of sensual lust in a natural vocabulary mirrors the poem’s form. The intercourse, in which a man embraces and dominates a feminized nature, takes place in the fifth stanza of a nine-stanza poem—it penetrates the poem’s precise center. From the extremes of the poem, two incarnations of the passive, Edenic misogyny that Hollander and Kermode cite balance out this intercourse.

The speaker begins the poem with a couplet calling men who seek “[t]o win the palm, the oak, or bays”—who pursue “honors awarded for war, statesmanship, [and] poetry” “[vain]” (Marvell 1-2; Hollander 655). On first gloss, this may seem to be merely a condemnation of ambitious men. But during the English Renaissance, pursuing honors such as these was akin to subscribing to an Elizabethan ideal of devotion to the state as to a woman—knights, statesmen, and poets all ultimately act for the favor of a lady. The speaker, in deriding men who pursue such honors, can thus be read as tacitly indicting this Elizabethan system as a whole. He further indicts it by labeling the giver of honors a “single herb or tree” who provides but “short and narrow-vergèd shade”; and offering, as an alternative, his garden (4-5; 7-12). Given Marvell’s alignment of plant life with the feminine, this can be read as an allegory for the Elizabethan system: the “single herb or tree” is the female monarch, whose favor should be denied in favor of a more bountiful—and perhaps symbolically promiscuous—garden. In levying this critique of a system based on exaltation of the female, the speaker marginalizes women, offering the poem’s first instance of Edenic misogyny. The final such instance comes in the final couplet, in which women are ostensibly rejected—as they have been throughout—in favor of nature. The speaker asks how “sweet and wholesome hours” could be “reckoned but with herbs and flowers”—which, of course, the speaker has previously established as a substitute for women (71-72). The first and final couplets of “The Garden” establish and reiterate views of Edenic misogyny that tug on the central stanza from both ends.

The tension this creates throws the sexually dominating misogyny of central stanza into bas-relief. The poem’s form helps the speaker to obscure this sexually dominating misogyny: it diverts attention away from the penetration of the poem by a misogynistic, symbolically sexual intercourse. Through this intercourse, the speaker dominates women by dominating representations of them in nature—the speaker makes this domination “natural,” thereby tacitly legitimizing it. While one can see why critics like Hollander and Kermode to gloss “The Garden” as an example of Edenic misogyny, in doing so, they ignore the poem’s more pernicious misogynistic themes and implications.


Hollander, John and Frank Kermode, eds. “The Garden.” By Andrew Marvell. 1681. In The Oxford Anthology of English Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. 655-657.

Marvell, Andrew. “The Garden.” The Oxford Anthology of English Literature. Eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. 655-657.


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