Another summer-themed poem this week, from the Hull-born, parliamentarian-allied poet Andrew Marvell, who to escape the pressure of the work of state during Cromwell’s Commonwealth and Charles II’s Restoration, composed poetry in the persona of a humble mower.
The Mower to the Glow Worms
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 prince’s funeral,
Shining unto no higher end
Than to presage the grass’s fall;
Ye glow-worms, whose officious flame
To wand’ring mowers shows the way,
That in the night have lost their aim,
And after foolish fires do stray;
Your courteous lights in vain you waste,
Since Juliana here is come,
For she my mind hath so displac’d
That I shall never find my home.
Let’s have a closer look at the fauna in Marvell’s lovely mower’s complaint…
That nightingale – do you know, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen or heard a nightingale, which for a casual ornithologist and poetry lover such as myself is near-criminal. I’m from the far north of England, and they’re not common at all up there, and I haven’t encountered one on my travels. I might have seen one in Majorca, but it didn’t sing, and thus could have been any number of various nondescript warblers. Anyway, that nightingale: I like the idea that it stands ‘meditating’ over the night, that it’s song is a kind of appreciative response to the nocturnal scene it surveys. Talking of music, there is a good deal of it in this stanza, with the regular abab rhyming, and the proliferation of trilling ‘l’s and tweeting ‘t’s.
There is some well-known lore in the second stanza, where the insects are compared to ‘country comets’. Of course, until modern times, the appearance of comets was always thought to signify something momentous. Andrew Marvell, spent most of the English Civil War travelling the continent, but was back in England for its most momentous event of all, the beheading of the King of England. He knew that momentous events were more often than not terrible events. That the glow worms’ appearance portend only that mowing season has arrived is a good thing. The mower is of his own small (though not inconsequential) world and unconnected to wider events. Did you hear, by the way, the crackle of the comets in the phrase ‘country comets’, and the ominous lulling in the ‘ll’ and ‘nd’ endings?
When it comes to the third stanza, I must admit, I begin to have my doubts about Marvell’s knowledge of rural life. Did grass cutters really rely on (‘officious’, that is, industrious) glow worms to light their way by night? Do they even make enough light? I’ve seen some before, in Greece on a childhood holiday, and I don’t think they would. Moreover, was there really a big problem with rural workers being led astray by willow the wisps – those ‘foolish fires’ of the fourth line? Probably not, although they were certainly a part of rural folklore. But looking for authenticity in pastoral poetry is a fool’s errand. The point here isn’t a realistic depiction of rural labour, but a dreamy (if spooky) bucolic idyll.
And that is all for the narrator to inform us that the dreamy idyll, the nightingale, the safety and seclusion from the wider world, and especially the lovely helpful insect life, is all for naught. The description of the love-lorn mower’s mind as ‘displaced’ is a very apt one – he can no longer concentrate on the here and now and its Arcadian delights. Even if he did, he might notice there a curious reflection of his own malady: the nightingale an image of the mower’s own nocturnal pining, the glow worms actually presaging his own ‘fall’ from ignorant happiness and most of all those mowers chasing ‘foolish fires’ into the night reflect his own displacement. Nature, as Yeats would later put it ‘Could but compose man’s image and his cry.’