Marvell's 'The Garden' and the 'Ars Moriendi'


  • Rodney Stenning Edgecombe


In this reading of 'The Garden' I shall attempt to show that the poem, universally acknowledged to be a hymn to the contemplative life, is also in itself a contemplative exercise. I shall suggest furthermore that its contemplation centres on death, a death which the lyricism of the verse denatures into something beguiling and restful. To view the poem from this angle is to view it as a version of the ars moriendi, the meditation on death which, after evolving for centuries, had acquired a distinct (if loose) generic form by the start of the seventeenth. In his introduction to an anthology of Middle English Religious Prose, N.F. Blake has remarked that the 'title Ars Moriendi is applied to works of several different types: the earlier examples are designed to encourage people to lead better lives; the later ones are more in the nature of battles between an angel and the devil for the soul of a dying man; and others, generally from the fifteenth century, are collections of prayers for the dying'. One such 'early example' is The Art of Dieing which Blake has extracted from The Book ofVices and Virtues and included in his collection. I shall take this as my point of reference in discussing the tradition, since it represents the form most relevant to my purpose. (While 'The Garden' clearly offers an invitation to 'a better life', it is quite as clearly neither a psychomachia nor a viaticum.)