Andrew Marvell’s The Mower to the Glow-Worms

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.


I’d like to try to explain for and to myself why I find such an apparently slight poem so hauntingly beautiful and, in its quiet way, so moving.

A great deal is to do with the sheer perfection of its form. This includes very simple things, like the satisfying solidity of the 4×4 structure of its lines and stanzas, and of its progression through three parallel stanzas of address to one of statement. That wouldn’t go very far in itself, perhaps. The wonder of the poem is the way this solidity of structure underpins something ethereally light, both in the shimmering near-evanescence of its suggestions and in the serenely contained, gravely uninsistent rising and falling of its cadences. I think the rhyme scheme Marvell uses here plays an important part. Unlike most of his other poems in iambic tetrameter, this one uses an ABAB scheme rather than couplets. This immediately produces a more complex musical pattern, and the wider spacing of the rhymes conduces to a more floating, tentative shaping of statements than the emphatic couplets of, say, ‘The Garden’:

How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crowned from some single herb or tree.

Here, there’s a momentum to the statements, a sense of their thrusting forward to the rhyme. This fits the tone of mild, ironically astonished exclamation at this point in the poem and is effective in different ways at other points. What it doesn’t do is let phrases hang in the air in a kind of radiant suspension as the phrases of ‘The Mower to the Glow-Worms’ do, at least as they sound to my own inner ear. I hear a pause after ‘Ye living lamps’, a pause giving space to the magical suggestiveness of those three simple words (reinforced by alliteration). Both the first two lines seem to me to divide into equal halves, each of four measured syllables that quietly release their glow of suggestions in the space created by the lingering focus on words and brief phrases. The aura of stillness around the whole stanza allows the evocativeness of the images and the reflections that flow from them to sink in in a lovingly reflective hush. If a stanza is like a little room, this is a room there’s no movement through although there is movement within it, the movement of the glow worms, of the singing nightingale and of the concentratedly thinking (‘studying’) poet to whom the nightingale is compared. Though it’s reinforced by exquisite patterning of sound, this stillness is largely a matter of grammar, of the way a descriptive apostrophe is boxed off by stanza form and by the recursive movement of the next two stanzas, which don’t move on from the apostrophe to the glow worms but repeat it in different terms.

I said I found the poem quietly moving. It’s difficult to pin down what touches the heart in it without sounding mawkish but one fundamental aspect is the sheer tender courtesy of its address to the glow-worms. Another is the yearning for an unobtainable peace and simplicity. Exploring how this works in the poem is like trying to thread a sewing needle in boxing gloves because it depends on such a delicately shimmering interplay of factors. One obvious element is the way the pastoral world it creates is seen as a place not just of harmony and mutual support but of loving sensitivity to others’ needs. But it’s also very clearly presented as a fiction, a beautiful dream. The extreme sophistication of Marvell’s writing foregrounds the fundamental paradox of pastoral poetry, that it celebrates idealized rural simplicities from a courtly or urban perspective. So even in the first two stanzas, the pastoral world appears as something the poet and his readers yearn for and don’t possess. The yearning itself has different levels, including, it seems, the poet’s simple wish that he could write as beautifully as the nightingale sings. With the darkening progress of the poem, other motives come into play. Explicit, of course, is the idea that sexual love – whether thwarted or accepted[1] – has irrevocably alienated the mower from his former unity with nature. Another flows from the idea that the pastoral world is safe in its humility. ‘Ye country comets, that portend / No war nor prince’s funeral, / Shining unto no higher end / Than to presage the grass’s fall.’ If the Mower poems were written during Marvell’s time at Nun Appleton, as is considered likely, the violence so remotely presented here includes the recent horrors of the Civil War and the execution of Charles I. But such topical references aren’t necessary to appreciate the ambiguous impact of the lines. The very fact of saying that these ‘comets’ don’t presage such things evokes the opposing idea of a world in which comets do forerun disaster.

Even mentioning such things risks falsifying the impact of the poem by crystallising ideas that achieve their impact by glimmering on the fringes of the reader’s consciousness or attention – glimmering, shifting and interacting in elusive and impalpable ways. Focusing on them too explicitly might turn them into static presences in a way that would gradually paralyse enjoyment of a poem whose very life is in its mobile iridescence.


[1] If we do imagine that Juliana has ‘displaced’ him from bucolic harmony with the animals by accepting his love we might compare his situation to that of Enkidu, the wild man in the epic Gilgamesh, who becomes cut off from the animals when he has sex with a woman!



Leave a Reply