Marvell, The Picture of Little T C in a Prospect of Flowers

See with what simplicity
This nymph begins her golden days!
In the green grass she loves to lie


It’s impossible to pin down what makes the first three lines of Marvell’s ‘The Picture of Little T. C. in a Prospect of Flowers’ such a magical fusion of tenderness, delicacy and radiant energy. It’s something to do with the degree to which different beauties of the writing breathe life into each other.

One such beauty is the sheer lightness and sophisticated simplicity of the poet’s metrical, phonetic and syntactical fingering. Sounds and rhythmic contours melt into or swell out of each other smoothly, and the metre is handled in a way that gives a clear impact to tiny shifts of metrical weight. Such sensitivity in the writing creates a heightened receptiveness in the reader. I myself, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, find my imagination playing delightedly around every syllable and the spaces between them, picking up multiple suggestions whose life is in their movement, the way they twine round each other without crystallising into fixity.

For example, in the third line two iambic feet, each consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, are replaced by a single ionic foot: two unstressed syllables followed by two stressed one –‘in the green grass’.  The emphasis of GREEN GRASS is reinforced by double alliteration. Why bother to mention, let alone emphasize that the grass is green? Well, green and gold come together repeatedly in Marvell, always with a mysteriously reverential and lovely effect. There’s something additional here, though. To an adult the greenness of the grass may seem obvious. By emphasising it, Marvell suggests the delight of the child’s world of perpetual discovery where nothing is taken for granted. In that way it’s like a more delicate version of Ted Hughes’ poem ‘The Full Moon and Little Frieda’.

However, Marvell doesn’t hammer his point home as Hughes does. He’s no sooner hinted at it than he shifts attention away from it. The way the paired alliterating stresses of ‘green grass’ are balanced by the paired alliterating stresses of ‘loves to lie’ gives a purely musical pleasure that moves us on from focusing in too isolating a way on the idea of the child’s innocence. But this musical pleasure isn’t separated from the wider life of the line either. The alliteration gives forceful expression to the child’s joy and draws us into it as we say the phrase. And like the bold opening command – ‘See’ – it’s one of the things that gives the lines what I called their radiant energy. But this energy is of an essentially gentle kind, befitting the tenderness of the poet’s regard.

Here’s a link to the whole poem at the Poetry Foundation:


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