More vivid than the merely ‘concrete’ – Marvell’s ‘The Mower to the Glo-Worms’

When we talk about sensuousness in poetry we tend, I think, to mean the intensity of the sensory evocativeness of imagery and description. We might be thinking of lines like ‘The luscious clusters of the vine / Upon my mouth do crush their wine’ from Marvell’s ‘The Garden’. There, physical sensations of taste and touch are directly referred to by ‘luscious’ and ‘crush’. The sensuous impressions evoked by the meanings of the words aren’t just a matter of meaning, though. They’re powerfully reinforced by sound, and even more by the physical sensations of forming the sounds in our mouths. ‘Luscious’, ‘clusters’ and ‘crush’ are powerfully foregrounded by the assonance and alliteration between them. Collectively, they embody that meaning in a physical way. They’re mouth-filling words that we linger over uttering. There’s a clustering of repeated phonemes between them (that may be partly why ‘cluster’ makes me almost physically imagine the grapes in the bunches crowding together and pressing against each other). The ‘sh’ sounds in ‘luscious’ and ‘crush’ give a hint of drunken slurring to the ‘st’ of ‘clusters’.

But the first stanza of ‘The Mower to the Glo-Worms’ is more interesting in this way because the intensity of impact which I think affects the brain in a way that transcends explicitly physical references and isn’t tied to the actual physical nature of glowworms:

Ye living lamps, by whose dear light
The Nightingale does sit so late
And studying all the Summer-night,
Her matchless Songs does meditate;

Everything here, it seems to me, depends on the extreme refinement of the phonetic and rhythmic patterning. Perhaps what I say will seem to some people almost insanely subjective but I’ll say it anyway because the impression in my own mind is so strong.

First, the components of sound and meaning are picked out in an extraordinarily clearly focused and focusing way. The first two lines each break exactly in the middle, and this gives each half line, which is also a complete phrase, time and space to shed its suggestiveness into readers’ minds sensitized by the precision of the poet’s expression.

The first phrase sets the key for this slowing and sensitizing of attention. I have to get a bit technical to describe the effect but I suspect it’s something most people do feel as they read. So what is it that makes the idea of ‘living lamps’ seem so charged and alive? The alliterative clear ls obviously contribute something, bringing the two words into dynamic relationship. The contrast between the vowels following them contributes to the suggestion of careful sounding. More important, I think, is the subtle way ‘living’ receives a finely calibrated extra metrical emphasis. ‘Ye’ as a term of address takes a natural stress, just as ‘you’ used as a term of address would do. The first syllable of ‘living’ has to climb above that level of stress. But ‘living’ – opening with a liquid l, followed by a short vowel and a fricative – isn’t what you might call a ‘loud’ word in itself so there’s a very precise combination of emphasis and delicacy in the vocalisation. So both the separate words ‘living’ and ‘lamps’ and the whole phrase that paradoxically combines them shed their full radiance. And it’s the balance of the whole line, divided, as I’ve said, into two equal halves, that gives clarity and weight to the phrase ‘dear light’, as well as the fact that it’s a spondee (a unit of two stressed syllables coming together) that produces a natural slowing and emphasis.

I could go on. My point, though, is that the extremely sensitive handling of the language itself makes the words themselves enter the mind and imagination more deeply, word by word, phrase by phrase, releasing suggestions that don’t crystallise around single images but instead create a shimmering phantasmagoria of impressions which are both intense and evanescent, like the rainbow of light created by the soul bird in ‘The Garden’. Perhaps it would be better to call these impressions transparent because it seems to me that in that stanza images of an intensely concentrating poet at a desk in a lamplit study and of  a nightingale on a branch shine through each other, both irradiated by the tenderness and wonder evoked in different ways by ‘living lamps’ and ‘dear light’.


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