We might read this poem by Andrew Marvell as praise of the attractions of island life. Where you can mess about with boats, pluck exotic fruits from the abundance of trees, enjoy the scents and sounds of the sea, the wind in the palm trees and feel the warmth of the sun, a bit like some of Baudelaire’s poems 200 years later. There might be some clues here as to why Bermuda is still a favoured holiday destination for the sun and sand crowd. But as you read the poem, you realise that the features of the island are praised, not just for their inherent qualities but as manifestations of the divine. The poem was written at a time when England was recovering from the austerities of Cromwell’s puritan government, and religious expression could find a more joyous tone. I think this succeeds.
A secondary layer of meaning in this poem is to celebrate the discoveries and adventures of explorers and traders who were opening up the New World in the seventeenth century, both on the mainland of North and South America, as well as the Caribbean islands which are the subject of this poem. I take Bermudas here to refer to all of the Caribbean rather than the islands we now know as Bermuda.
Where the remote Bermudas ride
In th’ Oceans bosome unespy’d,
From a small Boat, that row’d along,
The listning Winds receiv’d this Song.
What should we do but sing his Praise
That led us through the watry Maze,
Unto an Isle so long unknown,
And yet far kinder than our own?
Where he the huge Sea-Monsters wracks,
That lift the Deep upon their Backs.
He lands us on a grassy stage;
Safe from the Storms, and Prelat’s rage.
He gave us this eternal Spring,
Which here enamells every thing;
And sends the Fowl’s to us in care,
On daily Visits through the Air,
He hangs in shades the Orange bright,
Like golden Lamps in a green Night.
And does in the Pomgranates close,
Jewels more rich than Ormus show’s.
He makes the Figs our mouths to meet;
And throws the Melons at our feet.
But Apples plants of such a price,
No Tree could ever bear them twice.
With Cedars, chosen by his hand,
From Lebanon, he stores the Land.
And makes the hollow Seas, that roar,
Proclaime the Ambergris on shoar.
He cast (of which we rather boast)
The Gospels Pearl upon our coast.
And in these Rocks for us did frame
A Temple, where to sound his Name.
Oh let our Voice his Praise exalt,
Till it arrive at Heavens Vault:
Which thence (perhaps) rebounding, may
Eccho beyond the Mexique Bay.
Thus sung they, in the English boat,
An holy and a chearful Note,
And all the way, to guide their Chime,
With falling Oars they kept the time.
So the story of this poem is of a divine force guiding the mariner through the perils of the sea to reach safe harbour in this wonderful island, which serves as a demonstration of divine will and divine blessings. The description is both recongnisably as a tropical island, but also could stand as an allegory for the garden of Eden, reconstituted in then modern times.
The poem is composed of rhyming couplets, perhaps the simplest verse form, and which can degenerate into superficial doggerel if the poet lapses. Here it works very well, Marvell finds the rhymes which fit the meaning and intent and his choice of words is always faithful to the overall spirit of the poem.
The Poetry Dude