The poet Andrew Marvell was writing around the middle of the 17th century, before during and after the English Civil Wars, the rule of Oliver Cromwell and the subsequent restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. It was indeed a turbulent time, and this poem is a commentary on the state of England when the Civil War had finished. The metaphor is of the country as a garden, and the parallels he draws are quite poignant, and regretful of the self-destructive forces which were ravaging the country.
You can even take the poem a bit more literally and imagine the poet walking through a garden and imagining the flowers and bees are soldiers, a bit like a retired general illustrating battles on the dinner table with the salt and pepper pots.
A Garden, Written After The Civil Wars
SEE how the flowers, as at parade,
Under their colours stand display’d:
Each regiment in order grows,
That of the tulip, pink, and rose.
But when the vigilant patrol
Of stars walks round about the pole,
Their leaves, that to the stalks are curl’d,
Seem to their staves the ensigns furl’d.
Then in some flower’s beloved hut
Each bee, as sentinel, is shut,
And sleeps so too; but if once stirr’d,
She runs you through, nor asks the word.
O thou, that dear and happy Isle,
The garden of the world erewhile,
Thou Paradise of the four seas
Which Heaven planted us to please,
But, to exclude the world, did guard
With wat’ry if not flaming sword;
What luckless apple did we taste
To make us mortal and thee waste!
Unhappy! shall we never more
That sweet militia restore,
When gardens only had their towers,
And all the garrisons were flowers;
When roses only arms might bear,
And men did rosy garlands wear?
The first 12 lines of the poem set up the metaphor of the garden, with the flowers as regiments of soldiers standing in formation, and bees lying in wait to stab them and lay them low. The poem then goes on to refer directly to England, “that dear and happy isle” which should be a paradise, and which should be protected from harm by the sea which surrounds it . (It is of course a myth that England has never been invaded from abroad, except by William of Normandy in 1066 – invasion has happened on numerous occasions throughout England’s history).
But in the case of the civil War, being surrounded by the sea was no defense because the conflict was entirely within England – and Marvell laments this, “What luckless apple did we taste to make us mortal and thee waste”. England was indeed laid to waste and its gardens, its beauty, its innocence seemed to be gone forever. A doleful prospect indeed.
The Poetry Dude