Let me begin by declaiming that I am no expert in early modern literature. I did teach-assist one gargantuan class in British Literature, Beginnings-1600; there were about one hundred students enrolled, and I graded fifty papers of their papers at each deadline, learning just enough of the language to get by.
So I’ve never written about this carpe diem poem by Andrew Marvell, even though it fascinates me. “To His Coy Mistress” is an easy grab for students, because—ha ha!—the speaker is trying to persuade a lady to overcome her reservations and have sex with him, just as we all have done in our reckless youth, I guess. Here’s the first stanza, before he starts fretting that they’ll both wither and die before fully enjoying one another’s youthful flesh.
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
Vegetable love! Really? What could it mean? A quick library database search had little to offer. In class, I believe we shrugged it off as implying a slow, creeping rate of love, as the end of the stanza suggests. But why use “vegetable” over any other word? I know that “vegetable” didn’t have the connotations of immobility we use today, for example–its Latin roots imply just the opposite, meaning life in all its vigor.
I forgot about this mystery until recently, when I came across another poem of Marvell’s, “The Garden,” in which the narrator wanders through a blooming paradise.
What wondrous life is this I lead
Ripe apples drop about my head ;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine ;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach ;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.
The garden is practically forcing its fruits on the poet, except that he’s so willing: the tree fruits places themselves into his hands, the ground fruits trip him. In the book (Words to Eat By, by Ina Lipkowitz), the author quotes this poem as part of a collage of art and poetry that imagine Eden as bursting with fruits, not with vegetables. Fruit is easy: if it’s ripe, it’s already ready to eat, already flavorful and sweet, no cooking or seasoning necessary. Vegetables require labor, which surely no paradise would require.
So that’s a possibility: perhaps Marvell was contrasting this vegetable love–slow-growing, requiring a lot of maintenace–to the ease with which he wished she could be plucked.
Or perhaps it was a compliment, playing on the vitality implied by Latin vegere;perhaps the love was vigorous, like. . . a zucchini, perhaps.
I don’t have right tools to crack this particular nut, but what a vivid set of images to contemplate.