‘The Garden by Moonlight‘ by Amy Lowell is a twenty-four line poem that has no distinct rhyme scheme and varies greatly in it’s line length. Some lines expand to six or seven words, or up to thirteen syllables, while others are only four or five words/syllables long.
This un-patterned way of writing is reminiscent of the variety of flowers in the garden and the changing mood of the speaker who is quite high at first, and then darkly low at the end of the poem.
Summary of The Garden by Moonlight
“The Garden by Moonlight” by Amy Lowell describes a garden under the light of the moon, as well as the flowers, animals and insects one can see, and the finality of death.
The poem begins with the speaker listing out a number of different sights, smells, and feelings she is experiencing when she walks in the garden at night. She can see a black cat, and a few different types of flowers. Some of these twine around her ankles, and other are “dazed with moonlight.” They all sleep peacefully in the dark.
She continues on to state the only light in the scene comes from the moon and from fireflies that appear and disappear in different places around the garden. There is one flower, “ladies’ delight,” also known as a pansy, that is awake. It stares at her as the cat stalks through the garden breaking up the perfect checkered pattern.
In the final lines the speaker turns to her listener and points out the orange lilies that were here while her mother was tending the garden. They remember her mother; but who, she asks, will be here to remember me?
Analysis of The Garden by Moonlight
A black cat among roses,
Phlox, lilac-misted under a first-quarter moon,
The sweet smells of heliotrope and night-scented stock.
The garden is very still,
It is dazed with moonlight,
Contented with perfume,
Dreaming the opium dreams of its folded poppies.
It is important, before beginning this poem, that the reader consider the title as it gives an important detail that will dispel any confusion about the setting. This piece describes the sights, sounds, and smells of a garden seen “by Moonlight.” It is dark all around the speaker as she observes her flowers, and the only light she is seeing by is the moon. This immediately gives the poem a mysterious, and perhaps magically quality.
The first lines of the poem do nothing to eliminate the expected “magic” of the scene. The first sight the speaker describes is that of a “black cat” who is creeping among the roses.
She continues on, listing the flowers, smells, and feels that she is experiencing. She can see the plant, “Phlox,” a type of star-shaped, perennial wildflower. These flowers are covered with “lilac-mist.” The are tinted a light purple in the moonlight and the speaker can see flecks of water from an evening rain, or nighttime dew on their petals.
The moon is then described as being in it’s “first-quarter,” this darkens the scene. The speaker also sees and smells “heliotrope,” another type of perennial flower.
The scene she is observing, aside from the cat, is very still. It seems to be shocked by the evening as much as she is. Everything is “dazed with moonlight,” and “Contented with perfume.” It is a scene of gentle peace, without worry or responsibility. The flowers are sleeping and “Dreaming” wild “opium dreams” that stem from the “folded poppies” that are also present in the garden.
Firefly lights open and vanish
High as the tip buds of the golden glow
Low as the sweet alyssum flowers at my feet.
Moon-shimmer on leaves and trellises,
Moon-spikes shafting through the snow ball bush.
In the next five lines of the poem the speaker moves beyond the flowers to state that around the garden can also be seen “Firefly lights” that appear and disappear. When they are present they are “High” up above the “buds” of the plants, and when they vanish and reappear they are “Low as the sweet alyssum flowers at my feet.”
The flowers that she is describing in this line, “alyssum,” are annuals, that are sweetly smelling, and strong in the heat of the day. They are wound across the ground below her.
It seems that throughout the entire scene, the moon makes its presence known over and over. It is seen in the “shimmer on leaves and trellises,” as well as “shafting” through the Roseum viburnum, also known as a snowball bush.
Only the little faces of the ladies’ delight are alert and staring,
Only the cat, padding between the roses,
Shakes a branch and breaks the chequered pattern
As water is broken by the falling of a leaf.
As mentioned previously, all the plants in the garden are sleep, all that is, expect for “ladies’ delight.” This phrase is in reference to a pansy flower, which the speakers describes as being “alert and staring.”
The black cat is still prowling through the undergrowth and “Shak[ing]” and “break[ing]” branches. These branches fall from bushes and trees into the “chequered pattern” of the garden. They “break” up the pattern like a “leaf” breaks up water when it falls to the surface. That is to say, it makes it’s presence known, but does not really do any damage.
Then you come,
And you are quiet like the garden,
And white like the alyssum flowers,
And beautiful as the silent sparks of the fireflies.
Ah, Beloved, do you see those orange lilies?
In the last lines of the poem the speaker introduces another character into the story, the listener. She directs the remainder of the lines to to this unknown listener.
This person has “come,” quietly, into the scene. He or she resembles the silence and peace of the garden in their movement, and they are “white” just like the “alyssum flowers.”
Additionally, this person is said to be as “beautiful” as the “silent sparks of the fireflies.” Their beauty is not demanding or abrasive, it is a whisper of light that one must pay close attention to to appreciate. In the final line of this section the speaker draws the listener’s attention to the “orange lilies.”
They knew my mother,
But who belonging to me will they know
When I am gone.
The speaker states that these orange lilies she referenced in the previous line, have been here long enough to have known her “mother.” They have a history of being cared for by the women of the family, and the speaker can feel a connection to her mother in the garden.
The final line takes the poem, and the entire narrative, to a darker place. She asks the listener: what person, “belonging to [her] (as she belonged to her mother), “will they,” (the flowers), know when she is gone?
She is not leaving the legacy that her mother did, she has no daughters, or perhaps even close family, that will remember her to the flowers. She feels her life as being insurmountably finite in it’s time, and the flowers, especially the “orange lilies” have become a reminder of that.
About Amy Lowell
Amy Lowell was born in February of 1874 in Brookline, Massachusetts. Her family was a prominent part of Massachusetts society and she was educated privately by her mother. She spent the early part of her life traveling aboard and living the life of a Boston socialite.
It was not until 1902 that Lowell decided to dedicate herself fully to poetry. It took eight years for her to have her first piece published and another two until her first book of poems, A Dome of Many-Colored Glass was released. While traveling, and after meeting Ezra Pound, she joined the Imagist movement. At that same time her second book, Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds, was published anonymously. Her most well known works were published in Can Grande’s Castle and Legends appearing in 1918 and 1921.
Along with a number of other works, some of a critical nature, she would also go on to published a two-volume biography of John Keats in 1925. She died in May of 1925.