Twicknam Garden by John Donne

The poem,  Twicknam Garden, by John Donne begins with his personal predicament. The poet is writing with agony and his lacerated self finds a succinct summing-up in the first two lines of the poem:


Blasted with sighs, and surrounded with tears,

Hither I come to seek the spring.

The poet feels so shrivelled and disconcerted that he decides in his mind to find something soothing for his afflicted nerves, and he comes into a garden, perhaps the garden of his patroness, Duchess of Bedford. The specific garden of his patroness to whom he has paid handsome tributes in many a poem, in no way sheds any significant light on the poet’s anguish that has unhinged him. The garden is not the garden of Marvell with multiple layers of meaning. In this poem, Donne’s garden is simply a place, luxurious and delighting to the tortured self of the poet. The poet expression, ‘True Paradise’ for the garden, he believes that the garden has magical property because he will receive such balms ‘as else cure everything’.

The panacea the poet presumes to discover is of no avail because in the last line of the stanza he says, “I have the serpent brought”. The image of the serpent has to be viewed in images: the image of the serpent and that of the spider love, have something   diabolical about them. The serpent in relation to paradise is the cause of the primal sin in the Garden of Eden, making Adam an exile into the world, condemned to live by the sweat of brow. The serpent is symbolic of the original sin bringing a life of travail for people. Spider love signifies something that is base and vile because the spider feeds on filth and dirt. In Donne’s poem, “Love’s Exchange” we find a similar low image for love: “Love, any devil else but you, Would for a given Soule give something too.”

In short, the deceitful nature of love impels the poet to bring in the two images: serpent and spider. The poet has at the back of his mind the disdain and indignity heaped on him by his lady-love and this unceremonious treatment at the hands of his lady-love is the cause of his disturbed state of mind. The poet lays blame at the door of love (love embodied in the mistress), and he adds another dimension to the treatment of the idea of love which has become the cause of his undoing. The lines: “The spider love, which transubstantiates all, and can convert manna to gall,” have three keywords, ‘transubstantiates’, ‘Manna’, and ‘gall’. The first two words impart scriptural reverberations to the poem.

Transubstantiation is the doctrine in Eucharist church which means that bread is the flesh of Christ and wine is His blood. It is an important ritual in church. The partaking of bread and wine recalls minding the crucifixion of Christ and Judas, one of Christ’s disciples instrumental in putting Christ on the cross. This is nothing but betrayal of love. Manna is food provided by God for Israelites during their long stay in the desert, when love and trust are not there sustaining the bond subsisting between man and man.

John Donne’s poem begins with his private emotion of grief, but the sensibility of the poet is such that instead of luxuriating himself in sorrow, he contemplates the idea of suffering with a genesis in loving a wider perspective.

In Donne, there is an affirmation of cool detachment and self-possession in the face of something that upsets him. He shows a response and congeals at worst into cold self-righteousness. Donne’s wit exhibits a cool sanity and a wary openness which goes much beyond the refusal of facile commitment or sardonic amusement at the way the world goes. He probes and sifts experiences and analyses with remarkable candour the various possibilities in a given situation without aligning himself summarily with a soft option of acceptance or rejection.

 

Twicknam Garden Analysis

Blasted with sighs, and surrounded with tears,

Hither I come to seek the spring,

And at mine eyes, and at mine ears,

Receive such balms as else cure everything;

But oh, self-traitor, I do bring

The spider love, which transubstantiates all,

And can convert manna to gall,

And that this place may thoroughly be thought

True paradise, I have the serpent brought.

In the first stanza of Twichknam Garden, the poet who is lovesick and is sunk in the slough of despondency keeps his wits about himself and contemplates the reality of love in multiple facets: the love that is naïve, the love that that is pure and immaculate, and the love that has a seamy side. The telescoping of images in the brief compass of the first stanza – the images of spring, balm, paradise, serpent, spider and transubstiation roll into unity under the intensity of artistic process, giving the impression of the ruin wrought by love that works in an unbridled way and knows no moderation.

‘Twere wholesomer for me, that winter did

Benight the glory of this place,

And that a grave frost did forbid

These trees to laugh, and mock me to my face;

But that I may not this disgrace

Endure, nor yet leave loving, Love let me

Some senseless piece of this place be;

Make me a mandrake, so I may grow here,

Or a stone fountain weeping out my year.

The second stanza presents an awful prospect starting the poet in the face. The poet who came to the garden in search of balm finds that his expectations are shattered and the garden becomes a menace with a sinister design, and he, therefore, wants that the garden be folded in darkness: ‘Twere wholesome for me, that winter did, Benight the glory of this place.”

The poet wants to be some senseless piece of the garden. He wants to be a mandrake or stone fountain, and this impulse of regression to the world of rocks and plants is prompted by something in the poet that he fails to come to grips with. He finds that the trees glistening with bright foliage mock him and the poet makes a very despairing disclosure:

But that I may not this disgrace

Indure, nor leave this garden…

This is a galling experience in the sense that the poet finds himself in impasse and does not know how to overcome it. He does not feel anger towards the lady-love who is not responsive to his amorous advances. He wants self-effacement by merging himself into nature without giving vent to pent-up anger to his mistress. Here this state of mind of the poet has kinship with the Astrophel of Sidney’s sonnet sequence, like many other Petrarchan and Petrarch himself, reflecting the grim plight they are in, and thus powerless to amend it. In this universe of lovers, anger is not consonant with the attitude of the poet-lover. The response is nearer to simple human respect than to reverence or hatred.

However, it is certainly not genuflection before a semi-deity in the form of a lady-love. The point worth noting in respect of Donne’s treatment of the disdainful attitude of the mistress to him is that Donne deals in all the battery of sighs and tears supposed to be flimsy stock-in-trade of the Petrarchan mode of idealizing the ‘Impossible She’. Donne’s distinctive merit lies in a finely discriminated fidelity to natural experience, and he refrains himself from the Petrarchan adulation of lady-love.

Hither with crystal phials, lovers come,

And take my tears, which are love’s wine,

And try your mistress’ tears at home,

For all are false, that taste not just like mine;

Alas! Hearts do not in eyes shine,

Nor can you more judge women’s thoughts by tears,

Than by her shadow what she wears.

Oh perverse sex, where none is true but she,

Who’s therefore true, because her truth kills me.

The third stanza is an intensification of the probing and analytic mind of Donne making an inquisition on the experience of frustration in love. This stanza abounds in hyperbole when he says that lovers with crystal vials would come to him for collecting his tears with the injunction from the poet to compare his tears with tears of their mistresses at home. The poet cannot forbear himself going into high-faulting utterances that tears of all are false that taste not just like his. He indulges himself in making extravagant claims of being pure and steadfast in love and makes a brutal exposure of sham and pretence underneath the veneer of naïveté:

Alas! Hearts do not in eyes shine,

Nor can you more judge women’s thoughts by tears,

Than by her shadow what she wears.

Though the poet appears to have spared his Lady-love the ignominy he has heaped on the rest of woman folk, he, in fact, with a remarkable sleight of hand brings his mistress in the net of wide-ranging censure of women when he says, “O perverse sexe”. The expression, ‘perverse sexe’ is also severe indictment of capricious and scorn, and this contemptuous mien of his lady-love offers an affront to him. She is a pervert because she has outraged the first primal state of nature in which love for love is an innate condition of life.

In short, the poet wants the naturalness of impulses seeking their fruition without, in the least, being impaired and warped by the massive indifference and nonchalance of the lady-love.

On the surface Twicknam Garden appears to share the strain of idealization in the Petrarchan mode in the light of the over-ceremonious gravity of manner. But there is no denying the fact that there are continual deflating touches of hard realism perceptible in the images of self-traitor, spider love, transubstantiation, Manna and gall, and it makes the poem a huge, high, comic hyperbole.

Like Donne’s poem ‘Love’s Deitie’, flouting the accepted pieties and denying the basis of courtly servitude of the Petrarchan mode, ‘Twicknam Garden’, too, asserts that an unreciprocated love is no love, and therefore, he breaks into the damaging exclamation, “O perverse sexe”.

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2 Comments

  1. Shahid Ahmad SHERGOJRI July 16, 2019
    • mm Lee-James Bovey July 22, 2019

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