Poem of the week: Twickenham Garden by John Donne

Intriguingly attuned to modern science, this acid-spotted Arcadia comes complete with blight, bugs and bad weather

Twickenham Garden
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 every thing.
But O! 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.

’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.

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.
O perverse sex, where none is true but she,
Who’s therefore true, because her truth kills me.

Was John Donne (1572-1631) aware that spiders secrete acidic digestive juices over their prey before eating it? His image of “the spider Love” that can “convert manna to gall” in the second stanza of this week’s poem suggests he might have been. Whether or not informed by science, Donne’s spider is a powerfully imagined poetic figure for disappointed love, and the way it sours and infects everything the lover sees and hears.

The garden probably belonged to Donne’s patron and friend, Lucy, Countess of Bedford. She was a serious ornamental gardener, and, in spring, the grounds of her Twickenham estate would have been entering into their “glory”. But, for Donne’s speaker, the garden is blighted, and the blight is introduced by himself. As if the spider weren’t enough, he has brought along a serpent as well, ensuring the garden becomes a “true paradise”, a ruined Eden complete with Satan and “self-traitor” – the lover himself. There’s no reason to suppose the Countess is the unresponsive woman in the poem, nor that any other actual woman is implicated. It may well be that Donne is simply enjoying some Petrarchan role-play.

The scene he sets is dramatic and disordered, an instability embodied by fluctuating rhythms. The first line scans oddly, though it makes more sense if “surrounded” is pronounced as a dactyl, “surrounded” – permissible for the period, I would guess.

Having begun with a rather exciting tumult of emotional weather, the poet seems to become conscious of a need for greater seriousness, and introduces winter’s darkness and stillness into the second stanza. The phrase “grave frost” (a wonderfully frozen spondee) grounds the development of a new thought, mortality. Two opposing states, in true Petrarchan fashion, are desired simultaneously: to be insensible but not to “leave loving”. The last five lines of this verse demonstrate the complexity of those desires. As a mandrake or a stone fountain “weeping out my year”, the lover would be assumed into the garden, the ruined paradise now almost a graveyard. The word “wholesomer” suggests a continuing preoccupation with infection and bitter tastes, linked to the spider’s activity in the first stanza and, perhaps, to the tear-tasting in the third.

Finally, the bitterness erupts. In the concluding verse, as in the first, dramatic exclamations give way to elaboration, and this time the thought is well-leavened with exaggeration. Converting sweet to sour, the speaker declares that women habitually conceal their true thoughts and natures. Also, it seems to be suggested, they make large and false claims to fidelity, the latter another kind of being “true”. The poet himself finally transubstantiates “true” into “her truth” – which kills him (the truth being that she doesn’t love him).

The idea that unfulfilled love is potentially murderous has pre-Petrarchan origins. Donne’s poem is like a bridge, reaching from the 15th-century Neapolitan love lyric, through Petrarchism to an acid-spotted modern Arcadia, complete with blight, bugs and bad weather.

This poem was requested by the poster, polpoet: deciphering it has been quite an adventure.


Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

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