Vegetable Love

Since my first Palm Pilot over a decade ago, I’ve kept some of my favorite poems on my PDA, or in recent years on my iPhone. A couple weeks ago I had the urge to reread Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, and thought I’d like to add it to the collection. I looked for it online so that I could cut and paste it into my notes instead of typing it in from a book.

So that you don’t have to look it up, here’s how the poem starts:

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.

So while doing a web search for the poem, I happened across this usage note from the American Heritage Dictionary, and it caught my attention:

Word History:  Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” contains many striking phrases and images, but perhaps most puzzling to modern readers is one in this promise from the speaker to his beloved: “Had we but world enough, and time …/My vegetable love should grow/Vaster than empires and more slow.” One critic has playfully praised Marvell for his ability to make one “think of pumpkins and eternity in one breath,” but vegetable in this case is only indirectly related to edible plants. Here the word is used figuratively in the sense “having the property of life and growth, as does a plant,” a use based on an ancient religious and philosophical notion of the tripartite soul. As interpreted by the Scholastics, the vegetative soul was common to plants, animals, and humans; the sensitive soul was common to animals and humans; and the rational soul was found only in humans. “Vegetable love” is thus a love that grows, takes nourishment, and reproduces, although slowly. Marvell’s 17th-century use illustrates the original sense of vegetable, first recorded in the 15th century. In 1582 we find recorded for the first time the adjective use of vegetable familiar to us, “having to do with plants.” In a work of the same date appears the first instance of vegetable as a noun, meaning “a plant.” It is not until the 18th century that we find the noun and adjective used more restrictively to refer specifically to certain kinds of plants that are eaten.

Now, this much is true: Obviously Marvell was using vegetable in the “animal, vegetable, or mineral” sense and not in the “eat your broccoli or you’re not getting any dessert” sense. He meant pertaining to plants in general, not the edible ones in particular.

But … the Scholastics? The medieval philosophical notion of the tripartite soul? You guys reeeeally think that’s what Marvell was writing about?

I mean, OK, I know that publishers sell most of their dictionaries to schools and to public libraries and to students themselves, and are therefore obliged to think of the children, or at least to think of their parents, some of whom will scream bloody murder if they catch you talking frankly about you know what. But then, why are we trying to teach this poem to high school students at all if we aren’t willing to tell them frankly what it means? Why not just leave it off the curriculum entirely rather than turn somersaults pretending that it isn’t about what it’s obviously about?

Come on. We’re all grownups here; let’s be honest and admit, just among ourselves and safely out of earshot of any high school students looking for material they can crib from for their term papers, that we all get the bawdy joke lurking in the highfalutin phrase vegetable love, and we all know perfectly well that Mr. Marvell meant to put it there. He was alluding, with the greatest mock-delicacy of expression, to the fact that — in contrast to animals, which perpetuate their own kind through the distasteful practice of rutting like, well, animals — plants don’t fuck.

Some very odd analyses of the poem can be found online. (OK, not exactly a surprise.) The oddest I’ve found is this one that interprets the poem as a call for Christians to conquer the world by procreating until they outnumber everybody else. Of the first line (“Had we but world enough …”), for example:

This lack of worldly space refers to the Christian percentage of the global population. The speaker here is implying that there are not enough Christians in the world and to refrain from producing more Christian offspring is criminal.

My “that’s-not-literary-analysis-that’s-free-association” meter was flashing red at this:

The rhyme scheme of the poem is nearly entirely in perfect-rhyme couplets with a meter of iambic tetrameter. However, at the mention of the flood, the rhyme becomes imperfect: “Of Humber would complain. I would/Love you ten years before the Flood.” Here, Marvell inserts variation into his own rhyme pattern to give the line its own slightly disrupted sound. He is calling the reader’s attention to the line in an attempt to remind the reader that the biblical flood was God’s reaction to a world full of heathens; those who did not obey God’s word were drowned in a global purging. The speaker goes on to state that in such a timeless, spaceless world, his mistress may “refuse/Till the conversion of the Jews.” This line marks a return to the established rhyme scheme and, thus, may represent the world’s return to normalcy or perfection at the apocalypse when the world’s non-Christians repent.

This already far-fetched theory completely breaks down, unfortunately, on the fact that in Marvell’s time “flood” was pronounced to rhyme with “good” and “hood”; would and flood formed as perfect a rhyme to Marvell’s ears as any of the others.

These lines turn out not to be about the lady at all (even though she’s explicitly mentioned in them):

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

No, according to the writer:

The speaker is saying that the features of the lady will be present in her offspring and will be admired for tens of thousands of years if she and her offspring continue to propagate. This explains why there are only a few centuries spent on admiring physical characteristics of the mistress, which might begin to thin out of the generations at this time.

And as for “vegetable love”, where I started out:

[T]he “vegetable love” is the first reference in the poem to the offspring of the couple. Marvell is applying the characteristics of vegetables and plant growth to the development of a human child. This child, once grown, would have the ability to produce its own children, just as a vegetable produces seeds.

But of course. It’s so obvious once it’s been pointed out to you!


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