The below poem, “The Picture of Little T. C. in a Prospect of Flowers” by Andrew Marvell is a pure Beckerian poem, by which I mean it moves from a simple and delightful sight of a pretty little girl among some flowers to a desperate and futile plea against blind fate and death, the movement from sweet illusion, simple decoration, to the apprehension of humankind’s greatest fear. The poem begins in jest, in good humor, Marvell having some fun watching the little girl at her play. He pretends she is a goddess; then he pretends she is, as if during the Middle Ages, a disdainful mistress.
The poem takes a slight turn in the fourth stanza when the poet once again suggests the little girl is a deity who can change the laws of nature. She “can reform the errors of the spring”: she can give tulips a sweet smell; she can do away with the thorns on roses; she can keep the violets from fading. Marvell knows better, and so do we. Even for Marvell to make such a statement is to confirm the audacious falsity of them.
Then the poem makes the “crucial” and Beckerian turn, moving from the subject of the little girl obviating the irrevocably laws of nature to the much too common happening of Marvel’s time: an early death. Marvel knows we are helpless in the hands of blind fate. The healthy child can take sick today and be dead tomorrow–at least it was so in Marvell’s time. (Some say that T. C. was one Theophila Cornewall, whose older sister had died In childhood.) Suddenly, the poet is all seriousness. He urges the child not to pluck the the young buds of the flowers because the true goddess of the flowers, Flora, may punish the child that she too, the child that is, dies early. Some might say this interpretation is too dark, that the poet is dealing in poetic convention, that the ending of the poem is mere dramatics, almost done tongue in cheek. Perhaps so.
But it seems to me that a poem that begins in a flood of whimsy ends in terror. “Be careful!” he wants to cry to her, though he knows his cries are bootless and impotent. How helpless men are against the power of death. The poem seems to me to reflect a great mind following the truth where it leads. It is, I think, a very great poem. A man watches a child at play. She delights him. He lets his imagination run free. Then the poet’s mind goes the only real way it can go. “Gather the flowers,” he says to her (in his mind he speaks to her), “but don’t pick the buds,” for the child is a bud, and who knows what cruel fate is behind life ruthlessly and randomly picking the buds of human life.
The serpent is always in the garden, eh? Underneath the most innocent and sweetest of human ventures lurks the inexorable fate of humankind, all the darkness that lies beneath or behind or below and beyond all pretty little girls, all flowers, all arts, and all words. The incongruity contained in the poem is almost too much to bear, but the poet pulls it off. One might conjecture that the rhyme and meter of the poem make its truth easier for us to bear. After all, art is creative illusion at its apogee. This poem presents the human dilemma, the maddening contradictions and paradox of a self-conscious creature as clearly, though more succinctly, as do Becker or Rank. In an era when infant mortality was high, rampant, more the rule than the exception, who’d not see beautiful children as fragile buds being picked by the fell hands of merciless death? And who’d not, even in our time, if he or she looked with a cold mind, with a terrified but an honest imagination, at the field of flowers and contemplate that stuff out of which the sweet flowers grow, the great bone-yard and blood-blotter of the earth? Who’d not?
The Picture of Little T. C. in a
Prospect of Flowers
SEE with what simplicity
This nymph begins her golden days!
In the green grass she loves to lie,
And there with her fair aspect tames
The wilder flowers, and gives them names; 5
But only with the roses plays,
And them does tell
What colour best becomes them, and what smell.
Who can foretell for what high cause
This darling of the gods was born? 10
Yet this is she whose chaster laws
The wanton Love shall one day fear,
And, under her command severe,
See his bow broke and ensigns torn.
Happy who can 15
Appease this virtuous enemy of man!
O then let me in time compound
And parley with those conquering eyes,
Ere they have tried their force to wound;
Ere with their glancing wheels they drive 20
In triumph over hearts that strive,
And them that yield but more despise:
Let me be laid,
Where I may see the glories from some shade.
Meantime, whilst every verdant thing 25
Itself does at thy beauty charm,
Reform the errors of the Spring;
Make that the tulips may have share
Of sweetness, seeing they are fair,
And roses of their thorns disarm; 30
But most procure
That violets may a longer age endure.
But O, young beauty of the woods,
Whom Nature courts with fruits and flowers,
Gather the flowers, but spare the buds; 35
Lest Flora, angry at thy crime
To kill her infants in their prime,
Do quickly make th’ example yours;
And ere we see,
Nip in the blossom all our hopes and thee. 40