“Vegetable Love”: Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” Herrick’s “The Vine,” and the Attraction of Plants

September 3, 2013 in #WoodcutWednesday, Silly Things, Tangents by senseshaper@gmail.com

In his poem “To His Coy Mistress,” Andrew Marvell’s speaker begins by imagining a scenario in which he and his lover have all the time in the world to love one another without a fear of death. During the course of his musings, the lover makes an odd metaphor for the growth of his love over the course of this incredibly long romance, he says,

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.

The old “vegetable love” trick. Works every time. But what on earth does it mean?

Petrarch and Laura Cropped

“If I told you once, I told you a thousand times. Get that vegetable love shit out of here!”

The way Marvell’s reference to “vegetable love” is typically discussed and even taught in undergraduate courses is that Marvell is making a crude joke about his long-time-coming tumescence. The sexual pun is certainly there and ripe for the picking (or, maybe, pulling or sucking), but, while poking around the blog entries on “To His Coy Mistress” last night, I noticed that most cites solely focus on the sexual meaning without explaining its more specific relationship to early modern understandings about the operation of the world. And, let’s face it, making dick jokes in class or in blog posts is much more fun than talking about early modern natural philosophy and metaphysics.

While exploring those blog entries, I discovered that most blog entries on Marvell’s “vegetable love” focus exclusively on the sexual nature of the phrase, while often ignoring or only footnoting its primary meaning, and I post this here, not because I am saying anything particularly new or exciting, but only because I want to represent the other side of the dick joke. Blog entry suicide, I know–but at least I include goofy images of dendrophilia.

I found it particularly ironic, my lord, because I've got a thingy shaped like a turnip.

I found it particularly ironic my lord, because I’ve got a thingy shaped like a turnip.

In the third part of Robert Burton’s seventeenth-century Anatomy of Melancholy, Burton discusses three types of love that correspond to the three types of souls derived from Aristotle. Aristotle famously suggested there were three types of soul, each with their own associated functions. The first, the vegetative soul, common to all forms of life, governed the nutrition and growth of a living being. This first type of soul extends from plants, through non-human animals, and to humans. The second, the sensitive soul, common to non-human and human animals, governed the external and internal senses, including the ability to move. The third, the rational or intellectual soul, governed the uniquely human ability to reason. Some into the seventeenth century, combining it with stoic notions of sympathy and antipathy, apply this division to types of love.

Early in the third partition of Anatomy of Melancholy, Burton describes, following Leon Hebraeus, three types of loves that correspond to these types of Aristotelian souls. He describes “natural love,” “sensible love,” and “rational love” to discuss the relationships of attraction and repulsion that not only link animate life but also inanimate objects in chains of reaction and signification. Burton’s three types of loves relate to the theories of sympathies and antipathies current in seventeenth-century natural philosophy and natural magic that have much older roots. The first type is “natural love or hatred.” Like Aristotle’s “sensitive soul,” the “natural love and hatred” extends to all forms of life like plants, animals, and humans, but, unlike the Aristotelian soul, it also extends to “inanimate creatures.”

Natural love is that sympathy or antipathy which is to be seen in animate or inanimate creatures, in the four elements, metals, stones, gravia tendunt deorsum [heavy bodies tend downwards], as stone to his centre, fire upward, and rivers to the sea. The sun, moon, and stars go still round, amantes naturae debita exercere, for love of perfection. This love is manifest, I say, in inanimate creatures. (Anatomy Part. III, 15).

As the idea is articulated here, love and hatred, sympathy and antipathy, define the relationships between the elements and heavenly bodies. In this system of sympathies and antipathies, love literally holds the universe together while hate drives it apart.

Burton goes even further to describe how this type of “natural love” explains the mechanics of the world. Not only does it apply to what we would now call “gravity,’ but also explains other mechanics and physics. Burton continues,

How comes the lodestone to draw iron to it? jet chaff? the ground to covet showers, but for love? No creature, St. Hierome concludes, is to be found, quod non aliquid amat [that doth not love something], no stock, no stone, that hath not some feeling of love. ‘Tis more eminent in plants, herbs, and is especially observed in vegetals; as between the vine and elm a great sympathy; between the vine and the cabbage, between the vine and the olive (Virgo fugit Bromium [the virgin shuns Bacchus]), between the vine and bays a great antipathy; “the vine loves not the bay, nor his smell, and will kill him, if he grows near him”; the bur and the lentil cannot endure one another, the olive and the myrtle embrace each other in roots and branches if they grow near. (Anatomy Pt. III, 15-16).

This type of “natural love” corresponds to Marvell’s “vegetable love” without the impression of the speaker’s carrot-wang. Rather than being explicitly sexual in the way many students, teachers, and bloggers discuss the line, Marvell’s “vegetable love,” at least in theory, is supposed to be decidedly asexual. At one level, the “vegetable love” is supposed to reveal a slow growing and natural inclination and movement towards one another; the draw of an innate and organic attraction.

In addition to explaining the attraction of plants, Burton’s passage on “natural love” also, incidentally, reveals the answer to the Insane Clown Posse’s mind-blowing question about magnets.


The Lunatic Clowne Posse: Fuckin' lodestones, howe do they werke?


Glad we settled that one.

In contrast to this “natural love,” compare it to the second type, the “sensible love,” which corresponds, in part, to the “sensitive soul.” Whereas “natural love” extended to even “inanimate creatures,” “sensible love” was proper to all animals, human and non-human alike. As Burton describes it,

sensible love is that of brute beasts, of which the same Leon Hebraeus, dial. 2, assigns these causes. First, for the pleasure they take in the act of generation, male and female love one another. Second, for the preservation of the species, and desire of young brood. Thirdly, for the mutual agreement, as being of the same kind: Sus sui, canis cani, bos bovi, et asinus asino pulcherrimus videtur [pig appears most beautiful to pig, ass to ass, ox to ox, dog to dog] … Fourthly, for custom, use, and familiarity, as if a dog be trained up with a lion and a bear, contrary to their natures, they will love each other. Hawks, dogs, horses, lover their masters and keepers … Fifthly, for bringing up, as if a bitch bringing up a kid, a hen ducklings, an hedge-sparrow a cuckoo, etc. (Anatomy Pt. III, 16).

Really only the first of these causes pertain to Marvell and “To His Coy Mistress,” but I list them all to show the range of this second type of love as it differs from the ubiquitous force of “natural love.” Human sexuality falls into this type, but it also encompasses habitual, customary, or learned affections as well as what we would today call instinct. It is the first cause, sexual attraction and pleasure that concern us in “To His Coy Mistress,” but this sensible love really emerges in the third stanza.

20130903-092643.jpg

Now, that’s more like it.

This “sensible love” is precisely what Marvell’s speaker desires. While the imagined “vegetable love” might be the fantasized ideal, he wants to remind his beloved of an early modern equivalent of the Bloodhound Gang song, “You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.” It will be precisely this kind of “sensible love” that the poem builds towards in the third stanza.

I will return to Marvell’s “vegetable love” in just a bit, but first want to digress to discuss a more clear example of the sexualization of the plant. If you really want vegetable boner jokes, you should turn to Robert Herrick’s “The Vine” instead of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” Herrick’s “The Vine” from his 1648 Hesperides is an extended dick-joke that would make even Judd Apatow proud.

I DREAM’D this mortal part of mine
Was metamorphos’d to a vine;
Which crawling one and every way,
Enthrall’d my dainty Lucia.
Me thought, her long small legs and thighs
I with my tendrils did surprise;
Her belly, buttocks, and her waist
By my soft nerv’lits were embrac’d:
About her head I writhing hung,
And with rich clusters (hid among
The leaves) her temples I behung:
So that my Lucia seem’d to me
Young Bacchus ravisht by his tree.
My curles about her neck did crawl,
And arms and hands they did enthrall:
So that she could not freely stir,
(All parts there made one prisoner).
But when I crept with leaves to hide
Those parts, which maids keep unespy’d,
Such fleeting pleasures there I took,
That with the fancy I awoke;
And found (ah me!) this flesh of mine
More like a stock, then like a vine.

The erected “vine” that concludes the poem is not its most shocking aspect though (at least not to me). What is far more shocking is the dream the speaker has of becoming a vine and literally enveloping and covering the body of his beloved, Lucia. The poem strongly implies sexual violence as the speaker wraps the beloved in his vegetable bits in dream, waking to find his flesh-turned-vegetable after “creeping” to/on her private parts. He makes her his “prisoner,” “enthrall[ing]” her “arms and hands” and immobilizing her before growing towards her sexual parts.

20130903-092623.jpg

A recreation of what Herrick’s speaker did after his vine-y dream.

Herrick’s “vegetable love” implies sexual violence and results in rendering his own flesh into a stock/ stalk, but it is the almost anime quality of capturing, immobilizing, with the intent to penetrate with a monstrous form of penis that remains so shocking. To put things in terms more appropriate for the early modern period, however, Herrick’s vegetable rape is all the more shocking by inverting the ordinary levels of “love” or sympathy that distinguish vegetable and sensible loves, attractions, and sympathies.

During the period, there was some room for debate in early modern natural philosophy and physic as to whether or not erections were “Natural” or “Animal,” or whether they belonged to the vegetative soul or to the animal soul.1 Since the vegetative soul was responsible for growth and nutrition, it was possible to argue that the seemingly “automatic” process of the male erection could be a “natural” action governed by the vegetative soul. There was a problem with this however, as most, like Helkiah Crooke, recognized. Crooke provides a standard account of the male erection as mixed, somewhere between the natural and animal, precisely because the erection depended upon the Phantasy or Imagination that was a faculty of the sensitive soul. As Crooke says,

Betwixt these two extreames we wil take the middle way and determine, that the action of erection is neyther meerely Animall nor meere Naturall, but a mixed action. In respect of the imagination & the sence it is Animall, because it is not distended unlesse some luxurious imagination goe before, and the distention when it is made is alwayes accompanied with a sence of pleasure and delight; but in respect of the motion we rather thinke it to be Naturall which yet is somewhat holpen by the Animal. (Crooke Fol. 248).

Although the “procreative” might fall under the province of the natural, in animals, it requires the assistance and contribution of the sensitive soul, and, in particular, its phantasy. At the same time, however, this does leave open the possibility that his “vegetable love” could be, like Herrick’s, a reference to his stalk-y man-parts.

While I tend to read the “vegetable love” in “To His Coy Mistress” as an asexual idealization, he makes a similar move as Herrick when he moves from other things they could do if they had time enough in the first half of the first stanza to the “vegetable love” of the second half.

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.

Unlike Herrick’s speaker, who describes the parts of the body his vine-y bits will “enthrall” and trap at a seemingly alarming rate, Marvell’s vegetable growth will take much longer, and colonizes land as well as her body, becoming “vaster than empires.” And unlike Herrick, who offers a blazon as the speaker’s growth slowly works his way around Lucia’s body, Marvell seemingly turns from this “vegetable love” to a hypothetical and hyperbolic blazon that will take millennia to complete. The blazon will slowly colonize her body, moving, like his “vegetable love,” slowly and growing vast, not “surprising” overwhelming her with his vegetable grasp and grips, but overwhelming her with praise and discourse as he describes and praises her parts.

20130903-094122.jpg

Yep, looks like he’s succumbed to the draw of that vegetable love again.

While the blazon is somewhat separable from the speaker’s “vegetable love” that will grow from Noah’s Flood to the end of time, connecting the imagined lovers separated by half a world (he left her imaginatively on the banks of the Ganges in India while he remains on the banks of the Humber in Hull), the suggestion of a terribly long and presumably incredibly boring blazon links that discursive vegetative growth to the exploration of her body in a way similar to Herrick’s speaker, but, as an imagined idealization, the “vegetable love” in Marvell’s first stanza doesn’t have the same levels of sexual suggestiveness or sexual aggression.

But it should be noted that the “vegetable love” is not simply an image of vegetation slowly growing towards (and perhaps into) the beloved. While plants did have a “vegetative soul” distinguishing them from inanimate objects like the lodestone, both alike might have a type of “natural love” that attracted or connected them to other objects. The “vegetative soul,” however, was responsible for nutrition and growth of all types of animate life, and might not have anything to do with plants whatsoever. Even if our first impulse is to equate the image of Marvell’s “vegetable love” with Herrick’s image of a vegetative creep, Marvell’s does not necessarily conjure up the exact image.

With Herrick, at least, this fantasy of completely covering her body’s exterior serves as a contrast to the Barnabe Barnes poem I discussed in a previous post, where Barnes’ speaker, Parthenophil, fantasizes about becoming a glass of wine to enter his beloved’s body and completely penetrating her body from the inside. In both poems, the male fantasy of sexual violence takes the form of completely controlling the female body, ether internally or externally. Though we get the same sense of colonization and exploration with the speaker’s slow growth and his subsequent promise, that if they had time, he would explore and praise each part of her body extensively, it is really not until the third stanza that we really make a turn to raw sexual power and aggression.

In this third stanza, the speaker says that since the two lovers are bound by time and hurtle towards death in the second, they should seize the day and mate immediately, but he turns to a strange and violent conceit to describe their proposed mating.

Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp’d power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.

Moving from the “vegetable love” of the first stanza, and the sexual imagery associated with death in the second stanza, he turns to the potential for the violently sexual of the “now.” He desires that they have sex like “am’rous birds of prey.” Falcons and other birds of prey were thought to mate while mid-air, and during the course of their courtship flights the flight that appears part flight, part fight, and part fuck, can be seen as a violent sexual encounter, with ripping and tearing at one another as they hurtle towards the approaching ground. Far from the expansive growth of the “vegetable love” in the first stanza, the speaker imagines the two concentrated into “one ball,” full of the vitality, strength, and violence of mating birds.

While violent, the avian sexual encounter possesses a vitality that the morbid sexual puns within the second stanza lack. In the second stanza, Marvell’s speaker reminds his beloved of death before pivoting away to make that a reason for them to engage in an animalistic love-fest, saying,

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv’d virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

The “deserts” of eternity contrast with the “vegetable love” of the first stanza even though the “vegetative soul” was not limited solely to plants. But since death forbids the time for the natural attraction to draw the two together like iron to the lodestone or plants to one another or for his incredibly long blazon, if she persists in her “coyness,” the speaker assures her, her body will eventually be violated by worms. Both her “quaint” (an early modern euphemism for the female genitalia) and his lust (possibly a way to describe his “seed”) will turn to dust and ashes.

20130903-143033.jpg

See, not so hot, is it, coy mistress?

While not nearly as grotesque as the macabre sexual innuendo of the second stanza’s turn to death, the third stanza includes its own violent sexual energy. The sexual aggression apparent in this final stanza contrasts with the slow aggression embodied in the first stanza in the centuries-long blazon the speaker proposes he would offer had they an infinite amount of time. Instead of the years of “vegetable love” growing, the speaker wants them to engage in a dangerous whirlwind sexual encounter that sends them hurtling towards the earth.

It is here that we find the sensible love, and it is for this reason I think many jump too quickly to the sexual metaphor lurking in Marvell’s “vegetable love.” While I agree that the double entendre is somewhat present in the growing “vegetable love,” the real turn towards explicit sexual metaphors occurs once one reaches the “desert” of the second stanza, where the speaker reminds his mistress that they do have only a finite amount of time, and will soon die.

What is odd about Marvell’s “vegetable love” is that as an idealization of love in the first stanza is that in the Aristotelian hierarchy of souls, the “vegetative soul” was typically thought to exist at the lowest level. The sensible souls and the rational souls were supposed to be higher forms of soul, and this allowed them to contain the properties and functions of the inferior types of souls. This is also part of the shocking nature of Herrick’s “The Vine,” since it pointedly sexualizes the  vegetative and imaginatively renders his flesh into a plant. In the world of both poems, the speakers’ desires are firmly rooted in the material world, in a strange and unusual interplay between the vegetable and animal.

20130903-093226.jpg

Get it, get it, get it!

Absent from the speaker’s argument in “To His Coy Mistress,” curiously enough, is the third cause of love, the “amor cogitionis,” “rational love,” or intellectus amor, corresponding to the rational or intellectual soul, and which Burton says

is proper to men … This appears in God, angels, men. God is love itself, the fountain of love, the disciple of love, as Plato styles Him; the servant of peace, the God of love and peace; have peace with all men and God is with you.

This last type of love factors into human’s love of other humans, helping direct them on the “right” moral paths, but including a combination of all the various types of love. This rational love might appear in the “coyness” of the beloved which the speaker attempts to dissuade through his carpe diem [Seize the day] appeal. The rational love, Burton tells us, ensures someone’s proper subjection to God and the world by resisting improper drives and actions, and this is precisely what the speaker hopes to undermine–and to undermine that subjection to God, the speaker uses his own, albeit abused, reason to persuade her through the argument that is his poem. While explicitly absent from the speaker’s argument, the poem imagines a conflict of rational souls.

Marvell, however, might be playing a slightly different game than his speaker, since, while his speaker leave the state of the soul from his verse, the final image of sexual activity involves visceral sexual activity, which is simultaneously a fall. The birds of prey who supposedly violently fuck their way to towards the earth are literally falling whereas that type of animal or sensible sexuality, in man, would lead to a spiritual fall. In this way, although often referred to as a carpe diem poem, the poem itself might be diametrically opposed to its carpe diem speaker.

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A rare woodcut view of a menage a tree.

 

Appendix: Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”

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.

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv’d virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp’d power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Works Cited

Burton, Robert, and Holbrook Jackson. The Anatomy of Melancholy. New York: New York Review of Books, 2001.

Crooke, Helkiah. Mikrokosmographia a Description of the Body of Man. [London] : Printed by William Iaggard, 1615.

  1. As Crooke says, “That which the Peripatetiks call the Vegetative differeth nothing from the Physitians Naturall” (Crooke Fol. 327).  (back)
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