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Poem of the week: from The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn by Andrew Marvell


A dazzling blend of symbol, myth, descriptive realism and a poignantly authentic young girl's voice

This week's poem takes the form of an extract from Andrew Marvell's The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn. Spoken by an innocent, but not entirely inexperienced young girl, the poem demonstrates Marvell's brilliant talent for female ventriloquism (compare the nun's speech in his masterpiece, Upon Appleton House). And it's a beautifully paced and organised narrative, like all his longer poems.

It begins with what screenwriters call the inciting incident: "The wanton troopers riding by/ Have shot my fawn, and it will die./ Ungentle men! They cannot thrive -/ To kill thee!" Marvell scholar Annabel Patterson adds a controversial dimension when she says of this passage that "it gives its speaker, if only for a moment, a view of the New Model Army appropriate to the daughter of a cavalier household". While dating Marvell's poems is an uncertain business, the editor of The Complete Poems, Christopher Ricks, considers that The Nymph Complaining … may belong to the period the poet spent at the Fairfax estate at Nun Appleton where he was tutor in languages to Lord Fairfax's daughter, Mary, between 1650-53. This, of course, was an Anglican family, something to be borne in mind if we identify the speaker with a Catholic sensibility.

It would be rash to assume the Nymph is based on the young Mary Fairfax, but reasonable to imagine that Marvell had paid close attention to his pupil's voice and idiom, and that these allowed him to strike new notes of excitement and candour also released by the genre. The sentences are short, there are many exclamations, and sometimes the words tumble out in slightly disordered syntax – though the latter is a typical quirk and occurs in other poems.

Marvell was a great writer about gardens and the comparative virtues of order and wildness. When the Nymph in the lines below declares, "I have a garden of my own" we might wonder if he intends a sexual metaphor. This enclosure, which looks at first sight like "a little wilderness" could suggest virginity, preserved in an ambiguous profusion of roses (red roses, we'll discover later) and white lilies. But Marvell is also imagining an idealised psychological space, one that lets natural innocence and exuberance flourish unthreatened.

There's no doubt that the girl is in control of her own chastity. Earlier in the poem, she tells us the fawn was presented to her by Sylvio, who accompanied his gift with a seductive pun: "Look how your huntsman here/ Hath taught a fawn to hunt his dear". The echo of Wyatt's dainty, erotic hunting in "They flee from me…" is unmistakable. Sylvio, however, grows "wild" as the fawn becomes tame, and, finally, "quite regardless of my smart/ Left me his fawn, but took his heart". The abrupt tetrameter lines emphasise a matter-of-fact sort of reaction. That she's more than content with her new pet may suggest she may simply be too young for Sylvio's heart. The fawn allows her to practice for adult love through nurture and play. Admired as an image of inviolability, it is itself a child, and its death, the death of childhood, unmediated by the consolations of mature erotic love. The loss is insurmountable and brings about the girl's own demise.

Nymph and fawn are not interchangeable. As the Nymph sees things, her pet is so faultless that it deserves an alabaster memorial. Her own statue will be made of common-or-garden marble. And it will shed tears.

Weeping statues, like acts of contrition, recall the possibility that Marvell is expressing Catholic sympathies. And the significance of tears generally in the poem reminds us that, among the genres touched on (the pastoral, the country house, the feminine elegy for a dead pet) is that rather curious genre for modern readers – the tear poem.

Both Nymph and fawn are dignified by their tears, the outward symbol of heartfelt sorrow. The Nymph is less "white" than her fawn – like Mary Magdalene compared to the Lamb of God. Penitent tears are appropriate. At the same time, her emotion is more than penitential. So great is her grief that, even as a statue, she will weep so continuously that the tears carve runnels in her marble breasts.

Menstruation and perhaps Transubstantiation seem to be foreshadowed in lines 80-92 (sometimes compared to the Song of Songs). Here, after eating the roses which stain its lips like blood, the fawn kisses the girl and imprints her lips, before going to sleep "in whitest sheets of lilies cold". But perhaps there's a risk that we lose all sight of realism by revelling in Marvell's symbolic bravura. The poet had a fine sympathy for creatures and their sufferings, writing in some detail about the meadow-nesting birds ("rails") killed by the mowers in Upon Appleton House, for example. The fawn's pointless slaughter at the beginning of the Nymph's lament, and the emotional charge maintained throughout, lend a more-than-symbolic weight to the virtuoso display. Marvell's fawn is a paragon, but not a unicorn. His Nymph, abandoning herself to full-on adolescent despair, is a real girl, if in an imaginary garden.

from The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn

I have a garden of my own,
But so with roses overgrown
And lilies, that you would it guess
To be a little wilderness.
And all the springtime of the year
It only lovèd to be there.
Among the beds of lilies I
Have sought it oft, where it should lie,
Yet could not, till itself would rise,
Find it, although before mine eyes.
For in the flaxen lilies' shade,
It like a bank of lilies laid.
Upon the roses it would feed,
Until its lips ev'n seemed to bleed:
And then to me 'twould boldly trip,
And print those roses on my lip.
But all its chief delight was still
On roses thus itself to fill:
And its pure virgin limbs to fold
In whitest sheets of lilies cold.
Had it lived long, it would have been
Lilies without, roses within.
 O help! O help! I see it faint
And die as calmly as a saint!
See how it weeps! The tears do come
Sad, slowly dropping like a gum.
So weeps the wounded balsam: so
The holy frankincense doth flow;
The brotherless Heliades
Melt in such amber tears as these.
 I in a golden vial will
Keep these two crystal tears; and fill
It till it do o'erflow with mine;
Then place it in Diana's shrine.
 Now my sweet fawn is vanished to
Whither the swans and turtles go:
In fair Elysium to endure,
With milk-white lambs and ermins pure.
O do not run too fast; for I
Will but bespeak thy grave, and die.
First, my unhappy statue shall
Be cut in marble; and withal
Let it be weeping too – but there
Th' engraver sure his art may spare,
For I so truly thee bemoan
That I shall weep though I be stone:
Until my tears, still dropping, wear
My breast, themselves engraving there.
There at my feet shalt thou be laid,
Of purest alabaster made:
For I would have thine image be
White as I can, though not as thee.

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