Marvell's Gardens in the Seventeenth Century (Part II)
Stanza 5 of 'The Garden' conveys, or at least implies, the same message of vanitas as still life paintings. The transient nature of earthly life could be reflected back by the image of the sundial in the last stanza of the poem, which, in this context, may be taken as a variation of the hourglass or the pocket watch often depicted along with a variety of fruit and flowers in that popular genre of contemporary Dutch art. Instead of pursuing what Marvell's words and images try to put across, however, Part II of this paper continues to compare them, especially the image of melons, with what seem to be regarded as seventeenth-century facts in the practices of horticulture and botany.
By 'melons', Marvell seems to mean muskmelons, modern melons which were as rare and 'curious' a kind in those days as the 'peach' in the poem. They could have been an item the rich and the powerful would like to show off in their gardens as much as something precious in their Cabinet of Curiosities. In this sense, Nicholas von Maltzahn may be right in emphasizing the scarcity of melons in England, but positively wrong, I argue, in asserting that 'even once established in England, they could only be grown in the south'. Maltzahn says this in order to argue that Marvell's 'The Garden' was written in a Restoration setting in which the poet had 'plenty of access to more southern gardens, where melons might thrive', such as Lord Wharton's. Pace Professor Maltzahn, however, it was inevitable for Melon-Masters to rely on artificial methods of cultivation, and thereby, even the northern climate was not necessarily too cold to grow melons.
Also, if Marvell's 'melons' meant muskmelons and were an upper-class status symbol, it would be more appropriate to assume that the date of composition of 'The Garden' was before the Restoration rather than after, because the fruit in question, or at least the word 'melons', became more and more prevalent, and accordingly it must have come to sound less and less precious and rare as the seventeenth century progressed. In fact, there was much taxonomical confusion surrounding 'melons'. The musk-melon is a kind of cucumber, and pumpkins or pompions were called melons in those days. The latter must have been grown with greater frequency than modern melons both in the north and in the south of England, especially in kitchen gardens. It may be possible to assume? or at least the word allows the possibility? that Marvell's 'melons' in 'The Garden' could signify, to a greater extent in the second half of the century, those planted in kitchen gardens, and should not necessarily be taken as being as rare and 'curious' as the 'peach', but as being as common as 'apples'.