Twickenham Garden by John Donne: Summary and Commentary


Summary and Commentary


The bitterness of unrequited (or at least unconsummated) love is the theme of the poem, as vigorous in its anger and frustration as others of Donne's love poems are in their happiness. The poem may be addressed to Lucy, Countess of Bedford, whose estates included Twicknam Garden. If so, it is an exaggerated compliment to the lady, based on the fiction that the poet has brought seductive love to her garden and that by her "truth" (to her marriage vows) she is killing him.


In 'Twicknam Garden', Donne reveals an intensity of bitterness which sweeps the reader along in its emotional force and, at the same time, expresses in complex imagery an intellectual analysis of his position. It is usually assumed that the "disgrace" of which the poet speaks is the shame of loving a woman faithful to her husband, but this is only surmise from the contents of the poem. The violence is extreme in the first verse, although by the end we may feel that passion is a little abated, and the immediate and personal agony being transmuted into a general curse on womankind.

We recognise Donne's familiar energy, the emphatic b sound as emotion bursts forth, the varied speech rhythms and "shock" tactics. The poem is an intellectual analysis of the effects of unrequited love and the intellect is always in control, but the reader is shaken by the intensity of emotion poured out with a passion at times both vicious. and desperate. The compressed, rapidly moving imagery suggests violent emotion, as it so often does in Shakespeare, also revealed in Donne's readiness to use theological concepts in an overtly sexual poem. The images, like the many run-on lines, interweave and overlap.

This complexity of thought process and compressed imagery is nowhere clearer than in the last five lines of the first stanza. The poet is a "self traitor" because he brings to the garden his own poison (as Satan brought death to Paradise), so that the "balm" of the garden is useless. The idea of treachery leading to death immediately produces the "spider" image, shocking in its application to love. Spiders were popularly supposed to poison all they ate, and Donne concentrates on the venom of his bitterness in the two words "spider love”.

This is itself is a horrifying juxtaposition of ideas, but the poet then moves instantly from human love in the Mass, to the transformation of the bread (in the next line associated with manna) to the Body of Christ (by implication associated with bitter gall). The central act of the Mass is thus identified not, as normally, with a miracle of divine love, but with a kind of reverse miracle, the transformation of love to poison (thus linked with the spider image). The garden now becomes the Garden of Eden (Paradise), ratified by the presence of the serpent, which the poet himself has introduced.

The imagery of the Mass is touched upon more lightly later in the poem, when Donne refers to his tears, "loves wine", being the only valid test of love; the significance of "loves wine" must be that of the wine of the Mass, but at this point in the poem, the theological implications of the image are not pursued. Although the most complex imagery in the poem is religious, there is also the folklore image of the mandrake, a mythical plant, with roots shaped like a man, which was supposed to shriek as if in pain if it was disturbed. More surprising is the simple, homely image of the shadow, which reveals the presence of the woman but not the fashion of her clothes.

The rapid transition of ideas and associations is controlled by an agile intellect; the movement of the poem is a progression of thought as well as of feeling, and both make powerful demands on the reader's mind and emotions. The paradox of "truth killing" and the cynical surprise effect of the ending are in keeping with the energy and aggressiveness of the whole poem, leading to the witty, paradoxical ending:

O perverse sex, where none is true but she
Who's therefore true, because her truth kills me.

Critical Appreciation

Twicknam Garden" is a sonorous (resonant; high-sounding) and Lucy of Bedford for whom Donne had a profound admiration. The thoughtful lyric. It was most probably addressed to the Countess lyric is distinguished by highly condensed feelings of sadness. The poet is obviously in a mood of dejection. He gives vent to the anguish of his heart which neither nature can soothe nor poetry. Only Donne's emotion is the subject of this lyric. There is a sort of sting in the tail or in the last two lines. Donne calls the fair sex as the perverted sex but excepting this no scornful or bitter comments are made on women.

It is remarkable that the lady to whom the poem is addressed was never in love with Donne. The poet probably mistook her friendly regard for him for love. The poet feels irresistibly drawn toward this "one of the most accomplished and cultured ladies" of the seventeenth century. Her truth kills him, because he is deeply involved in her charm and personality.

The most distinguishing feature of the poem is the atmosphere of sombre desolation that pervades it. This cold, bleak and cheerless atmosphere is in perfect harmony with the anguish of the poet. The poem reminds us of Keats's La Belle Dame Sans Merci and Shelley's song, A Widow-Bird-Sat Mourning. We find the same bleakness, loneliness, and dry unrelenting aspect of a leaden skied winter. The poem is steeped in grim and overwhelming despair. The poet strikes a piercing note of sadness with the very first line.

Blasted with sighs, and surrounded with tears, the well defined and concrete images drive home the utter despair and incurable pain of a lovelorn heart. For example, the cold hardness of a "stone fountain weeping out my tears" and "crystal phials" leave on the mind an unforgettable impression of poignant sorrow. The frigid expression of tears gives a unifying effect to the poem. The poet refers to tears in all the three stanzas. Tears, in fact, control the diversity of imagery that we find in the poem.

The poem contains some of most marvellous of Donne's "conceits". In the first stanza, we have the startling conceit of "spider love":

The spider love, which transubstantiates all,
And can convert manna to gall.

Again, we have an equally brilliant conceit when Donne compares sad and poignant memories of love to the serpent in the garden of Eden:

And that this place may thoroughly be thought, 
True paradise, I have the serpent brought.

In the second stanza, the love-lorn poet yearns to be converted into the stone fountain which would be shedding tears throughout the year. In the last stanza, 'tears' are called "Love's wine". All these 'conceits' lend a peculiar charm to the lyric.

"Twicknam Garden" is a short poem, but it is one of the greatest expressions in literature of poignant sorrow and piercing sadness.

This poem was perhaps inspired by Donne's passion for the Countess Lucy of Bedford, a highly cultured and accomplished lady who did not feel anything stronger than friendship for the poet. The poet has given a most powerful expression to his frustrated (baffled) passion. His art which we can analyse to some extent, deserves admiration.

He comes to Twicknam garden in order that the beautiful sights and sounds around him, might ease his anguish. But no, he finds that his bleak and desolate mood does not yield to the soothing influence of the atmosphere. On the contrary, the trees seemed to be laughing and mocking him to his face. If the garden were as beautiful as the garden of Eden, the thought of love within him was like the serpent to spoil the beauty of the place.

Donne expresses his mental state in a series of attractive conceits. He is a self-traitor, as he cherishes in his bosom the spider love, which transforms everything, even the heavenly manna can be turned into poison by it. If the garden is paradise, then his passion is the serpent. He wishes to be a mandrake and grow there in the garden (for the mandrake is a plant that feels pain) or a stone fountain, for he is always weeping.

In the third stanza, his intellectual contempt for women is expressed in an ́intricate series of images. He is the stone fountain and his tears are the true tears of love. Lovers should come and take away in crystal phials these tears and compare them with those shed by their mistresses at home. If those do not taste as Donne's do, then they are not true tears of love. Thus, he implores lovers not to be misled by the tears their mistresses shed, for you can no more judge woman's thoughts by their tears than you can judge their dresses by their shadow.

Donne ends his poem with a paradox (anything that goes against the accepted opinion). The woman, he loves, is true and chaste; she is quite honest, that is why Donne cannot enjoy her love. The only woman who is honest and true should be the one whose honesty and truth kills the poet. Otherwise, perhaps she would not be so chaste and true. In Donne's view, woman is a kind of plague devised by God for man.

This poem was addressed to the Countess Lucy of Bedford-a cultured and accomplished lady of the seventeenth century. She entertained a friendly affection for Donne the poet, which could hardly be given the name of "love". The poet, a sad and forlorn lover, finds himself in a mood of dejection. Even nature fails to soothe his tormented soul. It is a song of sorrow pervaded by nothing except the bleakness of despair. It expresses the anguish of a lover's heart who has fallen a prey to sorrow and who cannot drown it even in nature. For its sombre atmosphere and intensity of grief, the poem has not been surpassed by any lyric in English poetry. It is a passionate outburst of sorrow expressing yearnings of unfulfilled love. The lady to whom it is addressed was never in love with Donne. It is possible that Donne misconstrued her friendly regard for him. In its poignancy of sorrow, the poem reminds us of Keats's La Belle Dame Sans Merci and Shelley's lyric, A Widow-Bird Sat Mourning.

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