By Natalie Cawley, undergraduate English major
“The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn”: A Lament for Innocence and an Outcry against the Injustices of Men
Andrew Marvell’s poem “The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn” is a puzzling work, unclear in its purpose, and typical of Marvell’s tendency to present ambiguous symbols and unresolved conflicts in his works. This particular poem follows an early tradition of poetry lamenting the death of a beloved pet, however, the nymph’s complaint is for more than just a pet, but also for the innocence symbolized by the fawn; it is an outcry against the injustices of men and patriarchy, and finally a lament for the nymph herself. The nymph narrates from the beginning and throughout, opening and closing with a present tense description of the fawn’s murder, marking the symmetrical structure of the narrative with tangible and immediate grief. Time dilates after the first stanza however, and the poem retreats backwards in time to the nymph’s brief romance with Sylvio and her acquisition of the deer. She narrates through her fleeting time of pleasure and love in the garden, raising and embodying her feminine qualities within the fawn in a rebellion against the “ungentle” and “unconstant” hearts of men. Although the poem is labeled a complaint, the nymph is not solely concerned with death and loss, but also with life, transformation, and the changes within. The site of fantasy, the beautiful garden of lilies and roses is both innocent and erotic, and though sexuality between a woman and a deer is outwardly off-putting, the tension is not what it seems if one considers the dissolution of the nymph’s identity. Marvell brings the poem full circle not only by returning to the present tense in the closing stanzas, but also though the fawn’s unjust murder by men, for it was given to the nymph by an unjust man.
“The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn” opens directly with an outcry against men, labeling those who killed the nymph’s fawn as “wanton troopers”. Wanton, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, when applied to actions means “lawless, violent”. From the beginning of the poem men are portrayed by the nymph as violent and unrestrained, driven without reason to kill an innocent creature, “alas, nor could / Thy death yet do them any good” (Marvell, 5-6). As Matthew Augustine points out in his essay, “‘Lillies without, roses within’; Marvell’s Poetics of Indeterminacy and ‘The Nymph Complaining’”, “These lines appear to indicate rather straightforwardly that the world of men is one of violence and injury, not sexual allure” (Augustine, 268). Juxtaposed in the following lines, the feminine nymph is depicted as the embodiment of love, sympathy, and forgiveness, remarking, “I’m sure I never wished them ill, / Nor do I for all this, nor will” (Marvell, 7-8). She intentionally claims that the murderous men have committed a crime that cannot be forgiven by the end of the first stanza and yet denies any feelings of ill will. Phoebe Spinrad, in her article “Death, Loss, and Marvell’s Nymph”, comments, “she has specifically waived any demand for vengeance in the first twenty-four lines of the poem…[the nymph’s] is a cry of helpless grief” (Spinrad, 51). By denying herself vengeance or hatred, the nymph implicitly contrasts typical feminine and masculine gender qualities. The nymph continues to further separate and oppose the qualities of men and women in her brief account of her relationship with Sylvio, who gave her the fawn.
Unconstant Sylvio, when yet
I had not found him counterfeit,
One morning (I remember well),
Tied in this silver chain and bell,
Gave it to me; nay, and I know
What he said then, I’m sure I do.
The nymph is very direct in her rhetoric, marking Sylvio as “unconstant” in her introduction. Her explanation of Sylvio’s false behavior and departure is noticeably sarcastic, with an uncharacteristic aside, as well as a few cynical, almost self-deprecating, puns. Augustine remarks upon this as well, “Appropriately, her accent in the aside is altogether knowing, even cynical, as the parenthetical connects Sylvio’s gift with his future betrayal…she concerns herself more with the fawn than with Sylvio, both as a subject for poetry and as an object of affection and desire” (Augustine, 258). The nymph’s reprisal of her relationship with Sylvio is brief but important, because when compared to her grief in losing the fawn as well as their time in the garden, there is a conspicuous lack of passion and emotion. Once again the nymph pointedly denies patriarchy, male power, and men as worthy of her love and further accomplishes this by embodying her own qualities within the fawn as she raises it in the following passages.
The fawn is given to the nymph as a gift from Sylvio and at first it is trained by Sylvio to “hunt his dear” (32); the fawn is described as wild, much like Sylvio and the troopers earlier in the poem, but it soon becomes tame and “light of foot and heart” (42). Foreshadowing later passages, the fawn begins to embody the nymph from the start, indirectly forcing the nymph to love it, “It seemed to bless / Itself in me; how could I less / Than love it? O I cannot be / Unkind t’ a beast that loveth me” (Marvell, 43-36). In continuance with her earlier sarcasm, this last line appears to be a backhanded reprimand of Sylvio and on a larger scale, all men, for the nymph was a creature that loved Sylvio, yet he grew tired of her and “quite regardless of [her] smart” (Marvell, 35) left her. The relationship between the nymph and her fawn from the moment that Sylvio leaves is an outlet for the nymph’s rebellion, allowing her to take action against the “love of false and cruel men” (Marvell, 54) and still remain feminine, loving, and sympathetic. She transforms the fawn from a wild hunter, the embodiment of Sylvio, to an innocent, sensual, femininely soft, beautiful creature not unlike herself.
Augustine posits that the moments of pleasure in the poem, and for the nymph, occur “where the identity of the desiring body and that of the desired body become lost in each other” (Augustine, 261) so that from the moment the fawn blesses itself in the nymph, the nymph embodies herself within the fawn. Keeping within the feminine gender role Marvell has created for his nymph, she takes on a mother role for the fawn, nursing it with her fingers,
With sweetest milk and sugar first
I it at mine own fingers nursed,
And as it grew, so every day
It waxed more sweet and white than they.
It had so sweet a breath! and oft
I blushed to see its foot more soft
And white—shall I say than my hand?—
Nay, any lady’s of the land.
This stanza is crucial in understanding how the nymph experiences pleasure through the fawn. Augustine explains how the nymph’s fingers become textured by the milk and sugar and how the exchange between the nymph and fawn of the sweet milky substance marks a fluidity of their being, “furthermore, this texture extends, transfers, grafts onto the fawn… A congress of such fluidity, underwritten as it is by an etymology of being and becoming, must lead eventually to a consideration of the nymph’s relationship with—as well as her narration of—the fawn” (Augustine, 262). By positioning “I” next to “it” in line 56, the nymph appears to remove any barrier between her and the fawn, further enhancing the dissolution of the individual selves in to one being. The fawn begins to take on the qualities of the nymph, and then goes beyond the nymph to become more sweet, more white, and more innocent than she can ever be. It is a kind of inverse relationship, as the fawn becomes more white and more virginal, the nymph must grow, age, and change from childlike to cynical and experienced.
Moreover, there is a definite narcissistic current of delight running through the nymph’s pleasure in the fawn’s likeness to her own sweetness. In order for the nymph to fully realize the sweetness of the fawn’s breath, the nymph must have been in extremely close proximity to the fawn, for as Augustine explains, sweet breath can only be experienced through the mouth and the nose and therefore the imagery of the poem invites the reader to imagine the fawn and the nymph mouth to mouth and nose to nose. The erotic and sensual tone of the nymph’s relationship with the fawn begins to come to the surface beginning with this passage and moving in to the garden stanzas. The nymph’s garden is a site of similar and contrary binaries; it is both wilderness and tamed garden, full of lilies and roses, white and red, innocence and sensuality. The lilies in the garden are a pure white, as white as the fawn that would lie to rest among them and disappear, symbolically becoming the lilies and displaying once again the fluidity of being that characterizes the fawn and nymph’s relationship.
The color white has traditionally represented innocence and purity and the fawn is clearly a symbol for innocence; “And its pure virgin limbs to fold / In whitest sheets of lilies cold” (Marvell 89-90). However there is more at work than just the death of innocence in the nymph’s lament. The nymph’s complaint is also an erotic examination of the self, especially once the dissolution of the nymph in to the fawn is established. Spinrad reads the poem as a psychological journey through the nymph’s mind, but it is not just an exploration of the nymph’s reaction to the fawn’s death; the nymph’s decision to follow the fawn in to death further links her identity to the fawn’s identity. The red roses and the white lilies also bring to mind the red and white damask roses evident in women’s skin in traditional Petrarchan sonnets, and Spinrad comments, quoting Donald Friedman, that “the colors of the flowers are ‘the commonplace visual signs of carnal beauty in the female’” (Spinrad, 51). The fawn has made an absolute transformation from masculine representation of Sylvio to feminine embodiment of the nymph; however, the neutrality of its gender shows that ultimately the fawn is not meant to be read as just a fawn in the poem, but a device used to defy men’s power as well as a symbolic channel for the nymph to erotically examine and understand herself.
Moving on from the garden scene, the nymph wistfully concludes, “Had it lived long, it would have been / Lilies without, roses within” (Marvell, 91-92). If the lilies represent a kind of cold virginity, an untouched purity, then the roses are its sensual counterpart. The roses are so red that after the fawn has fed upon them, “its lips ev’n seemed to bleed” (Marvell, 84), and the symbolic kiss it lays upon the nymph’s mouth is the final act in the metaphor of their unity in both identity and death. Immediately following this passage the nymph returns to the present tense death of the fawn. Here Marvell returns to puzzling ambiguities, bringing the poem full circle by again coming in to the present and allowing the fawn to die by the hands of cruel men. Although the nymph had achieved a moment of unity with the fawn in the press of its lip on her mouth, the marking of red, symbolic of the mortality which they both share, and the pleasure of the moment is in part because it is ephemeral, unique and doomed from the start. Much like the statues which the nymph will commission to immortalize their relationship, they can never capture the exact essence of their connection. The statue of herself cannot capture the grief the nymph feels in her loss unless it weeps continually, destroying itself with its tears and the fawn’s statue, “of purest alabaster made; / For I would have thine image be / White as I can, though not as thee” (Marvell, 120-123), cannot be as white and pure as it once was in life. For everything must succumb to death, the nymph’s relationship with Sylvio, the beloved fawn, the innocence shared by both nymph and fawn, the flowers in the garden, and the nymph herself; what makes beauty so pleasurable is its momentary existence.
Augustine, Matthew C. “”Lillies Without, Roses Within”: Marvell’s Poetics of Indeterminacy and “The Nymph Complaining”” Criticism 50.2 (2008): 255-78. MUSE. Web. 6 Mar. 2011.
Marvell, Andrew. “The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature the Sixteenth Century; the Early Seventeenth Century. By Stephen Greenblatt and M. H. Abrams. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 1700-702. Print.
Spinrad, Phoebe S. “Death, Loss, and Marvell’s Nymph.” PMLA 97.1 (1982): 50-59. JSTOR. Web. 6 Mar. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/pss/462240>.