Marvell, Shakespeare, and Green Sicknesses

Twelfth Night - Globe On Screen (Green Tint)
I talk a lot about what it means to be ‘green’, a term that has the power to be just as damning as satisfying. The debate came very close to the surface late last year when it was used to describe me personally.

Green is innocence: new, naive, underdeveloped, gullible. Yet, it’s experience too: envy, broodiness, lassitude, or dissatisfaction. It is somehow the hue of both sickness and health.

No surprises – ‘green’ is commonly found in the verse of Andrew Marvell. We find it in poems including ‘The Unfortunate Lover’, ‘The Picture of Little T.C in a Prospect of Flowers’, ‘Damon the Mower’, ‘Upon Appleton House’, and, perhaps most famously, ‘The Garden’.

Anyone who has encountered this stanza before is unlikely to have forgotten it:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasures less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

(The Garden, 49-56)

I’m quite vocal about the importance of green and how the negative side of it has been missed.

A recent chapter on ‘The green Marvell’ doesn’t contemplate any negative connotations to the colour. There, green is all about ‘youth, growth and creativity’ and ‘the primal sense of harmony’.

I said back in 2011 that nobody has found anything negative to say about the multifaceted green in Marvell’s work. That’s still the case. It needs and deserves more thought.

Norvikken Park

Green Sickness

In early modern England, ‘green’ was also associated with envy, lassitude, longing, promiscuity, and the loss of sexual initiative.

In terms of physical sickness, the phrase ‘green wounds’, popularised by John Lydgate in the fourteenth century, appeared frequently in medical texts of the seventeenth century. We find it in Popular Errours (1651) and a tract by Robert Boyle (1663), both of which we can confidently assume that Marvell read.

Equally common, especially with Marvell’s contemporaries, was ‘green sickness’, an anaemic condition that was commonly ascribed to virginal and unmarried women. This term appeared in the works of Robert Herrick, Ben Jonson, Richard Brome, Thomas Carew and several others.

We might suspect it’s related to the ‘green and yellow melancholy’ ascribed by Viola to Countess Olivia in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (II.iv.112).

It’s Shakespeare that brings an interesting variation to the term by extending the pathology to men. In 2 Henry IV, Falstaff diagnoses Prince John (Lancaster) with a ‘male green-sickness’ to ridicule his masculinity (IV.ii.84).

Such variations on this barely explored theme open up a host of possibilities surrounding sexuality, frustration and emptiness for Marvell’s all-consuming green moment.

Did Marvell see an opportunity to disavow to himself the tag of eunuch that blighted him, or the troubling issue of female company that seems to have substantiated it?

Such was that happy garden-state
While man there walked without a mate

His apparent embrace of complete solitude and forthright dismissal of the need for women appears to pose a direct challenge to progeny and sexuality itself.

But I’m not convinced we’re meant to believe that. It’s a swelling balloon of hyperbole that eventually pops. If, as I contend in greater detail in my thesis, Marvell is obsessing about the absence of women (even as he appears to prosper in it), the idea of a male green-sickness is a very real one.

What else can one do or say when they believe their fundamental hopes or urges will never be met – other than everything in their power to convince themselves they’ll be fine regardless?

Marvell’s poem becomes at once a desire for total solitude, and yet a crippling expression of loneliness that hides behind a facade of false-contentedness and forced detachment.

Fair play to Shakespeare: ‘green melancholy’ sounds spot on.


The Science of Green

Digging a little deeper, it’s surprising how much the study of green feels like a social science.

Bruce Smith (The Key of Green) rightly points out that green ‘has the power to upset’. He notes that it is part noun, part adjective, part adverb, and part verb. Then, becoming more abstract, he describes green as ‘not a thing’ but ‘a relationship’ – whatever that means.

For Robert Watson (Back to Nature), Marvell’s poem is a fall into Cartesian dualism in which actual nature and perceived nature become distinct, because a “green shade” is never quite identical with the “green thought” that represents it in human consciousness – whatever that means.

Between the ecological and the philosophical, one risks getting cast so far adrift in theory that we forget the literary component that inspired it all.

Thankfully, that’s less the case for Linda Woodbridge’s chapter on ‘Green Shakespeare’ (The Scythe of Saturn). Woodbridge notes that Shakespeare wrote in an age of deforestation and mass urbanization, where green nature was shrinking. By the early seventeenth century, the population of London had risen by 50% in just fifty years, prompting James I’s attempt to limit the quota of people entering the city.

She finds in Shakespeare’s writing the magic of fertility rites and a joy in fertile lands. His plays concentrate on the fertile months and festivals of the year, she says, with 44 references to the months between March to June compared with just 10 to the rest – and winter is only ever associated with trouble. It’s an elegantly themed approach, but a shame that there’s little attention to the varied use of ‘green’ throughout his oeuvre.

I think what we all find in common is that green has power, just like any other emotional agenda. It’s what leads your interest in it that lends it meaning – be that ecology, nature, magic, pastoral poetry, or just a confused sense of beauty and misery.



Andrew McRae, ‘The green Marvell’, in Derek Hirst and Steven N. Zwicker (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Andrew Marvell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 122-139.

Bruce R. Smith, The Key of Green: Passion and Perception in Renaissance Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

Robert N. Watson, Back to Nature: The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).

Linda Woodbridge, The Scythe of Saturn: Shakespeare and Magical Thinking (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994).


One thought on “Marvell, Shakespeare, and Green Sicknesses

  1. “Marvell’s poem becomes at once a desire for total solitude, and yet a crippling expression of loneliness that hides behind a facade of false-contentedness and forced detachment.” ~ The story of my life summed up in one tidy sentence. Thank you for your insight.

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