Of course, ‘My vegetable love’ starts line 11 of Andrew Marvell’s erotic poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’ (1681). Poised rudely between noun and adjective, the Lover’s ‘vegetable love’ apparently grows ‘Vaster than empires, and more slow’ (Line 12). In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the noun vegetable, as we understand it today, is more commonly known as an herb. Therefore, the Lover’s manhood probably refers to a slow-growing plant or tree because ‘in the Aristotelian scheme of vegetative, sensitive and rational souls, the first is characterized only by growth’ (Smith 81). More specifically, his ‘vegetative soul’ may allude to the trusty oak as it could take up to five hundred years to grow. Also, its enduring strength made the tree useful for building early modern ships, which are another symbol of phallic pride and strength.
Yet the problem with identifying ‘My vegetable love’ as a tree is that the gargantuan woodpecker appears in the middle of a Neoplatonic parody – Neoplatonism means that Marvell’s patient Lover and his beloved remain chaste in preparation for spiritual unity (Smith 78). By the time the Lover is ready for what Iago refers to as ‘making the beast with two backs’ (Othello I.i, line 115), he will already be in heavenly bliss with his mistress.
The metaphysical conceit of an enduring slowly-leavening tree is perhaps too sluggish (even for a Neoplatonic Lover), given that the poem degenerates into Epicureanism – a philosophy of pleasure that needs no explanation. Yet by hinting at the decades it takes the Lover’s ‘vegetable love’ to grow, also means clashing with the previous mentions of time in the poem. These are the passing of the Lover’s and his beloved’s ‘long love’s day’ (Line 4) and the Lover’s claim that ‘I would/Love you ten years before the flood’ (Line 8). The slow passing of one day and even ten years are mere seconds compared to the ‘vegetable love’s’ implied hundreds of years of blood-fuelled growth. Furthermore, following the vegetable love’s unspecified time-frame to reach full maturity are the more accurate estimations detailing the Lover’s sense of urgency:
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze.
Two hundred to adore each breast:
But thirty thousand to the rest.
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart. (Lines 13-18)
The realization that Marvell’s Lover has been endowed with an extreme case of brewer’s droop not only spoils his wedding night, but also ruins the poem’s cumulative comic effect. The hyperbolic Petrarchan blazon, a poetic conceit in which the Lover praises his beloved’s beauty via her body parts, takes an entire Millennium before Marvell’s poetic speaker has successfully wooed his beloved. By that time, he would’ve forgotten what his ‘vegetable love’ is for.
An oak tree not only stretches the Lover’s wedding tackle too far but, within what is an ostensibly a love poem, it is not really an enticing carrot for his beloved. The Lover’s warning to the poor woman is that while she is waiting with folded arms for his ‘vegetable love’ to stiffen, her ‘beauty shall no more be found’ (Line 25). Worse, she’ll be lying in ‘thy marble vault’ where worms and not a vegetable of any shape or form will ‘try/That long preserved virginity’ (Lines 26-28). If the Lady’s ‘beauty’ is capable of decaying, then the Lover’s ‘vegetable love’ should, following the poem’s elegiac logic, also rot. In order for Marvell’s Lover and beloved to ‘sport…while we may….like am’rous birds of prey’ (Lines 37 & 38), I propose to argue that his ‘vegetable love’ rather than being an unwieldy oak tree is, in fact, a potato. Not the common garden spud but the more erotically alluring sweet potato.
Why on earth the sweet potato? The sweet potato is actually more familiar to the early modern English. In his 1597 book Herball, Generall Historie of Plants, John Gerard named the modern potato the ‘Virginian Potato’ to distinguish it from the sweet potato, which was known in the sixteenth century as the ‘common potato’ (Gerald 222-3). Also, having first received the sweet potato from his first wife’s, Catherine of Aragon’s, dowry, King Henry VIII enjoyed them immensely. It is perhaps, then, no surprise to learn that the sweet potato was considered an aphrodisiac. Shakespeare was certainly aware of its qualities. His 1609 play Troilus and Cressida openly celebrates the vegetable or herb:
THERSITES [aside]: How the devil Luxury, with his fat rump and potato finger, tickles these together! Fry, lechery, fry. (V.II, lines 57-59)
The suggestively shaped sweet potato located in front of Luxury’s ‘fat rump’ has a bawdy image. No doubt the Greek commander Diomedes’ ‘potato finger’ will do more than tickle Cressida. As she flirts with the enemy, Diomedes’ ‘potato finger’ will further inflame her Lover’s, the Trojan warrior Troilus’, anger.
Despite the sweet potato not being a tree, Gerard classes it as a plant that ‘hath long rough flexible branches trailing upon the ground’ (Gerard 220). What is especially fascinating is that Gerard states that the sweet potato’s ‘roots may serve as a ground or foundation whereon the cunning Confectioner or Sugar-Baker may worke and frame many comfortable delicat Conserves and restorative sweet-meats’ (221). Not only does it become clear how the plant became known as the sweet potato, but its ‘restorative’ properties are ideal for the Lover’s ailing ‘vegetable love’. He is now properly equipped for the poem’s carpe diem finale: ‘Thus, though we cannot make our sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run’ (Lines 45-6). The rhyming couplet is Marvell’s anticipation of the cliché, ‘Let’s make hay before the sun shines’ or, more appropriately, let’s make hay faster than the sun can set. Just don’t ask Marvell to go and chop some wood.
Gerard, John. Gerard’s Herbal: John Gerard’s Historie of Plants. 1597. Ed. Marcus Woodward. Twickenham: Tiger Books, 1998.
Manuscript of Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’, The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, MS Don. b.8,pp.283 and 284 (the Haward Manuscript), in The Poems of Andrew Marvell, by Andrew Marvell. 2003. Rev. Ed. Ed. Nigel Smith.Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2007.
Marvell, Andrew. ‘To His Coy Mistress’. 1681. The Poems of Andrew Marvell. 2003. Rev. Ed. Ed. Nigel Smith.Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2007.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. 1602. Ed. E.A.J. Honigmann.London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2003.
—. Troilus and Cressida. 1609. Ed. David Bevington. London: Arden Shakespeare, 1998.
Smith, Nigel. ‘Footnote to “To His Coy Mistress”’. The Poems of Andrew Marvell. 2003. Rev. Ed. Ed. Nigel Smith.Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2007.