Where the remote Bermudas ride
In the ocean’s bosom unespied
From a small boat, that rowed along,
The listening winds received this song.
‘What should we do but sing his praise
That led us through the watery maze,
Unto an isle so long unknown,
And yet far kinder than our own?
Where he the huge sea-monsters wracks,
That lift the deep upon their backs,
He lands us on a grassy stage,
Safe from the storms, and prelate’s rage,
He gave us this eternal spring,
Which here enamels everything,
And sends the fowls to us in care,
On daily visits through the air.
He hangs in shades the orange bright,
Like golden lamps in a green night,
And does in the pom’granates close
Jewels more rich than Ormus shows.
He makes the figs our mouths to meet,
And throws the melons at our feet,
But apples plants of such a price,
No tree could ever bear them twice.
With cedars, chosen by his hand,
From Lebanon, he stores the land.
And makes the hollow seas, that roar,
Proclaim the ambergris on shore.
He cast (of which we rather boast)
The gospel’s pearl upon our coast,
And in those rocks for us did frame
A temple, where to sound his name.
Oh let our voice his praise exalt,
Till it arrive at heaven’s vault:
Which thence (perhaps) rebounding, may
Echo beyond the Mexique Bay.’
Thus sung they, in the English boat,
A holy and a cheerful note,
And all the way, to guide their chime,
With falling oars they kept the time.
Sometimes I post poems here (though only those out of copyright!) and today I felt like posting this one. I like Marvell’s poetry and I like the fact that much of it is so ambiguous – ‘Bermudas’ is, in my opinion, no exception. At first glance it seems a hearty seventeenth-century endorsement of colonialism and of the paradisical nature of the Bermudas, which it seems had long been associated with Puritan emigrants. Marvell probably wrote it in 1653, when he was living in the house of John Oxenbridge, a Non-conformist divine and commissioner with responsibility for the Bermudas. It draws particularly on the Psalms. But there are complications. We know that the rowers are in an English boat but not who they are or where they are going (not far, presumably, since it’s a small boat). Nor is it clear at all why they are keeping time with their oars in order ‘to guide their chime’, rather than singing to help them keep time with their rowing as would seem natural.
The luxuriantly sensual nature of the imagery doesn’t seem to be quite the sort of thing that Puritans and Non-conformists fleeing England should be celebrating. There is perhaps something rather oppressive in the abundant fertility, the figs pressing themselves to ‘our mouths’ and the melons being thrown at ‘our feet’, or so it seems to me; in any case, it’s all slightly comical and over the top. It was by then known in England that the Bermudas were not at all like this and were distinctly lacking in pomegranates stuffed with jewels, so if this is supposed to be propaganda, it’s odd. And while the oarsmen celebrate the Bermudas, they are not there, only nearby, at sea, working so that they can sing.
Since Marvell’s other poetry is riddled with complications and ambiguities to the point that his own views are often obscured, I don’t think accepting this poem at face value really works. But what is it really about? Is it a sort of allegory of life and are the rowers souls seeking Heaven – but, erroneously believing that Heaven is filled with fleshly delights and riches, unable ever quite to reach it? Does that interpretation even begin to work? I really don’t know, but I love the poem.
There’s an interesting article about ‘Bermudas’ here.
(‘The Tree of Life’, embroidered canvas, British, from the first half of the seventeenth century; given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1964 by Irwin Untermeyer and found here. The Tree of Life shown here is a multi-fruiting tree which grows in the City of God and is described in Revelations; it is entwined with a vine symbolizing the Passion of Christ and the promise of eternal life. Isn’t it lovely?)