Few activities in urban life combine mental reprieve with repetitive, outdoor labor. Middle-class city folk have long turned to the pastoral tradition to imagine an idyllic countryside populated with fresh-faced shepherdesses and singing harvesters unburdened by anxieties of the city grind. Their innocent work in the fields was seen as an antidote to stress. Indeed, mowing with a scythe was associated with the therapeutic shearing of one’s worries.
Andrew Marvell’s poem “Damon the Mower” concerns the failure of this exercise to blunt the mental agony of unrequited love. Spurned by the shepherdess Juliana, the Mower clears swathes of ground, complaining all the while of his ineradicable grief. Carelessly, the scythe wounds him in the ankle, mocking him — “the Mower mown” — and insinuating the limits of his power over nature. Corporeal pain, however, is of little concern to Damon. Knowing well the harmony between botany and the human body, he casually turns to nearby herbal remedies (shepherd’s-purse and clown’s-all-heal) to soothe the cut. But anguish of the mind is not so easily cured. Only death, he concludes, can restore his peace. The great “depopulator,” a Mower, too.
Final three stanzas of “Damon the Mower” by Andrew Marvell (posthumously published 1681)
‘How happy might I still have mowed,
Had not Love here his thistles sowed!
But now I all the day complain,
Joining my labour to my pain;
And with my scythe cut down the grass,
Yet still my grief is where it was:
But, when the iron blunter grows,
Sighing, I whet my scythe and woes.’
While thus he threw his elbow round,
Depopulating all the ground,
And, with his whistling scythe, does cut
Each stroke between the earth and root,
The edgèd steel by careless chance
Did into his own ankle glance;
And there among the grass fell down,
By his own scythe, the Mower mown.
‘Alas!’ said he, ‘these hurts are slight
To those that die by love’s despite.
With shepherd’s-purse, and clown’s-all-heal,
The blood I staunch, and wound I seal.
Only for him no cure is found,
Whom Juliana’s eyes do wound.
’Tis death alone that this must do:
For Death thou art a Mower too.’
Quietly alluding to the grim reaper’s task, Frederick Walker’s painting, The Harbour of Refuge (1872), includes a mower at this home for the elderly.