The Flowers That On The Banks and Walks Did Grow

 Overview

This is a beautiful poem that has been written in respect of Margaret Clifford, the Countess of Cumberland, who lived at Cookham (the place the poem describes) and allowed Lanyer to live with her. The poem describes how the personified garden and the house mourn for the loss of Margaret Clifford, whether this means it was written after Clifford’s death or merely when she was away from the house is open to interpretation.

The flowers that on the banks and walks did grow,
Crept in the ground, the grass did weep for woe.
The winds and waters seemed to chide together
Because you went away they knew not whither;
And those sweet brooks that ran so fair and clear,
With grief and trouble wrinkled did appear.
Those pretty birds that wonted were to sing,
Now neither sing, nor chirp, nor use their wing,
But with their tender feet on some bare spray,
Warble forth sorrow, and their own dismay.
Fair Philomela leaves her mournful ditty,
Drowned in deep sleep, yet can procure no pity.
Each arbour, bank, each seat, each stately tree
Looks bare and desolate now for want of thee,
Turning green tresses into frosty gray,
While in cold grief they wither all away.
The sun grew weak, his beams no comfort gave,
While all green things did make the earth their grave.
Each brier, each bramble, when you went away
Caught fast your clothes, thinking to make you stay;
Delightful Echo wonted to reply
To our last words, did now for sorrow die;
The house cast off each garment that might grace it,
Putting on dust and cobwebs to deface it.
All desolation then there did appear,
When you were going whom they held so dear.
This last farewell to Cookham here I give,
When I am dead thy name in this may live,
Wherein I have performed her noble hest
Whose virtues lodge in my unworthy breast,
And ever shall, so long as life remains,
Tying my life to her by those rich chains.

Emilia Lanyer (1569-1645)

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.


ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Girls of the world, Lanyer is somewhat of a pioneer as she was one of the first professional female writers. Living through Elizabethan England and into the reign of James I (1569-1645) she published several volumes of poetry that were popular with the royal court.

After the death of her parents she was sent to live with first the Countess of Kent and, later, Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland. The time with the Cliffords seems to have been the happiest of her life and she is believed to have been very close to Margaret’s daughter and been hugely grateful for being allowed to live with them. This poem celebrates Cookham as a paradise for literary women and Lady Margaret who allowed for this paradise to exist.

The reason it is open to interpretation whether this poem celebrates Margaret Clifford in death or life is that English country estates were used as summer houses and might be abandoned for long periods of time depending on the season.

 Themes

I think we have three main ones here: love, nature and mortality.

This is certainly not romantic love, but the depth of emotion in the poem goes beyond respect and could almost be described as familial love and admiration for what Margaret Clifford has done for her.

Nature is used throughout to demonstrate how Lanyer feels about the estate without her patron there: lonely, miserable and incomplete. Even the house joins in the mourning of the garden and flowers.

Mortality would only be a theme if you interpret this poem as being about Margaret Clifford’s death and not just her absence. The impact of one death on the world is huge in this case and kills a little bit of the soul of the world the person inhabited.

Content

The opening line is a memory of how Cookham (the estate – house and gardens of the Cliffords) used to be: full of life. However, immediately we are drawn to the estate today which seems overgrown and miserable.

Every element from the grass, to the water in the ponds and streams, the birds and the trees they sit and the sun in the sky have deteriorated and are in a state of mourning and contrasted with how beautiful they used to be (lines 2-18). Even the house seems to have been effected as it has ‘cast off’ its beauty and hidden itself in ‘dust and cobwebs’ (lines 23-24).

The final section finally explains what all this moping about is in aid of. It has all been caused by the absence of Margaret Clifford, the person who made it what it was. Lanyer says this will be her last visit to the place, presumably because she cannot bear to see it in such a state and in absence of her patron, but promises to immortalise the infinitely worthy Margaret and the wonder of Cookham through this poem and thus create a bond between their names forever.

Language and techniques

This is a long poem and I’ve got half an hour before my next lesson, so I am going to pick the quotations I feel are most interesting.

First let’s examine how things used to be at Cookham. ‘Sweet brooks… fair and clean’, ‘pretty birds were wont to sing’, ‘stately tree’; these three quotations are the tip of the iceberg, but should convey an impression of natural beauty and splendour with the gentle streams, birds tweeting away and proud/magnificent trees. The image conjured, between the lines of mourning, is of a beautiful home in its most serene state, possibly in the spring time when everything is fresh, calm and new.

The mourning is reflected by the death and decay of natural images. The grass ‘weeps for woe’, is downtrodden; the birds ‘neither song, nor chirp, nor use their wings’, as they are too miserable/depressed; ‘trees looks bare and desolate’ because their leaves have fallen off like tears. Now, we could look at the simple explanation here and dismiss this as winter or the end of autumn causing these changes, but the poem is personifying these actions/lack of actions to make the natural change seem as if it has been caused by Margaret’s absence/death.

I also love the line about brambles catching ‘fast your clothes, thinking to make you stay’. This creates a personified of a bush literally grabbing Margaret Clifford to stop her from leaving, rather than just getting caught in your jumper and irritatingly snagging it.

Finally make sure you comment on the hyperbolic praise directed towards Margaret Clifford. She is referred to as ‘whom they [plants, trees] held so dear’ as being full of ‘virtues’ and ‘noble’. All these phrases honour and praise her and set her apart from an ordinary person.

Structure

This is all one super stanza (in fact the poem and the stanza is a good deal longer in the full version, which you can find here) and is like a continuous life of Cookham or rather death of. The poem ends with talk of death and the afterlife and thus the end of Cookham, Lady Margaret and Lanyer herself.

The poem is written as a series of rhyming couplets which initially detail the idyllic state of Cookham in Lanyer’s memory and then describe the misery of the present state. This provides us with a mirror image and intensifies our understanding of how drastic the alteration has been.

Notice the tendency of the poem to use caesuras. This slows the pace down at various point where Lanyer wants us to linger on a thought or piece of imagery, which means this is something poignant in her mind. ‘Now neither sing, nor chirp, nor use their wing’ – lamenting the loss of the birdies songs.

The few examples of enjambment are at moments where she gets carried away with a romantic idea, before crashing to an end later with the regretful present state. The best example of this would be ‘Delightful Echo wonted to reply/To our last words’ – Echo in Greek mythology was a nymph was sang for her love until at last only her words remained and Lanyer feels in a similar mood in her reflection.

Tone

This is a little tricky. There is a large element of lamentation as she mourns with Cookham and regrets the change that has overcome the place. However, it works in pitches and falls with at one moment the height and glory of her memory and then the miserable collapse as the reality of the present invades Lanyer’s description.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

10 thoughts on “The Flowers That On The Banks and Walks Did Grow”

    1. Careful, your block capital letters make you look a bit like a raging homophobe!

      No, I think it is safe to say it isn’t an expression of homosexual love as the writer is basically following convention in that she is praising her patron – i.e. the person who paid for her to live a life of idleness so she could write some cracking poetry. I think admiration is the prevailing emotion coming through in the poem and not romantic love.

    1. It is a mythological reference. Background stolen from a quick google search:

      “Echo, in Greek mythology, mountain nymph. She assisted Zeus in one of his amorous adventures by distracting Hera with her chatter. For this Hera made her unable to speak except to repeat another’s last words. She fell in love with Narcissus, but when he rejected her, she pined away until only her voice remained.”

      In the context of the poem, Echo is now pining for Margaret Clifford, along with every other element of Cookham.

      Hope this helps! Sorry for the delay.

  1. What could you say about the 29th line: ‘Wherein…….noble hest’ Could this mean that she can not repay what Clifford has done for her? Kinda confused there.

    1. No, I think it means this poem celebrating both Cookham and Margaret Clifford has been created at the request of Cookham (personification) as it wants Clifford remembered. Of course, no one has requested this, but Lanyer felt compelled to write it due to her respect for Clifford and love of the Cookham she once knew.

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