The Bower of Bliss and The Garden of Adonis
by Ian Mackean
The Bower of Bliss and the Garden of Adonis might look similar from a distance; their geographical form is certainly similar, and the tour on which Spenser takes us seems to follow the same kind of route. But their ostensible similarity, and their juxtaposition in two adjacent books of The Faerie Queene only serve to highlight their differences. The two gardens represent very different qualities of human life, and Spenser indicates the differences visually in his description of the gardens, verbally in the words he uses in these descriptions, and dramatically in the kinds of activity that take place in the gardens.
The first distinction to be made is between the proportion of Art to Nature that has gone into the construction of the gardens. The 'Bowre of Blisse' is introduced as:
Art itself is not being condemned, but the use of art to stimulate wasteful unproductive lust. The artifice of the garden is in fact admired for its skill, but condemned for being used to excess.
The image of the vine bending under the weight of golden grapes illustrates how nature is distorted by artifice, just as human nature is distorted by entering the Bower of Bliss. Spenser's description of the golden ivy seems to anticipate Baroque sculpture and architecture in that it is more than an imitation of nature; it tries to supersede nature by exaggerating the most pleasing aspects. The result is an excess of sweetness to the point of sickliness. The stimulation of pleasurable sensations is almost pornographic, and Spenser ensures that we get the message by the use of the words 'lascivious' and 'wantones'.
Perhaps a modern reader might not pick up the quality of excess implied in this description; just as Enobarbus's description of Cleopatra's barge is often taken as beautiful, with the sickly-sweet over-adornment going unnoticed. This might explain why Spenser has been accused of 'actual sensuality and theoretical austerity'. But in fact Spenser takes pains to point out the excess. Art in the Bower of Bliss
The emphasis on excess is of course most relevant to the theme of Book II: Temperance.
In contrast to the lavish glittering spectacle of the 'Bowre of Blisse', The 'Gardin of Adonis' is I00% wholesome natural goodness. 'It sited was in fruitfull soyle of old' [III.VI.3I] and:
The arbour in this garden was 'of the trees owne inclination made' [III.VI.44]. This garden is completely free of artifice, and in emphasising its natural perfection Spenser likens it to Ovid's golden world:
The quality of life represented by the Garden of Adonis is represented by 'Genius' who guards its gates. The Bower of Bliss was also guarded by a 'Genius', but not the real one. In keeping with another of Spenser's themes, appearance versus reality, the Genius of the Bower of Bliss is a fake
The Genius of the Garden of Adonis guards the gate through which old people enter and young babies leave, and the cycle of regeneration being represented has the same seemingly-paradoxical combination of transience and permanence as Spenser's Mutability Cantos . The paradox is resolved by Platonism.
While Time is the enemy of life in the garden:
It seems that the people, or perhaps just their souls, are recycled from old age to babyhood. And Adonis himself:
This is the same conclusion Spenser comes to at the end of the Mutability Cantos:
The garden is an allegory for the Platonic life-principle expounded in verses 36 to 38 of the Garden of Adonis where changeless 'things' or 'substance' borrow temporary physical form during life, decay, and are restored again.
In 'sublunary' terms this represents the fruitfulness of earthly life and the principle behind the 'mightie word . . . increase and multiply' [III.VI.34]. The Garden of Adonis is first and foremost, fruitful. The garden itself is a kind of storehouse for the various forms of life:
And its resident lovers, Cupid and Psyche, bear a child. Spenser approves of the pleasure indulged in in this garden, because it takes place between people who are enjoying natural healthy love:
In contrast, the pleasures to be had in the Bower of Bliss are thoroughly disapproved of. Even the word 'bliss' itself implies an extreme and transitory sensation compared to 'steadfast love and happy state' of the Garden of Adonis. The lovers of the Bower of Bliss are indulging in 'lewd loves, and wastfull luxuree' [II.XII.80]. They indulge in sexual stimulation for its own sake, with no love, and no intention of procreation. This kind of activity, according to Spenser, saps the spirit and will-power of a knight, and causes him to lose interest in his true quest.
The word 'enchantment' is important here; the queen of the garden is an enchantress with the power to turn men into pigs, and by implication a mind attracted by lust is a mind under a kind of spell. As with the golden ivy, it takes a man of insight and experience to see through the superficial attractions to the underlying depravity.
Guyon himself becomes enchanted by the sight of the 'naked Damzelles' bathing. This long description [II.XII.63-68] is extremely attractive; it is designed to arouse feelings of lust in the reader or listeners. Spenser's 'warning words' such as 'greedy eyes', 'kindled lust' and the all-important 'seemed' [II.XII.64,68,65] are few and far between, but they are there, warning the reader of the danger Guyon is in. This is part of Guyon's education into temperance. The Palmer drags him away.
But not all the pleasures to be had in the Bower of Bliss are tainted with artifice. The 'lovely lay' sung in verse 75 simply advocates enjoying life while it lasts:
 The Bower of Bliss: Edmund Spenser. The Faerie Queene. Book II, Canto XII, verses 42-87
 The Garden of Adonis: Edmund Spenser. The Faerie Queene. Book III, Canto VI, verses 29-50
 Shakespeare. Anthony and Cleopatra. II.ii.I90-2I8
 Mutability Cantos: Edmund Spenser. The Faerie Queene. Book VII, Cantos VI-VII
The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser. Edited with critical notes by J. C. Smith and E. De Selincourt. Henry Frowde. Oxford University Press. 1912.
© Ian Mackean, May 2001