Authors: Nicholas Murray
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My vegetable Love should grow
Vaster then Empires, and more slow.
Marvell, therefore, more a man of the century than a Puritan, speaks more clearly and unequivocally with the voice of his literary age than does Milton.
He walked in the funeral procession of Oliver Cromwell, guiding the steps of the blind poet, Milton, along the Strand, yet he would later sit in the Restoration Parliament and declare of the English Civil War: âThe Cause was too good to have been fought for.' He wrote one of the finest and most subtle political poems in the English language, ostensibly in praise of Cromwell the political strongman, but most memorable for its compassionate gesture towards the executed King Charles I. He worked as a civil servant for the English Republic, and was friendly with the leading revolutionary Puritans of his time, yet he wrote pamphlets at the Restoration, at least one of which gave pleasure to King Charles II.
For some, there is too much smoothness in these transitions. They seem to hint at opportunism. The truth, perhaps, is that he was, in T.S. Eliot's phrase, âa lukewarm partisan', consistent in his support for the Good Old Cause, but not as committed a fundamentalist as his friend John Milton. He was something of a fatalist who wrote: â'Tis Madness to resist or blame/The force of angry Heavens flame.' His early lyric poems â in their obliquity, their vulnerable tenderness, their search for some sense of balance or perspective â to some degree embody the fractured consciousness of his time, a revolutionary period in English history that saw another of those decisive moments in the transition from feudalism to modern bourgeois democracy. Drawn towards solitude and the reflective life, he could not ignore the divided society around him, its tensions and conflicts, its calls to public duty. His strangely complex poetic conceits make him one of the more politically interesting, edgy and wholly distinctive poets of the seventeenth-century school labelled the Metaphysicals. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called him âa most rich and nervous poet'. It was Marvell's gift to find an aesthetic counterpoint to the troubled society history had placed him in.
And yet he was so often absent. During the great upheaval of the Civil War he was abroad on a Grand Tour. His life contains many passages of enigma. There are occasional periods of darkness in the record. There is the hint of mystery and intrigue. He remains always a contradiction. He was a Puritan and a sensualist, a private and a public man, a cool and detached lover of solitude and reserve yet passionate in religious and political polemic, an apparent treader of the
who could be quick-tempered and angry on the floor of the House of Commons. He was a champion of political liberty and religious toleration who was in the grip of a virulent anti-Catholicism. He was a love poet of great tenderness and delicacy yet, in the words of one of his early biographers: âHe had no wife, and his gallantries are not known.' He was a celebrant of childhood innocence who was himself childless. He wrote some of the most exquisitely crafted and formally perfect poems in English yet penned many coarse satires that occasionally descend to the level of slapstick.
The only reliable portrait we possess of Andrew Marvell turns out to be a disappointment. This graceful, witty, complex artist looks out from the heavy frame in the National Portrait Gallery with the plump cheeks and cold demeanour of a discountenanced pork butcher. Scholars have doubted whether even this painting, by an anonymous artist, is genuine. At all points Marvell resists attempts to pin him down.
Marvell's current reputation was largely formed in the twentieth century. None of the poems for which he is best known was published in his lifetime. None survives in his own manuscript. In his day he was known as a satirist and a pamphleteer, a champion of political liberty and religious toleration, an incorruptible patriot. This image persisted (with embellishments) throughout the eighteenth century, which had little taste for the Metaphysical style, considering it fantastic and lacking in true poetic decorum. Slowly, the lyric poetry of Marvell made headway in the nineteenth century. A few poems (but not âTo his Coy Mistress') found their way into that defining anthology of Victorian taste, Palgrave's
in 1861. Tennyson was said to have walked up and down declaiming: âBut at my back I alwaies hear/Time's winged Charriot hurrying near.' Charles Lamb praised Marvell's âwitty delicacy'. But it was not until the early twentieth century that Marvell was finally launched into his current eminence.
In 1921, a seminal essay by T.S. Eliot â then enjoying an almost papal critical authority â declared that Marvell speaks in his poetry âmore clearly and unequivocally with the voice of his literary age than does Milton'. He praised Marvell's distinctive quality of Metaphysical wit: âa tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace'. In the same year he published his essay on âThe Metaphysical Poets' with its famous (though not unchallenged) theory, possibly purloined from William Hazlitt,
of âthe dissociation of sensibility', that fatal separation of thought and feeling whose origins Eliot traced to the seventeenth century in the wake of John Donne, for whom a thought âwas an experience; it modified his sensibility'. A revolution in poetic taste was complete. Perhaps a generation recovering from the profound national trauma of the Great War could finally warm to a poetic sensibility forged out of a similar collective psychic upheaval where fracture and conflict could be explored, if not resolved, aesthetically. After this, it was left to the burghers of Hull, Marvell's native town, to celebrate his tercentenary the same year with a fleet of municipal trams decorated with Marvellian livery.
If criticism has taken to Marvell with great energy, biography has lagged behind. Apart from a few brief passages by his contemporaries, the first lives were those of his early editors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The first â and, astonishingly, the last â fully comprehensive modern biography of Marvell was written in French by Pierre Legouis and published in an edition of only 500 copies in 1928. This appeared again, in English, abridged and shorn of its valuable footnotes, in 1965. At the tercentenary of Marvell's death in 1978 the British Library mounted an exhibition of Marvell's life and work that incorporated the findings of recent research. The catalogue of that landmark exhibition was published in 1978, a year that also saw a new study of Marvell's life and writings by John Dixon Hunt. But in spite of the extraordinary volume of twentieth-century Marvell criticism, no major biography has appeared since Legouis and no life of Marvell is currently in print. For too long scholars have insisted that not enough is known about Marvell's life, but that view is now unsustainable, largely as a result of the quiet and diligent efforts of a small cluster of Marvell scholars whose work I acknowledge at the end of this book and without whose findings I could not have attempted this life.
Marvell is not an easy man to know, but the attempt to find him is deeply rewarding. âHe was of middling stature,' wrote John Aubrey, âpretty strong sett, roundish faced, cherry cheek't, hazell eie, browne haire. He was in his conversation very modest, and of few wordsÂ â¦ He had not a generall acquaintance.' The personality behind the poems is as elusive as the man was to his contemporaries, and it cannot be said that this teasing obliquity is without its own appeal. Marvell remains one of the most fascinating figures in seventeenth-century poetry. Yet his life was not lived in total obscurity. For nearly twenty years he was a member of the House of Commons. His speeches and his letters to constituents are on record, and he was witness to some of the most important political events of the century. This makes the life of Marvell of interest not just to the lovers of seventeenth-century poetry but to all with an interest in English history and the shaping of the modern political outlook. Marvell's intimate yet oblique insight into the contemporary political universe has long been recognised by the more discerning historians who have seen him as a witness of incalculable value. There has long been a need for a biography of Marvell that seeks to integrate the various elements of his life, to regard his Cromwellian period and his long Parliamentary career after the Restoration not as a sad falling off from his exclusive role as a lyric poet but as a dedicated avocation, drawing on his energy, imagination, moral commitment and literary skill in such a way that requires the modern reader to apply the same kind of attention that has been paid to the poetry during the twentieth century. If the aim of biography is to render a life in the most complete way, we do Marvell little service by cordoning off the poet from the politician, the actor in history. To do so would be to isolate and misrepresent something which is actually intrinsic to Marvell's peculiar genius.
Marvell's finest poetry, that which is so immensely popular today, needs no special advocacy. What Eliot wrote in 1921 is still true today: âHis grave needs neither rose nor rue nor laurel; there is no imaginary justice to be done.' Profoundly rooted in the circumstances of its time and indelibly marked by one of the crucial passages in English history, Marvell's poetry can, it hardly needs emphasising, more deeply be understood by a knowledge both of the poet who created it and of his time. But in spite of advances in biographical knowledge, intriguing areas of mystery remain, and his best poetry â which a narrative of the life must sometimes seem to pass by with too little commentary for this very reason â often enjoys a vestigial connection with the definite historical personality. The poems are what bring us back to Marvell; his prose works are now little read. But the clearer picture that we now have of his life, both in poetry and out of it, sheds, I believe, a brighter light on him and deepens his enduring appeal.
By the Tide of Humber
â¦ a certain Jack Gentleman that was born of pure parents, and bred among Cabin-boysÂ â¦