Like most Marvellians, I was both excited and nervous for the arrival of Nigel Smith’s new biography, The Chameleon, in late 2010. There was always going to be a risk that the foundations of my doctoral thesis would end up either covered or incontrovertibly disproved.
Off I went a few months later, in January 2011, to the most important stop of the book’s promotional tour, the Andrew Marvell Centre in Hull, to hear Nigel present on it.
Also in 2011, the Cambridge Companion to Andrew Marvell emerged. And with further co-authored work by its editors, Derek Hirst and Steven Zwicker, due imminently (referenced here), the opportunity for another composite review, or even a review article, has been a strong one. Due to various commitments, this has not yet come to pass, and it seems unlikely now that it will.
But with this site now appearing under the blog results in searches for Marvell (for which, many thanks), it has become a semi-credible platform. And this occurrence is indirectly responsible for what follows. A browse through the other blog-listed material revealed a rather provocative review of The Chameleon by Alan Altimont, an associate editor for the Andrew Marvell Society, which has prompted me to mount a defence.
With more attention now given to Marvell’s involvement in the religious and political struggles of the post-Restoration decades, critical syntheses have veered away from the somewhat arbitrary label of ‘metaphysical’ poet to instead lodge Marvell in the vicinity of Milton and Dryden, albeit still as a distant shadow. Perhaps it’s the whole lack of transparency, for want of a better phrase, which has determined Marvell’s similarly indefinable critical legacy.
The term ‘chameleon’ itself, then, is a pantheon: not only of a character that delights, perplexes, rouses and frustrates in equal measure, but also of an afterlife that has always seemed incomplete. No biography or critical work has quite encompassed all of Marvell’s documented and undocumented, definable and indefinable elements.
Pierre Legouis’ 1926 Poet, Puritan, Patriot worked by phasing in biographical details to an otherwise literary study. Nicholas Murray’s 1999 World Enough & Time is a pleasant but nevertheless flat-pack biography which falls shy of capturing Marvell in his full complexity. Nicholas Von Maltzahn uncovered much in his breakthrough Andrew Marvell Chronology (2005), but that this did not emerge as a biography emphasises the terrifying nature of this feat.
The problem with Marvell is that he tests the limit of our modern standards of biography. Writing this particular life – much like Marvell’s own work, ironically – ends up just as wary of the literary mechanics of the exercise as the exercise itself. This is partly enacted by Nigel Smith’s chapter on ‘How to make a biography of Andrew Marvell’ in the new Cambridge Companion, a decidedly rare feature in such volumes. Biography outgrows itself in Marvell’s case: to the literary, the historical, and the psychological; and these require an ineffable understanding of the period to make it work.
Altimont does not dispute that Marvell requires an ambitious biography, or that there are no benefits to be gained from its author’s inimitable knowledge. And his own knowledge and aptitude are highlighted by some fascinating observations, not least the biography’s attention to the fatherly influence on Marvell at the expense of the female presence in his young life. I might raise a rueful smile that, with two sisters, two foster-sisters and a niece, I have every reason to believe in this rather acute piece of research about sexuality and attraction.
Altimont’s main issue is the author’s execution, which he regards as a great disappointment. “It is a shame that Smith’s narrative skills do not rise to the level of his scholarship”, he says, finding umbrage with the borrowings from the 2003 Longman edition that embellish the poems. “The result is a book that, however painstakingly researched, feels cobbled together”.
Though technique is Altimont’s ostensible complaint, his assertion that “the critical biography is flawed” almost signals an aversion to recycling at large. And yet, the editorial copy in the Longman edition often seems under-committed in its disciplined lack of critical judgement, almost as if it was initially written with biographical intent.
The Chameleon targets far beyond the immediate reaches of Marvell fanatics, and ownership of the Longman edition is never meant to be a prerequisite. Altimont is notably pessimistic about this, and lays any failure of the ambition squarely at the author’s feet. Press reviews in the UK, however, found plenty of merit in The Chameleon as popular biography, leaving little basis for such comments. The volume found its way onto the Guardian bestsellers list – no light achievement.
The Chameleon performs the gargantuan task of merging the benefits of both biography and literary corpus together, for which the specialist reader must make reasonable allowances. The point is made that there are “few startling revelations” concerning the major questions surrounding Marvell. Presumably (for they are not mentioned), these are: the remarkable volte-face between the ‘Horatian Ode’ and ‘Tom May’s Death’ in 1650; the dating of ‘The Garden’ and other lyrics at 1668 rather than 1652; and Marvell’s sexuality, including the clandestine ‘marriage’.
But what can you do, shy of making the best sense of much that is confusing, inconsistent and controvertible? Altimont himself pictures a Marvell “acting on his own inclinations so discretely that they remain as mysterious to us as they were to his contemporaries”. It would be far easier to stress privacy as a rational get-out clause. Mercifully – and bravely – Nigel never uses it as an excuse.
Marvell’s oeuvre is not huge, but he chose his words very carefully. Repetition, as proved by ‘chartis committere sensus’ in 1651 and 1676 and the reappearance of language from The First Anniversary in the amended ending to The Character of Holland, is neither insignificant nor coincidental. His life and works are a web of interconnectedness that often spans decades. Consequently, the questions that they raise are challenging to any chronological structure. It’s a problem that my work on Marvell and Private Lives has faced, where biography sits just beneath the surface.
Repetition, another major umbrage for Altimont, is paramount in linking divergent incidents, thoughts and lines together. A public-orientated biography of Andrew Marvell that is to reach great heights requires dense historical context. It is hardly the greatest of crimes to present this digestibly. But even as a Marvell enthusiast, repetition did not hinder my reading or insult my intelligence in any way; so the degree to which this is raised as a concern is a surprise.
In fact, Altimont becomes so preoccupied by what he describes as Smith’s “stylistic Achilles’ heel” that he misses the greater issue at play – one which, I would argue, leaves Nigel’s position as a biographer more vulnerable.
Constructing a biography requires a spine of solid evidence and the support of reading between the lines. Aside from his letters and those few published works that were both signed and dateable, Marvell himself offers remarkably little. Since Nicholas McDowell, James Loxley and others have shown us the nexus of poetic echoes that abound between members of literary networks, the remarkably few echoes of Marvell that feature elsewhere in the archive suggest a determined withholding of much of his own work.
This creates numerous challenges. The difficulty of dating much of Marvell’s verse with any great certainty makes Nigel’s corroboration of poetry and biography a huge risk – one that few have called attention to – and it’s the right risk to take. The poems, for all these challenges, are evidence, whether we like this or not. N.S. does not hesitate in using them to the full. Therefore the tangential elaboration on Marvell’s poems is necessary, I would wager, because the biography dares to give them chronological context.
I add the following caveat. It never escapes this blog that the recesses of my own dark and private mind have, in my humble opinion, matured much of my understanding of Marvell’s nuanced and often impenetrable work. His life and my own throw up many uncomfortable parallels. As a poet and a person, I have grown into a restrictive way of thinking that you ‘get’ Marvell through mental shades that should not be wished upon anybody. And so perhaps I leap to the defence of The Chameleon because the narrative, by and large, convincingly presents much of the poet I recognise; while the difficulties in presenting it are also familiar, and yet are overcome with great colour and accomplishment.