J. W. Saunders’ study ‘The Stigma of Print’ (1951) touched an important nerve on the subject of publication. The premise is that with the advent of print in the Tudor period, the commercialisation of writing was regarded by many as a vulgar and defamatory practice. Literature was imbued with a mode of exclusivity. Whilst the circulation of manuscripts around small coterie circles was a cultured activity, choosing to disseminate to a wider audience for fame and prestige devalued the whole basis of writing.
Despite claims that it became ‘unfashionable’ by the mid-seventeenth century, few demonstrate this ‘stigma’ more than Andrew Marvell in the early-modern period. Even in this digital age, I would wager, it continues to live on.
Actions Louder than Words
Marvell published 5 poems in 4 different collections between 1648 and 1650, but very little else besides. Each poem has something to say about the marketplace of print, and Marvell seems to convince himself away from publication. His desire for private writing becomes strengthened by a strong anti-public sentiment, which shows itself most strongly in the final poem. As far as evidence exists, only one further poem was printed in the following 14 years.
Actions go on to speak louder than words.
The first of the 5 was a commendatory poem for Richard Lovelace’s Lucasta, a volume which encountered numerous problems with licensing. Marvell’s poem, entered after the volume had already passed the censor’s eye, appears influenced by these developments. It tackles two prominent issues with immaculate ambiguity. ‘Swarms of insects … of wit corrupted’ are said to surround and harass the poet. This could refer either to censors preventing material from being published, or else the hundreds of hack poets, critics and pamphlet propaganda artists who saturate bookshops and market stalls with their trash.
With no barriers to entry, every publication not by an established name faced a harder battle to be read. To those ends, where would Lovelace’s elegant poetry stand amidst the clamour of the King’s execution and the country in turmoil?
Later in his career, Marvell announced his hatred of the media. Yet clearly, there are signs that he developed a much earlier rancour with the agents and consumers of publicity. Another perplexing suggestion is that Marvell’s own self-critical impulse led to insecurity at his own material in print. The question that remains is: can we imagine anyone writing poetry purely for themselves?
“Fame is the Spur”
The question of writing for oneself is a potent one. As with the majority of issues raised by my thesis and the enigmatic Marvell, I find myself following a bizarre parallel. I ask whether I write this just for myself, or whether, as John Milton vividly notes, ‘Fame is the spur’. Can I ever envisage an audience that truly appreciates what I have to say?
My offerings here are like editorials. I’m often binding a multitude of dissonant ideas together. Grasshoppers become alive [*]; introverted behaviour links cultural theory, Gareth Malone and Libera [*]; and cult gameshow Knightmare becomes a form of catharsis [*].
Nevertheless, an individual is only as strong as his self-brand, and it takes a true personality to bring that alive. When everything fights just as hard to be read in 2009 as 1649, how does this boy, in place of Richard Lovelace, stand any hope of interest over the rest of the seemingly infinite space that is the internet, less still without the marketing accolade of poetic testimony so cultured in the seventeenth century?
Perhaps the abrupt ending of Marvell’s last published poem of the 1640s, shortly before he seemingly relapsed into private writing, says it all: ‘Art indeed is long, but life is short’.