Measuring Privacy: An Ode

New Horizons (Alphaville)
Winter’s enigmatic whiteness (Alphaville: New Horizons)

The weather gripping Britain this weekend is perfectly representative of how the PhD has gone since an Apprentice-style interview in the summer: too much white, and nothing moving very far very fast. Leicester-based Joanna Riley described the process in Wednesday’s penultimate pain-fest as ‘mental torture’. Ironic, then, that December has proved a strangely productive month.

A paper was presented at the Leicester Postgraduate Forum earlier in the month. I then met my supervisor in the British Library to submit 6,250 words. That’s 8% of the thesis this term, and over 30% in this calendar year.

I have looked forward to, and feared, this section the most. The ramifications are quite significant for the rest of the thesis, because this is one of the iconic poems by which many a Marvellian will be judged.The ‘Horatian Ode’ is the most exciting poem in English. History, fate, and ‘ancient rites’ bend and snap under the sheer force of Cromwell. Charles I is the picture of serenity in comparison.

While round the armed bands
Did clap their bloody hands.
He nothing common did, or mean
Upon that memorable scene…

The poem tells us a fascinating story in the aftermath of one of the most ‘climacteric’ episodes in English history.

The Curiosity

This is one of the most tense, dynamite-packed poems in English; yet there is no physical evidence that it ever left Marvell’s hands, and only a small degree of textual evidence to suggest that John Dryden may have seen it some years after it was composed (as much as 15 years later).

Despite this, because of the assumption that poetry must have circulated, it seems that, for many critics, the Ode has had to assume a purpose for a collection of readers, on either or both sides. As such, politics has been used too much to influence the reception of the poem in 1650, when there is so little to say that anybody ever saw it then.

The Alternative

What if it was totally private? What if the intention to keep it private was what allowed it to be written in the first place? When the pressures for a public purpose or audience for the poem are removed, the quality of the ambiguity really can be appreciated.

We find then the utterance of an individual still shocked 18 months after the king’s execution, which still burns so vividly in his mind. Marvell appears to be decided only about his indecision, and this concerns not only his politics but his opinions on the merits of poetry as well. Allowing the poem to be private only adds to the enigma.

The Stasis

How to write something of such craft and not disseminate it? I remember the days of keeping a private diary, accompanied by journaling to a 40-something readership. When Facebook took over, with its culture of flagrant self-advertisement and publicity, it is hard not to be sucked in like a magnet. One never wants to be left behind and forgotten. So surely would have been the case in 1650.

Acquaintances of Marvell, including John Hall, Marchamont Nedham and possibly John Milton at this stage too, were all writing for the Commonwealth. How much easier would it have been for Marvell to sell himself? For one reason or another, he chose not to.


Greater publicity has changed my attitude to writing: it seems ever more important that everything has a point and an absorbable message. There is so little room for enigma anymore, and the scrutiny of my academic writing on this basis has been little short of Apprentice severity as well. This has evidently left its mark, or scar. I hope that time in editorial work will have reaped benefits for my apparently ‘struggling’ prose.

But more than anything else, caution has taken over. There have been private issues throughout the year that have been swallowed and contained. Some, I continue to agonise over writing about. But they will not be written for myself alone. I am 26 years old: a blunter, more stoic, and wiser individual than I once was. I no longer need to write things down to work them out or understand them.

So much of what we label as ‘complicated’ is, in fact, quite simple. It is just that there are reasons, from guilt to shame, why we don’t want to face the simplicity. Nor do I necessarily want to record everything anymore. Searching for the blanks in life is to wallow in negativity; that is what privacy is for.

The Ode

I respect private people a great deal. As I said almost a year ago to the day, silence is too much like silver: a second-best alternate foregone. But communication, in whatever form it takes, can be beautiful. Write to people, not to yourself. There is much to be said for keeping friendship alive, and the intimacy it provides will do plenty to avoid the awkwardness of publicity at large. There are special kinds of privacy that are not appreciated enough. The reason why may well follow. I, to my shame, must be one of the worst culprits.



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