Measuring Privacy: An Horatian Ode

December has proved a productive month. I presented at the Leicester Postgraduate Forum before submitting 6,000 words to my supervisor in the British Library. Nevertheless, this section is awash with trepidation as it concerns one of the iconic poems by which Marvellians are judged.

Winter whiteness (Alphaville: New Horizons)
Winter whiteness (Alphaville: New Horizons)

Andrew Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode’ is one of the most exciting poems in English. History, fate, and ‘ancient rites’ yield to the sheer force of Cromwell. In comparison, Charles I becomes the picture of serenity:

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 striking episodes in English history.

The curiosity

The ‘Horatian Ode’ is one of the most tense, controversial 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.

Despite this, because of a growing assumption that poetry was written for circulation, many critics have associated the poem’s politics with the readership it supposedly reached in 1650.

The alternative

What if the Ode was a completely private poem (as Blair Worden has half-hinted)? What if the intention to keep it private was what allowed it to be written in the first place? It’s only when the need to create a public purpose or audience for the poem is taken away that the power of its layered ambiguities can be fully appreciated.

We find an individual still in shock 18 months after the king’s execution, this dramatic act still replaying 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.

The Stasis

Why write something of such craft and not disseminate it? I remember the days of keeping a private diary. When Facebook took over, with its culture of narcissism and publicity, it is hard not to be drawn like a magnet. One never wants to be left behind and forgotten.

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.

More on this subject

For further, more recent exploration on the reception of the Horatian Ode:

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