Public Hypocrites and Private Anger

Andrew Marvell Statue, Hull.

What grates so much about hypocrisy? Is it observing people changing their mind? Breaking promises? Breaking trust?

To speak in one way and act in another is something almost all of us do. We would be hypocrites ourselves to deny it. Often, it is a tool of diplomacy, of fitting in, even of subjugating oneself. Just like the well-meaning white lie…

Yet, distinct from the more innocent ‘forgetfulness’ or the more calculated and sinister ‘betrayal’, which often uses secrecy as its veil, hypocrisy often bites because it is flagrantly public; it is exuded through public channels, and knowledge reaches us that way. Inconsistencies and reversals are paraded in disregard of those with whom bonds were formed through the old values now abandoned. Worse still is when the hypocrisy seems fuelled precisely by this form of conquest and deliberately targets those left behind, the victims.

Early Symptoms

The seventeenth century, with its political, religious and social upheavals, was rife with hypocrisy, and it was perfectly understood that public and private frameworks shaped it. Much of it was to do with public and private identities. As I have identified before in greater detail, the rhetoric of the early Stuart kings was rich with declarations for public behaviour and transparancy, but their actions contradicted their words.

Other significant cases were notable around the time of the English Civil War, when any number of factors could have required the taking and changing of allegiances between the King and the Parliamentary army. But the cases we note are not those of the laymen, compelled by force or torture to change sides, but those who leapt upon the public bandwagon to denounce what they were leaving behind.

Cavalier-turned-Parliamentarian Thomas May (1595-1650) was irked that he was not receiving the literary recognition which he believed that he deserved, and so switched to Parliament at the outset of the Civil War. Thereafter he was involved in some of the most troublesome publications, including The History of the Parliament, and, of particular controversy, the King’s Cabinet Opened, Charles’ private correspondence. These letters, it seems, were not enough fuel for the fire, and May was involved in writing a commentary, hoping to use them as evidence in a condemning case against the King.

‘Tom May’s Death’

Andrew Marvell took particular exception to May’s actions and singles him out for a literary assault in a savage satire celebrating his death. One of the reasons why reading Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode’ (1650) is less straightforward than many would like is due to this poem, which was written shortly afterwards. ‘Tom May’s Death’ embraces royalism, if for no other reason, purely to oppose May.

It really is quite colourful. Marvell adopts the voice of Ben Jonson to announce a coroners’ verdict from a colloquium of old great poets: that May died from his own sword up his own arse. The insults run thick and fast: May is a ‘gazette-writer’; of ‘most servile wit and mercenary pen’; a ‘Malignant poet and historian both’; a ‘base man, first prostituted’.

If, as critics prefer, the ‘Horatian Ode’ is meant to be pro-Cromwellian, how do we account for Marvell’s most bitterly royalist poem shortly afterwards? How do we account for Marvell’s own potential hypocrisy across these poems? The answer is, potentially, to consider them both private utterances. Marvell’s turn from the royalist coteries to Cromwellian between 1649/50 and 1654 was clearly a troubling and wrenching experience, expressed not only in the literature of these years but also by his time spent in the intermittent years with Sir Thomas Fairfax, the resigned commander-in-chief of the Parliamentary army, whose position was even less straightforward.

But if these poems are private, who do they speak to? Who do they answer to? Nobody but oneself. How is hypocrisy quite the same thing if, over time, beliefs readily change, and there is no immediate and straightforward crossing of values in the public domain?

A case has been made that Marvell was ‘ostracised’ from the royalist literary coteries with whom he circulated in the late 1640s because they essentially viewed him as a hypocrite. But there is barely any evidence to suggest that from their pens, and there were writers (John Hall and Marchamont Nedham) who, despite being employed as propagandists by the Commonwealth, were still connected to these circles. Marvell’s ambiguous Ode did not come anywhere close to the public duty exercised by these men. Did, then, Marvell ostracise himself to avoid the same fate – to avoid becoming the hypocrite?

Chameleons and Dark Corners

It is clearly a messy situation. Later in his career, Marvell was accused of hypocrisy by nemesis Samuel Parker. Marvell retorted that:

I never had any, not the remotest relation to publick matters, nor correspondence with the persons then predominant, until the year 1657.

This is an outright lie, but it is made, one suspects, because he believes he has covered his tracks well enough to say it publicly.

Marvell’s new biography, The Chameleon, written by Nigel Smith, has been attracting some public attention back towards the great poet. We get a shy, possibly regressive, and quite volatile Marvell. It breaks us out of the mould of the impeccable man remembered for some of the most beautiful and memorable lyric poems ever written.

Guardian Bestsellers 2010
Nonconformists all around!

Privacy can be dark. Very dark indeed. There is no better example in Marvell’s oeuvre than the poem often mistaken as a straightforward example of the ‘carpe diem’ motif: ‘To His Coy Mistress’. Marvell is a suspicious, frustrated, arguably jealous and, in the end, a hot-tempered and angry man. That is not to say that he is not a man of values. I don’t see his occasional fibs as a blast upon his fundamental integrity. Presently, I see a man turned cynical because the levels everybody around him would stoop to gain advantage, further their career, and gain recognition, left him battling for a long time against a vast tide of ‘paper-rats’, lies, deceit, hypocrisy and all else. Mankind is a cruel race, and so often an immoral one. Nothing has changed, old son.

Marvell knew Hall and Nedham, we suspect, in 1650. Both had switched to serve Parliament, but, unlike May, there is little sign of attack in their direction. Marvell and Hall thought alike on certain issues. Nedham, the leading publicist of the age, revelled in changing his allegiance to wherever the money and security were coming from, but made few bones about declaring as much out loud. Tom May, on the other hand, received all of the pent-up anguish. ‘Tom May’s Death’ is the bitterest pill to emerge from Marvell. There can little doubt over one of the causes of this private anger.


Believe it or not, the reason I wrote this was not Marvell, nor the Liberal Democrats. ‘Smoke and mirrors’ comes to mind.


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