Public Hypocrites and Private Anger: Tom May’s Death

To speak in one way and act in another is something almost all of us do. We would be hypocrites ourselves to deny it.

Andrew Marvell Statue, Hull.

Often, it is a tool of diplomacy, of fitting in, even of subjugating oneself. Yet, distinct from ‘forgetfulness’, hypocrisy often bites because it is flagrantly public.

Early Symptoms

The seventeenth century, with its political, religious and social upheavals, was rife with hypocrisy, shaped by public and private identities. As I have identified before, the early Stuart kings spoke of public behaviour and transparancy but acted very differently.

Other significant cases were notable around the time of the English Civil War, when a number of factors could prompt a change of allegiance between the king and the parliamentary army. But the cases we note are not necessarily those compelled by force or torture, but those who leapt upon the public bandwagon to denounce what they left behind.

Thomas May (1595-1650) was irked at not receiving the literary recognition he felt he deserved and so switched to the parliamentary cause 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 Charles’s private correspondence, The King’s Cabinet Opened.

May was involved in writing a commentary alongside Charles’s letters, with the intention of using them as public evidence against the king.

‘Tom May’s Death’

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

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 rear. 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 most critics prefer, the ‘Horatian Ode’ is in favour of Cromwell, how do we account for Marvell’s most ostensibly royalist poem straight afterwards? How do we account for Marvell’s own 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 and 1654 was clearly a wrenching experience, expressed not only in his writing of these years but also by his time spent with Sir Thomas Fairfax, the resigned commander-in-chief of the New Model Army, whose position was even less straightforward.

If these poems are private, they speak and answer to nobody. Hypocrisy is not the same where there is no immediate and straightforward crossing of values in the public domain.

A case has been made that Marvell became ostracised from his royalist literary crowd of the late 1640s because they viewed him as a hypocrite. But there is little evidence from their pens to suggest this, and there were even propagandists for the Commonwealth (John Hall and Marchamont Nedham) who still had connections to these circles.

Marvell’s ambiguous Ode did not come anywhere close to the public duty exercised by these men. Did Marvell ostracise himself, then, to avoid becoming the hypocrite? That’s some sacrifice.

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 a lie, but one he is able to make publicly because he knows there is no public evidence for Parker to contradict him.

Chameleons and Dark Corners

Nigel Smith’s new biography of Andrew Marvell, The Chameleon, has brought 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 ‘metaphysical’ poet remembered for his beautiful and often difficult lyrics.

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 taken as a straightforward example of the ‘carpe diem’ motif: ‘To His Coy Mistress’. Marvell is a suspicious, frustrated, arguably jealous, hot-tempered 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. I see a man turned cynical because of the levels to which everybody around him stooped to further their career and gain recognition.

Marvell knew Hall and Nedham, we suspect, in 1650. Both had switched to serve Parliament, but, unlike Thomas 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 it was May who became the target of Marvell – probably the bitterest pill to emerge from him. There can little doubt over one of the causes of this private anger.


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