How Doctor Who brings to light one of the seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell’s most touching moments...
There is little more pleasing than the perfect image. Equally, though, there is something terrible and powerful about an image that is broken.
My lasting interest in the relationship between writing and the visual dates back many years. Colours, shapes and fractals all inspired my writing. I even discussed it on radio recently when our chosen poems happened to revolve around this topic.
The seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) was clearly interested in the relationship between writing and the visual too. Obvious signs of this include the lyric poem, ‘The Gallery’, plus the satirical Advice-to-a-Painter poems which spanned the late 1660s.
However, ekphrasis becomes a consistent theme for him during the 1650s, when a surprisingly large proportion of his occasional verse involves art and images.
Examples of this include two short Latin poems that accompany an unusual portrait of Cromwell to Queen Christina of Sweden in 1653. Just as the portrait, from Robert Walker, shows a different side of Cromwell to the standard military hero, so the poems reveal somebody different from the precariously double-edged character from Marvell’s popular ‘Horatian Ode’ of 1650.
Marvell had spent most of the intervening period between 1650 and 1653 in the quiet confines of Nun Appleton in Yorkshire as tutor to Lord Fairfax’s daughter. Consequently, he investigates via visual tropes how otium (leisure) and negotium (action) are employed by both a leader and his subjects.
Interestingly, Marvell’s 1658 elegy to Cromwell was withdrawn from publication at a very late stage, for reasons unknown. Perhaps the degree of private intimacy on display prompted the poet to withhold his efforts.
In this elegy, Marvell uses the power of the fractured image in a most striking and devastating way.
A similar visual trope appeared on-screen last week (after a fashion) in the third episode of Doctor Who.
In ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’, reflection is used as a gateway. The crew of a pirate ship find themselves cursed by a ‘siren’ who preys upon the wounded. Once the Doctor discovers that she emerges from reflective surfaces, he leads the effort to rid or destroy everything that could admit her. Not only glass, but also polished metal.
The character of greatest concern becomes the stricken young boy, Toby. Realising that Toby is in danger from a reflective encounter with the siren, the Doctor rushes to seize his pendant and breathes on it to break the connection.
This has such a fabulous precursor in Marvell’s 1658 elegy, although with a much sadder outcome.
Here, the initial focus is not the death of Oliver Cromwell but his daughter, Elizabeth Claypole. At his stricken daughter’s bedside, Cromwell smothers her close in his arms. Her final breath leaves a stain on his armour, which both breaks the reflection, and thus ends her life.
It’s an old adage that no parent should ever have to bury their child. Cromwell never recovered from her passing. One might say that he willed himself to his death thereafter.
The stain on the armour becomes like the throe of infection, spreading from daughter to father. The breakage of the reflection not only shatters the bond between father and daughter, but also drains away the life of the once indefatigable Cromwell.
Equally, it foretold the end of the ruling dynasty to which Marvell had finally, after considerable difficulty, ingratiated himself.
Iconoclasm is a remarkably powerful device with great resonance. We might envisage the smashing of great mirrors, or the hauling down of iconic statues. It is used to vivid and striking effect across early modern literature [as spoken about at the colloquium], and especially in drama where an audience has an agency with the desecrated icon.
Marvell employs it with such remarkable delicacy and subtlety in the most private of surroundings that the impact is unmistakably and unforgettably poignant.
The perfect image, perhaps, is someone at peace.