How Doctor Who brings to light one of Andrew Marvell’s most touching moments...
There is little more pleasing than the perfect image. Equally, though, a terrible beauty and power can be unleashed by an image that is broken.
I have a lasting interest in the relationship between writing and the visual. Even before memorable ekphrasis courses as an undergraduate, colours, shapes and fractals were all important to how I framed my writing. I even discussed it on radio recently when our chosen poems happened to centre on and around this topic.
Despite offering us ‘The Gallery’ and various Advice-to-a-Painter poems, ekphrasis becomes more of a consistent theme for Andrew Marvell in the 1650s when a surprisingly large proportion of his occasional verse involves art and images.
Examples include the two Latin pieces that accompany an unusual portrait of Cromwell to Queen Christina of Sweden in 1654. Just as the portrait shows a different Cromwell to the standard military hero, so the poems reflect a reassessment from the precariously double-edged character in the ‘Horatian Ode’ of 1650.
Having spent most of the intervening period between these poetic statements in the quiet confines of Nun Appleton, Marvell seems particularly concerned with how otium (leisure) and negotium (action) are employed by both a leader and his subjects.
This is not the coup de grâce, however. Marvell’s elegy to Cromwell was withdrawn from publication at a very late stage, for reasons unknown.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 the elegy, Marvell uses the power of the fractured image in a most striking and devastating way.
It came to our screens last week in a similar and memorable fashion – 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’ that 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 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 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.