About 18 months ago, I joked that one of the most irrevocable traces of Andrew Marvell’s life, his proclivity for drinking, was still rather unfamiliar to me. Now, I daresay, that has changed a little. In fact, ‘exalting the muse’ has became a rather useful description. So the parallels only ever seem to run deeper.
What most reviews of Nigel Smith’s new Marvell biography have not addressed is his controversial method of using the poems as evidence in chronological areas of best-fit. It’s brave and highly worthwhile, and a point worth raising because personal engagement with the poet and his troubled private reflections necessarily tempt us into handling evidence differently.
But how differently? As I’ve noted before with Oscar Wilde: it’s one thing to use literature as biographical evidence of its author, as Nigel does; it’s another to believe you can use your own personal autobiographical experience to analyse literature, as I often hope to do.
But that’s what gives me my edge and my motivation. The thesis is, to some extent, Writing Privacy. It’s about understanding the deepest, darkest and obscurest meaning through another life in progress.
To Her Coy Master?
There’s one example that vividly comes to mind: ‘To His Coy Mistress’. Readers often regard this as a straightforward seduction poem, which is characterised by a ‘carpe diem’ or ‘seize the day’ motif. But even if it does, that does not make it erotic, or successful. If we strain, we might hear Marvell’s resigned laughter – laughter probably directed to himself rather than some unimagined reader.
…Yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv’d virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp’d power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
As a seduction poem, it’s tactless, violent, and graphic. It might sound like a poem written for 2011, a time when Rihanna’s ‘S&M’ blasts across the radio at 8:30am, while SlutWalk demonstrations, loud and proud as they are, threaten to obfuscate social boundaries of common sense as much as put the world to rights.
Men are a troubling species, it’s fair to say. In 1642, they manage to concoct a civil war, and even in the 21st century we find ourselves dragged into conflicts that we don’t fully understand.
But the reticent sort amongst us end up becoming victims. We don’t know any more what we’re allowed to say to, or think about, the fairer sex. And for trying, we sometimes learn that women can be quite savagely cruel for no reason.
Sorry, but we’re people too. We get hurt, just like you.
For all its carnal properties, I believed until recently that the poem was the result of genuine ignorance and awkwardness over courtship. And that may be true. Marvell was an awkward man. Even for those talented with language, it is often very hard to know what to say to that precious someone who occupies the mind. Inexperience makes a difference. Self-confidence makes a difference.
But so does the worry about the comeback. The recesses of rejection create greater shyness over barefaced bravado. A Coy Master, perhaps? To those ends, this forceful poem with its false confidence just doesn’t seem natural; it feels more like the opposite. ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is not a romantic stroll in the park; it’s clearly depicting the rough sort.
To those ends, the poem now seems rather bitter. On the face of it, Marvell shows John Donne’s ‘dull sublunary lovers’ love’ to be anything but dull. Yet it still ends up a rather black and white set of decisions. “Penetration from me or the worms?” he asks. Brace yourself, he warns. The kinetic power comes from a frustration at the self-conscious failure in progress.
Here’s a man with a command of languages and artistry barely matched anywhere, and he knows it’s not enough to flatter, court, or seduce.
We find more of the same elsewhere. Three of the four Mower poems address the consequences of unrequited attraction, with the Mower cutting a decidedly frustrated figure (in more ways than one). One of my Swiss students even suggested the word ‘suicidal’ (presumably about ‘Damon the Mower’). The fourth, ‘The Mower, Against Gardens’, bizarrely contemplates procreating ‘without a sex’. There’s regression to the point where we are meant to notice that desire is being overlooked.
‘The Definition of Love’, stunning that it is, is all about ‘Impossibility’. Though surely glancing slyly towards Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, there is no saying that the poem doesn’t carry genuine sentiment.
As lines, so love’s oblique, may well
Themselves in every angle greet :
But ours, so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.
Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debars,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.
We cannot necessarily help to whom we are attracted or not attracted, and it’s always hard being at the unrequited end.
Fate in ‘The Definition of Love’ is a profound way of explaining off this unfortunate scenario. Brute frustration in ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is an altogether different way of dealing with it.
The mistress has spurned the speaker’s advances – that is the cause and event of the poem. The hyperbole and bleakness suggest how little natural attraction there would appear to be back in the speaker’s direction.
Equally, attraction holds neither to rules nor consistency. It’s not uncommon for women to disapprove of flirting and sleazy attention, only for the attractive man to sweep in and for all rules to be instantly forgotten.
Just as one turns their political allegiance in Marvell’s world, so rules of attraction and personal principles can reverse. ‘To His Coy Mistress’ seems ridden with this kind of thankless misfortune. Where before I thought it showed inexperience, now I sense experience, in rejection or disillusionment.
Though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Nicely hidden. As illogical as it seems for a young man, I’ve wished the time away as well.