Nigel Smith’s new biography of Andrew Marvell strikes a note of controversy by introducing poems as evidence in chronological areas of best-fit.
I’m broadly in favour of his approach. Personal engagement with the poet and his troubled private reflections can make us handle evidence differently. But how differently?
As I’ve noted before: it’s one thing to use literature as biographical evidence of its author, as Nigel does. It’s another to employ your own autobiographical experience, as I often hope to do.
One example vividly comes to mind: ‘To His Coy Mistress’.
To His Coy Mistress
‘To His Coy Mistress’ is often regarded as a straightforward seduction poem, characterised by a ‘carpe diem’ or ‘seize the day’ motif. But even if it is, that does not make it erotic, or for that matter, successful.
If we strain, we might hear Marvell’s resigned laughter – probably directed to himself.
…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. Its timelessness (ironic, for a poem about time lapsing) renders it relevant to 2011, when Rihanna’s ‘S&M’ plays on radio at 8:30am and SlutWalk demonstrations attempt to put the world to rights.
To Her Coy Master?
Men are a challenging gender, it’s fair to say, but it’s still possible for them to become victim to circumstances outside of their control.
To some, that’s the outbreak of civil war in the 1640s; to others, it’s the ability to form and develop human connections. The ability to charm or seduce can be just as out-of-reach or incomprehensible.
Despite its carnal properties, I had long believed ‘To His Coy Mistress’ to be the result of ignorance and awkwardness over courtship.
That may, of course, have some truth to it. Marvell was an awkward man. And even for someone so talented in so many languages, how difficult it still can be to know what to say to that precious someone who occupies the mind.
Inexperience matters. Self-confidence matters. Fear of rejection matters.
But this forceful poem with false confidence doesn’t sit very comfortably with that. Is it bravado? Is it attempting confidence and getting it wrong? After all, ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is not ‘romantic’, as we understand it. It’s clearly depicting the rough sort.
As I grow older, I find the poem increasingly bitter.
It anticipates rejection (as I have done so often), so is all the more abrupt as a result. “Penetration from me or from the worms?” he asks. The kineticism is born from frustration at failure in progress.
Here’s a man with a command of languages and artistry barely matched, and he knows it’s not enough to flatter, court, or seduce. That’s a tough gig.
If we want to inform this with further context, we find more of the same elsewhere, too.
Three of Marvell’s four Mower poems address the consequences of unrequited attraction. The Mower cuts a decidedly frustrated figure (in more ways than one).
The fourth, ‘The Mower, Against Gardens’, bizarrely contemplates procreating ‘without a sex’. There’s a regression of human desire altogether.
‘The Definition of Love’, a delightful repartée of Donne’s ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, transforms Donne’s poem about possibility and hope into one about ‘impossibility’.
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 always 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 a completely different way of dealing with it. The mistress, we presume, has spurned the speaker’s advances. The apocalyptic bleakness seems to suggest how little attraction is felt towards him.
So much for the rules of attraction. Attraction holds to neither rules nor consistency. Women can dislike attention until an attractive man sweeps in and the attitude can change in a fingersnap.
Just as political allegiance was transient and transferable in Marvell’s world, so attraction is too. ‘To His Coy Mistress’ seems ridden with this kind of thankless misfortune – being stuck in a life of lusts and cravings but with no entitlement to satisfy them.
Where once I thought ‘To His Coy Mistress’ demonstrated inexperience, now, as I grow a little older myself, I sense experience, albeit in rejection or disillusionment.
Though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
As illogical as it seems for a young man, I’ve wished the time away as well.