Agency: Too Much Left Unsaid

post tenebras lux

When it comes to written or spoken discourse, the what, when, how, and to whom all matter enormously. The nuances of communication are more intricate and powerful than we often care to believe.

How much value do we place on the words ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’? When does ‘never’ mean never? Why does one person’s way of speaking catch our imagination in a different way to another?

After the Fact

I’ve had the privilege of hearing Tom Lockwood twice before: at the British Milton Seminar in 2008, and at his Chatterton Lecture on John Donne in 2009 (below – I’m heard 67 minutes in).

His recent presentation at Leicester’s Early Modern Seminar on ‘agency’ presented a particular conundrum which is encountered – as often happens – in study and life combined.

What agency do words have after the fact? If something is said too late, was it worth saying it at all? What if something is not said, or revealed too late?

It is agency that distinguishes Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) from the typical manuscript poet. Some anonymously-published verse has been ascribed to him through careful attribution studies. Other occasional poems of his may never have been seen by their addressee.

Who was the enigmatic ‘Horatian Ode’ for, for example? Who eventually got to read it, if anyone?

An answer to the first question might help us to unpick the entangled ambiguities that enshroud the poem. The second prompts a different kind of response, because it could involve a loss of immediate context.

Answers to either of these are not forthcoming. When manuscript expert Harold Love says that the poem was ‘almost definitely meant to reach Cromwell’s hands’, this is purely guesswork.

He’s using his reading of the poem to inform the agency because he’s unable to use the agency to inform a reading of the poem.

We don’t know who it’s for, and so agency cannot tell us more about Marvell’s complicated personal and political sentiment in this most public of private poems.

The 1653 ‘The Character of Holland’ might be the clearest example of a Marvellian job application. But it’s another strange case, because the audience for that is not clear either.

Perhaps the Rump Parliament was the intended target, and its dissolution around the time of writing made the poem an opportunity lost. So it gets tucked away as a silent statement, only to resurface twelve years later.

More on ‘The Character of Holland’

A manuscript of ‘To His Coy Mistress’ released in the 1670s has interesting agency. To compare the lonely male in his late twenties (when it’s supposed the poem was written) with the potentially married politician in the 1670s raises new issues about how the poem speaks in these different settings.

There are many such poems of Marvell where the agency remains a mystery. Was lyric poetry such as ‘The Garden’ written in the early 1650s in the seclusion of Nun Appleton, or in the 1660s during a hectic life in Westminster? It’s written to nobody, for nobody, and perfectly devoid of attachment to any one particular moment.

In all these examples, the vastly differing circumstances render it different verse at different times.

Is it regretting what is gained? Regretting what is lost?  Marvell’s manipulation of agency makes it difficult to make biographical sense of much of his work. It’s written to be elusive, furtive, and private.

Words Never Crossing the Bridge

Impossible Choices

The most powerful and painful aspect of agency is the power to conceal; all that is lost by words never crossing the bridge.

How different would, or could, life have been if we always shared what we wanted to say, or if we kept quiet when we knew that was better?

Most of us are probably guilty of ‘too little, too late’ at some point. But there is also a ‘too much left unsaid’, where guardedness rules what we don’t say more than what we do.

Whichever century we live in, we just need to know a risk is worth taking.


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