Agency: Too Much Left Unsaid

When it comes to written or spoken discourse, the what, when, how, and to whom all matter enormously.

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: 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. Occasional poems of his may never have been seen by their addressee. Who was the enigmatic ‘Horatian Ode’ written for, for example? Did anyone get to read it during his lifetime?

Answers to these questions could help us unpick the poem’s famous ambiguities – but they aren’t forthcoming. When manuscript expert Harold Love says that the ‘Horatian Ode’ was ‘almost definitely meant to reach Cromwell’s hands’, this is him using his reading of the poem to inform the agency because he’s unable to use the agency to inform a reading.

We simply 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.

Equally, the 1653 ‘The Character of Holland’ might be the clearest example of a Marvellian job application. But the audience for that poem is not clear either.

Perhaps it was intended for patronage within the Rump Parliament, whereby dissolution of the Rump made the poem an opportunity lost. Thus, it gets tucked away as a silent statement, only to resurface twelve years later.

More on ‘The Character of Holland’

Anglo-Dutch War - naval forces clash

Voices for different times

A manuscript of ‘To His Coy Mistress’ released in the 1670s demonstrates interesting ‘agency’. To contrast the lonely male in his late twenties (when it’s supposed the poem was originally 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? So much of it is written to nobody, and perfectly devoid of attachment to any singular 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.

Right time, right place

The power within agency is that of concealment. 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, sometimes we just need to know a risk is worth taking.

post tenebras lux


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