Resourcefulness: Marvell’s ‘The Character of Holland’

Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Character of Holland’ was composed, though not published, in early 1653. So who was it written for, and why? A brief exploration.


By the time Andrew Marvell turned 28 (as I recently did) in March 1649, England had just witnessed the execution of Charles I. The regicide inspired one of the best political poems written in English, ‘An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’, and forged the new political landscape that would define Marvell’s career.

Secretive, awkward man and all, Marvell possessed some remarkable personal qualities. Last time around, it was ‘confidence’ in the spotlight. This time, it is ‘resourcefulness’ – another of his deceptive strengths.

1653: The First ‘Character’

1653 is a fascinating year in the life of Andrew Marvell.

Two years earlier, in 1651, Marvell is normally assumed to have been quietly settled at Lord Fairfax’s Nun Appleton estate in Yorkshire as a language tutor to the general’s daughter. The famous country-house poem ‘Upon Appleton House’, an encomium on Fairfax’s grounds, refers to events that have been convincingly ascribed to that year.

There is a possibility, however, that Marvell joined an embassy to Holland in 1651.

This is supported by a Latin poem of close witness, ‘In Legationem Domini Oliveri St. John ad Provincias Foederatas’, in which the leading ambassador of the embassy, Oliver St John, is said to ‘holds the keys of Janus’. To fail in the embassy mission would almost certainly result in war.

Such a hypothesis allows us to speculatively revaluate the remaining lyric verse that is usually ascribed to the ‘Nun Appleton’ period, as it aligns Marvell with the harsh realities of international diplomacy and front-line politics far earlier than previously expected.

It also brings more interest to the poem ‘The Character of Holland’, which was originally written, though not published, in early 1653.

Plan A

In February 1653, John Milton wrote to John Bradshaw, Chairman of the Council of State, recommending that Marvell be appointed as his assistant. Perhaps the suggestion was made (by either Milton or Bradshaw) that Marvell should produce a patriotic poem to enhance the application and demonstrate his political colours.

Thus, ‘The Character of Holland’ commemorates a major defensive scalp in the first Anglo-Dutch War which, as Marvell anticipates in 1651, followed the failed embassy.

But it’s not at all clear whether the poem came into Bradshaw’s hands. Marvell lost out to Philip Meadows for the role, and the poem did not end up in print. Surely at least one of those two outcomes would have differed if the poem had traded hands?

Plan B

So, where next? Plan B. The poem is quite strongly in support of the Commonwealth and of the navy. It mocks the Dutch navy crawling home with its tail between its legs.

Was this Jus Belli & Pacis; could this be
Cause why their Burgomaster of the Sea
Ram’d with Gun-powder, flaming with Brand wine,
Should raging hold his Linstock to the Mine?
While, with feign’d Treaties, they invade by stealth
Our sore new circumcised Common wealth.
Yet of his vain Attempt no more he sees
Then of Case-Butter shot and Bullet-Cheese.
And the torn Navy stagger’d with him home,
While the Sea laught it self into a foam…

There’s enough here, I think, to describe ‘The Character of Holland’ as a ‘Rump’ poem. It means Marvell could have been considering specific members of the parliamentary body for patronage.

However, just a few weeks later, in April, Cromwell disbanded the Rump following irreconcilable differences. Perhaps the window of opportunity had slammed shut before Marvell had been able to exhibit his efforts.

Plan C

That left plan C, Cromwell himself – perhaps the most unlikely of associates at that time.

Looking at Marvell’s history of ‘occasional’ poems in the four years from 1649, it’s hard to see how any sort of personal relationship with Cromwell was on the cards at the beginning of 1653.

There’s the precariously ambiguous ‘Horatian Ode’ in 1650, which accuses Cromwell of private plotting and conspiracy. This is followed by ‘Tom May’s Death’ later that year, which has distinct and more activist royalist sympathies.

There’s also no evidence of Marvell signing the oath of allegiance to the new government, which contemporaries such as John Hall had done without hesitation.

In 1651, Marvell still seems far from a convinced Cromwellian. Writing privately in Latin, he notes the horrendous situation forced upon the reluctant ambassador, Oliver St John, which could have been witnessed first-hand. Then there’s ‘The Character of Holland’ in 1653, which may be written for the establishment that Cromwell no longer favoured.

However, we know that Marvell ended up as tutor to William Dutton by the arrangement of Cromwell and possibly Oliver St John. Evidence shows that Marvell wrote to Cromwell in thanks, addressing him as ‘so eminent a person’.

Later that year, Marvell produced Latin poems on Cromwell’s behalf to accompany a portrait to the Queen of Sweden. His state service had begun.

Amid this tale of non-publication, some slick manoeuverability appears to have initiated a political career that would last until the end of his days. In 1653, we witness Marvell’s remarkable – if slightly slippery – resourcefulness.

Withholding benefits

In the 1651 poem on Oliver St John, Marvell includes what would become a familiar concern, ‘chartis committere sensus’. There is no need to reveal yourself on paper, he constantly reminds himself. And, true to form, across the 1650s, he very rarely does.

If, as I contend, ‘The Character of Holland’ does not leave Marvell’s hands in 1653, this is what provides him with a plan B and a plan C.

Might it be plan C that paid off in the end?

The above are early thoughts on several challenging questions surrounding Marvell, the Dutch, and the complex publication history of ‘The Character of Holland’. For more complete and up-to-date work:

  • Martin Dzelzainis, ‘Marvell and the Dutch in 1665’, in Edward Jones (ed.), A Concise Companion to the Study of Manuscripts, Printed Books, and the Production of Early Modern Texts (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), pp. 249-65.
  • My ‘”Far off the Public Stage”: Marvell in Manuscript and Print, 1649-1665’, in Janet Clare (ed.), From Republic to Restoration: Legacies and Departures (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018), pp. 168-184.

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