Resourcefulness: Marvell’s ‘The Character of Holland’


I spend quite a lot of time comparing and contrasting my own personality with that of my revered poet. 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 ever written, ‘An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’, and ended up shaping a history that would define Marvell’s fascinating career.

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

1653: The First ‘Character’

1653 is a fascinating year in the life of Andrew Marvell. As a precursor, though, we must briefly wind the clock back two years.

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 was in fact part of an embassy sent to Holland in 1651. This conjecture is partially supported by his Latin poem ‘In Legationem Domini Oliveri St. John ad Provincias Foederatas’, in which the leading ambassador of the Dutch 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 must shed new light on the remaining lyric verse that is usually ascribed to the ‘Nun Appleton’ period, since it places Marvell at close quarters with the tricky negotiation and brutal reality of front-line politics far earlier than previously expected.

This chain of events 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 of the above) that Marvell should produce a patriotic poem to enhance the application and to demonstrate his political colours.

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

But it’s not clear whether that poem went straight into Bradshaw’s hands. Though Marvell was interviewed for the position, he lost out to Philip Meadows, and the poem did not end up in print. Might we expect at least one of those two eventualities to 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, which means it could have been composed with the idea of targeting 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 on Marvell before he had been able to promote his wares opportunistically before the Republic.

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 be convinced that a 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. There’s also ‘Tom May’s Death’ later that year, which has distinct royalist sympathies.

In 1651, Marvell still seems far from a convinced Cromwellian. Writing privately in Latin (as best our evidence shows), he notes the horrendous situation forced upon the reluctant ambassador, Oliver St John (which could have been witnessed first-hand).

And then there’s ‘The Character of Holland’ in 1653, presumably written for the establishment that Cromwell swiftly disbanded.

However, what we do know is that in 1653 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. And what the year of 1653 exemplifies is Marvell’s remarkable – if slightly slippery – resourcefulness.

Withholding Benefits

In the 1651 poem on Oliver St John, Marvell penned 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.

So if, as I contend, ‘The Character of Holland’ does not leave Marvell’s hands in 1653, this is precisely what allows him to conjure up, or even just to have, a plan B and a plan C.

And it’s plan C that may just have paid off in the end.


One thought on “Resourcefulness: Marvell’s ‘The Character of Holland’

  1. Pingback: Writing Lives: Marvell and Biography « Writing Privacy

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