Like most Marvellians, I was both excited and nervous for the arrival of Nigel Smith’s new biography, The Chameleon, in late 2010.
There was a risk that the foundations of my doctoral thesis would end up incontrovertibly disproved. Fortunately, I escaped that catastrophe.
Off I went a few months later, in January 2011, to the most important stop of the book’s promotional tour – the Andrew Marvell Centre in Hull – to hear Nigel present on it.
Now, having stumbled across a rather provocative review by Alan Altimont, the associate editor for the Andrew Marvell Society, I feel compelled to mount a defence.
So it follows:
Marvell’s involvement in post-Restoration religious and political struggles has distanced him from the arbitrary label of ‘metaphysical poet’ and positioned him closer to Milton and Dryden – albeit still as a distant shadow. He is slowly developing an indefinable critical legacy.
The term ‘chameleon’ itself is a pantheon: not only of a poet that delights, perplexes, and frustrates, but also of an afterlife that has always seemed incomplete.
No biography or critical work has quite encompassed all of Marvell’s documented and undocumented elements. Pierre Legouis’ Poet, Puritan, Patriot (1926) introduced biographical details to an otherwise literary study. Nicholas Murray’s 1999 World Enough & Time falls shy of capturing Marvell in his full complexity. Nicholas Von Maltzahn’s groundbreaking Andrew Marvell Chronology (2005) is more a timeline than a biography.
Combining Marvell’s life, thought, works and times together in a narrative is a strangely unedifying prospect.
Perhaps he tests the limit of our modern standards of biography. Writing this particular life – much like Marvell’s own work, ironically – ends up just as wary of the literary mechanics of the exercise as the exercise itself. This is partly explicated by Nigel Smith’s chapter on ‘How to make a biography of Andrew Marvell’ in the new Cambridge Companion, a decidedly rare feature in such volumes.
Biography outgrows itself in Marvell’s case: to the literary, the historical, and the psychological, and these require something remarkable to make it work.
Altimont does not dispute that Marvell requires an ambitious biography, nor indeed the benefits to be gained from its author’s inimitable knowledge. His own knowledge and aptitude are highlighted by some fascinating observations, including an imbalance in the biography between the fatherly influence on Marvell and the female presence in his young life.
(I might raise a rueful smile that, with two sisters, two foster-sisters and a niece, I have every reason to believe in this rather acute piece of research about sexuality and attraction.)
Altimont’s main issue is the execution, which he regards as a great disappointment. “It is a shame that Smith’s narrative skills do not rise to the level of his scholarship”, he says, finding umbrage with the borrowings from the 2003 Longman edition that embellish the poems.
The result is a book that, however painstakingly researched, feels cobbled together.
Interestingly, for me, the editorial copy in the Longman edition often seems under-committed in its disciplined lack of critical judgement, almost as if it was initially written with biographical intent in mind.
We might say, then, that two wrongs don’t make a right. But The Chameleon targets well beyond Marvell fanatics, and ownership of the Longman edition is clearly never intended to be a prerequisite.
Altimont is notably pessimistic about this, and lays any failure of the ambition squarely at the author’s feet. But press reviews have embraced The Chameleon as popular biography; the volume has found its way onto the Guardian bestsellers list.
The Chameleon performs the gargantuan task of merging the benefits of both biography and literary corpus together, for which the specialist reader must make reasonable allowances. Altimont bemoans the lack of “startling revelations”.
Presumably (for they are not mentioned), these are: the remarkable volte-face between the ‘Horatian Ode’ and ‘Tom May’s Death’ in 1650; the dating of ‘The Garden’ and other lyrics at 1668 rather than 1652; and Marvell’s sexuality, including the clandestine ‘marriage’.
But what can you do, shy of making the best sense of much that is confusing, inconsistent and controvertible?
Altimont himself pictures a Marvell “acting on his own inclinations so discretely that they remain as mysterious to us as they were to his contemporaries”. It would be far easier to stress privacy as a rational get-out clause. Smith is brave enough never to use it as an excuse.
Marvell’s oeuvre is not huge, but he chose his words very carefully. Repetition, as proved by ‘chartis committere sensus’ in 1651 and 1676 and the reappearance of language from The First Anniversary in the amended 1665 ending to The Character of Holland, is neither insignificant nor coincidental. His life and works are a web of interconnectedness that often spans the decades.
Consequently, the questions they raise are challenging to any chronological structure. It’s a problem that my work on ‘Marvell and Private Lives’ has faced, where biography sits just beneath the surface.
Repetition, another major umbrage for Altimont, is paramount in linking divergent incidents, thoughts and lines together. A biography of Andrew Marvell designed for multiple audiences requires broad historical context. It is hardly the greatest of crimes to present this digestibly.
Even as a Marvell enthusiast, repetition did not hinder my reading or insult my intelligence, so the degree to which this is presented as concerning comes as a surprise.
In fact, Altimont becomes so preoccupied by what he describes as Smith’s “stylistic Achilles’ heel” that he misses the greater issue at play – one which, I would argue, leaves the biographer more vulnerable.
Aside from his letters and those few published works that were both signed and dateable, Marvell himself offers remarkably little solid evidence. Nicholas McDowell, James Loxley and others have shown us the nexus of poetic echoes that abound between members of literary networks. The remarkably few echoes of Marvell that feature elsewhere in the archive suggest a determined withholding of most of his own work.
This creates numerous challenges. The difficulty of dating much of Marvell’s verse with any great certainty makes Smith’s corroboration of poetry and biography a huge risk, and one that few have called attention to.
For me, it’s the right risk to take. The poems, for all these challenges, are evidence, whether we like this or not. Smith does not hesitate in using them to the full. The tangential elaboration on Marvell’s poems is necessary because the biography dares to give them chronological context. But I accept this approach is worthy of serious critique.
It never escapes this blog that elements of Marvell’s life and my own throw up many uncomfortable parallels. I often believe that you ‘get’ Marvell via mental shades that should not be wished upon anybody.
Perhaps I leap to the defence of The Chameleon because the narrative convincingly presents much of the poet I recognise. The difficulties in presenting it are equally familiar and yet overcome with great colour and accomplishment.